Montenegro - Spring 2009

A tiny flyspeck of land on the eastern coast of the Adriatic, thirteen thousand square kilometers of mountainous and formidable terrain, an independent state since the final dissolution of Yugoslavia in June 2006. Montenegro has always had one key historic role: if you want to draw a line across Europe, dividing it between two hostile and mutually uncomprehending territories, you start it here. In the 11th Century, the midst of the Great Schism, the warring clerics of the The Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches sought to carve Christendom between them - the line of mutual excommunication ran from here. In the 15th Century, Montenegro maintained its independence against the expansionist Ottoman Empire of Mehmet I, with its ports surrounded on virtually all sides - the Islamic world ended here. In The Cold War, as Albania grew closer to Chinese communism and Tito's Yugoslavia retained its ambiguous role of openness to both the Eastern and Western camps. The Eastern Block began here. There's nothing magical or special about this - Montenegro is on the coast, sits on a linguistic and religious boundary and posesses a hostile landscape with little mineral wealth. No one gets too precious about conquering Montenegro.

Morning, day four in Durmitor:

Montenegro's relief (the difference between peak and trough) is extreme, the country is folded up like a concertina. Rivers and glaciers have carved pencil thin valleys through the limestone from the Serbian Border to the Mediterranean, with few patches of comforting floodplain. There is a fjord in the country's slender strip of coastline, where a glacier has cut its way down to the sea. Passing through a dramatic landscape like this, the absurdly mountainous region of Durmitor leaps out shockingly. Here, the landscape ascends a further 500 meters relative to the surrounding peaks over a horizontal distance of less than 3 kilometers, striking into the sky like a jawful of broken teeth. Above it all is snowcapped Bobotov Kuk (2522m), the tallest mountain in the region and directly in the middle of this skyline.

Beneath the treeline this is a land of temperate mixed forests, where the snow is currently deep enough to show footprints, but not to become truly problematic. Hiking here is slowed by the need to make sure the trail hasn't been obstructed or disguised by a recent snowfall or collapsing tree. I've come upon the occassional pile of fresh shit in the woods, which keeps your mind on the bears and wolves that aren't unknown here. I, in particular, need to pay attention since I tend to hike solo while listening to my MP3 player. This helps me keep a good pace, but does leave you a bit oblivious.

I've been on the high paths since soon after dawn, the last few days have been on a diet of cheese, mustard, biscuits, fruit, bread and water (this is not a friendly country to vegetarians). I'm trying to break my way up-slope to try to cross the treeline, then either planning on cutting further towards the peaks or following it around the massif. With the exposed karst barely out of reach, the woodland is changing from predominantly fir and spruce to leafless beeches, surrounding a blue lake. Thinking about my guidebook, its author speaks of how these mountains set off the epic string arrangements of Carmina Burana in her head, but personally I'm finding Led Zeppelin's Kashmir hits the spot just perfectly. Finally tramping my way past the woodland to the rock, the snow begins to rapidly get deeper, and crossing a hummock the only way forward is a bare edge under about 2 meters of snow... In front of me, in a place that would have been nightmarish for transportation, is an engraved plaque, some dead flowers, and a monument to a casualty of the National Liberation War.

Between 1941 and 1944 the Axis powers fought three anti-insurgent campaigns for control of Durmitor. Over the first two years, the mountains proved perfect for guerilla action, with the initially Italian forces driven out, then replaced by various Axis combinations. Fortunately for the Axis powers the slavic militias seemed to enjoy inter-ethnic warfare almost as much as fighting the occupation; but only a fool would believe Montenegro was worth the meat it cost to hold. Repeatedly the Partisan forces (formerly The Communist Party Of Yugoslavia) chose Durmitor to retreat to in the face of an Axis assault, into a landscape that resembled a beartrap waiting to be sprung.

By mid-1943, the Partisans had solidified into 16 brigades and 18,000 soldiers, and fighting this concentrated conventional enemy the Germans attempted to isolate them, with the battle ending up, again, in Durmitor. The primary partisan force was lead by Josef Broz Tito, of Croatian-Slovenian heritage, who had somehow happened to be in St Petersburg in preceding months of the October Revolution. The Battle of Sutjeska lasted a month and involved Luftwaffe bombs, British SOE support for the Partisans, and the death of Tito's dog - Luks. Hotels were converted to troop hospitals, and the horse-shoe structure of the high mountains allowed the construction of a strong defensive line. This was the fifth major anti-Partisan offensive and the impact on each sides morale of these repeated campaigns and their limited success must have been marked. Limestone is, of course, the ideal terrain for cave formation and over the course of the summer attempts to bomb, shoot and push against this natural fortress failed with The Partisan forces eventually escaping back into Bosnia. This isn't unusual - the Ottoman forces had lost major battles here less than a hundred years earlier.

Over the course of The War, the Partisans enjoyed a considerable advantage over the competing Croatian and Serbian nationalist movements, in that they could draw some support from the locals in any of the regions (an advantage somewhat increased by their rivals ethnic cleansing of each other's populations). By its end the Western Balkans was the only Eastern European region to liberate itself from the Axis forces, leaving them free of Soviet interference when choosing their flavour of socialist government.

