Every once in awhile, we like to take a moment to appreciate the driving force behind Untravelled Paths. We’re talking, of course, about Someone Different – our amazing team. This week’s spotlight is someone who truly stands out in every sense of the word.
As dedicated as they come, Ilija is single-handedly managing our Montenegro operations as well as surrounding regions such as Albania and Bosnia. From guiding, to enquiries and logistics, he’s got his hands full ensuring everything is running smoothly. And when all is said and done, he still finds time to crack a joke or two with the team, or, worse, talk, AND TALK about Liverpool F.C. Talk about double-edged swords!
Anyway, let’s hear it from the man himself.
Ilija: I would describe myself as a nature-loving, football aficionado. And my job at UTP is to show off my beautiful country and it’s neighbours to the rest of the world. Going back to football, I think my position is best described as James Milner, the guy for everything. I’m the person replying to enquires, the driver, guide for the city tour, fellow hiker – basically anything and everything that improves the guests’ experience in while travelling with us.
You clearly love your country. How was the Montenegro you grew up in like?
Ilija: Amazing. Hide and seek in a world heritage site which is also your home, hiking up the fortress on the extraordinary mountain just two minutes from your doorstep, only to go back and jump into the bluest Mediterranean Sea. If I could create a space where a child would be happy growing up, it would be Kotor. Not only that, but Kotor is a melting pot for all the different cultures from the region and the world. It created a unique mindset I was lucky to grow up with.
Sounds like a dream! However, you also grew up during the Balkan War in the 1990s. How was that experience for you as a child?
Ilija: It definitely added a twist to my otherwise happy childhood. Although the war was never on our soil, we were part of it. As such, we felt the economic consequences quite strongly. The aftermath was the embargo on all exports and imports, so everyone was poor – everyone being the keyword. Going to bed hungry was not easy, but knowing that your friends are in the same boat and that tomorrow they will share their sandwich with you made it easier. It made us more open to each other, and I think it made us better people. I didn’t know the phrase sharing is caring when I was 7, but I lived it.
There were three apartments in my building with three families and three nationalities. Growing up and saying ”we” for all of us, despite the differences, helped me develop a healthy attitude towards nationality. Seeing nuns distributing aid to all those in need, Catholic or not, helped me have a better understanding of what religion is supposed to be about. So although I wish no kid ever again grows up in those conditions, I do think we somehow managed to get out of it stronger and better, because we were together. That sense of comradery, being happy for the smallest things, and most importantly being happy for the others around you is what will stay with me for life.
Ilija with guests visiting Lovcen National Park and Ilija presumably celebrating Liverpool Premiership triumph!
The hard times definitely shape the way someone grows, and it looks like, in the end, it left a positive mark on both you and the country as a whole. Moving on to better and more recent times, how did you end up joining Untravelled Paths?
Ilija: Before UTP, I had a range of jobs, from the usual suspects like bartending and working in a market, to translating the training guides of the Egyptian navy in my country. And yes, I know that last one sounds made up. Just ask me anything about the cooling system of the battleship guns!
Meeting James was just a lucky coincidence, and of course, football-related. I was the bartender in one of the bars that had football on that night (Arsenal-Liverpool). A group of three foreigners came, two of them supporting Arsenal. The third guy, however, supported Liverpool, as one should, so we were automatically drawn to each other. That guy was James. Losing the game 2-0 didn’t help the mood, but it did bring us closer together. Though it was probably more due to a few rakijas at the end of the shift. In the next few days, James came back to the bar, and apart from footy-talk, he started asking questions about the city and Montenegro. I found out he was expanding his business in Montenegro, and that’s how the passion for talking about my country to tourists became a paid job.
Do you remember your first trip? How was that like?
Ilija: My first trip was five lads from England on a stag-do. I know what you’re thinking, but no, it wasn’t all about beers and rakija. They were hikers who loved cultural sights and learning about the country. They were also extremely supportive once they found out it was my first trip at a completely new job. Incidentally, the groom was a Liverpool fan, so the theme of the trip was Manchester United. The two of us had to pretend that all the gags and banter were not that funny. I have to admit now that they were, in fact, fun.
You’ve been with Untravelled Paths for five years now. What’s one of the most memorable experiences you can recall?
