A dancing girl statue on the beach of Budva resort, one of the most popular resorts of Adriatic riviera © Arseniy Krasnevsky, Shutterstock
The year 2006 was to be a memorable one for Montenegro, or Crna Gora as she is properly called in her Maternji Jesik (‘mother tongue’), for that May the state slipped the yoke that coupled her with Serbia. The federation had constituted the rump of former Yugoslavia but now the smaller partner emerged a fully independent country, and is well placed to join the eager throng pacing the waiting room of the European Union. It had been nearly a century since, in the wake of World War I, the then Kingdom of Montenegro lost her sovereignty and became united with Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia to form the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed in 1929 Yugoslavia).
Under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito in the 30-odd years after World War II, the greater Yugoslavia fared reasonably well economically, particularly in the field of tourism, and if there was little individual wealth it did not follow that people felt especially poor. A Montenegrin will maintain that in common with all Mediterranean lands his country possesses an incalculable asset, the ‘trinity’ of vine, olive and grain – add to that an unfailing supply of fish – and because of this he need never go hungry.
But a pre-millennium decade of conflict in the Balkans inflicted a toll. Resources were stretched to the limit and much of the infrastructure fell into disrepair, leading to a significant drop in tourist numbers, in particular an absence of visitors from western Europe and North America.
For Montenegrins, a large proportion of whom have at least some Serbian blood, the question of separation had never been an easy one. It was impossible not to review the past as they looked to the future: the ancient heraldic emblem depicting a bicephalous eagle spoke for a population almost equally divided as to whether to pursue a political path in partnership with the republic with whom historically they shared so much of their birthright, or to go for full independence. In the event the referendum that led to the latter conclusion was – as expected – close run, but credit to all parties involved, including Serbia, once the results were announced and the decision made, differences were put aside and the mood was both jubilant and forward looking. As someone who was there reported on the evening following the lebiscite: ‘It was fantastic, emotional and unrealistic. All the young people and elderly Montenegrins were voting in national costumes, Podgorica and Cetinje were covered in red and gold flags – a hundred thousand people on the streets of Podgorica. Two hours waiting in the car to get out of Cetinje after the celebration … Mission accomplished.
The new independence was received by the international community as confirmation of stability and within months external investment in Montenegro had increased exponentially. Privatisations were widespread: everything but grandmothers was up for sale and prices for real estate in the coastal plain were soaring. Overnight it seemed everyone had become an entrepreneur. The wise ones sat on their land and waited; others chose to sell quickly. Some, fearing a country overrun by speculators, didn’t want to sell at all and, whatever the cost or lack of it, preferred to maintain the status quo.
Almost a decade on and the dust has settled – and dust is an appropriate word: for far too much of the coast has become a construction site. The government has had to address planning restrictions before it is too late, to avoid the verdant coastline sacrificing its unique character and beauty to overdevelopment.
Similar reservations with regard to the speed and sheer scale of reconstruction cannot be said to apply inland, either in the mountains or in the eastern corners of the country, where progress is altogether a more gradual process. However, with the assistance and support of such international bodies as the European Union, the United Nations Development Programme, USAID, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and more importantly through their own enthusiasm and energies, these municipalities will catch up one fine day.
Meanwhile, some great hotels offering state-of-the-art facilities have opened, others have been refurbished and have extended their services. The number of small family-run establishments is on the increase and everywhere there is an upbeat sense of revival, underpinning the Montenegrin tradition of hospitality to all comers.
Inland, the splendid Hussein Pasha Mosque in Pljevlja, its soaring minaret a landmark, has also risen from its renovations. Small eco-villages are providing peaceful rest for travellers in the beautiful wilderness of the mountains, and the sublime Prokletije has been recognised at last as a national park.
Within this guide there is frequent reference to the indomitable spirit of the Montenegrins, their strength in repelling invaders in total contrast to the openhearted welcome with which they greet all friendly visitors. Tall in stature, they mirror their mountains, and what a land those towering mountains hide, a wilderness of canyons plunging to torrential rivers, primeval forests and glacial lakes but also Arcadian pasture where established traditions in animal and crop husbandry are upheld.
Crna Gora means ‘Black Mountain’ and it is often said to be a reflection on the forbidding appearance of the great and symbolic Mt Lovćen, clad in pines, as it appears rising from the sea. A more likely explanation is that the name derives from Ivan Crnojević, the last ruler of the medieval state of Zeta, who in 1482 led
his people to refuge from the Ottoman forces in the mountain fastness of Cetinje, at the foot of Mt Lovćen. Over centuries of heroic self-defence and bloodshed Montenegrins have become inured to the ultimate – to death – and to some extent this has numbed its sting. You have only to encounter them on their highways to recognise that for them life is balanced on the fulcrum; something of a gamble, where to win nevertheless means all. To a Montenegrin the values that count are honour, courage and loyalty, but these lofty ideals are sweetly laced with humanity.
It is important to understand that until very recently this was essentially a tribal society regulated by archaic customs and traditional rules, where the blood feud was incontrovertible and justice was meted out according to its dictate. In Hubert Butler’s perceptive essay ‘The Last Izmerenje’ it is clear how recently this stuff has
been going on (izmerenje, or more usually izmirenje, means ‘reconciliation’). Some would argue that vestiges of these mores linger even today.
The Montenegrin love of liberty and fair play and the Montenegrin sense of honour have made me feel more at home in this far corner of Europe than in any other foreign land.
So said Edith Durham in her 1904 book, Through the Lands of the Serb. The British have a natural understanding and respect for Montenegro; we too value our independence and have traditionally been prepared to fight tooth and nail to retain it. Like us, figuratively at least, they are a small island, though much of their sea is of limestone and granite. Montenegro’s national and revered hero is Petar II Petrović Njegoš, a statesman and writer respected for his direction and justification of difficult choices on the noble path of survival. We too have our national heroes who on occasion have taken responsibility for sometimes controversial decisions. One of these was Winston Spencer Churchill, also a writer, a poet and certainly a statesman.
Lord Byron is frequently quoted, more often misquoted. That he found the country beautiful is beyond dispute. Maybe, like this author, he found the place so spellbinding he was simply at a loss for words.
I went to Montenegro the first time in the year of the millennium as part of a press group. The object was to write a thousand words for a magazine article. I came away and wrote 70,000 (yet even this new edition’s 160,000 or so still doesn’t say it all). Hilary Bradt’s response to my suggestion for a guide was at once positive: ‘Montenegro – it sounds a Bradt Travel Guide sort of place’.
Others at that time were not so aware of the little country and when the first edition appeared, every bookshop and library I visited found me shifting copies, sometimes from the Caribbean section, other times out of Africa. Happily this is no longer the case and all the world now knows about the land of the Black Mountain, its wild beauty, so neatly encapsulated by the PR guys. Gathering together the guide was a labour of love: equal emphasis on both the ‘l’ words. They say no-one can write a biography without falling a little in love with the subject. The same must surely apply to a single-country travel book. The only difference with Montenegro was that for me, it was love at first sight.
People often ask just what it is about Bradt. The answer is simple: they allow their authors to tell the story as well as to write the guide.
Regrets, I’ve had a few … It would be nice to be handy with a camera. It would also be lovely to know more about flowers and trees, instead of having pockets ever filled with leaves too crumbled for identification. And why can no-one tell me the name of the shrub that shades the Šetalište Pet Danica at Herceg Novi, its creamy blossom in May filling the town with the sweetest scent?