Black Mountain #2

It may be self-evident but building roads in Montenegro is both difficult and expensive.

There are not a lot of ways to get from Kotor to Cetinje (‘se-teen-yer’) by car — in fact just the one. As the local Spotted Crake flies it is about 12 kms; by car 54; and because of the serpentine quality of the road an hour or more was spent in the company of our driver Alex, one of the great entertainers we met in Montenegro.

Alex spends his winters in Belgrade and his summers by the sea. He was born in Kotor but did his law degree in Serbia. This was not an uncommon pattern among the Montenegrins we spoke to. The links between these two countries, and Russia, are strong. On discovering we were Australian, he proffered deep state information about the current and past lives of Paul Hogan and the source and etymology of the word ‘kangaroo’ roaring laughing as he did so. (On landing at Cooktown in 1770 Banks asked a local, presumably in his best Georgian English, what was that? ‘Gangurru’, Guugu Yimidhirr for ‘I don’t know’, was the reply. That’s how the story goes and how Alex’s story went. It’s good. But awkwardly ‘gangurru’ is the Guugu Yimidhirr word for what we would call the Eastern Grey Kangaroo. His stories about Paul Hogan were probably just as apocryphal but a lot funnier.)

He had a lot to say about the ancient and more recent Balkan wars, a very considered history lesson really, registering considerable disgust about what ‘they’ had done to ‘themselves’. When we got to Mary Durham’s assertion that ‘[Montenegrins were] the hardy mountain race which … successfully withstood the gory onslaught of the Turk for five hundred years’ he snorted as only Balkan men can snort — and they practice it daily from a very early age. (Snorting): They say the Ottomans [Mary’s ‘Turks’] didn’t conquer Montenegro. They did. Three times. Every time they could be bothered. Then they left. What was there? Stones. Nothing but stones. Who wants that!? (Snort.)

It was in fact a great drive, captivating for more reasons than Alex’s commentary. We went via Budva (above), Montenegro’s St Tropez where Russians and rich Serbs have their beach holidays to the extent that they had caused a massive shift in property values according to Alex, and Montenegrins can no longer afford to live there. And we went across the karst ridges, calcium grey with strips of green hanging on tight to gullies and cracks, to Cetinje, the old capital, at the foot of Lovcen National Park where we would have arrived on Vlatko’s schedule and at about the same time. But instead of spending five minutes (or two hours) passing through we were able to stay most of two days at what was once the world’s smallest national capital.

Cetinje became significant during the rule of Prince Nikola Petrovic in the mid-19th century. The Biljarda, the ‘billiard house’, the first ruler’s residence and a place of great national pride, was built there then along with a hospital and some other public buildings. But in the 1860 census Cetinje still had only 34 households.

And, with apologies to Mary Durham, it was after 14 years of Ottoman rule that it became the capital in 1878. All credit to the Montenegrins for driving them out, but the Ottomans had become a decadent shadow of their former selves by that time, and just a few decades later the Austrians stepped into the role as landlord.

After 20 years as an ‘independent principality’, Montenegro was proclaimed a kingdom in 1910. As a consequence the Government House and several other major buildings including a street of embassies were built in Cetinje. Quoting from a Montenegrin document: ‘The population census from the same year recorded a massive growth in the world’s smallest capital, registering 5,895 inhabitants.’ It may make sense at this stage to note that the country’s current total population is 631,000 (or two and bit Geelongs). Podgorica, the current capital, is the biggest city with 150,000. The third biggest city, Herceg-Novi, has less than 20,000 people.

You can fit a lot of contemporary Cetinjes into Geelong (15 if you’re counting), but that only makes it more attractive. Despite the palaces, the monasteries, the museums and galleries, the embassies, and despite the fact that it’s a picturesque ‘past glories’ sort of spot with a lot to say about itself and its surrounds, and despite the wonderful tree-lined avenues and green swards, foreign tourists don’t go there. These chaps would be more representative of the visiting class.

I assume that these two would be locals. Ah youth, glorious youth! You can warm your hands from that blush.

We were hungry and headed for the square with a massive rain cloud gathering over our heads.

