By David Farley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 26, 2006
As I aimlessly wandered the narrow alleys of Kotor -- the medieval-walled, UNESCO-protected town has no street names -- a shirtless man, beer in hand, did a double take when he saw me. "You like?" he asked, pointing down to the cobblestones. Though I was slightly bewildered on my first afternoon in Montenegro, I did like it. A lot.
"Maybe we are the only tourists here," said the Serbian twentysomething between swigs from his beer bottle. "This is my first time, too. Why didn't I come here before?" he added, before shaking my hand and catching up to his friends.
After spending a week in this tiny republic, I was asking myself the same question. Back home, I received mostly blank stares when I announced I was headed to Montenegro for my vacation, stares that evolved into looks of concern when I said that the country is in a union with Serbia, as the last remnants of what used to be called Yugoslavia. But when I mentioned that Montenegro's beaches make up the southern section of the Dalmatian Coast and that, in fact, the country is already being dubbed the "next Croatia," I had a list of people who suddenly wanted to come with me.
Croatia, Montenegro's neighbor to the north, was once hailed as the "next Italy" and is fully registered on the tourist radar as an established part of the cruise ship circuit. Now many travelers are drifting down to Montenegro, where medieval coastal towns hug the azure-colored sea and the narrow cobblestone streets and intimate piazzas are relatively quiet, save for impromptu soccer matches between young boys.
That was the sight in Kotor's main square -- the ominous-sounding Square of Weapons -- after I bade adieu to the shirtless Serbian tourist and collapsed at an outdoor cafe with a glass of Loza, the local plum brandy. I'd just trudged up the 1,350 steps to the ghostly 14th-century fortress of St. Ivan. Kotor's walls are three miles long, a claim that makes the ramparts twice the length of Dubrovnik's, the crown town of the Croatian seaside. What makes Kotor unique is that its wall snakes straight up the dramatic rocky mountains that keep the town in a near-constant shadow. With lively markets selling locally made cheese and olive oil, cafe-lined squares and reasonably priced seafood eateries in town below, walking up the steps is certainly an exercise in will. That is, till you get near the top and the view of the Boka Kotorska -- southern Europe's largest fiord -- makes you forget about everything else. Only the herd of wild mountain goats snapping away at the overgrown grass might steal your attention away.
The next day I was on the rickety bus heading to Budva, the country's most fashionable beach town. Skirting the rocky coastline, I whizzed past black-clad babushkas and obituary notices pinned to trees and bulletin boards, with red stars or Serbian Orthodox crosses -- depending on the dead person's beliefs -- smack in the center of each notice.
It seems hard to believe now, but until Yugoslavia started to crumble in the early 1990s, Montenegro was a holiday hot spot for models, monarchs and movie stars. Claudia Schiffer, Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor all partied (or at least vacationed) here. And the coastline around Budva, one of the biggest towns on the coast, was the center of the action. One of the gaggle of towns on this coastline that's referred to as the St. Tropez of the Adriatic, Budva boasts a long seaside boardwalk loaded with outdoor cafes and seafood restaurants, reflecting a faded Riviera ambiance.
Having stayed in a comfortable but spartan private room in Kotor (for $10, a location in the center of town and a brief peek at life inside a Montenegrin home, how could I resist?), I was feeling decadent in Budva, so I checked into the Hotel Mogren, just outside the Old Town walls. When I pulled back the curtains and saw the view from my room -- the walled historical center and nearby beach -- I was almost inspired to sit there all afternoon.
But eventually, I found myself wandering the tightly packed and walled historical center, known as Stari Grad, literally Old Town, which was razed after an earthquake in 1979 and then painstakingly put back together.
In fact, as I walked the streets with Danijela, a recently graduated college student whose job in Budva's tourist office left her with little to do except take me on a free tour to practice for her tour guide license test, I saw no signs that the earthquake had even happened. That is, until she stopped me in a narrow alley and pointed to a wall. Each stone -- all of them irregularly shaped -- was numbered. "These numbers were left here to show how the city was put back together," Danijela said.
After she showed me the remnants of a Roman forum, took me up to the citadel to watch the waves slap against the town walls, and pointed out the winged lion above the city gate -- which the Venetians added after Budva asked the empire for protection from the threat of the Turks in the 15th century -- we eventually settled into a cafe.
Much of what I'd read about Montenegro before coming here chimed optimistically that when Montenegro has its inevitable referendum on independence from Serbia (currently scheduled for May 21), Montenegrins will be dancing in the streets, having freed themselves from the bullying Serbs. But most Montenegrins I talked to had a different view. "It's not necessary to split from Serbia," Danijela said between sips from her cappuccino. "People outside of the country seem to think that we'll be better off. But why? We're the same people."
A couple of hours later, I was in a cab headed down the coast to the much-hyped island of Sveti Stefan with a talkative cab driver. He shared Danijela's views. "Life was much better 15 years ago," he told me as we rolled past construction sites where high-rise hotels will sit in a couple of years. When I asked him about independence from Serbia, he said it was inevitable. "The current president [Filip Vujanovic] will have to leave office because of term limits. But . . ., " he said, holding up his index finger for emphasis, "if we split with Serbia, he can remain in power. You see, this is Montenegro."
A few days earlier in Dubrovnik, my British-born hotel owner, who has spent the majority of his life in the region, primed me on the situation in Montenegro. "The entire country is run by the Mafia," he said.
"The Italian Mafia," I asked, "or is there a Montenegrin or Serbian Mafia that's running the show there?"
"Take your pick," he said.
Exaggeration or not, Montenegrins seem to accept that their government officials are corrupt. Allegations that current prime minister Milo Djukanovic -- who's been in continual power in one form or another since 1991 -- participated in an Italian-Mafia-led tobacco ring didn't stop him from getting reelected in 2002.
It was an intense conversation the driver and I were having, and one that I didn't necessarily want to end--but then Sveti Stefan came into view, which silenced both of us. What's unique about this island and former 15th-century fishing village -- connected to the mainland by a narrow cement walkway -- is that the government converted the entire football field-size hamlet into an upscale hotel in the 1950s. The rich and famous (and a few ordinary folks) came, staying in the red-tiled, adobe-like structures that cram the island -- presumably former homes of residents.
The driver got out of the car with me. He pointed to the island about 300 feet away and gave me a detailed history, concluding with, "The Russians want to buy it, and I wouldn't be surprised if the government sold it to them."
In fact, the posh Aman Resorts recently won a bid to restore Sveti Stefan to its former glory, which will surely make it one of the most exclusive resorts on the Adriatic . . . and certain to bring back the celebrities.
I paid the entrance fee ($8 for non-hotel guests) and strolled the island's cobblestone alleys and past cottages. I plopped down at a cafe (the island also has a pub, restaurant and casino) and ordered a glass of local red wine. Looking down the coast, where new resorts are sure to sprout in the next few years, I thought about the shirtless Serbian I'd met in Kotor. Like me, he's no longer asking himself why he hadn't come to Montenegro earlier; instead, he's certainly asking a new question: When can I come back? But maybe by that time, some other yet-to-be--determined, nearby developing hot spot, certain to be called the "next Montenegro," will beckon us both.
David Farley, a New York writer, is the editor of the anthology "Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic."