Montenegro – head for the hills!

The Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale opens with James Bond supposedly in Montenegro (although this was in fact filmed in the Czech Republic in 2006). Not long before, just after the Kosovo war, Rory Stewart (remember him? – once a moderate leadership candidate in the UK’s Conservative Party) was Britain’s diplomatic representative in Montenegro and has been forced to deny ever since that he was a spy. However, Montenegro has now shed its spying-oriented image and become the next great thing in Mediterranean tourism – and yet, the people who are most keen to party and indeed to invest in Montenegro are the Russians…. Very suspicious. In fact, in June 2017 Oleg Smolenkov, an American agent inside the Kremlin, was removed by boat from Tivat, Montenegro, with his wife and children, when the CIA decided that President Trump was quite likely to accidentally betray him.

Montenegro’s president, Milo Djukanovic (or Đukanović), is now the longest-serving leader in Europe, having been in charge for over three decades, longer even than Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Naturally, when someone has run a country for so long, an awful lot of people who want to make money there are keen to pay for a bit of influence, and by now Montenegro is monstrously corrupt. Another interesting recent turn of events came in 2016 when a couple of Russian military intelligence officers were supposedly involved in a plot to replace Djukanovic, then prime minister, with a crony from the pro-Russian opposition (note that Djukanovic was initially pro-Russian, but has pivoted to bring his country to a pro-Western alignment) – this may well have been a set-up orchestrated by Djukanovic, giving him the impetus to get Montenegro into NATO the next year; the country is also now in the Schengen and Euro zones, and a candidate for EU accession.

Somehow Montenegro has managed to become a popular holiday destination for both Russians and Western Europeans – along the coast they are rapidly killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, but the mountains of the interior are wild, superb and still largely untouched.

A limited tour of the country

The capital, Podgorica, is small and largely modern, and not particularly interesting – as mentioned here, it rivals Prishtina and Skopje for ugliness. The high point was in fact arriving by train from the north of the country (having crossed by bus from Kosova), on the legendary Belgrade to Bar railway, widely regarded as one of the most dramatic in Europe – it was wet and foggy, but even so the cliffs falling away beneath us were pretty staggering. I went on by train to Bar, on the coast, on my way to Albania, but I can’t say it made a huge impression on me.

I and a gang of friends stayed for a week in Virpazar, at Villa Miela, a British-owned operation which puts on splendid activity holidays, with hiking, kayaking, wine-tasting and big meals. Wine-tasting in the nearby village of Limljani is great, especially by bike – we enjoyed the wines and snacks (€10) at Ilya Klisic’s winery, where you can also visit the church of Sveti Toma, on his property, which slid down the hill and turned 180° degrees after weeks of rain, about 130 years ago.

We also went to Kotor (‘the Montenegrin Dubrovnik’), which is pretty but crowded (even in mid-May – with three cruise ships in the bay) and over-priced. One often hears that the Montenegrin coast is being ruined by runaway development (there seem to be no planning laws at all), but for me the queues of cars along the coast and along the Kotor waterfront (even in mid-May) are worse. There’s nowhere to put a bypass, other than by drilling a very long tunnel through the mountains, so reducing the need to drive seems essential. You might think that bringing tourists in by ship might fill that need, but really it’s just adding to the problem. Tivat airport is very close, so one could just come in with a bike (and/or inflatable kayak) and pootle around the Boka (the Bay of Kotor) and have a very pleasant time without a car.

A quiet corner of Kotor

The usually reliable Wanderlust magazine is blithely promoting Kotor as an uncrowded alternative to Dubrovnik – although Dubrovnik is actually taking action to counter overtourism and Kotor clearly isn’t. (The linked article was written in October 2017, but was still popping up in their e-newsletter in May 2019.) Any fool knows it’s best to go to the Croatian islands, such as Hvar or Korcula, rather than to Dubrovnik or Kotor on the mainland.

