Beneath the Black Mountain – Montenegro

Beneath the Black Mountain
Montenegro

“…every Allied government gave me a decoration — even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!”

Little Montenegro! He lifted up the words and nodded at them – with his smile. The smile comprehended Montenegro’s troubled history and sympathized with the brave struggles of the Montenegrin people.

       – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

A map is displayed near the main entrance to the walled city of Dubrovnik. Most tourists stop to look at it, but it’s not a conventional map of visitor attractions. It plots the damage sustained when the historic town was besieged during the winter of 1991: buildings destroyed by fire, roofs holed by mortar shells, walls defaced by shrapnel. The explanatory text pulls no punches in identifying the perpetrators: “the Yugoslav Army, Serbs and Montenegrins”.

As I studied the timetable posted on the wall of Dubrovnik bus station, I remembered that map. It helped to explain why the list of destinations was strangely unbalanced. If I wanted to travel northwards, I was spoiled for choice: there were international services to Bosnia, Slovenia, and even Germany. But to the south: nothing. Montenegro was only twenty miles away, yet no Montenegrin town was listed on the schedule. The siege had ended more than 10 years before my visit, but it was clear that normal service had not yet been resumed. Further enquiries revealed that Montenegro was not completely out of reach. A single daily bus made the short trip to the border post of Debeli Brijeg. From there I would be able to walk across the frontier and catch another bus on the far side.

The bus passed high above Dubrovnik on the Adriatic Highway. As I enjoyed a last look back at the lovely old town, I reviewed my knowledge of the country I was about to enter. It didn’t take very long, because I didn’t know very much. In fact, I wasn’t even entirely sure what the country was called. If I had arrived a couple of months earlier it would certainly have been Yugoslavia, but now I wasn’t so sure. According to recent newspaper reports, there was no longer any such thing as Yugoslavia. It had quietly expired, ceased to be a going concern, become an ex-country. It had been replaced by Serbia and Montenegro – not two countries, but a single country with an unwieldy name.

As this development had not been accompanied by genocide, terrorism, or lethal violence in any form, the reports were brief and lacking in detail. As a result, I wasn’t sure if the change had actually been implemented, or if it had any practical implications. Maybe it was just a rebranding exercise, although I felt that the effect would be to replace one image problem with two. The Serbs had spent much of the previous decade demonstrating that, contrary to the popular maxim, there really is such a thing as bad publicity. As for Montenegro, its image wasn’t so much damaged as non-existent. Until I started planning this trip, the only association the name triggered in my mind was the reference in The Great Gatsby. This passing comment in a work of fiction didn’t help to crystallise my hazy ideas. If anything it added to my impression that Montenegro belonged in the same imaginary world as Narnia and Ruritania.

I wouldn’t have to remain in this state of ignorance for much longer. We soon reached the border. It was time to gather my belongings and leave the comfort of the coach. I found myself at the highest point of a mountain pass. The surrounding countryside was typical of the mountains along the Croatian coast – impressive in a rather stark and desolate way. The chatter of my fellow passengers seemed to be swallowed by the empty landscape, so that I had the impression of an eerie silence. No cars passed. An empty cafe was the only visible building, apart from the two clusters of cabins that housed the officials on each side of the border.

After carrying my bags for what seemed like half an hour but was probably five minutes, I reached the Montenegrin checkpoint, where the police carefully transcribed my passport details into their big black book. Another short walk led to the waiting bus – a much older and more decrepit vehicle than the luxurious Croatian coach. Being used to more routine blink-and-you-miss-it border crossings in western Europe, I found the whole thing enjoyably dramatic.

The drama of the border was not matched by any marked difference between the countries on either side. The landscape was similar: grey limestone mountains plunging into sparkling blue water. The people looked much the same and spoke what sounded like the same language. Familiar roadside signs proclaimed the availability of “sobe, zimmer, camera, rooms”. But as the journey continued I began to notice small differences, such as the appearance of the Cyrillic alphabet in newspapers and advertisements. The most obvious differences were economic: the cars here were smaller and older, the buses more crowded, the towns a little shabbier.

Another difference between the two countries was of immediate practical concern. Another border meant another currency. I had heard that Montenegro had adopted the Euro as its official currency, but this seemed too convenient to be true. After two weeks of travelling, I had given up trying to track my spending in kuna, convertible marks, and tolars. Had Montenegro really decided that it could do without the national virility symbol of its own money? Would I really be able to use my own home currency in this faraway corner of Europe?