Morning, day two in Durmitor, at Mila and Vuk Boijovic's guesthouse with the family:

Neither Mila nor Vuk speaks any real English, and my accomodation was arranged earlier in the week by my friend Nat, a Belgrader. I know it's 20 euros a night, that I don't need to plan more than a night's board in advance, and that at the bottom of the mountain there's a real person who knows I exist. This is off-season, too late for the skiing and too early for the outdoor activities, so I'm pretty much the only tourist in town. The language barrier isn't unexpected, so I've picked up a small phrasebook originally published in 1978.


"Da, I'd love one, thank you very much, I mean hvala vam".


"Yes, fantastic, I mean Da"

This is Mila, who looks uncomfortable with all this gesticulating. I talk too much. To my right is Vuk, a big man, and he's pouring a clear liquid from a mineral water bottle into two tiny glasses on the table in front of us as Mila walks to the kitchen. This make me uneasy.

"Rakija?" Vuk says.

That's why I'm uneasy. Rakija is Balkan brandy, made from whatever fruit is available, and it's usually a locally produced moonshine. It's delicious, potent, and the South Slavs drink it more often than water... It's 9:30 am, we haven't even had breakfast yet.

"Da, hvala vam"


"Jivali" eye-contact, glass-contact, sip.

Without any linguistic common ground, Vuk and I are reduced to mainly nouns. In front of us are three different books for translation purposes... There is my phrasebook, poorly indexed, my guidebook with a glossary of key words, and an English picturebook owned by the Boijovic's daughter, who isn't here. Between the three of them my hosts and I can manage the bare bones of communication. Mila puts a cup of thick, dark, Turkish coffee in front of me and returns to slicing the cheese.

"Today, I'm heading to the lakes, the lakes... Bobotov Kuk."

I'm now rooting through my guidebook, looking for a map of the mountains. Vuk puts down his rakija glass and picks up my ancient phrasebook, its still titled Serbo-Croat. I smile.

"What do you call your language again? Serbian, Montenegrin, Serbo-Croat?"

"mnvcb, mnvcb, mnvcb"

"That book, it's in Latin alphabet, is your language still called Serbian or is it now Montenegrin?". Of course, he only understood two words, that usually mean politics when mentioned together.

"Serbia - Montenegro"

Vuk takes his index fingers, holds them up and pauses. Then he links them together like a chain...

So, it's still like that.

When Yugoslavia began its long, slow, divorce proceedings in the late-80's Montenegro didn't seem keen to leave. Most of the other republics had some ancient gripe with rule from Belgrade (a union of Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim states was always problematic, let alone the language and alphabet differences), and Serbian politics was becoming increasingly thuggish, insular and nationalistic. Montenegro remained quieter, having been profitably subsidised under Titoism. On a macro-level they were always the smallest republic (population under one million), they had no fundamental conflict with Belgrade and shared the same religion (Orthodox Christianity), language (Serbo-Croat) and alphabet (Cyrillic) as the Serbs. On a political level, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Momir Bulatovic, had thrown himself in with Milosevic's brutal brand of Serb nationalism early.

Montenegrin citizens were subject to conscription to the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), and as blood began to flow just over the border in Croatia and Bosnia Montenegro remained with Serbia. JNA troops acting for Montenegro attempted to seize the staggeringly beautiful port-city of Dubrovnik from Croatia, resulting in a seven month siege and shells blowing chunks out of this UNESCO World Heritage Site and its citizens. Just over Montenegro's mountain borderlands, neighbouring Bosnia was becoming the bloodiest mess Europe had seen in fifty years, with ethnic cleansing of Croats, Muslims and Serbs and mutual recrimination. As the region descended into hell, JNA troops from Montenegro served everywhere in the wars, leaving only Macedonia and Slovenia walking away with almost-clean hands.

After the Dayton agreement brought an end to hostilities in Croatia and Bosnia - Montenegro and Serbia finally began to drift apart. The ongoing issues over Kosovo caused Serbia to remain a pariah state, leaving Montenegro's ambitious new prime minister with considerable freedom to maneuver. This involved shifting the currency to the Euro (although not officially a member of the monetary union), and reducing its institutional ties with the Milosevic regime. However, after the Bulldozer Revolution and the deposing of Milosevic in 2000 it became increasingly clear that these states were becoming surrounded on all sides by a paternalistic and semi-hostile entity, the EU, which would apply visa, trade and business restrictions if they didn't play ball with its agenda. Further, their isolation was attracting organised crime, looking for the last corruptible hub in central and western Europe. The only possible story was EU accession, which required a long slow progession of hoop jumping.

For Montenegro, being members of a union with Serbia was becoming a problem. As long as the Kosovo issue remained unresolved, and Hague indicted war-criminals remained at large, Serbia's tainted brand would prevent them both from accession. Further, the main benefits of a large, populous state - a stable currency, the rule of law, a hub to attract finance - would all be guaranteed by EU membership. What followed was a period of constitutional juggling, a new Yugoslav constitution in 2003, and the table was set for a referendum on independance in 2006. Requiring the support of 55%, the outcome was a knife edge result of just 55.5%, quite such a tight fit that questions were raised over the suffrage in the country (census numbers were vague, particularly for Roma and muslims). Much like the independence of Slovakia, here was freedom foisted on an uncertain population. Nonetheless, independance was declared and Montenegro walked away from the now dissolved Land Of The Southern Slavs and into the arms of international globalisation.

