Beyond the obvious in Montenegro
Bluest of water, greenest of terrain in land of the “black mountain”
Montenegro is a compact sort of place – only half the size of neighbouring Albania, for instance – but even so it still manages to pack in plenty of variety, such as in climate and vegetation, from the alpine feel of the northern part to the continental climate of the central region and the more Mediterranean conditions of the south. The population is a mere 620,000, and a few we met made a point of telling us that they regard themselves as friendlier than Croatians.
If there’s one thing Montenegro isn’t short of it’s rugged mountains, and the name itself means “Black Mountain”. To The Budapest Times’ eyes this seems something of a misnomer, as often the many slopes are so thick with greenery that not even a rock shows through. From a distance it could be moss, and often it looks as if just about every Montenegrin has a towering tree-covered green mountain right outside the back fence. (Yes, it’s a small country, only 13,800 square kilometres, but imagine how big it would be if it were rolled out flat.)
It was mainly in the southern part that The Budapest Times found itself this early June, based in the town of Herceg Novi (New Prince) as a guest of the local tourism people. Herceg Novi sits alongside the Bay of Kotor, which must be seen as one of planet Earth’s natural wonders, and here we found the seductive Mediterranian vibe in full bloom.
The heat and humidty are higher than in the north of the country, and so we were surrounded by pink, white and red oleander, pink and purple bougainvillea, orange bird of paradise, white magnolia and the whole range of Mediterranean flora, from cacti to conifers and beyond. The white jasmine gave off a particularly heady scent. Often, exotics on display such as the brilliant red bottle brush and golden yellow mimosa of Australia had been brought in by seamen.
Montenegrins must be credited as a cluey lot because when we seven invited journalists arrived at Podgorica Airport we were whisked off immediately, not to an impressive national park, lake, mountain, old town, monastery, mosaic or beaut beach but to the Šipčanik wine cellar, thus displaying a shrewd knowledge by the locals that the way to a journalist’s heart is to uncork it, even at 9am.
Šipčanik, only 8 kilometres southeast of the capital Podgorica, is operated by Plantaže, Montenegro’s largest wine company. Its 600 employees swell by up to 400 at harvest time, and in this vineyard bigger than Podgorica city centre 29 varieties of grapes are being grown. Add to this 18,000 olive trees plus peach and nectarine orchards and a lake of California trout for sale to restaurants.
The cellar itself occupies a 356-metre-long tunnel that used to be a secret underground Yugoslav-era aircraft hangar. More than 30 metres below ground, it was drilled out by the Yugoslav Army. Partly destroyed by NATO bombing in 1999 and then abandoned, the revamped hangar now houses some 2 million litres of wine, ageing gently in oak barrels and dusty bottles.
It extends to more than 7000 square metres and the newly arrived and slightly bemused journalists, a privileged lot, enjoyed a tunnel tour followed by welcome red and white tastings accompanied by local cheese, olives and cold cuts.
Thus refreshed after the just-over-an-hour early morning flight from Budapest, the group proceeded to Budva, which is tourism-central in Montenegro, with the permanent population of around 19,000 blowing out to six figures in the high season. Arriving by bus from on high a green mountain, the whole place is spread out below, revealing the small fortified medieval city that actually dates back 2500 years, encircled with defensive walls on a peninsula jutting into the Adriatic Sea. Immediately behind is the sprawl of the much larger new town with many lofty apartment buildings and hotels spreading back from the coast and up the hill.
Like Kotor, another fortified town, Budva is the only settlement on the Montenegrin coast whose historical core with narrow streets and small squares is almost entirely circled with stone walls. Budva was part of the Venetian Republic from 1420 to 1797 before coming under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
It is the most popular and most crowded tourist resort in the country, with many coves and hidden beaches in the undulating coast. Colourful little boats offer trips to the islands of Sveti Stefan and Sveti Nikola. Outside its fortress walls, built by the Venetians, is a concentration of nightclubs, game parlours and fast-food joints, and the seemingly unchecked development of apartment buildings. This has led to a new word in the Montenegrin language, budvanizacija (budvanisation), to describe chaotic urban development.
However, outdoor enthusiasts will find that Mother Nature is never far, and Montenegro has five national parks that cover some 10 percent of the country. These safeguard gorges and summits, rivers and lakes, and the adventurous can camp, hike, bike, go horse riding, whitewater rafting, canoeing, rock climbing, on a zip line and so on. About half the country is forest. Wildlife watching may mean boar, deer, wolves and bears, or golden eagles.
Lake Skadar National Park lies on the border of Montenegro and Albania, which share it by 70 percent and 30 percent respectively, and this is the largest lake in Southern Europe. It is also one of the biggest bird reserves in Europe, being home to more than 250 species including the endangered Dalmatian Pelican. There are habitats of seagulls, cormorants and herons, plus many types of fish.
As our hire boat pushed through the seemingly endless lilies and reeds, it was borne in upon us that here and elsewhere in Montenegro are some of those places where nature can make we humans feel inferior and insignificant, and that we should be leaving well alone. As the sun shone – and that seemed to be all the time this early June – the water glittered, the mountains kept silent watch and all seemed well in an otherwise troubled world.
Likewise at Lovćen National Park, where our jeep ascended and ascended 25 serpentine curves on the windiest of narrow mountain roads. The reward was a spectacular view down to Kotor, a UNESCO World Heritage site with 5 kilometres of city walls, and the bay named after it, dominated at that moment by a cruise ship resembling an office block. Here in the national park is found Mount Lovćen, the “black mountain” that gives the country its name.
Or there is Dumitor National Park bordered by three river canyons, including the Tara River canyon, the world’s second-largest after the Grand Canyon in Colorado. From the village of Plužine we again took a twisty road into the heavens, this one through unlined tunnels hacked out of the mountain so it looks like driving into a cave. Among the rugged mountain ranges and awe-inspiring gorges are 18 shimmering glacial lakes (known locally as “the eyes of the mountains”) and 48 mountains top 2000 metres. Dumitor is also UNESCO World Heritage.
Returning to our hotel at Herceg Novi, the road follows the winding shore of the magnificent Bay of Kotor, past many little towns and villages. Out in the bay from Perast are the twin islands of St George and Our Lady of the Rocks, both religious pilgrimage sites. Cameras click rapidly.
Our bus took a short cut across the bay on one of the five ferries that ply between Kamenari and Lepetane. There’s something reassuringly old world about a ferry rather than some massive overwhelming suspension bridge, and if you’re in that frame of mind as you drift slowly across the water, you’re in a Montenegrin frame of mind, and it’s a pleasant place to be.