Rock of ages

The dramatic Monastery of Ostrog, where pilgrims seek the intercession of its founder,
The dramatic Monastery of Ostrog, where pilgrims seek the intercession of its founder, (Hemis/alamy)
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By Robert Rigney
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 5, 2010

The train line from Prijepolje, in southern Serbia, to Podgorica, in Montenegro, is one of the most dramatic in Europe. You go through countless tunnels, skirting the precipice of one of the world's deepest canyons. The mountains here are indescribably rugged, barely cultivable and scarcely inhabited. Here and there in the midst of this gray wilderness of barren rock, you see a lonely hut surrounded by grassy plots cleared of stones for the grazing of sheep. But you see no people. The landscape is far too inhospitable.

Gradually, the mountains give way, and the train descends along a green river to the fertile plain upon which sits Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. As soon as you disembark from the train, which is full of jolly young holiday-goers from Serbia, the change in climate hits you. The air is almost tropical, and you sense that the Mediterranean is now upon you.

I'd come to Montenegro to get a sense of the western Balkans, a region that had fascinated me ever since the end of the Yugoslav wars. The multiethnic nature of this small mountain land appealed to me: Here, Montenegrins, Serbs, Muslims and Albanians coexist more or less peacefully. I was also inspired by the colorful history of the place, Montenegro's tradition of resistance to the Turks during the nearly 500-year Ottoman occupation of the Balkans. Not least, I'd come to see mountains and sea.

Podgorica struck me as a rough-and-tumble town. During the civil war in the 1990s, it was rife with mafiosi. Gasoline, cigarettes and guns were smuggled from abroad through Montenegro into Serbia, and something of the illicit atmosphere of those times still clings to the city. It is loud, fast-paced, flashy and cheap at the same time. You cannot call it a charming town by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have a certain Wild West, frontier-town kind of life to it.

But I was only passing through Podgorica. Within hours of arriving, I boarded a hot, crowded bus heading in the direction of Niksic. Leaving Podgorica, it climbed rocky, barren mountains. Never have I seen so much rock; Montenegro is all rock, when it is not water.

I got off at an unmarked crossroads in a landscape that looked like Nevada. From here, I'd been told, I could head off to the monastery of Ostrog. This is one of the most spectacular architectural assemblies in Europe. Embedded in the face of a cliff, the monastery was impregnable to any invading force and an eternal stumbling block to the Turks. I walked up a dusty road that wound up a sheer mountainside and was seemingly inhabited only by Albanian shepherds with fierce, wolflike dogs trained to fly at strangers.

Upon reaching the monastery complex, I walked through a parking lot full of tourist buses bearing Serbian and Montenegrin pilgrims; souvenir booths selling crucifixes, icons and all manner of religious kitsch; and a couple of cafes blaring the usual Serbian and Montenegrin national music, with waitresses wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the visages of Radovan Karadzic and other indicted war criminals.

Then, following a winding path that took me through cypress and olive groves, I climbed the cliffside leading to the monastery, to which the very pious are supposed to climb on their knees. The monastery is a kind of monk's grotto, with cells and chapels hewn into sheer rock. Inside one chapel lies the embalmed body of Saint Vasilije (Saint Basil), the monastery's 17th-century founder. A monk presides over the coffin, and you may ask him to say a prayer for you and light a candle. I merely popped in and had a look around before making my way back to the road down the mountain, where I hoped to hitch a ride back to Podgorica.

I stuck out my thumb and after about 10 minutes, a beat-up old Mercedes stopped and picked me up.

"Kamo idete?" said the driver. Where are you going?

"Podgorica," I said.

"Hop in," replied the Montenegrin. "I used to hitchhike myself."

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