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Magic Mountains of Montenegro

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Photo: Mischa Richter

Returning back up the coast, we make a detour to look at Stari Bar, a walled city of romantic ruins dating from the ninth century (though recent archaeological finds show the site was occupied in 800 B.C.). As we enter the fortified gates, not another tourist in sight, my children decide they’ve had enough of trudging around ancient monuments. We compromise with a brief wander through the visible layers of civilizations laid bare by wars, earthquakes, and excavation before heading home to Sveti Stefan and mounds of golden fries.

The durmitor, a high mountain range in northern Montenegro that is bordered by two deep canyons, feels far from the Adriatic coast and presents a different side of the country. Crumbling, curving roads, sometimes single-lane, take us up through steep-sided green valleys and alpine meadows covered in wildflowers. Far below, glacial lakes, or “mountain eyes,” as the Montenegrins call them, stare up at us. After a morning walk to the nearby Black Lake (Crno Jezero), I head back to the Planinka resort, a Communist-era hotel in the town of Zabljak. On the way I meet a posse of snowboarders in beach clothes (it’s August) heading for the Debeli Namet snowfield; and gypsies selling wild strawberries and honey from the trunk of a broken-down Lada. I feel ambivalent when I’m told that the hotel will soon be demolished and rebuilt by an Italian developer.

It’s up here in the pristine, ecologically sensitive Durmitor—with its abundant flora (more than 1,300 plant species, many of them rare or endemic or both) and wide variety of fauna (including lynx, bear, and wolf)—that the impact of tourism seems potentially most destructive. Yet since at least 1878, Montenegrins have had a keen awareness that unspoiled nature is the country’s most valuable resource; in that year, King Nicholas created the Biogradska Gora National Park, now one of the last virgin forests in Europe.

In 1991, again ahead of its time, the Montenegrin government declared that it was adopting an environmentally responsible stewardship of nature as a state policy, calling upon “all the people to show wisdom and prevent an impending ecological catastrophe.”

Montenegro’s “Wild Beauty” campaign certainly sounds as if it’s aimed at the green traveler. But no one is under any illusions about the difficulties of implementing such a pledge. In Sveti Stefan, I talk to Predrag Nenezic, the young minister of tourism and the environment, about the politics of managing development: a balancing act between increasing tourist numbers, raising living standards—which can’t be done without foreign investment and eventual EU membership—and preserving the unique qualities of Montenegro as an ecological destination.

“The average income here is $450 a month,” Nenezic says. “If we want to achieve our goals we need to carry the people with us, which means improving their lives through education, jobs, and prosperity. We can’t afford to get it wrong, and we don’t have unlimited time.”

There is a perception that Montenegro is the next Croatia, and I suggest to Nenezic that there are already signs that the race to buy up businesses and property may end up ruining the coast. He dismisses tales of illegal building and well-known fears of the Russians taking over.

He agrees that the country is largely not ready for high-end tourists—with the exception of Sveti Stefan, parts of the Budva Riviera, and the Bianca Resort, an upmarket ski lodge in Kolasin. We discuss the infrastructure problems, the water shortages, frequent power cuts, nerve-wracking roads, and other inconveniences, but then, disarmingly, he suggests that for the adventurous traveler who would most appreciate the real Montenegro, now is the perfect time to visit.

I don’t want to say, yes, I’ll be advising readers to go before it’s too late. But to some extent it is what I think. On the other hand, there’s plenty of hope, determination, and goodwill here; and an awareness of how important it is for Montenegro to achieve that difficult, if not impossible, balance. Montenegrins, I feel, may just pull it off.

We spend our last day white-water rafting on the Tara River. We’re all novices, but Dusko, our guide, hands us helmets and life vests with a cheerful “No worry” as we scramble aboard the inflatable boat; soon, we’re gliding silently downstream over the clear green water. Rocks and other submerged hazards come up with little warning and are only avoided by Dusko’s shouting out “left” or “right”—instructing those on one side of the boat to paddle harder than those on the other.

Before long we’re rocketing over rapids that may be tamer than they look, but are thrilling enough to get our adrenaline going and leave us soaking wet. When we enter a long, peaceful stretch, there’s time to look up the soaring sides of Tara Canyon—the deepest in Europe—to a narrow strip of blue sky above. After passing a solitary monastery sitting in a terraced meadow, we pause for a rest on a sandy spit, disembarking to admire a tributary waterfall. Dusko points out the foundations of a bridge built by the Romans.

You can travel like this for up to three days, camping at night on the banks of the Tara. It’s an expedition I’d like to come back and do another year, but for now we return to our base upriver by Jeep, and eat a lunch of river trout and cold lamb and tomatoes in olive oil.

As I reflect on our Montenegrin adventure, it strikes me that I haven’t been anywhere that has made me feel so alive, or glad to be alive, in a long time—and that surely has to be the highest possible recommendation.

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