When a passenger handed over an unfamiliar-looking note to pay his bus fare, I began to suspect that I would have to get used to yet another variety of Monopoly money. But it turned out that he had paid the €3 fare with a €100 note. I expected the conductor to show some sign of irritation, but he simply counted out €97 in change as if it was an everyday event. And it probably was. I saw more large denomination notes during my short stay in Montenegro than I had in five months at home in Ireland. Presumably this was related to the economy’s complete dependence on cash. The banking system had not recovered from the effect of international sanctions, and Montenegro was possibly the last place in Europe where cash machines were non-existent and credit cards useless.

I had bought a ticket to the town of Budva, knowing that it was a seaside resort and therefore likely to be an easy place to find accommodation. On a map Budva appears to be close to the Croatian border. Indeed, on a map everywhere in Montenegro appears to be close to everywhere else. But over the next few days I found out that this is a country in which distance in space has an unusually loose relationship with distance in time. It is never possible to travel from A to B in anything even vaguely approximating a straight line. The terrain is a mixture of sea inlets, lakes, and mountains. The mountains do not reach Alpine heights, but they seem to be somehow more vertical than in other places, a jumble of cliffs, crags, and ravines. Every journey through this ragged terrain has an epic feel – provided you can see yourself as an epic hero while being thrown from side to side in the aisle of an overcrowded and antiquated bus.

The most tortuous route of all skirts the Bay of Kotor between Croatia and Budva. The mountains that surround this fjord slope steeply down to the water, forcing the road to follow the twists and turns of every inlet. But I was happy to make slow progress in such spectacular surroundings. I no longer felt that the landscape was merely a continuation of what I had seen in Croatia. When we passed the mouth of the bay, there seemed to be a sudden change of scale. Imposing peaks towered overhead, made doubly impressive by their reflections in the glassy waters. The effect of the masses of grey stone was relieved by the plentiful wild flowers growing near the shore. And in the middle of all this natural grandeur, the perfect human touch: two tiny islands in the middle of the fjord, each with its own church – one Orthodox, one Catholic. Dwarfed by their surroundings, the churches looked like toys that would be swept away by the next high tide; but they have stood for centuries.

Finally, after the bus had struggled up yet another steep gradient, the old town of Budva appeared below us. Like a miniature version of Dubrovnik, a cluster of red roofs and spires jutted out into the sea, protected by thick walls. It had at least one advantage over Dubrovnik, though: on the far side of the town, a sweeping beach extended around the bay.

As I alighted from the bus, I prepared to be ambushed by old women with rooms to let; I had got used to this ritual in Croatia. I was almost disappointed to find that Budva had failed to organise a similar reception committee to greet me. Instead I found a travel agency and arranged to rent a room in the old town. One of the staff was delegated to show me the way. She was young and strikingly attractive – not unusual in this part of the world. Wishing that the town was a little larger so that the walk would take a little longer, I attempted to make conversation. She told me that she lived in Budva during the summer season, but her home was in Podgorica. As she said this she hesitated, apparently registering the possibility that not everyone in the outside world would be acquainted with the capital of Montenegro. “You know where Podgorica is?” This was my chance to demonstrate my profound knowledge of her country, perhaps with a Gatsby-like smile of sympathy and understanding. I duly sank to the occasion. “Uhh… yeah… it’s kind of over there, right?” I said, waving in the vague direction of the mountains. I could tell she was impressed.

We soon reached at my lodgings and I had no time to make a further impression. My landlady was as friendly as everyone I met in Montenegro. In her case communication was limited by the lack of a common language, but she didn’t let that minor detail stop her from talking at me. The room was the cheapest I had stayed in, but also the biggest and most comfortable. And it had a perfect location at the end of a narrow lane in the heart of Stari Grad, the old town.

I should explain that the “old town” isn’t really old. The real old town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1979. Somebody decided that it was too good a tourist draw to lose, and the whole thing was rebuilt more or less from scratch. I was therefore looking at a pastiche, a heritage theme park, a mock-mediaeval tourist trap with built-in air conditioning. And I loved it. I loved being able to step out of my lodgings into my dream of a perfect Mediterranean town. I loved the sharp contrasts of light and shade in the narrow white-walled streets, the flowers and the palm trees, the candy-stripe brickwork of the chapel beneath the walls of the fortress, and the slender bell tower standing sentinel over all.

I had already seen enough to realise that my chosen base in Montenegro was not typical of the country as a whole. As I wandered around the walled town, I noticed an air of prosperity that contrasted with the slightly run-down towns I had passed through earlier in the day. Cafes sold fancy ice cream concoctions at fancy prices. Every street seemed to have a couple of boutiques, with sleekly minimalist interiors displaying sleekly minimalist designer clothes. There was a strong suggestion of an Italian influence – southern Italy is just a short ferry ride away. Bright young things and pensioners alike said “Ciao” more often than “Do videnja”. Even the name Montenegro, originally Italian, seems to be used frequently within the country itself. Maybe even native speakers aren’t too keen on the vowel cluster at the start of Crna Gora, the name in the local language. If it helps, the letter ‘c’ is pronounced rather like ‘ts’. Easy when you know how, isn’t it?

