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Exploring Montenegro, the ‘Land of the Black Mountain’

From He-Man to Hercules, Robin Hood to Robocop, great heroes have always known who their enemy is and have never shied from fighting them. I, on the other hand, am no hero, and if proof were needed of that, then what I did upon waking up in Dubrovnik on my last full day in the Balkans, is certainly enough: I hired a car.

Let me tell you how I was feeling then. I was tired, both mentally and physically. My brain was overloaded with all that I’d seen and experienced over the preceding weeks; my body yearned to relax, days of travel and non-stop movement had caught up with it. I believe the term for it is ‘travel fatigue’, (‘travel sickness’, after all, has different connotations). And so why then, did I straight away stroll down the street and book out a Ford Fiesta, (the cheapest automobile on their books but still a world removed from Plamen’s trusty Astra)?

Because I am my own worst enemy, that is why, and because I am no hero from legend, I can’t be bothered to fight that mortal enemy most of the time. What I needed was to relax, to mooch around town, (one of the finest in Europe after all!), and replenish body and soul, to recoup, to save some money… That is what I needed, and I knew that more than anyone. But would that old foe of mine let me? You bet he didn’t! ‘Stay around here! Are you mad, Matt?! Listen, you always planned to go to Montenegro; you want to go to Montenegro; you’ve never been to Montenegro before and look, it’s only a few miles down the road! A whole new country! You who says he loves the Balkans so much, then how can you not go to Montenegro; how can you not take a trip to Cetinje? Montenegro, Matt, Montenegro, go on son, you know you want to…’

‘But wait!’ replied common and financial sense, those oft-ignored true friends of mine. ‘You can’t afford this and you won’t be able to take it in properly!’ Then there’s another voice: ‘I concur!’ screams my body, ‘Let me chill, dude!’

An hour later I was through the border.

Downtown Cetinje. Roppongi it ain't

But why the need to go to Montenegro you may ask? Well, some will understand this more than others, but for starters there’s that basic maxim of travellers that teaches, ‘It exists, therefore I travel there.’ That was a pulling factor, a major one, a country within touching distance that could be ticked off life’s little list. But with Montenegro it was much more than that. I could try to win you over with the argument that it was the bay of Kotor that won me over. That looked stunning in the guidebooks and is regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in Europe. But no, I’d be lying if I went with such a logical reason. Sure, I wouldn’t mind seeing Kotor, but that wasn’t the real drawcard, the real pull factor. Instead it was a tiny town of fifteen thousand souls high up in the mountains. Before I left the Balkans, I wanted to see Cetinje.

Starting around 1356 when they conquered Thrace, the Ottoman Turks swept through the Balkans defeating all that stood in their way. Many resisted, some more successfully than others, but in 1499 the last kingdom on the peninsula fell, the tiny Principality of Zeta, a state whose borders roughly correspond with those of modern-day Montenegro. Thus began what should have been – and was for all the other Balkan peoples – the long, dark night of Turkish Rule. But in the rough and rugged terrain of the Black Mountain, (‘Montenegro’ or ‘Crna Gora’ as it is called by those who live there, are both translations of ‘Black Mountain’), control was never easy and often on paper only. The landscape was forbidding and the locals never fully accepted Ottoman control with power being more in the hands of local chieftains in the hills as opposed to the Ottoman Governor on the plain. Then, in 1516, the last of the Crnojević dynasty, (who had rules Zeta prior to the Ottoman invasion), retired to Venice and conferred royal succession on the Bishops of Cetinje. This stroke of genius was just what the Montenegrins, for whilst they had always been able to fight the Turks, they could never agree amongst each other, each tribe vying for primacy over the others. The church however, was held in high regard and the Prince-Bishops, (Vladikas), were elected by popular assembly and could come from any of the major families. Thus united, the Montenegrins fought against the Ottomans continuously and won two key battles in 1603 and 1613 respectively making the country an independent theocracy. Over the years that followed many more battles were won – and many lost, the capital Cetinje itself was captured in 1623 and 1687 – and a combination of inhospitable terrain, fierce fighting from the Montenegrins and diplomatic ties with Venice meant that the tiny mountain state survived, (in various political forms), all the way up until 1916 when it was occupied by the Austro-Hungarians during World War I. After the war it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which later became Yugoslavia and it seemed as if an independent Montenegro would never be seen again. But after the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, Montenegro found itself in a Yugoslavia that was no more and the country was simply called Serbia and Montenegro. A referendum on independence was held on the 21st May, 2006 and 55.5% voted for independence, (to be successful, they needed over 55%), and so on the 3rd June, 2006, the Montenegrin Parliament declared independence and for once, the Serbs had no problem with such a declaration. The dark days of Milošević were over, after all.

