Black Mountain #1

The Locals: standard Montenegrin street attire

Cattaro is a tiny, greatly coveted, much-fought-for town. The natural port for Montenegro but the property of Austria, it swelters, breathless, on a strip of shore, with the waters in front of it, and the the great wall of the Black Mountain rising sheer up behind.

Behind the town starts the rough zig-zag track, the celebrated ‘ladder of Catarro’ which until 1879 was the only path into Montenegro, and is the one the peasants still use. The making of the road was for a long while dreaded by the Montenegrins, who argued that a road that will serve for a cart will serve for artillery. The road that can let in artillery can let in something more subtle, irresistible and change working. The road was made, [by the Austrians] and there is now no barrier to prevent the twentieth century creeping up silently and sweeping over this old world land almost before its force is recognised. Whether the hardy mountain race which has successfully withstood the gory onslaught of the Turk for five hundred years, will come out unscathed from a bloodless encounter with Western civilisation time alone will tell.

Crnagora [in Montenegrin ‘crna’=black, ‘gora’, mountain], gaunt, grey, drear, a chaos of limestone crags piled one on the other in inextricable confusion, the bare wind-swept bones of a dead world. The first view of the land comes as a shock. The endless series of bare mountain tops, the arid wilderness of bare rock majestic in its rugged loneliness, tell with one blow the suffering of centuries. The next instant fills one with respect and admiration for the people who have preferred liberty in this wilderness to slavery in fat lands.

— Through the Lands of the Serb (1904) Mary Durham, yet another of those astonishingly intrepid English women travellers


‘Cattaro ‘is called Kotor now. The old walled city where tourists of Dalmatia still swarm is at the bottom of the picture. The ‘Ladder’ is the zig-zags going up the hill, seemingly endless when you’re walking up them on a hot day. But this is what you see from the top.


Quite something. Enough to attract 30 cruise ships a day in the high season. The passengers rush onto shore in crocs led by an umbrella lady or gent, wander through a few squares, look in the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, wonder who St Tryphon was, buy an ice cream and a souvenir and tear off again. They generally leave by 6 at night and I can’t remember if that’s by choice or required by ordinance.

This is meant to be a story of a walk and to some degree it is. Walking occurred. The intention was to do a self-guided walk from Perast (one of the villages close to Kotor on the coast of the Bay) to arrive 160kms later at Stari Bar via, among other places, Cetinje, the old capital, and Virpazar.

I had chosen ZalaZ as our support company, partly because ‘Acquainting local people is a natural consequence of any ZalaZ tour’, partly because ‘walking by rare explored trail, observing all on historical Montengrin sites’, and partly because of the direction and length of the route.

Before our arrival I had had an extensive, cheerful and confidence-inspiring correspondence with Vlatko of ZalaZ and Jadranka his do-everything sidekick. The only issue was his warning about how hot it might be. 30s. Didn’t sound too bad. We had walked in heat before.

We left Tel Aviv at some ungodly hour (2.30am on checking) and shared a jammed plane with a barely semi-godly throng of Jewish holiday-makers who until expiring with exhaustion were happy to begin the holiday on the plane. At Tivat, one of the postage stamp size bits of flat land in Montenegro, the transfer car wasn’t waiting. And that was sort of it really. After the hustle of Jerusalem, Montenegro was going to be a study in patience. Things, good things, excellent things, would happen but perhaps not as you might have arranged. And anyway it was hot, glaring white calcium rock hot. Exasperating hot.

The soccer World Cup was on, and that will become evident as the story unfolds. The finals ran through this ten days with lots of upsets, and the excitement machine that was Luka Modric and Croatia doing its business. Huge.

Why Montenegro? We had tried to get there once before and were thwarted by illness. I had looked at the vast limestone scarp along the Dalmatian Coast and thought that would be good walking, … once you got up it would be anyway. The Bay of Kotor is sometimes considered the southern-most fjord in Europe, and therefore an oddity. The fact that it’s actually a drowned river valley doesn’t make it any less impressive up close. It’s a marvel. And so Montenegro … well, why not?

