For me, Montenegro, whose name means "Black Mountain," has always evoked the fratricidal chaos of a bygone age. I think of a time when fathers in the Balkans taught their sons “your neighbor's neighbor is your friend” in anticipation of future sectarian struggles. When, for generation after generation, so-and-so-ovich was pounding on so-and-so-ovich (in Slavic names, “-ovich” means "son," like Johnson), a mountain stronghold was worth the misery.
My recent visit showed me that this image is now dated, the country is on an upward trajectory, and many expect to see Montenegro emerging as a sunny new hotspot on the Adriatic coastline.
Most tourists stick to Montenegro's scenic and increasingly glitzy Bay of Kotor, where the Adriatic cuts into the steep mountains like a Norwegian fjord. But I was eager to get off the beaten path, and headed deep into the rugged interior of the "Black Mountain."
I climbed 25 switchbacks — someone painted numbers on each one — ascending from the Montenegrin coast with its breezy palm trees, popular ice cream stands, and romantic harbor promenades into a world of lonely goats, scrub brush, and desolate, seemingly deserted farmhouses. At switchback #4, I passed a Gypsy encampment. At #18, I pulled out for a grand view of the Bay of Kotor and, pulling on my sweater, marveled at how the vegetation, climate, and ambience were completely different just a few twists in the road above sea level.
At #24, I noticed the “old road” — little more than an overgrown donkey path — that was once the mountain kingdom's umbilical cord to the Adriatic. The most vivid thing I remember about my last visit, decades ago, was that a grand piano had literally been carried up the mountain so some big-shot nobleman could let it go slowly out of tune in his palace.
As I crested the ridge, the sea disappeared and before me stretched a basin defined by a ring of black mountains — Montenegro's heartland. Desolate farmhouses claim to sell smoked ham, mountain cheese, and medovina (honey brandy), but I didn't see a soul. Up here, the Cyrillic alphabet survives better than on the coast. Every hundred yards or so, the local towing company had spray-painted on a rock, “Auto Slep 067-838-555.” You had a feeling they were in the bushes praying for a mishap.
Exploring the poorest corner of any European country can be eye-opening — but Montenegro's is more evocative than most.
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You are reading "Honey Brandy and Tow Trucks at the Top of Montenegro", an entry posted on 13 July 2009 by Rick Steves.