Centinje Monastery

Centinje Monastery

And that is why I longed to see Cetinje so much; the tiny capital of a tiny kingdom that had stood firm against one of the greatest empires in the world for four centuries exactly. A real-life Strelsau or Klow in a real-life Ruritania or Syldavia. More than that though, I hoped that it would also show me something else, something of great personal fascination for any Balkan enthusiast: a glimpse of what the Balkans would look like had the Turks never got there. Yes indeed, that would be worth seeing.

I was hungry so I stopped off in the town of Herceg Novi. My first Montenegrin experience though, was not positive; the prices were almost as high as in Croatia, (I’d deliberated not eaten there to save money), and the food was bland. However, the town itself looked interesting and I saw a sign pointing to ‘Ivo Andrić House’ which piqued my interest after visiting several sites connected with him in Bosnia so I went looking for it.

I was unsuccessful in my search but instead I stumbled across the city’s museum which was housed in a handsome villa overlooking then sea. With Serbo-Croat labels, this presented the usual collection of pottery fragments and folk costumes but I did manage to learn that the Turkish domination of the town had been short and instead there was a far greater Venetian influence.

Walking round the town afterwards and that influence was clear to see. It was a pretty place, very pretty in fact, but not at all what I would call ‘Balkan’. Instead, it seemed as it had been transplanted from the South of France or the Amalfi Coast, the word ‘Mediterranean’ being far more applicable than ‘Balkan’. As with Dubrovnik, it was clear that I’d left ‘Turkey in Europe’ far behind and was now firmly in the Italian sphere of influence, a Mediterranean playground of those with bundles of tourist euros to spend.

Although the twisting narrow streets of the walled town were pleasant, my Herceg Novi highlight was the dungeon in the Kanli Kula, (the ‘Bloody Tower’ fortress), for there on its dirty walls were scratched fantastic pictures of sailing ships done by bored inmates centuries ago.

The Bay of Kotor

The Bay of Kotor

Moving on, I drove towards the Bay of Kotor, Europe’s southernmost fjord and one of the continent’s most beautiful spots. I crossed the bay at its narrowest point on the car ferry and then drove through a series of picture-postcard villages on its banks to the town of Kotor itself, after which I climbed the steep hill behind the town, from which the guidebook promised glorious views over the bay.

And my, weren’t those views glorious! There was a lady selling ice creams by the roadside so I bought a Tropicool off her and stood by the car, drinking them in.

As a writer, I struggle with superlatives. Use too many and they sound crass, use too few and the magnificence is not conveyed. That’s a problem now, for with Kotor, one needs them. In short, the view is of rocky peaks in the distance, lush, green slopes by the water’s edge, and serene blue waters dotted with boats. That however, does not express anything about the beauty at all. All I can say, is that it is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen and only by viewing it yourself will you understand.

But things were not finished once I got back into the car. The road turned into a veritable assault course, twisting and turning its way up the rocky slopes of the Black Mountain that gives the entire country its name, a series of twenty-five switchbacks in all, each one offering more spectacular views than the last. It was certainly the most amazing road that I’ve driven along, (although damned hard work to navigate, particularly when one encounters a bus travelling in the opposite direction!), and when the top was finally reached the landscape was transformed into a rocky alpine wilderness of few people and sparse vegetation. It was a world away from the verdant Mediterranean wonderland far below.

After ten kilometres or so, I came to the village of Njeguši and I knew straightaway that I was away that I was away from Italy Abroad and back in Balkania, for its low stone cottages and squat Orthodox church could have belonged to nowhere else. There were signs advertising the birthplace of one Petar II Petrović Njegoš and I was tempted to stop and find out more, but conscious of the time I drove on.

Cetinje is a strange and charming little place. Although situated high in the mountains, it is largely flat and easy to walk around, and although a capital city for centuries it has a languid laid back air as if it is slumbering, ignoring all the hustle and bustle of the coastal towns down below. I parked up on one of its tree-lined streets and started to explore on foot, the cool mountain air making such an activity far more enjoyable than it had been in Herceg Novi a few hours previously.

The Biljarda, Cetinje

The Biljarda, Cetinje

Cetinje – like most capital cities – abounds in two things: foreign embassies and museums. I wandered round the embassy district first, looking at a few of the former, particularly the former French Embassy, the building of which being moderately famous due to its somewhat extravagant and somewhat Oriental design, the exterior being covered in colourful ceramic tiles. Urban myth states that it was originally intended for some North African capital but the plans got mixed up somehow and it ended up in Montenegro; a romantic if perhaps somewhat implausible tale. I then moved onto the museums, taking in two of the five that constitute the National Museum of Montenegro; the Biljarda Museum and King Nikola’s Museum.