From Kotor we drove up an amazing series of hairpins (with a few tricky places to stop and look out over the Boka) and over the coastal mountains to Cetinje, the former capital, which has most of Montenegro’s museums. Being away from the coast, it’s also massively cheaper than places such as Kotor – a beer costs €1.30 here or in Podgorica, and €3 in Kotor, a pizza can be had for €1.50 in Podgorica, or for €5 in Kotor. The National Museum is spread across half a dozen buildings, including two royal palaces (now the Museums of King Nikola and of Petar II Petrović Njegoš) and history, art and ethnographic sections. It was a bit of a flying visit, but the museums are well enough organised, if still a bit stuck in an old mindset. It remains a personal challenge to find a museum in Montenegro or Albania that doesn’t have a collection of weaponry, which shows that some national stereotypes really do hold true.


Silly costumes no.1 – Life of Brian gear is required to hide kayaking gear at this nunnery.
Silly costumes no.2 – a blanket cult after getting soaked in a storm.
Silly costumes no.3 – kayaking.
I don’t always travel alone – this gang came up Mt. Rumija with me.
We’re good people, we rescue stranded tortoises, but only after taking selfies with them first.

A tale of several capital cities – Prishtina, Podgorica and Pajë

I was delighted to finally get to Kosova (the Albanian name for Kosovo), partly because it means the number of countries I’ve visited has (roughly) caught up with the number of times I’ve given blood (87 – though I’m sure I’ll get to 100 donations before I get to 100 countries); and this is the hundredth post on this blog. Hurrah!

Having followed the Rebecca West trail around southern Macedonia (it doesn’t actually exist, but I did go to Ohrid and Bitola, inspired by her descriptions in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her epic account of former Yugoslavia (with the exception of Slovenia) – not exactly travel writing as usually understood, but certainly an idiosyncratic literary masterpiece), I returned to Skopje and headed north into Kosova. A modern tollroad is under construction (certainly paid for by the EU or other international bodies), largely on a high viaduct in the Lepenc valley. Prishtina, the capital, has a busy bus station, half an hour’s walk southwest of the centre, with departures at least hourly to Skopje and Tirana (rather fewer to less friendly countries such as Serbia and Montenegro) and two or three an hour to Päje (there seems to always be one waiting in platform 1, just pay €4 on board) – trains do exist but are slow and infrequent.

I was intrigued and amused by an article on the BBC website earlier in 2019, the headline of which asked bluntly ‘Is Kosovo’s capital city the ugliest in Europe?’ – there must have been a diplomatic row, because the headline was changed to ‘Kosovo’s burgeoning capital city’, but the evidence survives in the URL. The author, Deborah Huso, detailed the city’s brutalist architectural horrors and clumsy attempts at statuary but also made it clear that the people are great and the city is fun – and that’s what I found too. Much of the city’s past was swept away under communism and replaced by concrete blocks, but there were also misguided attempts at architectural innovation – the most notorious is the National Library (opened in 1982), with a metal façade and 99 domes. It’s not just random, it’s intended to represent a human brain, and I personally find it not too bad – the interior is actually very restful and seems to echo the domed spaces of the Haghia Sophia and Mimar Sinan’s mosques. If you want ugly kitsch, just stop in Skopje.

One exciting bit of cultural news is that the Manifesta ‘nomadic biennial’ will take place in Prishtina in 2022 – and one of its aims is to help the city’s citizens reclaim the public spaces that have been ‘privatised’ due to unfettered neoliberal economic policies. The mayor is totally behind this, so maybe Prishtina will make a serious effort to rid itself of the ‘ugliest capital’ tag.

Kosova’s population is mostly young and mostly unemployed, so the cafés are busy and the pedestrianised Mother Teresa Boulevard in the city centre is alive with pedestrians at all times, not just for the evening promenade which is traditional in so many Mediterranean and Balkan countries. But on the other hand, Prsihtina’s roads are a traffic-choked mess. Everyone goes everywhere by car because that’s what being free and independent is about; next to nobody cycles on the roads, alas, although you do see a few cyclists on Mother Teresa Boulevard (where cycling is banned, although it’s not enforced – one of the surprising things about Kosova is that one sees almost no police). There are a lot of buses in the city, but they’re caught in the traffic too. Tirana is similar – maybe it’s an Albanian thing – although there’s more cycling in central Tirana.

