Montenegro always held a mystical place in my imagination as inspired by the James Bond movie “Casino Royale” and the scene of the train trundling through dark forest. This was the introduction of the bantering between Eva Green’s Vesper and Daniel Craig’s 007. (Vesper: “I’m the money”. Craig, briskly checking her out: “Every penny of it”), which signaled sizzling scenes to follow.
The dark green trees were certainly real and that is apparently how the country inherited its name. According to our guide, Ivanka (accompanied by driver, Ivan!), when the Venetians arrived, they perceived the country to be made up of “black mountains” (hence the combination of Monte and negro), which in fact turned out to be cypress-covered hills. We were on a (road) trip from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Kotor, Montenegro and the journey did indeed feel akin to traveling through small Italian or southern French villages. There were calm waters to one side and red brick buildings on the other, but alas the train system was not as active as the movie would have us believe and there were of course no sightings of Le Chiffre or Mr Fukutu. However, several casinos and beach properties abounded – particularly following the recent influx of Russian investment.
The scenery was quite breathtaking, the town of Kotor itself as chic and picturesque as a village in the Cinque Terre region. Protected by an ancient stone fort, (which took somewhat more than the half hour we had been informed it would take to climb!); we made the pilgrimage to the top and enjoyed the charming views.
It is indeed hard to believe that the Montenegrins were at war with Croatia as recently as the nineties as all seemed to be on friendly terms now and border crossings this time of year were quick and efficient. I asked Ivanka if she spoke Montenegrin and she chuckled. She was in fact from Bosnia and lived in Croatia. And these days, now that all the Former Yugoslavian states are independent countries; in Montenegro, one speaks Montenegrin, in Bosnia Bosnian and in Croatia, Croatian. But Ivanka assured me that they all understand each other and that really they were all speaking the same language with a few differences in vocabulary – although a puritan might disagree!
Back in Dubrovnik, there were some reminders of the siege of 1992, manifested by the smattering of brand new red roof tops mingling with the older more faded ones as well as the black and white photos in the museum in town and the monument near the main gate that showed where the shells had hit the city. (More about Dubrovnik and its kaleidoscopic history in a future post).
Similarly in Mostar, Bosnia – which we visited the next day on a guided tour with – yes, Ivan and Ivanka after crossing three borders (in and out of Croatia twice), we witnessed signs of a war not yet forgotten. The famous UNESCO world heritage bridge that joined east with west was destroyed during that warand had been rebuilt. Today, there was a small museum dedicated to the memory of such a time, where black and white photos depicted terror and despair.
And yet this was also the site of the diving club from where emerged a team of two. The older person’s role was to entertain and collect money; the younger, clad in wet-suit, was to jump into the freezing waters of the river below, which he did with finesse, a reminder that life goes on and the town will not be defined by war. And in fact all signs pointed to goodwill and globalization. The language is Bosnian, but Montenegrin, Croatian and Serbian are embraced as well as English in general. While Bosnia had its own currency, the convertible mark (pegged to Germany’s currency decades before), Mostar’s restaurants and tourist attractions would take euros or any currencies from neighboring countries (kuna from Croatia; dinar from Serbia). Only the border crossings were a reminder that these are different independent countries, albeit with somewhat complex histories.