PARIS -- Sometimes a journey is more than just a move from one place to another. Sometimes a trip can change a perspective, or focus a world view. A voyage can offer the freedom to imagine another time, to dream of a different self: a rogue, an adventurer, a hero. A king.

So it was with Nicolas Petrovitch Njegosh, a Parisian architect with populist notions, who traveled to his ancestral homeland in a tiny, mountainous region of Yugoslavia and was, actually, transported.

He discovered there the fierce embrace of his past, unchanged by 85 years of world war and communist rule, in a place the world had left behind, Montenegro. And he discovered in himself a man he never knew before, the namesake, heir and great-grandson of King Nicolas I.

If epiphany is not too grand a word to describe the revelation of Eastern Europe in the breached walls and clipped barbed wire borders of 1989, then it perfectly describes the experience of Njegosh, who in breaching the distance between Paris and Cetinje reawakened to his own forgotten history.

Njegosh had gone to Montenegro to rebury the remains of his great-grandparents, who ruled the country for 56 years. They had fled to Italy in 1916, when Germany-allied Austria invaded. They died in exile.

"Everyone said, 'We're going to a socialist country to bury a king.' With all the tension we felt from Yugoslavia, I was sure there would be {only} a few old people there," says Njegosh. "But we found that the whole population had come -- thousands of them lined the road. They came out of the crowd and put their arms around me. No, they wouldn't shake hands in Montenegro. They said, 'Nicolas, Nicolas. What are you doing in Paris? Why don't you live here? This is your home. My house is your house.' "

"I was very emotional," he says.

"It has turned my life upside down."

A mild shock accompanies the first glimpse of a king-come-lately: Njegosh, 45, has filthy fingernails. Black. He has been sculpting a life-size dinosaur all day at his workshop outside Paris. When he walks through the door you are sure there must be some mistake: He is carrying a motorcycle helmet and wearing a black leather jacket with silver zippers.

In a way this impression is a mistake, because this is the other Njegosh, the Parisian, the artist, the social activist, the student protester unreformed. This is the first one.

This Njegosh lives in a modest four-room apartment in Montparnasse with his Moroccan-born wife, France, and their two children. The living room also serves as the couple's bedroom and a study area for the children. Primitive square wooden blocks encased in red metal frames form the platform bed, continue along the wall as a settee and then become a two-deck playroom for 10-year-old Boris and 12-year-old Altinai. Njegosh built it all himself.

The architect grew up in this apartment, raised by his mother and bred on ideals of independence and freedom. Genevieve Prijent was for Njegosh a remarkable role model. She had joined the French Resistance during World War II, and not just because the Nazis had arrested her husband, Michel Petrovitch Njegosh, the would-be king of Montenegro.

At the start of the war German police came and arrested the French-Yugoslav couple, holding them as "guests" of the Third Reich in a house at Lake Constance in Germany. The Italians offered to return Njegosh to the monarchy in Montenegro, under their control. He refused.

The couple was allowed to go back to Paris but the Germans returned, this time to arrest Njegosh for activities in the Resistance. He was sent to a concentration camp while his pregnant wife, the real activist, carried messages around the country and concealed a radio post in their home.

Nicolas was born in 1944. In 1945 Michel Njegosh returned and two years later accepted an honorary protocol post in Belgrade as thanks from the Yugoslav government for his refusal to collaborate with the fascists.

But the aristocrat could not get used to communism, nor indeed to postwar Europe. The family returned to Paris. The parents divorced and Nicolas, 3, was reared by his mother.

"I have very few memories of my father," says Njegosh. "I saw him from time to time but to him I was always just a tiny child.

"My father was charming, and very kind, I remember. He spoke many languages -- Italian, French, English, Serbo-Croatian -- he was a real European before his time. But he lived in another world -- he didn't have his feet on the ground. After the war he couldn't find his footing. He was a bit lost.