Day six in Montenegro, on the coast in the port town of Bar

After travelling for six hours from Durmitor by 12 seater mini-coach, I've ended up in Montenegro's largest (but still tiny) port, where ferries run to Italy. The sun is blazing down here from a cloudless sky, with temperatures in the mid twenties. The air here tastes of grit and concrete, as the strong breezes coming off the Adriatic pick up the construction materials littered here and carry them towards the mountains that run right to the seafront. Everywhere in this town construction is either taking place, or is paused. In the town center enormous cranes tower over the buildings, surrounded by rubble and piles of grits, bricks, girders and slabs. Bobcats and bulldozers sit by the side of the road, dormant.

I've ended up here because I'm keen to ride the railway from Bar when I return to my friends in Belgrade. This line is one of the world's great train-journeys, a project that involved massive investment and 17 years of work during the Tito era. As the socialist government looked to spend its foreign finance (both the East and West wanted a foot in Yugoslavia) infrastructure was a favourite. They dug tunnels and built bridges for roads across the mountainous states (particularly the poorest) wildly out of proportion to their population. The Bar to Belgrade railway was a prestige project, and ended up including the highest, and longest, railway bridge (498m long, 198m high) to date. Riding across the massively convoluted terrain, this railway runs high and relatively straight - where the mountain swings wide, they dug a tunnel, where the valley cuts lows, they built a bridge. It's an awe inspiring route, and in no way suitable for those scared of heights. I love travelling by train in former communist Europe, the ageing carriages are all 1950's style cabins with opposite facing brown seats, leaving you staring at your fellow passengers. There is no form of transport better for starting a conversation with strangers.

The disadvantage of this plan is that Bar is far from the prettiest coastal town in Montenegro. That prize goes to Kotor, or Budva, which have picturesque old towns like smaller scale Dubrovniks. Classic Venetian-era architecture, winding streets and medieval buildings. Bar has something like this too, its old town is a few miles from the coast, but one must escape the recent and communistic boxes of the seafront to get there... Heading back here the volume of the city drops markedly, the home farming, vineyards and fresh vegetables become apparent, and the place begins to look far more like a mediterranean culture than a slavic one. Hiding behind a small mountain/hillock Old Bar has remained roughly as it currently is since shelling by the Turks reduced it to ruins in the 1870's. These ruins are being allowed to grow with vegetation, a clock tower has read the same time for a century, and around the ruined town-center is a little functioning tourist-based medieval village. Here I found a tiny restaraunt where I got my only decent vegetarian meal in The Balkans: stuffed courgettes, vine leaf rice parcels, olive oil and fresh bread.

Wandering back to Bar proper I began to pay attention to the graffiti in town, everywhere I noticed the name of one football team - The Partisans - spraypainted in black on the orange walls... The Partisans are, of course, one of the main clubs from Belgrade.

You may change your country, you may get divorced, but you never change your team.

The Financial Crisis of 2008 has left Montenegro a little lost. The previous years have seen massive Russian investment and development as the first rate infrastructure, cheap property and scenic coast seemed to suggest this land could see a massive tourism boom like neighbouring Croatia. As the Russian stock market collapsed and the Roubles dried up, the Montenegrian coast has been left covered in newbuilds (complete and incomplete), and a country gambling on a newly inward-looking EU appears less secure. Increasingly the EU debate had become less focused on expansion, and more focused on propping up the tottering economies of the countries that joined in 2004. In particular Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, has become known for his hostility to Balkan-Turkish membership without a fundamental EU restructuring that is looking evermore unlikely. With the EU apparently stepping away from its commitment to even Croatian accession (which has looked for years like a foregone conclusion), Montenegro appears to be a gambler that has lost a high-stakes game it didn't fully understand.

This outcome is far from a certainty, if the financial crises is shallow then tourism may yet again become the industry it was in the early naughts, and Montenegro's half-built hotels may turn into a fresh riviera. There is vast potential for ski and hiking resorts to develop in the mountains, those of neighbouring Bosnia are of such scale they hosted the Winter Olympics in the 80's... But the last hub of activity in a boom is usually the one hardest hit, and there is little underlying industry to support all this recent investment now the speculative money has dried up.

Whatever the result, I'll be coming back in September. Running from Durmitor towards the coast is Europe's longest, deepest canyon (a fair rival to even Colorado by depth and length) and I intend to spend three days riding a raft from the mountains to the floodplains. Montenegro remains underdeveloped, archaeologically it is almost uncharted, and the elaborate caves running beneath this limestone are surely a vast unexplored Moria. The unpopulated interior of the country has been sitting largely dormant since the early 80's, with huge potential for growth. Montenegro remains largely at a basic level, but aware.

Come here, it's beautiful, accessible and you're needed.