Mary Durham would add, at some length, the resilience and nobility of the stoic Montenegrin people, their honour, their decency, their patience, their individuality and yet their cohesion as a nation, a nation that over 500 years remained unconquered by the Ottomans no matter how hard they tried. (See also below in Black Mountain #2.)

Old Kotor is a walled city jammed up against the base of Black Mountain and consists of a higgledy-piggledy aggregation of lanes and squares. That’s what the tourists come for.

That said, it’s quite small and it didn’t take long for us to get the hang of it. But when we arrived we simply could not find our accommodation. We had risen very early and were keen for a snooze. Eventually someone told us to go to the camera shop near the Sea Gate square and see if we could find Mr Porteli. We did, and he was charming and very relaxed, including about the absence of the promised and paid for transfer. But you must move on quickly.

Our rooms wouldn’t be ready till later and we hadn’t had breakfast. So we slumped into a couple of the very comfortable wicker chairs above and counted the number of tours going past (17 in the first hour). As I drank my third cup of very good coffee I thought hmm that must be what Kotor is, a large-ish playpen for (as it turns out predominantly English and Russian) tourists. They were out sunning themselves in what felt like 40 unmediated degrees of radiant heat. When we found the pool it was just a bit of the coastline fenced off in concrete, albeit decoratively, water in water out with the tide, but entirely swimmable. After nightfall we watched a crowd of athletic young men practising water polo there (a pic appears below) but I fancy no members of Primorac Kotor, occasional superstars of the Montenegrin version of the sport who train in an indoor pool in another part of the valley to which newer Kotor has expanded.

To pass the day we walked, we swam, we snoozed in our very comfortable quarters. In that time Brazil had beaten Mexico 2-0 and Neymar had proven himself to be one of the genuinely great divers of all time. Not just a bit of diving, but powerhouse diving, straight into the turf howling with pain, possibly without an opposition player even being on the field.

At night we had dinner in the Tryphon Square with hundreds of others. And then the orchestra played. Just how delightful is that. One night only: 10-14 year olds from a Slovenian music school. The two soloists played cello and accordian, and that alone was just about worth going to Montenegro for. Their version of ‘Hallelujah’ left not a dry eye in the house. So good. There were two momentary interruptions as Spain came back from 2 nil down against Japan. But then Spain’s extra-time winner coincided exactly, precisely, with the last note of the encore which led to an enhanced and prolonged roar. It was all glorious. Everyone and everything was forgiven.

We had set ourselves for collection at 10am at the Sea Gate — no cars in the Old City, decidedly one of its attractions — and duly Vlatko appeared. Only one or two readers of this blog will understand this, but a sort of Montenegrin Chris Dewhurst.

I can see him running up these cliffs, strong, fit, a giant with a particular sort of masculine invulnerability and a great willingness but only a modest capacity to understand the frailty of others.

His mind was elsewhere. He had just bought a new property, a small farm out of Sremski Karlovci in Serbia where, strangely enough, we had been and where his family was waiting for him.

He had all the gear for us, and all the gear wasn’t much. You’re looking at it. Three laminated army ordinance maps on a some huge scale — I think Los Angeles might have been on one of them — an envelope of accommodation vouchers, and a laminated booklet of notes. The latter unfortunately was written in Montenegrin English, something you don’t think will matter till it does. Lamination was so they could be re-usable and yes they had. Oh and a phone, yes a phone, which I just could not figure how to work. I lucked in a few times, but the antediluvian combo of buttons was beyond me.

I liked him, found him plausible and interesting, but he was thinking how long it was going to take him (ages, a complicated and tiring drive) to drive over the mountains to northern Serbia more than 700 kms away.

