Stranger in a strange land: Montenegro is full of Serbs with nowhere else to go; it has great beaches, and a very fine fiord. When Simon Calder arrived, he came as a bit of a surprise, too

Simon Calder
Friday 29 July 1994 23:02

The easiest way to reach Montenegro is via Albania, which means it is not easy at all. That could explain why, according to the border guards, no Briton had made the crossing since the outbreak of war in former Yugoslavia.

Thanks to the scarcity of vehicles using the crossing, there was a surplus of border guards, who were amusing themselves by seeing how much beer they could consume in an afternoon. 'You'd better go to the cafe,' one of the more sober among them said; this translated as 'sit around and sweat for most of the afternoon while we consult headquarters'. He succeeded in opening another beer, but failed to reach for the telephone.

I thus had plenty of time to admire Europe's most breathtakingly beautiful frontier post. The road clings to the hillside as it skirts Lake Skadar (the largest in the Balkans), which did little but shimmer placidly, its surface merging with the heat haze. The sun had baked the parched mountains to an ashen white, which mystified me since the name Montenegro means 'black mountain'.

But there was not much that made sense in any case. Before the war, the idea of reaching Montenegro via Albania would have seemed ludicrous. But then Albania opened up and Yugoslavia closed down. The republic of Montenegro constitutes, with Serbia, what is left of Yugoslavia. United Nations sanctions apply equally to both. Among other things, the UN prohibits flights into the country, so the highway from Tirana has become a dusty, pot-holed artery to the smallest state in the Balkans.

Two hours later, the guard had helped empty another crate of beer, and the nation's coffers (I think) had been enriched by pounds 4 in exchange for my visa. 'Do you have a car?' the guard asked. I shook my head, forgetting that in these parts the gesture means 'yes'. But from my decidedly pedestrian appearance, he second- guessed me. 'You'll be needing a ride in this Mercedes, then,' was the gist of his muttered reply. He persuaded the owner of the flashy saloon which had just pulled up that giving me a lift as far as the capital was a condition of entry into Montenegro.

The sad, untidy squalor of Podgorica reminds visitors that five years ago this country was a bastion of state socialism. The Hotel Nogina, built in 1953 when Tito was in power, is a spookily empty monolith in the middle of town. The expressions of the touts and taxi drivers hanging around outside are crestfallen rather than canny; the only people who come here these days are Serbs and fellow, unsmiling, Montenegrins.

Even when a Mercedes drops you at Podgorica bus station and obliges you to seek onward transportation among the spluttering, stinking coaches run on black-market diesel, travelling in Montenegro is easy and cheap - and as fast as the blanched mountain terrain will permit.

The shabby tenements of Podgorica quickly disappeared amid the dust as the bus belched upwards into a scraggy pine forest. Swinging around an alarming number of high-altitude hairpins, we were provided with glimpses of gracefully sculpted valleys whose floors were speckled with farmhouses and cottages - an image of misleading serenity.

Budva sounds like a brand of beer, but turns out to be probably the best seaside resort on the Adriatic. The finest thing about it is the handsome sweep of dazzling, soft sand, whose hinterland has been only mildly tarnished by tourism. The next best thing is the descent from the mountains to the sea. The bus can negotiate the 2,000ft drop by making a tantalisingly long series of reckless zigzags, each of which takes you nearer to the sea.

The local airport used to welcome package tourists from Western Europe. Save for the odd flight from Belgrade, it is silent these days. Yet the beach is in danger of reaching sunbather saturation for one simple reason: just as what remains of Yugoslavia is off-limits to most of the rest of the world, so the rest of the world is off-limits to what remains of Yugoslavia. Thus Serbs in search of a seaside holiday are constrained to this slim slice of Montenegro facing out across the Adriatic. The place heaves with pink flesh.

Anybody travelling up the coast in search of more of the same would be disappointed - but only momentarily. Instead of a sedate ribbon of sand, you stumble upon a geological marvel a couple of thousand miles away from where it ought to be. The Bay of Kotor is not really a bay, but a fully fledged fiord. Near-vertical sides plunge into the steely water, while tiny settlements cling to the edge. Forget Norway: this is a majestic scar on the surface of the earth.

Kotor, at the top of the fiord, looks and feels ancient, but much of the superstructure is new: an earthquake in 1979 demolished large parts of the town as effectively as fighting across the border has done in Mostar.

The reconstruction in Montenegro has been deftly done, so Kotor manages to be a convincing mirage of a medieval, middle-European city. Warmth accumulated during the day oozes from the buildings to wash over the evening diners who fill every seat at every pavement cafe. Saturday night is celebrated no less enthusiastically in Greater Serbia than elsewhere, and the appetising spread of seafood mocks the embargo.

The road around the fiord was once crowded with sightseeing buses full of tourists, but now just the little local bus rattles around. It goes through Perast, an archetypally pretty fishing village that once was a tiny city-state with its own navy. The bus route ends at Herceg-Novi , the resort where the fiord blends with the Adriatic.

Sunbathers jostle for every inch of the seafront, while a handsome old town drapes itself elegantly over the hillside. You can sit in the square and enjoy a hearty lunch, convinced that not much can be wrong with the world. The sky is oppressively blue and the sun implausibly shiny . . . yet 30 miles away lies the tragic region (closely related in name) of Herzegovina. While you enjoy the peace of Herceg-Novi, the war in Herzegovina continues.

Getting there: Air travel to Montenegro is banned under the UN embargo, so the easiest approach is to fly to Tirana. Regent Holidays (0272 211711) sells tickets on the Slovenian airline Adria via Ljubljana for pounds 325.

From Tirana, a train or bus to Shkodra costs about pounds 1. A collective taxi to the border costs another pounds 1. The taxi fare from the frontier to Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, is dollars 20 ( pounds 13). Cheap and frequent buses from there link all the towns in the country. A one-month visa is issued to British passport-holders on arrival, for DM10 ( pounds 4).

Money: The New Dinar is on a par with the DM, so (approximately) pounds 1 = ND2.50. New Dinars are unobtainable outside Greater Serbia. Visitors are advised to take German marks in cash; UN sanctions mean traveller's cheques and credit cards cannot be used.

Accommodation: A room in a reasonable three-star hotel costs about pounds 30 single and pounds 40 double. Rooms in private houses are widely available, and are indicated by the sign 'Sobe'.

(Photograph omitted)

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