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Magic Mountains of Montenegro

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Photo: Mischa Richter

It’s not all time warp. Around the central Square of Weapons (Trg od Oruzja), there are cafés, discos, and restaurants, even an Irish-themed pub; designer stores sit next to real estate offices, and boutique hotels are being fixed up for the discerning. In the harbor, the yachts of wealthy visitors are a sign of things to come.

We leave Kotor on the “Old Road,” which follows a zigzag mule track known as the Ladder of Cattaro (previously the only way into central Montenegro) and climbs into the mountains with a series of alarming hairpin bends. There’s barely enough room for two cars to pass, and often no safety barrier. I try to ignore gasps from the backseat as the road becomes insanely precipitous. We halt at the top to take in the views of the Bay of Kotor, a spill of quicksilver far below us. The roadside is carpeted with wildflowers, and everywhere butterflies float up on thermals.

Cresting a rugged escarpment, we feel like we’ve reached the roof of the world before winding slowly down into the valley where Cetinje, the former royal capital of Montenegro, lies in a green bowl among the rocky peaks. The road snakes through the tiny Alpine hamlet of Njegusi, birthplace of the two great Montenegrin princes of the Petrovic dynasty, Njegos and Danilo, but it’s no less famous for producing the finest cheese and smoked ham in the land, served in village taverns with Vranac, a local red wine.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Cetinje, I take a wrong turn and my inner escapist comes back to earth with a bump. Looking for the Grand Hotel, we find ourselves instead in a war-zone landscape of abandoned factories and graffiti-covered apartment blocks; streets full of weeds, broken glass, and mounds of uncollected garbage. Although there was no fighting on Montenegrin soil, recovery from the economic damage done by the last Balkan conflict, in the 1990’s, has been slow. Jobs are scarce here, the old factories have closed down, and money is in short supply. “This isn’t much of a royal city,” my wife observes, but then I hang a right and soon we’re on a wide, tree-lined boulevard, admiring the faded grandeur of 19th-century palaces and government buildings.

We are almost the only guests at the Grand Hotel, a concrete-and-glass throwback from the Communist days with an odd charm all its own. Exploring its many common rooms, I stumble on a chess tournament in silent progress and a ghostly ballroom that’s straight out of The Shining. We briefly lose a daughter on the elevators, but Diana is soon restored to us by a kind member of the staff. As we discover, Montenegro is a country where children are universally loved and can still rely on adults for protection.

We have dinner with Svetislav “Pule” Vujovic, a retired ambassador and a friend of a Montenegrin we know in the United Kingdom, who grew up here and has offered to be our guide. From Pule (a nickname meaning “little one,” though he’s well over six feet tall), we learn that in 2000—when it was feared Milosevic might attack Cetinje—the Grand Hotel was used as a fortified barracks by volunteers ready to defend their city to the last. The attack never came, Pule believes, partly because no one had forgotten that after World War II the citizens of Cetinje were awarded the order of National Hero for personal courage in battle.

That night the children sleep through an earsplitting thunderstorm, only to be awakened by strangely musical plumbing noises and dogs under the windows howling like wolves—or maybe they are wolves—but our affection for the Grand grows.

The next morning Pule takes me on a whirlwind tour, starting with the State Museum in the former palace of King Nicholas I, the last sovereign of Montenegro, who died in 1921. The modest, suffocating salons of his palace recall the comic-opera atmosphere of the type of court that inspired Franz Lehár to write The Merry Widow. I notice a tapestry of Verdi that was a gift from George Bernard Shaw to the king’s piano-playing daughter, Princess Jelena. The late Steven Runciman, Britain’s preeminent Byzantine historian, knew the Petrovic princesses and once described them to me as “delightful, but hirsute.” I study their faces in the melancholy sepia photographs on the walls of their parents’ bedroom—not a mustache among them.

The Biljarda is an earlier palace, built in 1838 as the residence of the prince-bishop Petar II Petrovic Njegos and named affectionately after the billiard table he imported from Italy. In addition to writing some of the finest poetry in Serbian, Njegos brought together Montenegro’s warring clans and laid the foundations for centralized power. An imposing figure, almost seven feet tall (Montenegrins are among the tallest people in the world), he died of tuberculosis at 38 and is venerated as the wise and saintly father of his country.

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