Along with most others who were out and about, we sat down at the Caffe Bar ‘Dvor’ (‘palace’) in the main square. And then it rained.

Mountain rain. Orchestrated with massive claps of thunder and streaks of lightning, I have never seen, or heard, such rain. It pounded ferociously for ten minutes, then it stopped and it turned into a lovely day.

We visited King Nikola’s Palace, a modest affair with a faintly Ruritanian feel.

The accessible parts of the ground floor had displays of highly-decorated pearl-handled pistols, highly-decorated swords and highly-decorated uniforms complete with medals, sashes, ribbons, epaulettes and jazzy buttons.

Fully dressed, one would have been a sight to behold, and I guess that’s the point.

Upstairs, the modesty was more evident. It’s a small show. This is the main state room for the conduct of diplomacy.

The main bedroom, nicely matched ornate furniture but tiny.

Out in the street we moved on past all sorts of intriguing architecture. Like most of the big buildings, the Blue Palace had seen better days.

The Russian Embassy has been one of the really grand buildings of Cetinye.

But after a fire in 2002 when it was an art school, its interior is currently derelict. You can read an interesting story about it here. (Keep going with the ‘Comments’ if you want to know what the plaque on the wall says.)

And this was the French Embassy until 1914. There is a wonderful run of tiles under the bottom windows which is hard to see just here.

All sorts of remarkable things really.

It was also incumbent on us to visit the monastery, ‘a spiritual centre for centuries’ but also for complex geopolitical reasons home to a fragment of the True Cross, the Right Hand of John the Baptist and the icon of the Madonna of Philermos. (See if you can work out the complex reasons. Clue: Jerusalem > Istanbul > Malta > St Petersburg > Belgrade > Ostrog > Cetinje **Answer far far below.)

I’m always keen to get a look at a good icon, particularly such auspicious ones. But despite the very high quality of the Orthodox decoration they weren’t to be found in the monastery. National Treasures, they were kept in the National Museum.

We found the National Museum. The third of it which was open turned out to be not where the icons were. However it was where they had THE great collection of Montenegrin art and, like many such things, it was terrific. There was the usual evidence of following larger movements (okay, let’s do Impressionist now …) but also of a great deal of originality ranging from St Genevieve who looks to be in big trouble (although the angel is on standby with a towel)

to a major collection of the very individual works of Vojo Stanic.

If you’re prepared to wander you just don’t know what you’ll find.

As recommended by our exemplary host we ate at the restaurant Kole. Tournedos Rossini: that night — not necessarily always — 6.8/10. We had already seen England beat Sweden convincingly and returned to watch a very tense game Russia versus Croatia. To my initial and unwarranted surprise all the locals were barracking emphatically for Russia, the home team and tournament host. One all after 90 minutes. Croatia scored late in extra time for certain victory. But then Russia tapped one in (Fernandez, brilliantly) just as the whistle blew for full-time. 2-2. The Croatian keeper Subasic had pulled his hamstring and was limping badly. Now defeat was looking closer to certain. But somehow he managed to stop the first penalty. Next up for Russia, Fernandez who had played so well, missed everything. And that was enough. 4-3 Croatia. My team. Ha!

Another drive, this time to Virpazar, along the two long sides of an isosceles triangle and through the outskirts of Podgorica which was a surprise, I wasn’t looking at a map at the time. Our driver assured us that Podgorica was a rubbish place, industrial, warehouses, run down, that sort of thing. We’d been told this several times, and that brief glance suggested it might be true. Myrna was becoming resigned to the idea that Montenegro might not be the place to plunder for wardrobe renewal.

‘Pazar’ attached to a name indicates a market or ‘bazaar’, something the Ottomans did leave behind. ‘Vir’ means ‘whirlpool’ and that’s what the locals called it. I might have this wrong but I believe Virpazar, today, is valued by Montenegrins as THE locals’ holiday resort — the one, the serious one, with its own iconic qualities. It is on the flood plain of the Morača which brings silt down from the endless mountains behind Podgorica and thus it is a remarkably fertile area in a country not renowned for its fertility. It is located within a national park. It is also the access point to a lacustrine boating paradise to the north of the bridge and to the south and east the rest of Lake Skadar, and although shared with Albania pretty much down the middle, a defining feature of Montenegrin life.