A refreshing swim left me in the right mood for a large seafood pizza at the Caffe Europa, one of a cluster of eating places overlooking the harbour. “Europa” seemed to mean the European Union: the entire café had been decorated with the familiar symbols of gold stars on a blue background. Later in my trip I saw a similarly themed roadside café called the “Restaurant Europa”. In theory all this should have made me feel at home, but I couldn’t recall ever seeing a similar display of Euro-enthusiasm in Ireland.


The next day I boarded another dilapidated bus that chugged inland and uphill to Cetinje, the traditional capital. Montenegro maintained its independence throughout the centuries of Turkish rule in the rest of the Balkans. It was smaller then than it is now, so it must have been very small indeed. The Great Powers of Europe seem to have finally noticed the existence of this anomalous state in the late nineteenth century. They duly incorporated Montenegro into the diplomatic circuit, and despatched their ambassadors to Cetinje. The little mountain stronghold acquired all the trappings of a modern European metropolis, with the exception of a population. Its elevated status came to an end after the First World War, when Montenegro was absorbed into the first version of Yugoslavia. A large map on a wall in the main square shows the location of the city’s historic buildings, most of which date from this brief heyday. The map itself has become part of history: its faded characters identify the road to Titograd – a name that no longer exists.

I strolled around Cetinje enjoying its rather sleepy charm. The evidence of its past was everywhere: palaces, embassies, and government offices. Some of these buildings were elegant, others were grandiose, all looked as if they belonged somewhere else – somewhere larger and less isolated than this quiet backwater. They were like film sets, built to provide just enough background for a few scenes in a period drama. I wouldn’t have been surprised to turn a corner and find that the buildings were no more than facades. Budva was fake and Cetinje was real, but it felt like the other way round.

The Orthodox monastery, on the other hand, looked as if it had been there forever. Tucked away at the edge of town, the weathered stone of its cloisters and towers seemed all of a piece with the rocky hills behind it. I climbed one of the hills, braving the midday sun for the sake of the panoramic view. Looking at the city from above only added to my feeling of dislocation. It was as if a band of Scottish Highlanders had created an independent country, and gone on to build a diminutive but fully equipped capital city in Glencoe.

At the edge of town the mansions and state buildings gave way to boulder-strewn slopes culminating in rocky peaks. The highest of these peaks was behind me, across ten miles of rock and scrub: Mount Lovcen, the Black Mountain that gives the country its name. From my vantage point, I could see that Cetinje’s location had certain defensive advantages. Clearly an invading army would have difficulties coping with the forbidding terrain. Perhaps more importantly, faced with such an inhospitable environment, they would surely stop and have a serious think about why they wanted to invade in the first place. But not every invader had packed up and gone home. Cetinje was overrun three times by the Turks (Montenegro’s Auld Enemy). On the first of these occasions, the defenders displayed a typically Balkan flair for the dramatic self-destructive gesture: the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes dryly that they set fire to the gunpowder supply, “destroying the monastery, themselves, and many Turks”.

I returned to the town and walked up and down every street twice to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I hardly saw a soul. This fitted nicely with my feeling that the place had an unreal quality. The actors and crew had finished filming and gone away, leaving the set deserted. But I was being sentimental, forcing reality to match my preconceived ideas. There was a mundane explanation for the town’s ghostly emptiness: everyone was indoors watching the World Cup. I caught a bus back to Budva with some reluctance. Much as I liked Budva, in many respects it could have been a seaside resort anywhere in the Mediterranean. Cetinje, on the other hand, could only have been in Montenegro.

In the afternoon I walked around the modern part of town. Modern, that is, relative to the original old town, not the fake old town – but you know what I mean. Things weren’t quite so chic here: there were rows of fast food stalls, and markets selling cheap CDs of dubious origin. But once again there was money in the air. There was a buzz of activity as workmen added the finishing touches to open-air cafes and clubs in time for the summer season. No expense had been spared in the battle to be the venue of choice for the beautiful people: each club seemed more lavishly decorated than the next. The most elaborate had a roof display featuring a model Eiffel Tower. It was smaller than the real thing, of course, but it wasn’t all that much smaller, and when it was lit up at night it was visible for miles around.