"So for me Montenegro was very far away. I knew my father was born there, a few names. But my mother always taught me not to use my name to advantage. 'That's history,' she would say. So we didn't touch it. It was like something sitting on the coffee table, left alone."

Today Njegosh bears no trappings of aristocracy or of Yugoslavia. He wears a pink Polo shirt and jeans and speaks rapid, Parisian French. He smokes slowly, thoughtfully and without interruption.

Only the long Slavic nose and vast blue eyes, hooded and deeply set, hint at his origins. Dirty-blond hair flops down to the eyelashes. When he smiles the eyes disappear completely in a web of wrinkles accompanied by a low, rolling chortle.

The young Njegosh relegated all that was Yugoslav to ancient history. He matured in the liberal, rebellious ferment of Paris in the late 1960s, studying architecture at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts and finding himself in the thick of student anti-government demonstrations in 1968.

"No student escaped this. We thought we would change the world," he says. "I was considered combative. I was against the pressure of money and arms. By refusing certain old principles we believed we could make life more free, reach the true nature of things." He pauses. "I still think this is true, that the forces that move political life, social life, can be positive."

His mother was proud of Njegosh's combativeness. And his father? "When I was growing up it was not in style to be a prince or a count or a marquis. It was considered a sclerotic old world, turned to the past. I liked what moved, what was new." He did not ask his father.

This attitude did not change for many years. In his twenties Njegosh visited Yugoslavia once by backpack, passing through Montenegro and seeing nothing that moved him.

The whisper of change came with his father's death in 1986. Ironically, the irreversible loss of this link to the past prompted Njegosh to try to keep it from slipping away. He began to read about Montenegro and about his family.

Then in January of last year, a committee of Montenegrin politicians, artists and ex-patriates visited Njegosh, asking for his authorization to transfer the remains of his great-grandparents to Cetinje from Italy. King Nicolas had given very specific instructions for his burial, and now it seemed that the Yugoslav government would permit the ceremony.

Sensing the time was ripe to truly explore his Yugoslavian past, Njegosh agreed to go along and take his family.

Stubborn, Tough Warriors

As the name suggests, Montenegro is a country of mountains, formidable and green, with clear blue rivers that descend to the clearest, bluest Mediterranean Sea. The rivers conceal caverns; the mountains end in precipices that daunted invaders for centuries. Montenegro's strategic importance came not only from its defensibility but also its location on the cusp of Europe and Asia and in the lower Mediterranean basin, between today's Albania and northern Yugoslavia.

It is a region barely touched by modernity, unmarked by telephone wires but indelibly marked by the enduring character of Montenegrins, stubborn, tough warriors. Montenegro was one of the only countries never invaded by the Ottoman Turks, whose empire extended north to Romania, or by Russia, whose army was feared throughout Central Europe.

The first Njegosh ancestor to rule Montenegro was Bishop Petar I, in 1773. He instituted a judiciary, a police force and taxes after taking over from an adventurer who had ruled while posing as a Russian aristocrat. When Petar died his 18-year-old nephew, Rade Tomov Petrovic, took power. He was respected as a poet and a statesman. In 1851 Bishop Danilo I became the head of state, then in 1860 Prince Nicolas I, the longest-serving ruler, ascended.

In 1876, the prince led a war against the Turks and won. In 1878 Montenegro won world recognition as an independent state that had doubled its size through conquest. Cetinje was a capital of fin de sie`cle Europe, sending ambassadors abroad and welcoming the grand embassies of other countries.

In 1910 an ebullient Nicolas declared himself king. But the new monarch soon began to feel the sparks of pro-democracy protest and demands for reform. The sparks were ignited, as everywhere in the region, by the rising nationalism. In 1914 the Balkan powder keg exploded into World War I.

Under pressure from the invading Austrians, King Nicolas fled to exile in Italy; his wife was an Italian princess. A rival group resolved to stay and fight the enemy. When Germany and its allies lost the war, Yugoslavia was created from a potpourri of ethnicities in Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. Nicolas, in exile, lost his opportunity for a stake.

