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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
||Euro. Plenty of ATMs.
||Montenegrin (similar to Serbian.) Many people speak
No visa required.
|Average summer temperature:
|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. www.concordetravel.ie
||Public transport ( coaches and minibuses are good though
run by different companies so make sure your ticket matches
|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
||There are excellent fish restaurants everywhere. In
Kotor try the Bastion.
||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.
||Vranac Pro Corde
||Loza ( local firewater, distilled from the grape.)
||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:
Back to top ^