Huge and, yes, lovely …

Vir not so much.

My view was coloured by our accommodation. I don’t have a photo of our room but I have found this one of a luxury suite in our hotel. Our room was smaller, cases on the bed smaller, up six flights of stairs, no aircon, no TV, no hot water, no bath mat. ZalaZ accommodation in fact: of the people, living simply, learning about essentials, acquainting. No real reason for complaining which nonetheless my journal indicates I continued to do describing Bobo, our host, as ‘terrifyingly hospitable’. The hotel however did have a nice garden square in front of it.

And that’s Vir really … a boaty resort, and nothing much else going on.

We decided to complete our day there we’d go for a walk. Round the top of the lake to the hills behind the nearby town of Godinje seemed a suitable target, again where our walk with Zalaz would have taken us.

Godinje is in the centre. We followed the track up into the hills above.

This walk had several noteworthy features. The first was the constant presence of the lake and, although its moods didn’t shift much — too big, too grand — in navigational terms it was reassuring.

The second was just how astonishingly lush the gardens were. Flowers, vegetables, fruit, vines, just burgeoning.

We looked high and low for somewhere to eat and even went well off our track chasing signs that suggested there was a resort at the top of the lake presumably on the coast. I can find it looking now and, as I write, it is open. But that’s not much help is it.

But the third bonus was walking up the track inland to a collection of houses which might or might not have been called Lekovici where we met this guy whose name I was told but can’t remember. Perhaps Lekovič.

As I look now this might be the Organic Paradise Restaurant with a preponderance of 5/5 digital ratings. But I’d be pretty sure it wasn’t when we there. It did look like somewhere you might get something to eat and drink if you asked, as long as you were willing to listen to someone keen for a chat.

He was back in his home town. There was a strong suggestion that his aged father, who he had returned to care for after five years away, was the local seigneurial figure. As a rule he and his family (wife and 10 year old son) wintered in Novi Sad, a biggish city in northern Serbia not so very far in fact from Vlatko’s newly-acquired farm, but had spent most of the last five years in the Canary Islands living in a tent. Five years, and apparently the Canary Islanders had not taken to them. It was very important for us to understand that when his son got sick no one helped or even showed any concern.

One reason for living in the Canaries was that he was sick of the way Serbs and Croats were at each other’s throats, while in the meantime failing to realise that Germany was manipulating Europe’s economies and turning people into slaves, especially in weak countries like the smaller parts of what used to be Yugoslavia, read Montenegro.

Smart, articulate, well-educated, good English, but just slightly off-putting. I think we did look at the cellar where his forebears had hidden from the Turks, the Austrians, the Nazis and whoever else was inclined to do damage, but we declined the trip through the tunnel to show how you could come out at the church of Sveti Nikola a kilometre away and escape.

We drank a glass of his entirely presentable wine, ate some of his wife’s bread and salad, paid him €10, avoided his tour of the town and, shifting the route a bit, walked home satisfied. We ate dinner at a restaurant with an overwhelmed kitchen in a thick cloud of mosquitoes which later joined us for bed.

Podgorica had had a bad rap so far among our Montenegrin contacts.

‘Flat’ appeared to be one problem and, yes, it is on the Zeta Plain, silt deposited by the Morača, Ribnica and other rivers which meet there. But ‘Podgorica’ means ‘the area below Gorica’, a hill which has now been absorbed into the city. And what does ‘gorica’ mean? Little hill. (Rather better than ‘Titograd’ which was its name from 1946-92, a celebration of the Marshall who stuck the Balkans together with his own particular type of glue. Originally Titovgrad, it was recorded incorrectly in the public annals and common usage turned it into the mistake.)

But being a bit flat and very fertile made it a popular place to live from the Iron Ages on. The Roman Emperor Diocletian was born in a village on the fringe of the city still called Duklja. (‘Doclea’ not ‘Dioclea’: another name incorrectly rendered, by the Romans this time.) A centre for trade, it became a major Ottoman fortification (ah Mary …) and several thousand Slavs and Albanians were imported to populate it. The Albanians seem to have maintained a major interest in it. The Bushati family from Shkodra ruled for 70 years from the mid 19th century.