Despite these attractions, I was most struck by the disproportionate number of mini-markets. I passed them everywhere I walked; most streets had several to choose from. Even the mega-market had an adjoining mini-market. It seemed that every Montenegrin entrepreneur had decided that the path to prosperity led through the aisles of convenience stores. It was reassuring to know that so long as I stayed in Budva, I need never run short of breakfast cereal or shampoo.

Just like everywhere else in the Mediterranean, the best part of the day in Budva is the ceremonial evening stroll. I joined the crowds who sauntered up and down the main drag parallel to the beach, stopping for coffee on a terrace or eating ice cream as they walked. There must have been plenty of tourists as well as locals in the throng, but in the babble of conversation around me I heard no English, or indeed any Western European language – quite a change from the multilingual hubbub of Dubrovnik. It seemed that the only visitors here were Slavs, and I suspected that most of them were from within Serbia and Montenegro. The upheavals of the nineties didn’t just scare off international tourists; holiday patterns within Yugoslavia were also distorted, probably with more lasting effect.

A few days later I found myself talking to a Bosnian Serb on a train to Banja Luka. He was a student on his way to college. When I told him about the places I had visited, he said that he often went to Montenegro in the summer. He wouldn’t go to Dubrovnik – he used to enjoy family holidays there, but that was a long time ago. “Before the war”, he explained after a slight pause – but I had already guessed.


The following morning I made the short trip to the town of Kotor, at the head of the fjord I had taken so long to circumnavigate two days previously. Kotor has a lot in common with Dubrovnik. You can’t spend long in either one without reading about their status as UNESCO World Heritage sites. In each case this distinction has been granted not to a specific monument, but to a unified ensemble of historic buildings preserved inside mediaeval walls. Having been in Dubrovnik just a few days earlier, I couldn’t help judging Kotor in relation to its more famous neighbour, as if I would ultimately have to choose one over the other: “and the winner of the award for Most Impossibly Beautiful Town on the Adriatic Coast is…”

Fortunately, I quickly realised that this was an unfair competition, for the simple reason that Kotor is a much smaller town. There is no room for a sweeping vista comparable to the Stradun, Dubrovnik’s marble-paved main street. I soon began to appreciate Kotor’s less showy appeal, which was increased by the relative absence of other tourists. I wandered at random past churches and palaces, and down quiet lanes that probably looked much the same hundreds of years ago. Impressive as many of the buildings were, the dominant presence was the cliff that towers over the town, which seems to huddle beneath it for protection. The effect was particularly striking from in front of the most important monument, the Cathedral of St. Triphon. The vertical lines of its twin towers were echoed by the rock face behind, drawing my gaze upwards to the top of the cliff, and beyond to even higher mountains whose summits merged with the clouds. It was a breathtaking sight.

My breath was taken again a short time later, but this time due to physical exertion rather than aesthetic appreciation. I noticed yet another church at a slightly higher elevation that the main town. After several false starts, I managed to find steps leading to it. The path wasn’t promising at first. Judging by the piles of litter, it was a popular outdoor drinking spot for local teenagers. Watching my step carefully, I made my way up to the church. It was closed, but that didn’t matter: it quickly became clear that the church was a starting point rather than a destination.

The steps continued upwards, leading to part of the town wall. Although the walls were crumbling in many places, there was a continuous stairway that seemed to have been maintained in decent condition. I followed the path upwards. Every time I thought the ramparts could reach no higher, another series of zigzags led over apparently impossible terrain to even greater heights. After passing a series of towers, I finally found myself at the apex of the fortifications. The ground dropped away precipitously on three sides; on the far side of the ravine loomed the peaks of the Mount Lovcen massif. The red roofs of Kotor lay at my feet, having apparently shrunk to toytown proportions. Behind it, the smooth waters of the fjord stretched into the distance, surrounded by yet more mountains. The ruins seemed like an organic part of this epic landscape: the stones were half-covered by grass, and wild flowers grew everywhere, adding splashes of colour that perfectly offset the greys and blacks of the surrounding rock. The place simply dripped with atmosphere. And I had it all to myself.

I sat there for a long time, feeling rather pleased with myself. I had run out of time in Montenegro and would have to leave the next day. I would have loved to see more of the country, but any regrets were outweighed by delight that I had come here at all. I’m not generally a particularly adventurous traveller: most of my trips are exhaustively planned, with much cross-referencing of multiple guidebooks. That kind of preparation had been impossible for Montenegro. Admittedly it hardly compared to Afghanistan or Algeria, but by European standards it was a relatively uncharted country, and one that nobody I knew had visited in the last thirty years. I hadn’t made a definite decision to come here until moments before buying the ticket in Dubrovnik. I had been well rewarded for my leap in the dark: here I was, sitting in splendid isolation, admiring a view that must surely be as majestic as anything along the length of Europe’s Mediterranean coast. It seemed to be the perfect place to turn around and begin my homeward journey.

