Mary Russell
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If you’re thinking of visiting Crna Gora (Montenegro to the rest of us), don’t bother using the T word. Despite being the architect of the former Yugoslavia’s unification, the scourge of Nazi-Germany and the man who made communism palatable to western capitalists, Tito is yesterday’s man, airbrushed out of history, as forgotten as the derelict wayside memorials to his heroic partisans who, in World War Two, died fighting fascism - Italian as well as German.

In the magnificent Durmitor National Park – a walker’s paradise with its challenging mountain peaks and forest trails – you can visit the caves where the partisans lived – and mostly died. In the harsh winter of ’42, while waiting in vain for an airdrop by the Soviet Union, typhoid all but wiped out the wounded men as they lay in the hospital in Zabljak. In all, some 2400 partisans died and a quick check of the snow-covered gravestones show that most were very young.

Last May, however, to the celebratory noise of breaking beer glasses, exploding fireworks, deafening car horns and the staccato sound of Kalashnikovs, Montenegrins, voting to sever their ties with what was left of the old Yugoslavia, took the first tentative step towards European integration thus bringing into focus the goody bag from Brussels they fondly believe will be coming their way any day now.

As an emergent democracy, hungry for euros, Montenegro’s assets are looking good: hydro-electric power, a landscape of awesome mountains, canyons of biblical proportions, torrential waterfalls – and the Adriatic coast. What else could a country want - apart from a more equal distribution of wealth.

“ You’re from Ireland? ” a village man asks me and when he’s worked his way through a litany of Irish people he’s heard of – Roy Keane, George Best, Bobby Sands – he moves on to more pressing business.

“ Ireland is a very rich country and soon we will be too,” he says, drawing contentedly on his cigarette. His village lies in one of the poorest areas in the country. Hidden deep in the mountains, its population of 2000 is largely unemployed, its young people long-since gone. In winter, roads are cut off and food has to be dropped in by helicopter.

But if unemployment is so high – 40% in some cases – how is it that we are sitting in a pleasant, alpine-style bar filled with men drinking copious bottles of beer and it’s only eleven in the morning? And who owns the expensive SUV parked outside plus all the Mercedes and VWs, albeit some of them battered and bedraggled, that shift along these rocky mountain roads at kamikaze speed? Who buys the Italian shoes the shops are full of? And how does the huge number of marvellous street-cafes survive when the average punter spins out an hour or two chatting with friends over a single cappuccino costing 80c?

Ask any Montenegrin this question and they will shake their heads and say they don’t know. But they do and the answer, which they eventually offer, lies partly in the carcinogenic fog of cigarette smoke you find in every café and bar for if there’s one thing Montenegrins are good at, it’s cigarettes – both smoking them and smuggling them. Nor is the latter lucrative activity confined to the three Cs - cigarettes, computers and cars. People are also a commodity as Montenegro shares its borders with Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo and its high mountain passes make it relatively easy for people and goods to be trafficked through them. ( Interestingly, my UK Visa card company refused to deliver at the ATM in Podgorica, the capital, because, they later explained, they needed to do a security check as Montenegro is what is called, in polite banking terms, a rogue area.)

Another explanation for the SUVs and the sexy sling-backs is that some families rely on cash remitted by relations big-timing it in North America. Plus, many who have stayed at home have that handy knack of adapting in order to survive. A taxi-driver I talked to shared a house with his brother in the Italian coastal town of Bari to which he travelled regularly, bringing back Italian clothes to sell in Podgorica. A woman I met at a party double-jobbed as an interpreter in Montenegro and as a journalist in Belgrade while an unemployed Art History graduate eeked out a meagre living playing in a rock band.

Nevertheless, during the recent referendum, accusations of corruption, levelled at Montenegro by Italy, hinted at links between the local Mafia and Montenegrin government officials. The accusations, damaging to President Milo Djukanovic, a one-time supporter of Milosovic, still hang in the air undoubtedly to be resurrected during the autumn parliamentary elections.

But for now, the voting’s over, the snows are melting and those who can are heading for the Adriatic which is where everyone wants to be and why not? The Montenegrin coastline, fringed with small bays, backed by wooded hills that lead to hazy-blue mountains some still snow-capped even in summer, is among the best you can get south of Trieste.

Budva –the country’s very own sun-seekers’ tannery - is historically interesting when devoid of crowds but to be avoided if you don’t like narrow streets full of shops selling identical beach sandals, being jostled by school parties or running the danger of having your eye poked out by the tray of a beleaguered waiter trying to shimmy between sun umbrellas in a beach-bar.

Instead, jump on a mini-bus ( two euro one way on an autobuska ) and head south for Petrovac or Sveti Stefan – both have got great beaches - or north for the medieval, walled town of Kotor.

