Montenegro Diary

Wednesday, October 12, 2005: Montenegro

27 Feb 2007 12:25 +0100
Boka Kotorska   An island floats on the placid water of the Boka Kotorska
If one were to take a poll, most people would say they've never heard of Montenegro. Those who have probably think it's a country in South America or an Italian resort. It is neither. Montenegro was the name given to this area of the Balkans by Venetian conquerors who came upon its densely forested mountains. In earlier times, the country was called Duklja (the Roman Doclea) and then Zeta. Its modern name, Crna Gora, is a direct translation of the Venetian Montenegro, which means "black mountain."

Montenegro was one of the six republics of former Yugoslavia. Mercifully, it was spared much of the devastation wrought during Yugoslavia's civil war. After the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1992, Montenegro and Serbia formed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, an unpopular alliance for Montenegro whose citizens are now reveling in its new autonomy and petitioning for acceptance into the European Union. About the size of Connecticut, Montenegro is situated in the southern Balkan peninsula and is bordered by the Adriatic Sea, Albania, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo. Its seacoast is a narrow strip of land 293 kilometers long with the Dinaric mountain range rising steeply behind it. The formidable mountains present quite an obstacle today as they did in the past to the communication between the lowland region and the hinterland. The Mediterranean climate here is as enticing as the white beaches and clear blue waters.

Early Wednesday morning the Dalmacija slowly and silently glided into the Bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska), Europe's southernmost fjord. The steep mountain backdrop and the towns dotting the shore were reflected in a perfect mirror image on the glasslike surface of the bay. Our ship's wake was barely a ripple. A small, flat, manmade island set with a tiny monastery seemed to float by as a chapel bell called the monks to morning prayer. How serene. Many of the passengers were on deck enjoying the scenery as we approached yet another coastal village. The Dalmacija burped a friendly hello to some people ashore. Several of the ship's kitchen staff were hanging over the railings shouting to the villagers who promptly returned their greeting by waving towels and tablecloths. "A' so vasi? Are they your (family)?" I asked the cooks, to which they nodded an exuberant yes. Apparently, this was a weekly ritual for them as the Dalmacija made its way toward the town of Kotor, known as the Queen of the Adriatic.

We docked in a neat little port with a slip barely large enough to berth our ship. Kotor lay at the foot of an enormous range of mountains strung with a chain of turreted fortifications, a mini Wall of China that went up, up as far as you could see. As in the other Adriatic ports, the old town was just a couple of minutes' walk from the ship, so Milena and I went on our own little walking tour of Kotor before embarking on the official all-day excursion.

After a devastating earthquake in 1979, UNESCO came to the rescue of Kotor and helped rebuild much of the old town. Today, it is on UNESCO's world cultural heritage list. Kotor has retained its original asymmetrical form and is considered one of the best preserved medieval towns in the Adriatic. We approached the encircling wall and the southern gate decorated with a relief of the Lion of Venice, an image we'd seen all along our itinerary. Inside the Sea Gate the old town was a monochrome of gray and grayer, its tiny square dominated by a 6th century Romanesque clock tower. The bistros surrounding the forum were filled with young men drinking Turkish coffee and talking on cell phones. Groups of tourists were milling around here and there. Dobrodosli u Kotoru!

Our first stop was the Cathedral of St. Tryphon (Katedrala Sv. Tripuna) dedicated to Kotor's patron saint, a 3rd century Christian youth martyred during the reign of Nero. I was surprised to find out that Kotor's and Montenegro's religious heritage is rooted in Catholicism. Even after the Great Schism of 1045, Kotor remained part of the Roman (Western) patriarchate. By the late eighteenth century there were thirty Catholic churches in Kotor, four monasteries and three convents. The area also produced many bishops and clergy, including Pope Sixtus V who was born in Kotor. A cute young man at the cathedral's entrance sold us admission tickets and answered, in excellent English, our questions couched in a kind of generic Slavic patois. Once inside, we marveled at the stark beauty of this Gothic-Romanesque masterpiece built on the remains of the original 9th century church. The cathedral was destroyed and rebuilt several times, most extensively after the area-wide earthquakes of 1667 and 1979. Nothing remains of the original church, but Byzantine-Gothic frescos painted by Greek artists (pictores Graeci, according to an extant contract dated 1331) can still be seen in the main apse of the church. The cathedral houses a great number of works of art, among them a lacy white stone ciborium (12th c.) above the main altar, the only completely preserved silver-gilt altarpiece in the eastern Adriatic, and a 14th century reliquary chapel containing exquisite objects fashioned by local gold- and silversmiths. Kotorci are very proud of their cathedral, the oldest on the eastern Adriatic shore.