The Biljarda is a former fortress and residence of Petar II Petrović Njegoš, later sanctified and generally seen as Montenegro’s greatest ruler. It was built in 1838 and gained its name from the fact that Petar had a billiards table imported from England and housed in one of the rooms. I wandered around taking in the exhibits and in particular some of the artwork that forms much of the national collection including a series of paintings that vividly portray traditional Montenegrin peasant life. I then moved onto King Nikola’s Museum, housed in the rather Mitteleuropean palace of the country’s last king. This I preferred, for one could see clearly in the preserved rooms the strange synthesis between the grandeur of the European tradition with the earthy peasant lifestyle of the Montenegrins that characterises Montenegro.

Herceg Novi,; view from the 'Bloody Tower'

Herceg Novi,; view from the 'Bloody Tower'

Exiting King Nikola’s Museum as it shut, I headed across to the tiny Court Church before then heading up to the city’s spiritual heart, the Cetinje Monastery. En route I came across a souvenir and antiques stall where I spied some old Montenegrin banknotes. All old banknotes fascinate me, but these in particular for Montenegro today does not have its own currency. Instead, it utilisies a curious system whereby the National Bank buys euros off the ECB and distributes these as the national currency, the idea being that it will help attract tourists and investment as well as promoting stability. It certainly makes things easier for the visitor and it sounds a positive idea to me although I do not pretend to be an economist and one wonders that if it is such a good plan, why has no other small country adopted such a strategy? Certainly one good argument against euro usage and reintroducing the old currency would be that its name, the perper, is one of the most whimsical and memorable in world finance.

I bought a one perper note and then continued onto the monastery. Founded in the 16th century, it houses the bones of St. Petar of Cetinje and also the right hand of St. John the Baptist. The present building dates from the start of the 18th century and inside there is a mystical and serene atmosphere that reminded me somewhat of the earthy Orthodox churches in Bulgaria and Georgia. I would have loved to have stayed longer to savour it but I knew that time waits for no man, I had a city to explore and I needed a drink.

I sat with a coffee in Cetinje’s main street and reflected on what I’d seen in Montenegro so far. Despite suffering from travel fatigue and thus not really taking in things all that well, I was glad that I’d come, although I knew too that a second visit would be necessary to do the place justice. What had struck me most on this short foray into the country was the overwhelming feeling that I had not truly entered Montenegro until I’d driven up that hellishly twisty road up the Black Mountain and come to the land on the other side. The coastal plain seemed like a different world, wholly European, Italian, touristy. Yes, it was pretty and yes, it was full of history and culture, but somehow it didn’t interest me. I’d regretted not staying on the beach in Dubrovnik until I’d climbed that hill, but the moment I did I regretted no longer and was glad that I’d made the effort. Cetinje and the wild lands around Njeguši were the Montenegro that I’d imagined and sought. Here was a land of legend and rebellion where a mystical church held sway, a land that was European and yet, at the same time, still wild and untamed. This was Balkania, truly Balkan in a way that Herceg Novi and Kotor were not and yet it was also unlike anywhere else that I’d been to on the peninsula. The Turks had only been in Cetinje for a few decades and culturally it was as if they’d never set foot in the place. The Balkans are often characterised by the Oriental Factor, Turkey in Europe, yet here it was completely absent. The elegance and symmetry of the mosque and medrassah were missing and with them a degree of sophistication, of art and civilisation. Yet in their place was a rawness; the rawness of an earthy people with an earthy faith who struggled eternally against both the unforgiving terrain and their powerful, external foes. It is the rawness of freedom with all the benefits and costs that that brings. It was fascinating to behold.

I paid for my coffee and walked down the main street of one of Europe’s more endearing capitals and then drove back down to Italy Abroad below.

Budva: little Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast

Budva: little Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast

I had my evening meal in Budva, another Venetian colony on the Balkan shores of the Adriatic although today’s colonists tend to hail largely from the Russian Federation and stay only for a fortnight each year. The Old Town, hermetically sealed off from the touristic metropolis outside by its ancient stone walls, is dubbed as a ‘Mini Dubrovnik’ in the tourist literature and is certainly both as pretty and as over-priced as its larger neighbour to the north. I wandered around its narrow streets and peered into its smoky churches but my travel fatigue had well and truly returned after the brief respite in Cetinje and I took naught in. Besides, this was not what I had come to see; this was not Balkania. I retreated to the tourist town and filled my stomach before driving back up to the Croatian border, defeated finally by an overload of sights and scenery.

Much more by this author at Uncle Travelling Matt, his personal website.

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