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Magic Mountains of Montenegro

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Photo: Mischa Richter

The time I’ve allotted runs out abruptly during a visit to the Art Museum of Cetinje, where I linger too long over the Madonna of Philermos, a Greek icon believed to date from the ninth century, and I have to sprint to my interview with the current president of Montenegro, Filip Vujanovic. Accompanied by Pule, I climb the red-carpeted steps of the presidential palace, which are flanked by soldiers with drawn sabers in magnificent scarlet tunics.

After a short wait, an aide leads us into a grand reception room, where we shake hands with the president. In his early fifties, tall, handsome, and with a hint of Kennedy dash, he launches into an infectiously enthusiastic riff about the future of his country.

Although he spends most of the year in the administrative capital, Podgorica, the president has a soft spot for Cetinje, which he hopes to restore to its former glory. He talks about attracting foreign investment and making Cetinje a world tourism center, bringing visitors up from Kotor by cable car—the Austrians, it seems, are doing a feasibility study. I can’t help thinking about the rough outskirts of town, but before I can ask about plans to improve the infrastructure, the president jumps up and suggests we continue the conversation over lunch.

The terrace of the Belveder restaurant, a mile and a half outside of Cetinje, has a stage-set view of the mountains that once made it a favorite picnic spot of King Nicholas. Although the best table has been reserved for the presidential party—now expanded to include my wife and children, whom Pule and I collected from the hotel—there are regular customers eating on the terrace too, and all seem pleased—if unsurprised—to be sharing the space with their president.

A six-course banquet has been laid out and features the traditional dish of lamb baked in a pot buried under hot coals. The meat is succulent and tender. During a lull in the sometimes stilted conversation, our 14-year-old daughter, Charlotte, turns to President Vujanovic and comments on the way her glass, no matter how much she drinks, is always full (the waiters are invisibly attentive). She makes a reference to a magic goblet in one of the Harry Potter books, and the ice is broken. The afternoon becomes a lively Balkan party, until duty calls and the president’s aides whisk him away.

“Am I in paradise, or on the moon?” George Bernard Shaw wondered a century ago on reaching the summit of Lovcen, the mountain that rises above Cetinje and is held sacred by all Montenegrins. After driving up the serpentine road through Lovcen National Park, we work off lunch puffing up 461 steps to the top of Jezerski, one of the mountain’s twin peaks, where the mausoleum of Njegos sits poised on a ridge like a hunched stone eagle. It’s worth the effort for the art alone. A pair of 14-foot granite caryatids guards the entrance to the hero’s tomb, and a colossal statue of him by the great Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic looms in the antechamber.

From a windswept platform reached by a precarious footpath, you can see the whole of Montenegro. Many claim that the view, as you turn from the shining Adriatic to the frozen seas of jagged peaks, has a spiritual dimension. Venture up here during a thunderstorm (a frequent event in summer), when the cloistering effect of the terrain means that thunderclaps follow lightning bolts almost immediately, and the Lovcen experience can be truly awe-inspiring, according to Pule.

Montenegrins are naturally affectionate. In Podgorica, I ask a young and beautiful woman for directions to a store and am startled when she takes my hand and leads me there, a delightfully innocent yet memorable gesture. The way Pule acts with our children when they’re being difficult, walking and talking with them until the mood passes, is no less endearing. A man notices that I’m looking for a parking place and crosses the street to hold one without being asked or having any thought of reward. It’s little incidents like these that predispose one to fall under a country’s spell.

We return to the coast near the medieval port of Budva, where the mountains plunge down through ancient groves of olive, cypress, and wild pomegranate to what Lord Byron described as “the most beautiful meeting of land and sea” on the planet. It still dazzles, but slow-crawling traffic welcomes you now to the Budva Riviera—12 miles of rocky coves and former fishing villages. It is in this part of the country that the revival of the region is most evident, as hotels, casinos, café-bars, and restaurants are being opened or upgraded. Heading south along the coastal road, we get tantalizing glimpses of Sveti Stefan and the sea far below. The famously picturesque hotel-village, a cluster of 15th-century fishermen’s cottages atop a rocky outcrop and tethered to the mainland by a white stone causeway, will be home for the next few days.

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