With a couple of hours at our disposal, Milena and I investigated the old town's nooks and crannies, following the maze-like alleys, suspecting that in a small place like Kotor it was impossible to get lost. I was pleasantly surprised at the chic little boutiques lining the streets of the old town. Obviously, the merchants look forward to the day the Dalmacija docks because many of them seemed to be waiting in their doorways in the hope of tempting potential buyers. At this hour of the morning, most of the restaurants were not yet open for business, but from what we saw, they were charming and inviting. Every so often, we came upon a splash of color against the drab gray of the buildings. We captured the scenes with our cameras: vivid clothing suspended between shuttered windows, greenery cascading down the stairs of an atrium, vibrant paintings on the walls of an open-air art gallery tucked into the folds of a loggia. Kotor is a photographer's dream.

After lunch aboard ship, we met our Kompas tour guide on the dock. He introduced himself as Mili, short for his given name, Milivoj. As we boarded the modern air-conditioned bus, we were greeted by our driver Sasha, a tall man, pleasant and handsome. Our excursion was to take us to the mountain village of Njegosi, a picnic lunch at a local farm, the old royal capital of Cetinje and finally to the coastal resorts of Sveti Stefan and Budva. First, though, we had to climb the Black Mountain.

No words can fully describe the drama of our ascent up Mt. Lovcen that day. You had to be there. On the map, the mountain road is a squiggly line, barely a couple of S's drawn between the base below and the plateau above. In reality, it's a narrow, gravel strewn, one-lane road clinging desperately to the side of the 3,000 foot high mountain, its thirty-some hairpin turns guarded by a foot-high stone wall. Slowly, steadily, Sasha maneuvered the bus up the mountain road. At every curve of the serpentines he cantilevered the front of the bus over the edge of the precipice in order to accommodate its length, then deftly swung it back toward the mountain wall, completing the turn. Milena and I sat right behind Sasha and had the best view in the house. I found myself clutching my chest and gritting my teeth as we approached a curve, then exhaling in relief as Sasha negotiated it successfully. All the while, Mili regaled us with colorful stories of the history of Montenegro. We hadn't quite reached the top when I asked Mili if we were coming back this same way. It was an eight hour tour, which meant returning to the ship in the dark. He assured us that we would be taking the coastal road back to Kotor. "Hvala Bogu! Thank God!" I said. Both Mili and Sasha laughed. I think they enjoyed the Slovenian commentary.

We exited the bus at a lookout point at the 25th serpentine. As we breathed in the rarefied air, we aimed our cameras at the breathtaking vista a thousand meters below us. Kotor and its neighboring towns were confetti strewn on the shore of the Boka. The Dalmacija, the flagship of the Croatian fleet, looked like a little paper boat floating at the edge of a blue-green puddle. To the south could be seen a landing strip, a narrow straight line scored into the floor of the valley. We were all standing on terra firma, but we could just as likely have been looking out the window of an airplane. I took a picture of Milena with the serpentines as a backdrop, making sure to include the portion of road fashioned into the shape of an M, Montenegrin King Nikola's tribute to his wife, Queen Milena.

Back on the bus, we realized that there were still a few serpentines to go before reaching the summit's plateau. Much of the topography here is karst: limestone formations of underground rivers, gorges, and caves, a geological phenomenon duplicated to a lesser degree in southwestern Slovenia. The karst region is swept by the dry bura wind which gives the local ham, prsut, its distinctive flavor. This bleak and inhospitable terrain certainly qualifies as one of the most desolate in Europe.

