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A Day in Montenegro

Reflections on the New Tourist Economies

Kotor, Montenegro
Mountain-top view of Kotor.

It’s a sad thing. As the global economy changes, tourists often find themselves in destinations that survive primarily because of their visits. Places that supported themselves for millennia by exporting olives, grains, textiles, or lived off their own produce now must promote themselves as show places of history and playgrounds, dependent on attracting wallets and cameras from abroad. Take Montenegro, a true jewel on the Adriatic.

Kids waved and ran along the road to keep up with our ship as she glided down the winding channel toward the port of Kotor. Church bells began to peal. Captain Branko Skoric responded with friendly blasts from the ship’s deep-throated horn. “They’re very happy to see us because we’re the first ship of the season. Without tourists,” he explained, “this country is very poor.”

The ship tied up at a wharf a few hundred meters from the arched gate in the stone wall around the medieval town. Crowning the rock cliffs behind town a sturdy citadel stands guard. Rugged mountains enclose the bowl of the bay.

A Trip to the Country

“In ten years,” taxi driver Miko Noguska said with a shrug, “what difference will 20 more euros make to you?” With that irrefutable logic, Miko claimed total victory in our negotiations over his fee. Like a pro he’d calculated my eagerness to make an 8-hour trip through farm villages in the high mountain valleys and knew he didn’t have to budge from his price.

Montenegro, located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, is still politically connected to Serbia but according to Miko is “almost independent.” It’s important to him that, unlike the rest of the Balkans, Montenegro never accepted Turkish rule. He summed up a pervasive Montenegrin attitude when he said, “We are different. I am different.”

St. Stefan, Adriatic Coast
St. Stefan, a posh island resort joined to the mainland by a causeway.

Seconds after I climbed into his elderly but well-polished Mercedes, Miko wheeled up the serpentine road into the snow-capped mountains. “We have everything here in Montenegro for one good life,” Miko pointed out the window at the countryside, “so if we’re living like dogs it must be bad government.”

Although much of the brutality of the conflict that started in 1991 was directed against Muslims in Bosnia, which has a long border with Montenegro, Miko was not willing to be drawn out about that. He insisted that while Montenegrins are overwhelmingly Christians. Members of the Orthodox Church, they pride themselves on treating Muslims fairly. “But,” he said, “the population of our entire country is only 600,000. We have so many refugees from Bosnia it breaks our bank.” His eyes were sad.

Miko was deeply troubled by growing hostility between the U.S. and the Islamic world. Taking his attention from the steep switchbacks, he described stupid politicians with the phrase, “Kill your horse and go walk.”

He turned sharply onto a narrow gravel road that would, he said, take us to High Cap, the summit of a mountain from which we might see all the way across the Adriatic to Bari, Italy. As we climbed, snow drifts covered more and more of the road. When the road was finally blocked completely, he smiled, “Well, what a wonderful view we have from here.” It’s all about attitude.

Miko was eager to drive to the town of Cetinye, where the royal capital was moved at the end of the 15th century to escape the advancing Turks. It remained free, a symbol or resistance and independence. In Cetinye, some of the embassies and palaces from the glory days are still intact. But the real reason we were there was to stop at a monastery, where, in a glass case, lies what is locally believed to be the hand and wrist of John the Baptist. It’s a hand alright: small, black, and gnarly. Visitors line up to kiss the glass case with reverence. The story of how the hand got to this place must be a good one.

Later, we walked through remote mountain villages where families live in stone houses with roof tiles made from the rich, red earth under their feet. Each village produces its own specialties such as distinctive varieties of potatoes, cheese, and wine. The local saying about the fertile soil is, “Plant a man; next spring, you have two men.”

On the Coast

Back on the coast a few kilometers south of Kotor, Miko drove slowly through Budva, a bustling resort town full of traffic and mid-size hotels. After the more-or-less compulsory stroll through the local fortress, Miko pointed to the tiny island resort of St. Stefan. No more than 150 meters across, with posh residences and boutique hotels shore-to-shore, it looks like a stone ship anchored in the crystal-clear Adriatic. Regular visitors include Sophia Loren and assorted princes. “I saw Jeremy Irons there last week,” Miko said. However, his credibility about that was shaky since he’d already told me I look like Clint Eastwood (wildly off the mark).

Kotor Old Town

Enjoying a cappuccino at a sidewalk café after leaving Miko, I reflected that I could have made roughly the same trip, except for our unsuccessful assault on the High Cap, on a tour bus. But in a taxi I could stop at a whim for photos and views, move at my own pace and avoid hearing a stream of factoids I didn’t want to know. Most important was the opportunity to talk with a thoughtful, opinionated local person.

Kotor is said to have one of the best-preserved medieval towns on the Mediterranean. More than two miles of stone wall still protects it against invasion. Inside are four-story stone block buildings with green or gray-blue shutters, narrow cobblestone streets, and frequent small squares bordered by shops and intimate restaurants. Inside the Orthodox Church hundreds of glittering candles and rows of icons reaching 50 feet high declare that these are very devout people.

At the end of the day, a group of women known as Bisernice Boke sang a cappella folk songs from the 1800s about women waiting for their sailors or gossiping about life. Faces animated and expressive, for them this was more that a performance.

Kotor, Montenegro
A young woman relaxes with her dog and cat in medieval old town Kotor.

A Sense of the Place

I didn’t see the rugged terrain farther inland toward the Serbian border. And I wish I’d had a chance to paddle the whitewater of Tara Canyon, the deepest canyon in Europe, between black pines four centuries old. But I did see farm villages high in the coastal mountain range, hard-worn boats and hard-working fishermen, and people chatting on cell phones in settings little changed from medieval times.

Altogether, I left with what I’d come for: a sense of the place. In one day I’d witnessed enough of real life in Montenegro to see beyond the charming medieval towns.

Whatever the pros and cons, worldwide dependence on tourist money is increasing. It’s up to us as visitors to remember that local folks will generalize, as Miko did, about our home cultures based on how we behave.

Traveling the Adriatic Region

I visited Montenegro as part of a 3-week trip that started aboard ship in Venice. Many companies offer affordable cruises on the Adriatic. In choosing a ship, small (e.g., 65 to 250 passengers) is much better than one of the floating cities.

After a week, I returned to Venice and rented a car. Reserving in advance reduced the cost, but it was still $70 per day and gas was around $6 a gallon (it would have been much less expensive to rent in Croatia). Renting a car gave me the flexibility to take spontaneous side trips. The roads were excellent and traffic was no problem.

I consider Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia to be safe and tranquil—at least until hordes of tourists arrive every summer (many eager to rent low-priced villas on the coasts and islands). Prices that are considerably lower than in the rest of Europe shoot up in July and August, and vacancies are scarce. Visit from late April through mid-June or in the fall.

Vist the Montenegrin Association of America website at www.montenegro.org.