Dwarfed by huge, overhanging mountains and hidden away at the head of a magnificent fiord, this strategic town has long been lusted after by maritime nations including the Greeks, the Venetians and the Ottomans. In fact it was the recurring threat of Ottoman domination that made Kotor turn to Venice for protection which is why, as you walk though its gates ( the old town is a car-free zone) you find yourself looking at a mirror image of Venice. Narrow five-storey houses line streets whose smooth flagstones gleam in the sun. Stone-carved balconies bright with red geraniums suggest a lovelorn Juliet will step out at any moment and round every corner is a quiet piazza where you can have a cappuccino or a glass of local wine.

But even a great city state like Venice was wary of intruders which is why they built ramparts which stretch high up behind the town from where they could keep an eye out for approaching vessels. Marked by wayside altars and lined with purple irises and yellow broom, the stony pathway zig-zagging upwards is best attempted in the cool of the early morning. Once at the top, the hour-long climb will prove to have been worth it. From here, you can look down on the town far below, red pantile roofs slanting in every direction, the dome of the Serbian orthodox church pulsating with silver and the café umbrellas, glimpsed among the narrow streets, no more than tiny dots of blue or green.

Kotor was a thriving town in medieval times, with whole streets given over to shield makers and shoe makers, stone carvers, binders, hatters, goldsmiths and blacksmiths. Now, the main industry is tourism and within minutes of my arriving, I found myself following Branko Krajl through the winding alleys to his lovely old family home where, for 10 euro, I had a small room with billowing white muslin curtains, use of the family bathroom and, in the kitchen, a chance to chat with Branko’s wife who, as it was the Orthodox Easter, was filling a bowl with coloured eggs she had dyed herself while also cooking a leg of lamb.

Anyone slaving over a hot yacht in the Mediterranean or the Adriatic and with an interest in maritime history should not miss the chance to slip quietly into the fiord and anchor at Kotor where in some piazza or other, they may see the members of the 12th century Seamen’s Guild of Kotor who, kitted out in black silk stockings, red cummerbunds and gold-tasselled hats occasionally strut their elegant stuff. Believe me.

Of course, all this jollity seems a long way from the tough lives led by Montenegrins on the other side of the geographic and financial divide though this merely serves to highlight the intriguing contradictions of the country. The nation’s most cherished icon is an equestrian image of King Nikola who reigned in the 1870s during Montenegro’s short-lived period of independence. “ We are a republic,” I was told, “ but we love our king.” And while young and old merrily smoke away like chimneys, country people harvest plants, flowers and berries which they use to brew up their own herbal teas and juices, certain that these drinks will ward off ill-health. At a pre-referendum meeting held by those who wanted to maintain unity with Serbia, the audience included some old men, faces lined like ancient oak-trees, who wore the red and black traditional Montenegrin cap, having no problem with being Montenegrin while still remaining under rule from Belgrade.

Montenegrins, then, have many faces – a much-needed survival strategy which has served them well - but for anyone with a sense of history, it is, rightly or wrongly, that of the mountainy man that dominates, his present-day fiery spirit only a Kalashnikov away from his antecedents.

In 1942, Kerry-born Rebecca West in her book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon wrote of these people now waiting at Europe’s door: “…they are brave, beautiful and vainglorious.” They are also a people we should clearly get to know, SUVs, cigarettes and all. For they now want what we had.


Population:   850.000
Currency:   Euro. Plenty of ATMs.
Language:   Montenegrin (similar to Serbian.) Many people speak English.
No visa required.
Average summer temperature:   25c
How to get there:   Fly to Dubrovnik and take a coach across the border. Austrian Airlines from Dublin, Malev Airlines from Cork. From 235 euro.
Concorde Travel in Dublin run weekly charters to Tivat which is 10 kms from Kotor.
Getting round:   Public transport ( coaches and minibuses are good though run by different companies so make sure your ticket matches your bus.)
Where to stay in Kotor:   Ask about rooms at the tourist shop on the left just inside the city gates. Or ring Branko Kralj on 00381 82 323 331. Small, comfortable hotel. 40 euro a night: Hotel Marija. Tel/fax 00381 82 325 073
Food:   There are excellent fish restaurants everywhere. In Kotor try the Bastion.
Local food:   Burek. Meat or vegetables wrapped in thin dough and freshly cooked in oil. Delicious. Ask a local where is the best place to buy one. Vegetarians should ask for the spinach and cheese burek.
Best wine:   Vranac Pro Corde
Best beer:   Niksic
Best short:   Loza ( local firewater, distilled from the grape.)
Best books:   Bradt’s Montenegro Guide (2005) Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1942)
Tony White’s Another Fool in the Balkans (2006).
General tourism information:

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