Mili returned to his history lesson with a biography of Petar II Petrovic Njegos. Njegos was a name I had seen a number of times on signs in front of our local St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church. Njegos Days, it advertised. But who was he? Petar II Petrovic Njegos (1830-1851) was the greatest of the Vladikas or Bishop-Princes, popularly elected theocratic sovereigns who ruled from the 16th to the mid-19th centuries. Like his predecessors, Njegos maintained his country's traditional ideals of independence and national unity against the ever-threatening Turks, ruling his people not by force but by moral influence and persuasion. A reformer in domestic affairs, Njegos created a strong centralized government, initiated taxation, and established a national police force and judicial system. He is credited with laying the foundation for the modern Montenegrin state and kingdom. Njegos was also a poet-philosopher, a genius whose ideas and writings are considered the epitome of Montenegro's literary culture. Not only is he venerated by the Montenegrins, but also by the Serbs who have adopted him as their patriarch. According to his wishes, Njegos was buried on the site of his private chapel atop Mt. Lovcen. His remains are in a marble sarcophagus in a mausoleum made of black granite designed by Croatia's Ivan Mestrovic. Njegos' humble birthplace, a low-to-the-ground nondescript building at the side of the road in the little village of Njegosi, was a blur as we zoomed by.

From all indications, Montenegro's kmecki turizem, or farm tourism, is a popular draw. We stopped at a prosperous farm where the owner and his family welcomed us with a variety of homemade goodies: prsut, bread, cheese, honey, miske (little lumps of deep-fried dough resembling mice, but tasting much better) and an assortment of spirits. What a feast! Sitting on a low wall surrounding a patio, Milena and I sampled the yummy food and enjoyed the company of Don and Jim whom we first met atop Marko Polo's tower in Korcula Town. Meanwhile, the farmer's young daughter was doing a brisk business selling wine, cherry visnjak and grape brandy while her little brother Luka spent his time giving away wildflowers and looking cute. As I dropped a euro into his palm, he got bug-eyed and immediately ran off to show his dad. I hope the young man made a fortune that morning.

It began to drizzle as we made our way to Montenegro's royal capital of Cetinje. Our walking tour began at the Monastery of Saint Peter of Cetinje (Sveti Petar Cetinjski), the center of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church and seat of the theocratic government. During its long history, the monastery served as an elementary and secondary school, a print shop for Southern Europe's first printing press, a munitions workshop and a royal mausoleum. The building was grand and impressive. Nearby, seemingly deserted, was the Biljarda, built by Njegos in 1838 to house the state administrative offices.

Next, we visited an unassuming two-story building painted a brick red. Once the royal palace, it is now the King Nikola Museum. Here we viewed a huge display of weapons and captured Turkish flags and then processed through room after room of royal artifacts and family portraits. The paintings were positively stunning, rivaling those of the Romanovs and Hapsburgs. This was the highlight of my visit to Cetinje! The museum shop offered a book on Montenegro's history entitled Nikola and Milena, King and Queen of the Black Mountain. Reading this book has reinforced Mili's excellent narratives and helped me to appreciate the significance of Montenegro's past and its role in European history.

Montenegro's thousand year old history is complex and inextricably linked to its neighbors, present-day Serbia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Add to this mixture some indigenous feuding clans, rule by Byzantium, rivalry with Venice, and the constant threat from the Turks and you have the ingredients of a novel. I will not attempt a synopsis of Montenegro's history, but if you're really interested, I can lend you my book.

Montenegro's last monarch was Nikola I Petrovic. Educated in Paris, young Prince Nikola returned to the royal court in Cetinje with ideas on political, economic and social reform. After his accession to the throne in 1860, Prince Nikola initiated reforms that sparked a cultural and political renaissance, transforming backwater Montenegro into a modern 20th century state. Seventy-two schools were established, including a teachers' seminary, an agricultural high school and an institute for girls. Elementary education was mandatory and free. Cetinje got its first telegraph and post office and experienced a housing boom in private, religious and civic buildings. Embassies were built to accommodate diplomats from around the world. The famous serpentine road between Kotor and Cetinje was completed and railroad lines sprang up between the capital and points beyond. Nikola initiated new property and criminal laws patterned on those of Western Europe. Over a period of years, Nikola and his army were victorious in several crucial battles against the Turks, thus doubling the size of Montenegro's territory and literally putting the country on the map. During the Congress of Berlin in 1878 Montenegro was recognized as an independent state and in 1905 Nikola drafted the country's first formal constitution. In 1910 Montenegro's parliament proclaimed the country a constitutional monarchy with Nikola as king. For fifty-eight years Nikola ruled Montenegro as a benevolent despot.

