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Magic Mountains of Montenegro

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Photo: Mischa Richter

A magical, sunstruck place surrounded by the clearest, bluest water, it has changed little since I came here with my parents in 1962, soon after the hotel had opened, and the cottage suites, set among palm trees and hanging gardens, were considered a novelty as well as the last word in luxury. I recall spending all day in the warm sea, then eating under the stars on a restaurant terrace that was like the deck of a great ocean liner. At every meal platters of golden french fries held aloft by skillful waiters arrived at our table without being ordered.

The terrace remains the same, golden fries are still on the menu (which delights my own children), and they reach the table in the same grand manner. In other ways, however, the hotel is showing its age. Tour groups wander through its intimate alleys, while stocky Russian-mafia types in dark glasses talk into cell phones and ignore their bored blond companions. In its heyday, during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, Sveti Stefan attracted a stream of celebrities— Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, and other A-listers—whose glamorous patronage was an early casualty of the Milosevic war years. “The Pearl of the Adriatic” may have lost some of its luster—spotty plumbing, faded fabrics—but it’s about to be restored. In January 2007, Amanresorts took out a 30-year lease on Sveti Stefan from the Montenegrin government (along with one for the Hotel Milocer, a former royal palace in the next bay that had also seen better days). After multimillion-dollar face-lifts, both hotels will reopen as the Aman Sveti Stefan, and no one doubts that the movie stars will be back.

Inland, where the midas touch of modernization has yet to reach, you’d think you were in another country. The classical Venetian influence that dominates the coastal towns is replaced by the strong Slavic culture found among the small communities huddled in the mountains.

From Sveti Stefan, our island sanctuary, we make day trips into the interior to visit the Orthodox monasteries of Moraca and Ostrog. Although promoted as tourist attractions—for the sublimeness of the buildings, for the medieval and Baroque frescoes that cover the interior walls, for their role as repositories of icons, manuscripts, and liturgical treasures—monasteries in Montenegro remain active places of worship and devout pilgrimage. Many are self-sustaining communities of monks and nuns; the tidy whitewashed enclave at Moraca, with its orchards and beehives and rose-covered cloisters, bears witness to a private peace, despite the many visitors.

The atmosphere at Ostrog, a vertical complex of cave-churches and monasteries carved out of the face of a cliff high above the River Zeta, is more intense. Pilgrims come from all over the world to this spectacular shrine, which has a reputation for miraculous cures. Joining a line that snakes through narrow tunnels and up spiral stone stairs, I find myself in a candlelit sepulchre bowing low over a red velvet cloth that is briefly raised by a black-robed monk to allow a glimpse of the bones of the monastery’s 17th-century founder, St. Basil of Ostrog. Backing away toward the exit as a mark of respect, I hit my head on the roof of the cavern and emerge into the sunlight, stunned, on a high windy ledge overlooking the valley 2,000 feet below.

On the drive back down the almost perpendicular mountainside, I reassure my passengers that according to local folklore no one has ever had an accident on the winding road to or from Ostrog. If this is true, then it’s a remarkable exception in a country where the highways are mostly poor, the terrain challenging (landslides and deep potholes are frequent obstacles), and collisions common. Montenegrins love to drive fast, and regard passing the car in front of them as not only their moral duty but an extreme sport. It’s not a death wish that motivates them, but more a proud refusal to be held in thrall by mere mortality.

Near Ada Bojana at the southernmost point in the country, we stop at the former pirate stronghold of Ulcinj, hoping to explore its reputedly exotic greenmarket, only to discover we have come on the wrong day. The ancient seaport (where Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, was believed to be imprisoned by the Turks and supposedly found the inspiration for his Dulcinea) belonged to the Ottoman Empire until 1880. With its crowded, bazaar-like shopping streets and the stunning Pasha Mosque, it has retained a strong Muslim character. Most of the people are ethnic Albanians, but you get a sense here of the hard-won peaceable coexistence of Islam and Christianity. Farther south, the land flattens into salt pans and marshes teeming with wildlife, and before lunch we swim in the sea off Velika Plaza, an eight-mile stretch of shimmering, mineral-rich sand soon to become—according to the “Tourism Masterplan,” whose German author I met by chance over breakfast at the Grand Hotel in Cetinje—the site of future “volume” hotels.

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