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The New York Times: Up at Tito's Villa

Published date: 19.05.2005 19:01 | Author: Kliping inostranih medija

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I catch the last flight from Zagreb, Croatia, to Dubrovnik, flying over the Dalmatian coast as the sun lowers in the sky. I arrive at teatime and drive south down a pine-scented road. A short while later, a man in a funny old-fashioned uniform takes my passport, smiles and waves me over the Montenegrin border. I cross the line between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the West and the East. This is Crna Gora, Black Mountain, the little sister of Serbia in the former Yugoslavia. I go there for a visit to my old friend and mentor, Dessa Trevisan.

Tito's kingdom once swept from the Adriatic Sea in the west to the borders of Romania and Bulgaria in the east to deep Slovene forests, full of wild mushrooms and wolves, in the north. Now Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Slovenia are separate entities and Serbia and Montenegro have formed a loose union.

Once, during the war in Kosovo in 1999, I sat in a cafe in Podgorica, the Soviet-style Montenegrin capital, with an old general who had fought with Tito's partisans as a teenager, hiding in mountain caves and ambushing German and Italian soldiers. He told me the history of Montenegro: that it was the only Balkan state never to be subjugated by the Turks. That it was incorporated into the Serbian empire in the late 12th century. That it retained its independence from the Turks after the Turkish defeat of the Serbs at Kosovo Polje in 1389. That it was recognized as a state following the Congress of Berlin in 1878. That it was ruled by the Petrovic family for some 222 years, until King Nikola I was dethroned in 1918 and fled into exile.

All of this faded history, pride and fierce independence give Montenegro a mythic allure. There are urban legends, some of them true: Montenegrins are the tallest people in Europe; most of Europe's stolen cars end up there; rich Russians are buying up the coast, turning it into a gaudy Porto Ercole.

But still, it is beautiful. Heartbreakingly beautiful: jagged Adriatic coastline; empty beaches; fierce canyons carved out of mountains; tiny fishing communities where families have not altered the pace of their lives for hundreds of years, despite wars, dictators and sanctions. There are former Venetian cities and sacred monasteries teetering on mountaintops where the monks invite you to lunch. There is shellfish risotto and broiled lobster and good Montenegrin cabernet. There is a lethargy that is deeply Mediterranean. And the weather is a capsule of sunlight in an otherwise darkened Europe.

I have come back to Montenegro this early spring, while the rest of the Continent lies under blankets of snow, to see Dessa simply because I miss her. She lives in Igalo, a suburb of Herceg Novi, an old Venetian port that was founded by a Bosnian king in 1382. Dessa has lived quietly here since she disappeared from London one winter a few years back.

''I needed the sun,'' she said simply, as way of explanation.

Born into a wealthy Serb family in Croatia in 1924, Dessa Trevisan was the Eastern Europe correspondent for The Times of London for nearly 50 years. She witnessed the bombing of Belgrade in 1941, the Czech revolution in 1968, the Solidarity movement in Poland, the death of Tito and the brutal wars that ravaged her homeland in the 1990's.

In her heyday, Dessa was probably the most knowledgeable reporter on Eastern Europe: she was so formidable she was terrifying, but she had great charm. Once, at a meeting with Prince Charles, Tito sought out Dessa in a crowd of male correspondents.

''Everyone was furious!'' she says happily, recalling how Tito ignored the others but came to take her hand.

She was friends with Peggy Guggenheim, Milovan Djilas and Arthur Koestler. Picasso sketched cats for her on a napkin and inscribed them, ''For Dessa.'' She was friends and lovers with Romanian artists, Polish filmmakers, American heiresses, British diplomats and Italian royalty. She told the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, in so many words, to stuff it. She was shot at on a Belgrade street.

This is why I love Dessa: she was married twice, but she was always utterly independent, working in a man's world. She joined Reuters in Belgrade in 1950.

By JANINE DI GIOVANNI

Published: May 15, 2005