He left us in Perast to stay with some friends of his, the first night’s accommodation in a room so small our cases had to be left outside in the hall in a household with a three year-old and a whopping but fairly new baby with a great set of lungs. Dad had a quite high-powered government job in Podgorica; when she was working, mum was an English teacher. And, besides accommodating Vlatko’s customers, they were renovating this their holiday house. It was an experience, and that’s what you go for. ‘Acquainting’.

Perast (above) is one of the many towns besides Kotor that cling to the side of the bay. Our Lady of the Rocks in the middle of the Bay (at right) is its principle attraction although it is a most picturesque hamlet with options for very good eating. Fish, straight out of the Bay. That’s what they say anyway.

That’s Perast. To fill in our afternoon we found a place to swim round the far corner. And I have just noticed that in this photo at right you can see the important part of the next day’s route, the one that caused all the bother.

At night the whole town was watching the soccer at the Montenegrin equivalent of a pub. Round of 16. England dead lucky, 4-3 over Columbia in a penalty shootout. More diving than the Great Barrier Reef.

We were collected by a boatman first thing-ish from this very jetty in fact and taken over to the village on the other side, Donji Stoliv before climbing up to Gornji Stoliv (Lower and Upper Stoliv I’d guess), the roofs about half way up that you can just see in the pic above if you look closely. Then more or less straight up over Vrdola Pass, the saddle you can see, along the top of Vrmac Peninsula, the other side of the Bay, then down down down back to Kotor: 800m up and 800m down.

It all looks so obvious now. Prosaic even. You can see it all in the photo. If you’ve been there before even once, the shape of the walk would be embedded, the way clearly evident, maps not much more than a nuisance. All you’ve got to do is find the entrance, and the boatman did that for us. Tamo, tamo. There. There.

And while it was a bit of a push — quickly passing over the fact that, if there were any left in the scattered houses, this is the way five year-olds would daily get to school and home again — the track was unambiguous. But then we got to Gornji Stoliv.

When you do this walk here are the appropriate instructions from this point. It’ll take you less than five minutes to pass through.

At the T-intersection entrance to Gornji Stoliv you will find a sign post near a large cross. One sign pointing right (west) says to ‘Vlaka Vdrola’. Ignore this sign. After turning left, 100 metres further along the track into the village you will come to a small alcove built into a stone wall. To its right is a narrow flight of stone steps which is the entry to the next phase of your walk.

At the top of the steps the track immediately turns right. You will see waymarking of a white dot in a red ring which continues. The next 3-400 metres is an area covered in goat tracks and locating the waymarks is something of a challenge but essential. After 500 metres or so this problem is resolved. The track becomes very hard to locate but the waymarking is reasonably consistent every 50m or so and will take you to the Pass.

That’s not what happened. Our map at this point sort of dissolved into unintelligibility due to the size of the scale. The notes said ‘walk to centre of town to cistern and pump. You may pump water. You may buy some goat cheeses from the locals.’ Have I mentioned that it was really hot and that we’d been climbing for 90 minutes or so? I think I may also have passed over the fact that there was bitter dispute about the next course of action.

We went into the town, which didn’t actually exist, just a scatter of empty houses, searching for a cistern. What could a ‘cistern’ be? Down into the town via a waymarked track which might eventually have taken us back to the coast, and back again and then back right up to the church this time which you can see in the background in the photo below, quite a climb up steep stone steps, to find someone cleaning up a grave who roared at us when we tried to get directions. Water? No water here! NO water. I became confident that if we followed the sign to Vlaka Vdrola we’d get there for sure. So we did about 30 minutes in a direction 90 degrees wrong which eventually petered out into a goat track of limited interest covered in blackberry vines.

Myrna 50 metres after the problem signpost and 50 metres before the flight of steps we needed to find. Meditating on what idiots men are.

I had started hating the track notes at this stage. ‘Cistern’, pump’, ‘centre of town’. What on earth could they mean? Later Vlatko asked why I didn’t ring him up at this stage. Apart from not really being able to work the phone, I imagine he would have repeated exactly what was in the notes because when you know a track so well how do you explain to someone who is coming to it so raw. And so cross. And so keen to get the promised drink of water from the ‘cistern’.

