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Montenegro & Croatia: War, Peace & the In Between

Perast, Montenegro

I wrote this piece back in 2012 when my husband and I had the opportunity to take a daytrip into Montenegro with a local guide from Croatia. I was interested in seeing a little bit of this tiny, relatively new country—roughly the size of Connecticut—but I got a lot more than I bargained for in the form of a history lesson from a local’s perspective when I hired a driver to take us there. Montenegro, with its rugged coastline; small, fortified towns surrounding the Bay of Kotor; and “black” mountains for which it was named, is worth a detour from Dubrovnik. I would characterize it as “a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay.” Dubrovnik makes a nicer home base, and you can easily cover the major towns centralized around the Bay of Kotor—the highlight of this country for most travelers—in a day.

As we set off from Dubrovnik, I am happy to have someone else driving us (I don’t know how glad until we hit the border road between the two countries, but I’ll get to that in a minute). We have driven a decent bit of Croatia’s notoriously windey costal roads and need a break to relax and enjoy our trip instead of trying to follow maps and directions and not drive off of a cliff in the process. We aren’t far outside of Dubrovnik when our driver pulls off the road, though, and says he wants to show us something first. We are discussing the recent war that ravaged so much of the Balkan region and the situation of the current government. He pulls into a complex of luxury hotels… or what used to be a complex of luxury hotels.

“Everyone who was anyone in the communist party used to stay here, including Tito” he tells us. “You know who Tito is, of course?” he asks without really asking.

And we do, Tito ran Yugoslavia in its infancy. My history books tell me he’s the only one who was really able to hold the country together. Our driver—we’ll call him Josip since I didn’t ask his permission to share all of his very frank and honest opinions—disagrees. He says Tito just did a better job of intimidating internal insurrection and playing the west vs. Russia to keep his country economically afloat.

We get out of the car and walk around the buildings a little. They have been completely gutted by bombs. All of the windows have been blown out; there are pockmarks in the cement walkways and scarring the entire exterior of the buildings. At certain points you can see the steel frame running through what concrete used to encase. Time has only increased the precarious way the complexes appear to be balanced. I wouldn’t exactly call them a safe structure to wander, particularly since they were obviously shelled at some point, but we walk through one of the open arched hallways to look down at the beautiful shoreline a few meters away. There are several other hotels along the water we can see from here looking just like this one, bombed out and decaying.

“Why haven’t they rebuilt any of these?” I wonder. “This is prime real estate.” I think about how crowded Dubrovnik is, and how there isn’t really much room for tourists to stay within the city itself, how the majority of tourists stay on the Lapad Peninsula where the resort hotels are—well outside of the walled city. Some are much farther than this is from the city center.

The answer he provides, though, is complicated. The government owns the property; no one can decide what to do with it (sell it, keep it, develop it). At some point, someone bought one of the hotels and then someone killed him (I hope those two events are unrelated, but I don’t ask). He goes on to elaborate that the problem in Croatia is that the politicians will not work together. Coming from the United States, this is not a new concept to me, but I still don’t quite understand why developing coastal land that has already been developed once is controversial. Apparently, rules change about as often in Croatia as runway models change outfits, and all of the bureaucracy makes it nearly impossible to invest in projects here.

As we depart the destroyed resorts and continue to drive south, the road gets progressively worse until we’re driving on an uneven dirt road strewn with large rocks. Even slowing to a crawl doesn’t seem to help all of the dust and gravel being kicked up by the tires of his BMW, and I cringe as I hear rocks periodically clip the car.

Road at the Croatia-Montenegro Border

“What are they doing to the road?” I ask Josip.

“What do you mean?” he asks back.

“The construction, why is it in such bad shape?”

“If you think this is bad, you should have seen it last week,” he laughs. “This is a great improvement.”

If this is a great improvement, I think to myself, I don’t know how anything but a tank got down this “road” last week. Josip explains that if it weren’t for the tours he does, he would never enter Montenegro, neither would the majority of Croatians. Some tensions still exist between the two countries, leftover from a war that is still too fresh in their minds to be completely left in the past, like two neighbors who aren’t particularly fond of one another but tolerate each other because neither one can really move. When Croatian politicians try to spend tax dollars to fix the roads that connect the two countries, the majority of people protest about their money going toward such a project. Croatians feel the only people who benefit from a better road are the Montenegrins, and why should their tax dollars be used to help them?

He tells me the Montenegrins utilize the road to reach the Dubrovnik airport for cheaper travel, as a thoroughfare to reach their relatives in other parts of Europe, and to transport stolen cars in and drugs out. He says the border has been experiencing a lot of issues with drugs being smuggled into Croatia. Josip repeats a popular travel motto known throughout Europe in the early 2000’s—‘come to Montenegro, your car is already here waiting for you’—in reference to a problem with stolen cars across Europe ending up in Montenegro. I take everything I hear with a grain of salt. Montenegro, in our guide’s perspective, is run by the Mob more than a legitimate government. When I do my research later, I find that the slogan he referenced is quite popular, and there is some truth to previous Montenegrin government officials having ties to organized crime, so maybe he’s not so far off the mark.