Still, in Montenegro, he was considered king.

An Overwhelming Reception

On Sept. 29, 1989, Nicolas Petrovitch Njegosh and his family started out from San Remo, Italy. The perfectly preserved bodies of King Nicolas, Queen Helena and two of their daughters who had died young were taken from their burial site in a church and paraded through the town with honors. Italy provided a battleship to make the overnight trip to Bar, the port nearest Montenegro.

No matter what he had expected, Njegosh could not have dreamed of the reception that would greet him: Tens of thousands of people lined the roads of the green countryside all the way to Cetinje, applauding and cheering.

He was overwhelmed. "Suddenly you arrive, and you find that after two generations they've been waiting for you," he says. "Boys of 20 can recite their genealogy back to the 15th century. So you want to know everything -- why they're waiting, who they are. Between 200,000 and 250,000 people came for the reburial -- that is more than one-third of the population of Montenegro. Even if I wanted to shut my ears, close my eyes ... after this it was impossible."

Montenegro stimulated every sense in Njegosh, encouraging him to see, taste, hear and deeply feel what for him was a homecoming. "It was a love story between a family and a country," said Njegosh's wife, France. "For 250 years this family brought good things to the country. The people remember."

The Montenegrins did not call him king, or bow and scrape. Instead, for five days they dragged Njegosh into their homes, sat him down and made him drink and eat. "They called me Nicolas," he says. "But the way they say it is with a certain ... weight." He gropes. "It ... rings." They told stories about his family and about the old Montenegro. One told of a Montenegrin family who fought against the Turks, while their Albanian neighbors, because of numerous border changes, fought in the Turkish army. When a Montenegrin husband was cut down in battle, the Albanian neighbor brought the body and its severed head back to the family for burial.

"The wife, she sat for the whole night with the head placed before her on the table. This is a ferocious people," says Njegosh with some pride. "They are Rasputin figures. There was one with bulbous eyes, a poet in Cetinje who had us to dinner. He said, 'Nicolas, I wish I could have read your mind during the burial of your grandfather.' And I told him it felt like the day I was born. I feel I was born again last year."

The reborn Njegosh has approached his culture with the same enthusiasm he applied to social activism as a youth. He is learning to speak Serbo-Croatian, and has returned already to Cetinje, a town of 30,000. He is committed to Montenegro -- he will go there every year, he says -- and is now working to organize an international art exhibit in Cetinje in January. He hopes that will put Montenegro back on the map. Cetinje is ideal for the purpose: It is accessible since it is near a port and has dozens of well-preserved, empty buildings that were the embassies of foreign envoys in Montenegro in the early 1900s.

But Njegosh is also aware of the dangers of nationalism. Decades-old passions are already reignited in Serbia, a region of Yugoslavia, where the Albanian majority is in conflict with the Serbian and Montenegrin minorities. It is unclear how the Yugoslavian government will neutralize those tensions.

"What I want now is to exist in relation to Montenegro, as a friend," says Njegosh. "I don't want to promise that I will never play a political role there. I also don't want to say that Montenegro belongs to me because it belonged to my great-grandfather. But I have a desire to know. And a desire to do things."

The entire experience has had the aura of the surreal. Njegosh went to rebury his great-grandfather, a symbol of pre-communist Europe, just a few weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It seemed all of Eastern Europe was ready to awaken from a 40-year slumber. Njegosh felt exactly the same way.

In October Njegosh opened the door to his rejected history. Then in January, as if Fate were deliberately closing the door on the other part of his life, Njegosh's mother died. "Two of the most important events in my life, these two burials, happened within a couple months of each other," he says. "The two ceremonies were for me a kind of reminder of what is the material of life -- that is history, memory. It is the destiny of every man to transmit this."

For a man who grew up rejecting the past, that is a remarkable a statement. "For me this is a great discovery, perhaps more important than anything that has situated me in my life. Reality can only exist if we conserve the stuff of life," Njegosh says with conviction. "That is memory."