Nikola also managed to have a personal life. He and his wife Milena (of the Vukotic family, friends and political allies of the Petrovic clan) produced twelve children: three sons and nine daughters. The royal couple married off most of their children to the scions of Russian, German and Serbian royalty and aristocracy, strengthening the ties between Montenegro and much of Europe. The most famous member of their extended family was daughter Elena's husband, King Victor Emmanuel of Italy. Nikola's successful matchmaking efforts earned him the epithet "Father-in-law of Europe."

World War I was the beginning of the end for Montenegro as an independent state. First betrayed, then annexed by Serbia in 1918, Montenegro witnessed a failed uprising in 1919 and was eventually coerced into joining five other "republics" to form the artificial country of Yugoslavia. A short walk from the museum is the Chapel if Cipur, a solitary building made of gray granite blocks. It is the final resting place of King Nikola, Queen Milena and their daughters, Ksenija and Vjera. All of them died in exile, but their remains were returned to Cetinje in 1989.

Our bus tour resumed with a long drive down to Montenegro's seacoast. Beginning in the 1930's many of the beaches here became the summer destinations for Yugoslavia's citizens. One resort area near the town of Becici is even named Slovenska Plaza, or Slovenian Beach. Depending on whom you believe, it was named either after the Slovenians who frequented it (according to Mili) or the Bohemians (according to a .cg website). In Europe, the term "Slovenska" means different things to different people.

The day was slowly disappearing into dusk as we approached an overlook above the Adriatic. Below us was Sveti Stefan, a tiny jewel of an island just a stone's throw from the coast with a narrow causeway connecting it to the mainland. The old Yugoslav tourist board often used this image as an enticement to visit, but Sveti Stefan was never truly a part of a generic Yugoslavia. Rather, it was and is quintessential Montenegro. Once a small fishing village fortified as protection against pirates, Sveti Stefan and its eighty private homes were transformed into the luxury Hotel Milocer in the 1960's. For decades it was the exclusive retreat for many of Hollywood's glitterati, including Sophia Loren, Doris Day, Liz Taylor, and Sylvester Stallone. In the 90's the Balkan War intervened and Sveti Stefan found itself inhabited not by jet setters, but by Yugoslav soldiers on R&R. Like most of the resorts on this Adriatic coast, Sveti Stefan fell on hard times. Recently, however, the resort hotel has been given a promise of new ownership reflecting the tremendous economic growth and revitalization of the coastal area. Things are looking up, especially now that Montenegro's independence is a reality. Sveti Stefan is on the verge of becoming an exclusive resort again. There on that overlook, I hoped that this would not be my first and last visit to Sveti Stefan.

Our last stop was the resort town of Budva. While Sveti Stefan was unapproachable, tidy little Budva beckoned us to enter its medieval city walls now glowing in the faint light of the setting sun. Budva's history goes back 2,500 years to its legendary founding by the Phoenicians. It was settled by ancient Greeks and Romans, after which it saw domination by the Byzantines, Slavs, Avars, Serbia, Russia, France, Austria-Hungary and Venice. On Budva's main square is the Cathedral of St. John (Sveti Ivan), its bell tower exhibiting the typical Venetian style ubiquitous in this part of the Adriatic. We meandered down the narrow cobblestone alleys radiating from the square. Fashionable shops, outdoor restaurants and jewelry stores were everywhere, although many were closed. It was, after all, late in the day in early October, way past prime-time tourist season. The churches, however, were still open and we visited one just in time for vespers. The minuscule Orthodox Church of St. Sava perched precariously on the edge of the city wall. Inside, before a golden ikonostasis, two bearded monks took turns in chanting somber evening prayers. How serene. How beautiful.

Montenegro proved to be the most pleasant surprise of our cruise, due in great part to our guide's encyclopedic knowledge and his engaging sense of humor. Mili showed great class by thanking Sasha and acknowledging him as the best bus driver in Montenegro. Safe and sound, we pulled into the dock in Kotor and gave them both a round of applause.

by Anka Zakelj