However, the congested roads and busy cafés are misleading – given the lack of real economic activity it’s clear that this is simply due to all the international development bodies based there which pump cash into the country and give an illusion of real economic expansion. At some point they will leave and Kosova will have to start again, to create some kind of sustainable growth.

On the surface Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, is a bit similar – it doesn’t have quite the same concrete ugliness as Prishtina and the economy seems no stronger, but I did at least get the sense that it was genuinely organic and not simply a bubble produced by outside aid. Like Prishtina, it has just one museum with not a huge amount to see, a fairly short walk north of the railway station.

 Pajë or Peć

It’s said that Kosova has three capitals, Prishtina the political and economic centre, Prizhren the cultural centre, and Pajë the outdoors centre. Well, that’s what the people of Pajë say, most Kosovars just talk of the other two, but Pajë, nestled up against the Montenegrin mountains, clearly has a future as a base for active holidays. It has a new zipline, two via ferrata, and ski slopes nearby, but the most exciting development is the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, a 192km route which links the mountains of Kosova, Montenegro and Albania. Pajë is also busy with cyclists, and not lycra lads on MTBs but rather old blokes going to the café and about their business. I’d seen this in small-town Macedonia too, so was not too surprised, but it turns out that there used to be a bike factory here, and there is a municipal campaign to boost cycling. The central pedestrian area is open to cyclists, there are some bike stands (I saw none in Prishtina) and there have been awareness campaigns. The aim is to have 20% of the population cycling by 2025 – once a month? once a week? surely not every day. Whatever, there’s a long way to go, but it is clearly already a more liveable place than Prishtina.

Pajë (pronounced Pa-err) was known as Peć (pronounced Petch) when Rebecca West came here; I followed her to the Patriarchate, on the edge of town at the start of the route west to the Rugova gorge and the Montenegrin border (closed to motor vehicles, but hikers and cyclists can cross here). This was the headquarters of the Serbian Orthodox Church from 1253 to 1690; it’s still neat as a pin within its walls, with its honey-coloured church set in lovingly tended gardens. The exquisite Serbo-Byzantine frescoes that were just being revealed when West visited are all clearly visible now, having also been restored in 2006. The family tree of the Nemanja dynasty is by the south door of the fourteenth-century narthex (vestibule), which links the chapels of Sveti Apostolá, built in the mid-thirteenth century (dark, with a fourteenth-century fresco of the Virgin and remarkably adult Child), Sveti Dimitri, built in 1316-24 (better lit, with frescoes from c1345 & 1619-20) and Sveti Bogorodica, built c1330 (with a fine series of the Life of the Virgin). Outside, the little chapel of Sveti Nikola, built in 1337, was closed when I was there, but is less interesting, with frescoes from the 1670s.

This lovely site is one of four Serbian Orthodox monasteries in Kosova that are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It’s important to remember that the religious heart of Serbia lies here in Kosova, with the monastery of Dečani, south of Pajë, almost as important as the Patriarchate – one hears a lot about the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when the Ottoman Turks wiped out the Serbian army and nobility, since when the Serbs have borne a grudge against pretty much the rest of the world, but the religious ties are also key to Serbia being so reluctant to allow Kosova independence or even autonomy. Nowadays Kosova is largely secular, although 95% of the population is technically Muslim and just 1.5% Orthodox; however since independence Wahhabism, the fundamentalist Saudi stream of Islam, has established itself here and a surprising number of Kosovars have fought with Daesh in Syria and elsewhere. Dečani is still guarded by NATO troops, but you just have to show your passport to a policeman to visit the Patriarchate of Peć.