Ilija: It’s really difficult to pick out just one, but there is one which I will surely never forget. When UTP started a new Husky Experience in Slovenia, I went there to host the trip with a Slovenian trainee. We had a group of a dozen people and we had a really lovely time together. A year later, a few of them booked our Montenegro trip. On day two, one of them stood up and made a toast, to my country and myself. As I was blushing more and more, he started talking about how the group from the previous trip all came together to gift me a Liverpool cap and an original shirt. I’ll stop talking about Liverpool, I promise. Anyway, it’s really great when people have such a good time that they remember you and come to travel with you again. That feeling can’t be topped!
lija practising various modelling poses in Montenegro and in the middle we have one of our favourites, little (Cristina) and large (Ilija) in Romania
I’d like to take this moment to remind our audience that they’ve been warned about Liverpool! Back to trips, it’s common knowledge that our locations are on the untravelled side, so the unexpected can happen. What’s one of the most challenging moments you encountered on a trip?
Ilija: Hiking the Albanian Alps with a group of people that never really hiked that much. To amp up the difficulty, the weather didn’t help either. There is a plan B for situations like that: taking the bus back to civilization, but they decided to give it a go. So the next day was all about swapping jackets, holding hands on tricky parts and enthusing, ”There’s a flat bit coming on!” every now and then. And shouting ”cheesecake” every time it got tough, as that was the reward we were imagining at the end. There were a few ”cold beer” shouts as well… It was very challenging but very well worth it. All of us walked out of that feeling stronger, and richer.
With most of the team in Romania, how is it like managing Montenegro on your own? Do you find it challenging?
Ilija: It is a bit difficult sometimes, but even more rewarding when you finish a successful trip knowing it was all you. Although, it’s not all me, of course. There’s a lot of behind the scenes work done by Oana and James, and I can always rely on the Mariuses and Alin to jump in when necessary. I met almost all of the other staff members on my amazing trip to Romania a few years ago and I think that recruiting similar-minded people helped us all fit in better with each other.
One of the biggest challenges I faced was last summer when my Slovenian colleague fell ill in the middle of the season. I had to drive 12 hours, run the trip, and then get back to Montenegro to run another trip there. That Montenegro trip was booked whilst I was in Slovenia. It wouldn’t have been possible without the help of my colleagues managing the admin side of things, and replying to emails left, right, and center. The banter on our Whatsapp group definitely also helped!
You’ve travelled around with UTP, either running trips or doing research. What’s one locations you never get tired of?
Ilija: The Montenegro – Albania border stands out. It’s not just the location, where you can clearly see the difference between the jagged dramatic Albanian Alps and the green picturesque hills of Montenegro. It’s also about how you get there. Starting from 700 meters of altitude in the National Park of Teth, climbing up to 1700 meters of the Peja pass, by the lakes, through the forests, and then finally you’re in the field where you can see it all. Not sure if it’s the sense of accomplishment, the fact that I am back home, the proximity of a cozy bed and wifi, or the fact that all of the guests made it with no problems, but it always feels extraordinary to get there. It’s all of the above, and much more actually.
Ilija in his happy place at the Albania – Montenegro border and having a ride on a snow mobile near the Hotel of Ice
Lastly, what do you enjoy the most about your job?
Ilija: This job is tailor-made for me. I grew up in an 18 century-old UNESCO protected Old Town of Kotor, so I had been doing some kind of walking tours my entire life. Back then there wasn’t too much organized tourism so people would ask for directions and as a kid, I enjoyed taking them where they wanted to go, practicing my English in the process. So to do this now as a job is great. As I mentioned once or twice probably, I love English football, but also the music, culture, and the language so learning about it is a two way street for my guests and myself. I really believe travelling is the best thing you can do with your time. It enriches you through learning from different people. Hosting those who are interested in my country while learning about theirs is a perfect match for me.
One other perk is that when people ask me why I’m so crazy about LFC as if they were paying my salary, I can now say that they kind of do.
Here’s what your colleagues have to say about you:
James: Ilija’s affable, good humoured nature combined with his passion for his country and the surrounding regions make him the perfect host to guide our guests. As a colleague, he’s honest, forthright, hardworking and humble which makes him ideal to work with. Like the rest of the team, he’s part of the family and at 6″7 he’s literally a big brother to everyone at UTP!
Oana: Ilija is fun, prompt, and great to work with. I know I can always count on him to assist me with various tasks around the office. I have also just discovered his talent for writing, so expect to see more of him on this blog!
Romania Team: We can always rely on Ilija to pick up on the office side of things when during the busy season. We can focus on delivering a great experience for our guests knowing everything else is being taken care of in the background. And his humour is always appreciated in our chats!
And our guests:
This tour is the perfect balance of guided touring and exploring on your own, but the times when we were travelling as a group really were magical and that was down to Ilija. He was our on-hand historian, organiser, and knower of many random facts! He handled everything with humour and professionalism, leaving us to enjoy the beauty and magnificence of his stunning country. Ilija the driver made a great team, thanks to both of you.
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