Magic Mountains of Montenegro
Exploring the dramatic coastline and soaring peaks of Montenegro, Charles Maclean uncovers one of Europe’s best-kept secrets— treacherous roads and all.
The feeling you get as you cross the border into Montenegro is that this is the last wild place in Europe and that anything can happen here.
The name itself, Italian for “black mountain” (or Crna Gora in Montenegrin), has long conjured images of a remote mountain kingdom: proud, indomitable people; the promise of intrigue and romance. Even today, on the verge of becoming Europe’s next big destination, the nation that was until recently part of Serbia—and, before that, Yugoslavia—has lost none of its allure.
On the coastal road at noon, in the melting heat of late July, we are driving around the fjord-like Bay of Kotor, its steep hillsides littered with Greek, Roman, and Illyrian ruins and dilapidated Venetian Gothic buildings, with the sparkling blue Adriatic close enough to jump into from an open car window. Fortunate to have been brought here as a child in the 1960’s, I’m reminded at every turn why I wanted to come back with my own family.
Montenegro has always been a frontier between East and West. This is the land of the freedom fighter—forged out of adversity over five centuries of holding back the forces of Islam—who later provided heroic resistance to the Axis powers during World War II. There’s also a historic family connection. In 1943, my father, Fitzroy Maclean, was in Yugoslavia leading the British wartime mission to assist Tito and the partisans. His adventures helped fuel rumors that he was the model for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Now, after 40 years of Communist rule and a decade of Balkan strife, Europe’s lost Shangri-la is re-entering the modern world.
In contrast to the growing prosperity of neighboring Croatia, the roadside villages I drive through with my wife and two daughters have a down-at-the-heels look, as if progress has been put on hold for the past 20 years. The lack of development has helped keep Montenegro’s natural beauty mostly untouched, its tradition of friendliness toward visitors uncorrupted, and the culture of an ancient civilization intact. But now that its huge potential for tourist-related development is about to be realized and hotel companies are throwing up new buildings and renovating old ones, the country faces issues that are both philosophical and practical.
At the southern end of the former Yugoslavia, this newly sovereign state (in the spring of 2006, Montenegrins voted for independence from Serbia) is not hard to reach. To drive in from Croatia, we turn left instead of right out of Dubrovnik airport, and half an hour later we’re at the border. Six miles further on, near the sleepy village of Morinj, we are sitting outdoors under linen canopies, having a lunch of black risotto, gulf shrimp, and cold local Sauvignon at the Catovica Mlini. The old mill has been converted into a fine restaurant that has won a reputation for its cooking and the warm hospitality of Lazar, whose family has owned the building for 200 years.
Driving on around the Bay of Kotor, we stop to look at Perast, a tiny UNESCO-protected maritime town dating back to the pre-Christian era. Illyrian tribes once held sway in the region; Perast was later rebuilt by seafaring Venetians as a strategic harbor. There’s a magnificent Baroque church, St. Nikola’s, with a lofty belfry dedicated to the defeat of the Turks in 1654, and many balconied waterfront mansions. Apart from an ice cream stand and some boys playing soccer, the dusty piazza is deserted, and some of the backstreets are overgrown with vines, fig trees, and oleander, though they probably won’t be for much longer. All along the coast, foreigners, most notably investors from Germany and the United Kingdom, are snapping up derelict but once-grand stone houses.
A few hundred yards offshore lie the twin islets of St. George (Sveti Djordje) and Our Lady of the Rock (Gospa od Skrpjela). The former is the cypress-shaded home of a Benedictine monastery, which recalls Arnold Böcklin’s haunting Island of the Dead series, which he began in 1880. The latter, a man-made reef of sunken ships on which locals built a votive chapel and a blue-domed church to the Virgin Mary, seems to float magically on the calm waters of the gulf. A keeper’s lodge has been turned into a museum filled with touchingly grateful memorials to deliverance from perils at sea.
Sitting on the bay, the walled city of Kotor has been an important Mediterranean port since Roman times. As I wander the narrow pedestrian streets and emerge unexpectedly into empty, marble-flagged squares lined with medieval and Renaissance buildings, I am reminded of Dubrovnik (another once independent city-republic) before it was discovered by tourists. In the heat of the day, when every sensible person is enjoying a siesta, we have the old city and its architectural riches—the Pima and Drago palaces, the clock tower, and the Cathedral of St. Tryphon, a twin-towered Romanesque beauty consecrated in 1166—all to ourselves. Behind the cathedral, the defensive walls—almost three miles long and, in places, 50 feet thick—snake up the steep rocky hillside to the ruined 14th-century fortress of St. Ivan. Earthquakes have struck here with devastating effect, but the walls somehow always survived; Kotor also prides itself on never having been taken by force.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When to Go
During the summer high season, it’s possible to climb the peaks of the Dinaric Alps and swim in the Adriatic off the Budva Riviera on the same day. But for those who want to experience the country’s natural beauty, architecture, and historic sights with fewer tourists, spring and fall are the best times to visit.
How to Get There
There are no direct flights between the United States and Montenegro, though Montenegro Airlines flies from certain European hubs (including Frankfurt and Paris) to the country’s two international airports (Tivat, on the coast, and Podgorica, inland). Alternatively, you can fly to Dubrovnik’s Cilipi airport, 12 miles from the Croatia-Montenegro border.
Where to Stay
Bianca Resort & Spa
Kolasin; 382-81/863-000; biancaresort.com; doubles from $192.
GREAT VALUE Cetinje; 382-86/242-400; hotel-grand.tripod.com; doubles from $96.
Scheduled to reopen in summer 2008 as part of the Aman Sveti Stefan. King’s Beach, Budva; firstname.lastname@example.org; telephone and rates not available at press time.
GREAT VALUE Žabljak, Durmitor National Park; 382-89/361-344; doubles from $70, including breakfast.
Scheduled to reopen in summer 2009 as the Aman Sveti Stefan. email@example.com; telephone and rates not available at press time.
Where to Eat
Cetinje; 382-86/235-282; lunch for two from $36.
Morinj; 382-82/373-030; lunch for two from $44.
What to Read
Montenegro: The Bradt Travel Guide
Annalisa Rellie’s book is the best English-language guide to the country. The third edition will be published in June.
Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro
The history of Montenegro from pre-Slavic times to the 2006 referendum, by Elizabeth Roberts. Cornell University Press.