For the umpteenth time we went back to looking at the stone alcove for a clue. We had presumed this was the cistern somehow, and I noticed there was a narrow, perhaps 30 cms wide, flight of steps going in what I knew to be the right direction but apparently into a house. We climbed them and avoided the house with a sharp right turn. The waymarks which were everywhere started reappearing in an encouragingly systematic way which was just as well because this area was thick with goat tracks, and after another 60 minutes or so we were at top of the Pass (below). Still faintly furious. We had wasted 90 minutes getting through Gornji Stoliv.

Once we climbed the steps we did pass a plastic tank in a wire cage (well out of sight from below). That would be the ‘cistern’ I assume, except that cisterns are either underground water storages or storage tanks for toilets.

I had offered to rewrite Vlatko’s publicity material in more conventional English. He was interested for a minute and then said no. He thought people found it enjoyable. So sure. Ok. Lovely. Loads of Balkan charm. In retrospect I think he might have been referring to the excellence of his style rather than the preponderance of half and three-quarter mistakes, strange vocab and weird constructions that disturbs a pedant like me.

But I was talking about his publicity material. The laminated track notes were considerably worse, in part less directions than ruminations on Montenegrin life and history and in part ‘walk the salamander back downwards’. And track notes matter. They really should be precise and clear. We never found the pump or the centre of the village, but we did find this view.

Perast is hidden to the right of the conical peak in the mid-ground. We are looking north-west out to the Aegean (eventually). Lovcen, a Montenegrin icon, is on the skyline.

And we found a sign and kept at it.

‘All trails in stone area/ solid sole boots recommended.’ There it is in black and white. I had chosen to wear my old walking shoes, very comfortable but the Vibram on the soles was worn thin and had softened in this heat and, as advertised, we were walking on tracks made of broken rock. There was nowhere much to get off and every step hurt.

Just here there was some shade. However for several hours in the middle of the day we had been walking in direct sun with massive glare coming off the grey rock, probably high 30s in the shade and, weak reed that I am, I had a touch of sunstroke. Sunstroke requires the lowering of body temperature. Pouring water over your head works quite well. Lying down in a cool room does as well. Neither were available. One reason was that I’d been counting on refills at the ‘cistern’ which hadn’t eventuated.

Low on water, we got to the end of the ridge and with all the errors we’d made we’d done about 15 or 16 kms, and we had to get down here via a process that wasn’t 100 percent clear.

This is Kotor and environs. The Old City is only the small triangle in the middle; the fancy pool patronised by the super water polo team is under the red roof.
Same thing but on the other side of the Bay.

We had to find the ‘salamander’ amid instructions about a grassy field and restored historic building that could have meant anything. The ‘salamander’ turned out to be one of those endless zig-zags with stone edgings and big drops (no possibility of hoon tracking) that we discovered Montenegro specialised in.

It was SO far down. When we did bottom out it was still a few kms through the suburbs, and shops that sold drinks were nowhere to be found. I had put my head under a garden tap to my great relief. But plenty of time was left for constructing my side of the next conversation with my friends at Zalaz. Even before we got onto the ‘salamander’, I had advanced the idea that I wasn’t going to do any more of this, and Myrna replied, yes, we might be intrepid but we’re not stupid.

I did feel slightly stupid. This was really a domestic walk, hardly out of sight of Kotor, up across down, what could go wrong especially compared to where we were off to next. But far more than stupid I was feeling aggrieved, if that’s a summative adjective for hot, tired and cross.

So, possibly looking like sweaty versions of death, we found Jadranka in her shop. Three things to tell her: 1) it’s too hot for us (our fault), 2) the materials are hopeless (Vlatko’s fault), 3) we’re quitting. Those three matters communicated, we (okay, I) limped off to the accommodation that had been arranged for us where we were welcomed by two stern man looking just a fraction like Serbian mafiosi saying, ‘You pay now. This company never pay.’ We got him to ring Jadranka who persuaded him otherwise and we collapsed onto the broken bed with the air con on high, and that night ate brilliantly almost by ourselves just outside the city walls at Bastion No.1.

