Today was the hottest day of the year. 36 degrees. The day we decided to check out Montenegro. It was quite a test for all of us.
I knew nothing about this little country. I certainly never expected it to be some sort of super-heated tourist town. But apparently it is. The south coast is considered one of the great new “discoveries” among world tourists. The New York Times featured Montenegro as one of the “Top 31 Places to Go in 2010”. Number 24, to be precise, but no matter. For a country hardly anyone has heard of, it’s a fine achievement.
Montenegro is officially 6 years old. In reality it is ancient. Prior to its recent re-incarnation, it has been in and out of Serbian, Ottoman, Austrian, Italian and Soviet control for over a thousand years. It enjoyed previous independent lives in the 1500s, 1600s and then from 1878 until the first world war. As we grew up, it was hidden in our school atlases and football sticker books as part of Yugoslavia. The seemingly immortal Tito appeared menacingly on its stamps, and nobody even contemplated it as a holiday destination.
Everything changed in the 1990s following the eastern-European political earthquakes and the collapse of the iron curtain. In 1992, two-thirds of the population voted to leave Yugoslavia and join with Serbia. The referendum was boycotted by the pro-independents and minority groups and there was no impartial monitoring. Nevertheless, Serbia and Montenegro was created as a nation and my eight year old son and I watched them lose 2-1 to England in a friendly football battle in Leicester.
Meanwhile, real and bloody battles were raging with Bosnia and Croatia. Montenegrin forces joined Serbian troops in the attacks on Dubrovnik, and to their shame were complicit in gross violations of human rights, including the transportation of refugees to Serb concentration camps.
It was from Dubrovnik we drove into Montenegro. Dubrovnik still bares the scars of those Serbian/Montenegrin attacks, despite various successful rounds of cosmetic surgery. Fortunately, it is protected by the extremely thick skin of its impregnable walls. But the siege and bombardment – in which 824 historic buildings were damaged – was an assault not just on this historic city and its people, but an affront to the whole history and culture of Croatia.
It was a 30 minute journey to Montenegro along the beautiful coast. As we neared the border, the Croatian road deteriorated dramatically, as if to dissuade its people from entering former enemy territory. We hit some roadworks and then several miles of what can only be described as rubble. All that was missing was an “only suitable for tanks” warning. We might have qualified with our 9-seater bus. I was glad it was a hired vehicle, as we clattered and rattled along, finally reaching the border exit out of Croatia. Beyond this the road was beautifully smooth and sprinkled with Duty Free shops.
We spent the afternoon melting in the historic little town of Herceg Nova by the sea. Having found a parking space big enough for our bus, the first thing we needed was local cash. Nobody seemed to speak any English. I perfected the international gesture for “is there a cash machine near here?”, doing a charade of using an ATM with the aid of my debit card. An hour later we held a 100 euro note. There was no local currency. Montenegro is not even in the EU yet, but they have already gone European. In fact, the town had all the feel of a Mediterranean resort – with its packed beaches, harbour wall and the usual selection of ice-creams. Tourism is clearly on the up, and the more European they can make it the better. Their brief record in the Eurovision song contest is not too shoddy either, and considerably better than the UK. But then, whose isn’t?
In 2006, Montenegro finally voted for independence from Serbia – the required 55% threshold was passed by only 2,300 votes. This election was monitored by the European Union.
Montenegro is clearly keen become a respectable member of the international community. You will have spotted them in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. At the time of writing, their record is “Medal total: 0; Medals per head: 0”. Which sadly means we haven’t had the opportunity to hear their rather quaint national anthem, “Oh, bright dawn of May, Our mother Montenegro, We are sons of your rocks and keepers of your honesty. We love you, the rocky hills. And your awesome gorges. That never came to know the chains of shameful slavery.”
It occurs to me that this is a country with something of an understandable identity crisis, lurching through history, from one set of chains of shameful slavery to another with all too brief periods of freedom. Then, behaving like a small boy in the playground, unsure of which of the big boys to side with, or whether to stick up for itself. And by default, joining with Serbia in bullying smaller countries, rather than be bullied itself.
But now the schoolmasters of the west have implemented their anti-bullying policy in the school of the former Yugoslvia, and little Montenegro can puff out its chest and stand on its own two feet. And so it does, keen to impress the European teachers and to excel in class without fear of intimidation. Tourism is its chosen specialist subject. The Government has set the development of Montenegro as an elite tourist destination as a top priority.
We ate a rather elite lunch on a terrace overlooking the sea. The salads were delicious and there was not much change from our 100 euro note. The strategy is working well.
Europe, rather than Yugoslavia, is clearly the way forward for Montenegro. No more does it want to experience those chains of shameful slavery, and equally, no longer wants to align itself with those who would try to inflict those chains on others.
Their support for the Serbian attack into Dubrovnik just twenty years ago remains fresh in many memories. The population of Montenegro is still 30% Serbian, but this proportion continues to fall. It has to, if the 6 year old child is to grow into an independent adult. Meanwhile, there remains, no doubt, an uneasy relationship with Croatia.
After our melting day in Montenegro, we were glad of the air-conditioning in the bus. We breezed through the border control out of the country. Re-entering Croatia was a different proposition. A car in front of us was pulled off the road and thoroughly searched. Suspicion of the Serbians remains. And if they got through security, there was the gauntlet of the miles of punishing rubble to negotiate on the road back up to Dubrovnik. This would shake out any residual thoughts of aggression.