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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.