It had been a big day.

Could be me pointing to my injured pride, but it is actually the patron saint of walkers St Jacques with coquilles and bubo, looking suitably surprised although I think he would have known. This statue is within whispering distance of the highly visible skull and bones advertised as being those of St Tryphon and a host of other religious art treasures.

I’d like to have a pic of Jadranka to insert here, a tall athletic type who ran a gift shop rather up the back of town as well as someone who tidied up after Vlatko. I’d like to insert a picture in simple gratitude. [I did! There she is at right.] There was the Montenegrin strongperson, but there was also the Montenegrin gracious host. She was both.

We came good after a sleep and a leisurely breakfast and formulated a plan. We would go back to Mr Porteli to see if he had another couple of nights available in one of his most satisfactory units in Kotor. Zalaz still had our money, so we would go back to Jadranka and see what we could negotiate. We agreed that after a couple more nights in Kotor she would arrange a driver to take us to Cetinje and to Virpazar where we would stay in rooms we’d booked and paid for, and then go on to the capital Podgorica from where we’d leave. And that’s what happened.

Kotor had at least a day’s worth of interest. We wandered to and fro, thoroughly investigating St Tryphon’s and the many and varied other churches in the Old Town, along with water polo practice at the town pool.

Can you follow the wall up this cliff? It is continuous even when the substrate is almost vertical. Imagine building it. Nah. Can’t. Imagine it being useful? Nah? Me neither. But at its apex is a fort, and if you stay at Kotor for more than half an hour and are in reasonable condition you get yourself on The Ladder and see if you can get as far as The Fort.

As it happens that was the next part of our walk and Myrna thought it would be a good idea. Did I? I am not at liberty to comment. Commercial-in-confidence.

It was furiously hot again. But we got going, perhaps in an effort to recover our dignity, and just as well because otherwise we would have missed this, an American from New York with, what, gosh, a seven-pack I would think. His equally muscular girlfriend could only do upside down. We just stood there. Applauding of course.

The Fort, I said. That’ll do. Hmm just a bit further, she said. We are less than a third of the way up The Ladder. So of course it was just a bit further. A bit further which began by having to find and climb through this window. Montenegro. Different to, say, Japan.

And then we went a bit further again. ‘How about we just go to …’, that type of thing. Before climbing again, this entailed descending through the ruins of an old town — goats and an old and highly picturesque church. How Montenegrin. Unmissable really.

By dint of a light breeze it was getting slightly cooler as we climbed but not much. A good deal of the vegetation on this track was herbs, fragrant with the sun beating down on them. Rosemary, sage and thyme were easily recognisable. Where they came from and how they survived are mysteries.

Our eventual destination is the peak here.

Just a bit further, just a bit further. To that hill. Round that corner. Another 15 minutes. There’s a mast up there. Three more zig-zags. It’s flattened out here … and we surprised ourselves.

Just in time to see one of fancier cruise ships evacuate a long stream of brown effluent into the Bay. The one at right actually.

I guess that’s what they do. But we can’t end on that note.

On the way up we had enjoyed large wonderfully sustaining glasses of pomegranate juice at this hillside establishment.

On the way down we did even better: bread, tomatoes, speck, cheese, pomegranate juice — and beer. Everything they had to offer really. Most gratifying.

This was most of the next day’s walk as per ZalaZ. As it happened we couldn’t have done the next day’s walk because there was a competitive car rally ripping up the tracks in the Lovcen National Park and it was closed — the manly side of Montenegro.

That night we had a pizza watching Belgium defeat Brazil 2-1. Brazil had four gettable chances in the last three minutes, but heck, you just never know how things are going to pan out do you.

There’s much more of interest about Montenegro to be found right here. And what an interesting place it is.

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.