When I ask, “what about the tourists who want to go there?” in reference to the road to Montenegro as we continue to bump along, he replies that locals would ask why they would want to encourage tourists to go and spend their money elsewhere? Good point I guess.

“Why are they trying to fix the road at all then?” I question.

“Because we are entering the European Union in July [2013]. We need to build up our infrastructure in order to do that. Montenegro and Bosnia wish to join, as well. Someday we will not have ‘borders’ anymore to worry about—whether some of us like it that way or not.”

Finally, after a bit more bumping around, we reach the border. He hands over all of our papers, but as seems to be the trend in this general part of the world, our American passports aren’t even opened. They just look his papers over carefully. Americans equal welcomed tourist dollars, and no one wants to hassle us. Josip does us a favor, though, and gets the guard to stamp our passports for us. We love collecting stamps, and with the EU now, even when we cross borders we can only rarely get one.

“He’s a Croat,” he says, motioning to the guard. “It’s not a problem. A Serb would not have done it for you. They are not fond of Americans like we are.” I ask why and he launches into an explanation of the politics of the 1990’s war. He’s a huge fan of George W. Bush—this is a shock to me because in most of Europe it’s best not to mention his name unless you want to bring on a tirade from a local. Josip gives the Clintons their fair share of praise, too, though. “Without them, we would still be at war; if the US deserts us, we will end up back at war,” he says frankly. He feels NATO was their savior. “The UN did nothing for us. They say they will send in peacekeepers and everyone feels safer. Then they stand by and watch as thousands of us are massacred and won’t lift a finger. What was the point in their coming at all? NATO restored peace, their presence ensures peace continues.”

Josip does not have high praise for the European Union or Croatia’s plans to become members in July, either. “We just freed ourselves from one power, why do we want to now tie ourselves to another? We know what it’s like to be controlled, and it has not worked well for us in the past, has it?” he asks referencing their break from Yugoslavia. “I would rather become the 51st State of the United States than become a part of the European Union.”

Photos: Bay of Kotor

When we arrive at our first stop in Montenegro, a photo op at the entrance to the Bay of Kotor, we get out and observe the surrounding area. Montenegro’s black mountains loom around us. Its name is definitely fitting. The Bay only has a small opening, about ¼ mile wide; it’s deep, though. So deep that large cruise ships can pass in and out without incident. The perfect location for sea traders: strategically situated inside an easily defendable waterway—any ship who tried to invade had to get through the small opening and would be an easy target for the awaiting navy—and surrounded by high, jagged-peaked mountains, making it nearly impossible to invade from land, either.

Photos: (Top Left) Overlooking The Bay of Kotor Opening; (Top Center) Dog in Perast; (Top Right) Perast From The Water; (Bottom Left) Boat Ride to Our Lady of The Rock; (Bottom Center) Our Lady of The Rock; (Bottom Right) Perast From the Water

After a few photos, we’re on our way to Perast—our first real stop-off. Perast is a small seaside town. The reason most people visit it is to take a boat out to “Our Lady of the Rock” church. It sits on a manmade island in the bay. The legend surrounding it more or less goes like this: Some sailors found a picture of the Virgin Mary and Child atop the rocks on this sight. Seeing it as a sign, it was decided to build a church in the same spot. The only problem was an island didn’t exist to build it on. So, every time sailors returned safely home from a voyage, they passed by the site and would toss a stone in. Eventually, old boats were sunk on the site, more stones were added, and the island of today appeared. Even to this day, every year locals hold a festival where they go out in boats and toss stones around the island to shore it up. The first recorded church on this site dates all the way back to 1452. The church of today, while small, is interesting, and the short boat ride out to it is a nice feature, as well. Our driver arranges for a private boat to take us out to the island within minutes, then a guide to take us through the church, and finally our ride back with ease. After a short coffee break, we are on our way to our next stop: Kotor.

Photos: Pictures In and Around Kotor

When we arrive in Kotor, Josip stays with the car while we explore. I ask if car theft is a problem inside Montenegro, as well. He says yes, but that the issue is more about his license plate standing out. There are Serbs in Montenegro, and they are not keen on the Croats, just as the Croats still express some hostility toward the Serbs. His license plate marks his as Croatian, so he doesn’t like to leave the car out of his sight. To emphasize this point, he tells me about a recent tourist who rented a car in Belgrade, Serbia (so it obviously had a Serbian license plate). The renter then drove the car to Croatia. The next morning when he came outside, his car had been destroyed, presumably by resentful locals. And so, the cycle of mistrust continues to promulgate between the two populations.