After some time another tourist arrived, panting from his exertions. After false starts in several languages we managed a brief conversation in English. He was from the Czech Republic. He was travelling with a group, but his travelling companions hadn’t attempted the climb. He was surprised that I was travelling on my own: “Don’t you have any friends to travel with?” That broke the spell. My newly acquired self-image as an intrepid traveller was shattered. As far as this interloper was concerned, I wasn’t a fearless adventurer; I was just a sad bastard with no friends. Treading carefully on the crumbling steps in an attempt to preserve my last shreds of dignity, I began the descent to Kotor.

Much as I wanted to make the most of my short time in Montenegro, I had to take a break from sightseeing. I had a more pressing engagement: Ireland’s encounter with Germany in the World Cup. In Dubrovnik I had been able to watch Ireland’s previous match with some fellow countrymen in an Irish pub. Montenegro may well be the last part of Europe uncontaminated by the spread of the Irish bar – at any rate I hadn’t see any, and I hadn’t come across any Irish people either. So I watched the match in a waterside pizzeria with two German tourists who kept up a scathing commentary on their own players. When Robbie Keane equalised in injury time, my delight must have been obvious to the other patrons of the cafe. This led to a successful conversation in the international language of football. One of them came over, pointed at my chest, and said “Irsk?” – “Irish” in the local language. I nodded; he shook my hand warmly; he returned to his table; I returned to my seat and looked smug while the Germans shook their heads in disbelief. The following morning, newspaper headlines described the exploits of the Irish hero, phonetically translated as “Robi Kin”.


If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that I have referred several times to the local language without giving it a name. This vagueness may lead you to conclude that I don’t actually know what the local language is. That conclusion is correct. But I did try to find out, I promise. My attempt to answer this simple question cast some light on the precarious future Montenegro faces. All Western sources, from encyclopaedias to travel guides, agree that the main language of Montenegro is Serbian. To be exact, older books refer to Serbo-Croat; newer ones acknowledge that the term Serbo-Croat is no longer politically correct, having been replaced by Serbian, Croatian, or Bosnian depending on the origin of the speaker. But nowhere is there any mention of a language called Montenegrin. I turned to the Internet to find views from Montenegro itself. That’s when things began to get complicated. Some authorities stoutly maintain that Montenegrin and Serbian are distinct languages and always have been. They even claim that the Montenegrin alphabet has three characters that do not exist in Serbian. Other sources ridicule the idea of a separate language. They say that Montenegrin is simply a kind of mountain dialect of Serbian, and not a very different dialect at that. As for the three extra letters, they are simply academic inventions, unknown to ordinary Montenegrins.

Of course the debate is not just a matter of academics defending their pet theories. The opposing views on the language question are associated with disagreements over Montenegro’s place in the world. One side claims that Serbs and Montenegrins have always been closely linked and that Montenegro’s interests are best served by preserving some form of union with Serbia. Their opponents stress the Montenegrin tradition of fierce independence, and argue that the time has come to break the link with their much larger neighbour. As usual, language and history are being manipulated for political objectives; the pressure of an uncertain future is creating an equally uncertain past.

In the meantime, some people are making the best of the situation. As is the way of Internet searches, my trawl for all things Montenegrin incidentally turned up some academic resumés. One teacher of English boasted fluency in an impressive five languages: Montenegrin, Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian and English. Fifteen years ago, with exactly the same skills, he would have been able to list only English and Serbo-Croat. The disintegration of his homeland had made him an instant linguist.

The following morning I caught the bus back to the Croatian border and Dubrovnik. The slow journey gave me plenty of time to reflect on my visit to Montenegro. I decided that my visit had been unforgivably brief, and promised myself that I would come back some day. I wondered what kind of country I would come back to.

The next time I visit Kotor, I may well find myself surrounded by tourists speaking German, English, Italian, perhaps even Japanese. If that happens, I will allow myself to grumble a little about the overpriced outdoor cafes in the main square, the crowds blocking the doors of the cathedral, the restaurant touts thrusting multilingual menus into my hand. I will tell anyone who listens how much better it was in the old days, how you could come here and feel the thrill of discovery. But I won’t really mean it. Mass tourism is a sign of normality, and the place we used to call Yugoslavia surely deserves a long period of normality. It may sound a little dull, but there are worse fates than dullness. The map of the siege of Dubrovnik is a reminder of that.

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