‘Industrial’. That’s another slap. Before World War I, most of Podgorica’s economy was in trade and small-scale manufacture, an economic model established during the long rule of the Ottomans. After World War II, Podgorica became Montenegro’s capital and a focus of the rapid and somewhat oppressive urbanization and industrialization that was typical of Yugoslav communism; economically good, environmentally less so. Industries such as aluminium and tobacco processing, textiles, heavy engineering, and wine production were established in and around the city. The Plantaza vineyard forming one boundary of the city is claimed as the largest in Europe. But with the dismemberment of Yugoslavia the command economy collapsed, and the UN/ NATO sanctions of the late ’90s just added to the pain.

Boris was driving us from Vir to Podgorica and he had a lot to say about this. He himself had 17 cars, but he was unusual. Most people weren’t rich he said. As we went past he pointed to the massive aluminium plant on the outskirts of town, secured for Montenegro during the late 60s via a profoundly dodgy tender process. ‘7000 people used to work there. Now less than 1000. All propped up with Russian money.’

Another critique. ‘It was bombed flat in the war.’ And so it was. First by the Luftwaffe in 1941, then the British in 1943, then the Americans in 1944 — 76 recorded bombing raids. (Also by the NATO forces in 1999 despite Montenegrins having very little involvement in the Balkan wars of the time.) About one-tenth of the civilian population was killed by this process, yet another reminder that ‘collateral damage’ is a euphemism pasted over a much nastier reality. After the war Tito promised he’d rebuild it and he did his best in a post WWII Eastern bloc way.

2000’s Millennium Bridge in the foreground, the post-war tower blocks in the mid-ground and the Plantaza grape vines beyond.

‘Nothing interesting is left.’ That too. We visited The Old City and it doesn’t seem to have been worthy of a photo. This is someone else’s. No it’s not. Can’t find one. It seems like no one else has thought much of it either. A few disembodied stone walls treated with limited compassion.

‘Boring.’ Hmm that’s what they say

As we drove through the tree-lined boulevards to be dropped at the door of our hotel, it didn’t look, prima facie, like ‘boring’ was exactly the right word. It looked rather lovely.

Our very comfortable hotel was in the middle of an active street beer/ coffee/ food culture with hundreds of people (invisible in this picture) sitting outside, chatting and having their lunch.

I was hungry and as is often the case on arrival picked the wrong place to eat, a very strange idea of a croque m’sieur, but what the hell.

We reconnoitered. We found the Old City such as it was. The Art Gallery/Museum was closed, but we followed the river along and the famous monument was there. This is worth visiting right here. I know. Weird. Did you notice the silver skull embedded into the platform? A memorial to Vladimir Vysotsky, ‘a Soviet singer-songwriter, poet, and actor whose career had an immense and enduring effect on Soviet culture’, and a regular thorn in the side of the administration, donated by the Russian government. Why? Who knows.

And the famous Millennium bridge.

As well as this sort of thing …

Did you notice this bloke? Might be a bit Montenegrin.

And while it might be a bit down at heel, it was NOT boring as we ambled along. There was always something to see.

Suddenly, out of nowhere so to speak, this magnificent creature appeared.

The Cathedral of the Resurrected Christ. What a building! and about 10 years old when we saw it with work still going on in its surrounds.

The lower orders are these massive blocks of limestone — most roughcast, some carved — which are just so impressive, a wonderful amalgam of construction and art.

And then you enter …


Everyone gets a go.

We walked home down Vasa Raickovica through the rather scungy high rise and shops of Novi Grad (yes ‘New Town’) and discovered an outstanding patisserie where we made up for all the food we hadn’t eaten. Podgorica was developing a whole new glow.

No soccer that night: the break for the semis, but after an excellent meal at Laterna we sat in a pub watching a street orchestra play sweet and sour Balkan music.

A genuine Ottoman relic, in good order

Next day we set ourselves to find a mosque, an Ottoman clocktower, a museum, a pool and succeeded with the lot. Several mosques really via an interesting and little used route through the backblocks.