Kotor is much more crowded than Perast; there are cruise ships in the port adding to the regular influx of tourists. Our parting advice from our guide as we head into the walled city is to eat something simple like pizza. He says the power goes out quite often in Montenegro, and with the hot summer weather, he doesn’t suggest eating seafood or things that would spoil easily. We take his advice and follow a side street to a delicious smelling pizza place selling slices. We get one, and it’s so good that we each get a second, as well. After our hunger is taken care of, we set off to explore the city. It’s small, and there are only a few real “sights” (most are churches). We head outside at one of the gates to get a better look at the town’s fortified walls that wrap up the mountain. This definitely would not have been an easy place to invade; between the mountains, fortified walls, and easily defendable bay, it seems like it would have been next to impossible. We get lost in the narrow, shaded lanes of the old city, and before we know it, it’s time to leave.

Photos: Budva- Left: The Beach, Right: Walking the City Walls

Our next stop, Budva, is party central for visitors and locals alike. Josip says that the discotecs here are huge and stay open until all hours. If you want to party in Montenegro, Budva is where you head. Budva also had the sandy beaches tourists love; the medieval walled city is surrounded by them. We wander the streets, walk the short wall enveloping the Old Town, and stop for a drink. Outside the walls, there is a stretch along a pedestrian only street that reminds me of a boardwalk back home. It’s not directly on the shoreline, but it has the same feel lined with food stands, bars, restaurants, and shops.

Photo: Sveti Stefan

After Budva, we have a quick stop-off at a viewpoint overlooking Sveti Stefan. Long Montenegro’s destination for the rich and famous, the resort costs a minimum of $1,000/night to stay there, and if you’re not staying there, they’re not letting you in. It’s pretty from above, but I can’t imagine spending that kind of money to stay there. It’s definitely for people in a much higher tax bracket than I am.

On our drive back, we’re supposed to take the ferry across the bay, but the line is backed-up for miles. Josip decides to return through a different route instead and takes us a back way that avoids the line of cars. In what seems like no time at all, we are back at the border, a different checkpoint, and an even worse road! Under construction like the first but this time actively, so we have to dodge bulldozers and backhoes. It’s definitely an adventure.

Photos: Border Road with Montenegro in Croatia

During the drive back, we get into a discussion on gun control. After the war, anyone with an unregistered gun was required by law to turn it in. If caught with one, you will be sent to jail.

“Many people still have them, though,” Josip tells us. “They are distrustful of the tentative peace they have with their neighbors and are holding onto them ‘just in case.’”

“Even with the threat of going to jail for years, they still keep them?” I ask.

“If you live through a war, you don’t always trust that peace will last indefinitely,” he explains. “You would rather risk jail than your life.”

“Where were you during the war?” I question.

“We spent most of it inside the wall of Dubrovnik during the siege, in the monastery” Josip tells us. “I was only a child. Many of us sought shelter there. We had a great sense of community; that is one of the only good things about war: everyone helps one another. After a war is over, that lasts for a little while, but then people forget again, go back to their own lives…”

I contemplate all that we have learned about these countries and the war as we drive the rest of the way back to Dubrovnik. The history here is so complicated. Even after spending time in Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Slovenia and getting perspectives on the wars that broke up Yugoslavia from several Bosniaks and Croats (we never ended up in a position to ask a Serb), I am still very confused. I decide that maybe there are just many sides to the same story. Some sides were wrong at different times, and some were right, but everyone is both innocent and to blame to some extent when you look across all of the different wars that split apart Yugoslavia. It’s much more complicated than that, but the best example I can come up with is that the defenseless Croats were attacked in Dubrovnik, but yet they can be viewed as the aggressors in Mostar (Bosnia)–similar situations, just with ‘victim’ and ‘aggressor’ reversed. I just pray that the countries can now put these horrors behind them and move forward as their own nations and as neighbors. They still have a ways to go, but as they slowly merge together as part of the EU, their borders will begin to disappear, and maybe their distrust of one another will in time, as well.

Despite their recent past, these countries are now beautiful, safe, and affordable tourist destinations. I found everyone I encountered to be friendly and accommodating regardless of which side of these borders I was on and never experienced any ‘tensions’ firsthand. For a tourist, the wars of the 1990s are just a part of the countries’ history. The beauty of these two countries and their natural surroundings make a trip here a once in a lifetime experience. I would hurry here before the rest of the United States figures that out, as well!

Concluding note: Croatia was admitted into the European Union on July 1, 2013. To day, they have not adopted the Euro as a currency. As of this update (January 2018), Montenegro is an EU candidate country but has not yet been admitted, and Bosnia and Herzegovina is a potential candidate country (does not yet fulfill the requirements for EU membership). For a more recent status update, you can check the the EU's official website here.

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