The clocktower sat next to Pod Volat restaurant, a Podgorican icon, and it was an authentic Montenegrin experience. Lord Rowland would have been proud of us. Among the heavy duty masculine throng who looked formidably tough and their several glamorous female companions, I had beer and cevapci, Mernz an omelette and some remarkable cakes to ease off with, celebrating the end really. We’d been away for six weeks and that’s enough for anyone.

Then, after waiting a mysterious length of time for it to open, we found one of the great pools: clean clear water, happy swimmers, perfect temperature and immaculately maintained and supervised.

And that was pretty much that. Podgorica … ooooo, tonight 8.9.

In the evening France, looking inspired, beat Belgium. But I was more interested in England v. Croatia.

Kieran Trippier scored from a free kick in the first five minutes — ‘IT. IS. DELICIOUS!!! PICTURE PERFECT!!!!! THERE IS NOT A BETTER STRIKE THAN THAT!!’ — and a note of supreme confidence entered the English commentator’s voice. ‘We’ve got this, and almost certainly the Cup itself. In fact hold on. I’ll just put a call through to the PM about arranging the victory parade.’ An hour later Perisic pounded one in and (slightly deflated) ‘Croatia’s cravings are satisfied. … At least for now.’ A number of threatening shots on goal followed. ‘PICKFOOOORD (the English keeper)!!!!. PICKFORD IS AN IMPENETRABLE BRICK WALL!’ But then Mandzukic poked one through the bricks. (A sort of a death gurgle, as he announced) ‘England are hurting.’

Strangely, impossibly, both destiny and fate had been thwarted, or at least re-imaged as we might say these days. Croatia was playing in the final. The revenge of the Balkans. Hardy mountain races!! Mary was right all the time!

(Perhaps I do not need to add that of course Montenegrins are not Croats, not Serbs, not Albanians, they’re Montenegrins — Mary’s point precisely.)

Proof of hardiness: a Montenegrin dance.

** THE ANSWER: ‘Although Cetinje has been one of the most important spiritual centers of Montenegro for centuries, three highly esteemed and miraculous Christian relics (namely a fragment of the Crucifixion Cross, the Right Hand of St John the Baptist and the Icon of Madonna of Philermos) found their way by a combination of unusual circumstances. The relics, which had been stored in Constantinople (Istanbul) for centuries, belonged, after the Turkish conquest in the modern 15th century, to the Knights of the Order of St John. Thereafter they were taken to Malta [Home of that Order]. The Knights of the Order, forced to leave their seat, took the Holy Relics to Russia and bestowed them to Russian Czar Pavel. The Russian Emperor commissioned his best goldsmiths to make the golden chests for these precious relics and the golden frame for the Icon, both which were then decorated with jewels. After the decline of the Russian Monarchy, the Relics were handed to the Yugoslav Royal Family of Karadjordjevic. At the beginning of the Second World War, they in turn entrusted the Holy Relics to the Ostrog monastery in Montenegro [built into the side of a cliff in the Montenegrin hinterland], where they were enshrined until 1952. Nowadays they are kept in the National Museum in Cetinje.’

Yeah okay. A hard one.

3 thoughts on “Black Mountain #2

  1. Pingback: Black Mountain #1 | mcraeblog

  2. Thank you for linking to my article about the Russian Embassy in Cetinje.
    And thanks for bringing back memories of that beautiful little town and of a wonderful country.

    I also found Podgorica much more interesting that people say. Yes, it’s small, but there are some nice places to discover. The hill, after which it is named, for example, is a beautiful park. And just a few steps away from the center, on the way to the Ottoman quarter, there is this old bridge which you makes you feel like somewhere completely different:

    And in Virpazar, yeah, there really isn’t much. But taking a train across that narrow path in the lake is wonderful, especially if you stay all the way into the Durmitor mountains. Even if one has nothing to do there, it’s worth it just for the scenery of the train ride. (And so cheap that one could go every day.)

  3. David, did you really mean that the Cathedral of the Resurrected Christ was ten years old? Ruth thought you might have meant 100 years old. It’s still quite a sight inside.

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