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LAtimes.com: An understudy to the Riviera emerges in the southern Balkans

Published date: 20.10.2005 17:23 | Author: Kliping inostranih medija

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In Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," a young woman finds herself shipwrecked on a strange coast. "What country, friends, is this?" she asks.
Scholars speculate -- and I like to think -- that she landed on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro, a place as little-known to many people today as it was to Shakespeare's poor, lost Viola.
A few intrepid travelers came here for suntans and seafood in the Soviet era, when Montenegro was a part of the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia and hotel rooms were a steal. But the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, of which Serbia and Montenegro were a part, in the early 1990s, followed by a dark decade of ethnic cleansing and war, virtually erased the region from the tourist map.
Now, with peace restored and all but two of the six republics that made up the former Yugoslavia independent, vacationers have started returning to the southern Balkans.
The coast of Croatia, just northwest of Montenegro, became Europe's hot beach spot a few years ago. Then -- in the inevitable way of flash fame -- it became increasingly crowded and pricey. Adventurous, cost-conscious vacationers began looking to forgotten little Montenegro, about the size of Connecticut and with a population of around 670,000.
Last spring, I clipped an item from the French newspaper Le Figaro touting Montenegro as the next eastern Mediterranean beach destination. The article promised haunting medieval towns like Kotor, rugged mountains, dreamy beaches and low prices compared with those on the French Riviera and Italy's Amalfi Coast.
I also was interested to learn that Montenegro enjoys a beach season that starts as early as April and lingers into October.
So, I reasoned, if I went in September, when most Europeans were back at work after summer vacation, I could return with a fresh, head-turning tan, not to mention leftover money.
But my four-day visit to Montenegro in early September was mostly because of Shakespeare, who depicted the country as a wild, romantic place where marvelous things can happen. Such things stick in the minds of travelers like me, who take trips to find out whether the real place resembles the imagined one. The truth is seldom unalloyed, as I discovered in Montenegro.
From the start, there were problems. I had only the vaguest notion of where the country was and couldn't locate a guidebook that covered it. I did find the Web site for the National Tourist Organization of Montenegro and then an office for Montenegro Airlines, from which I bought a round-trip ticket from Paris to Podgorica, Montenegro's administrative capital, about 40 miles from the coast.
The ticket agent gave me the name of a travel agency in Montenegro -- Luminalis -- that arranged my airport transfers and accommodations. I was offered a double at a small new hotel in the seafront town of Sveti Stefan for about $60 a night.
The price was right, but I had my heart set on the most storied place on the coast, the Hotel Sveti Stefan, occupying its own little island and connected to the town by a causeway. It was formerly a medieval fortress, then a fishing village before it was converted into a hotel in the late 1950s. It briefly upstaged places like St. Tropez as a glamorous hideaway for such movie stars as Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor.
The travel agency warned me that the government-owned Hotel Sveti Stefan was no longer up to VIP snuff. But the price for a single, with breakfast and dinner, was about $130. That didn't seem too much, given that visitors who aren't hotel guests must pay $7 just to see the place, one of the main tourist attractions on Montenegro's 175 miles of coast.
Then came a few unsettling omens. To pay the travel agency, I had to wire funds to the agency's bank from mine, because credit-card transactions aren't yet secure in Montenegro. And right before I left, I read that a crony of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, indicted on war-crimes charges, had just been arrested in Budva, near Sveti Stefan.
It was rainy and cold when I flew to Montenegro, a 2 1/2-hour trip that ended with a stirring flyover across the virtually mountain-locked Bay of Kotor. On landing, I found bright sunshine at the diminutive Podgorica airport and a Luminalis agent waiting to take me to Sveti Stefan in his car.
On the way, we skirted the western side of wide Skadar Lake, half in Montenegro, half in Albania, one of the largest bodies of fresh water in Europe. We then crossed Montenegro's coastal range. It crests at little more than 6,000 feet but is stark and steep.
The country is a still-mysterious puzzle piece, fitted between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the northwest, Serbia to the northeast and Albania to the south. Settled by the Greeks and then the Romans, Montenegro lay on the boundary of the dominions of the Byzantine Orthodox Church in Constantinople and the Catholic Church in Rome.
In the Middle Ages, local tribes and towns allied to the powerful Venetian Republic were more successful than the rest of the southern Balkans in fending off the Ottoman Turks. Nevertheless, throughout history, Montenegro's periods of independence have been scant and far between. The outcome of a national referendum, tentatively scheduled for next year, to decide whether the country will remain in confederation with Serbia or go it alone, remains impossible to predict, partly because of long-standing cultural ties with Serbia.
People like me who come to Montenegro just to soak up the sun are generally unaware of its complicated history and politics.
Actually, I found few like me. American tourists are scarce, although English is frequently spoken by hotel and restaurant staff because of the country's popularity among English and Irish vacationers. Even more common are Russians. I saw them on the Hotel Sveti Stefan's beautiful private beach -- young couples launching naked babies into the shallows, which are carpeted with smooth red stones; middle-aged men talking into cellphones, their trophy wives or girlfriends, topless, at their sides.
A narrow, winding road links the resorts along Montenegro's coast, from Herceg-Novi near the Croatian border to Ulcinj, the last major town before Albania. About halfway between the two, I got my first view of the town of Sveti Stefan, cascading down a mountainside to the ocean, with a spit of sand lined by a causeway about 300 yards long that tethers the rock islet to the mainland.
The partly walled island Hotel Sveti Stefan looks magnificent from a distance, a Mediterranean Mont St. Michel made up of about two dozen stone villas roofed with red tile, climbing terraces toward a Serbian Orthodox chapel on the top of the rock. Porters meet guests at the head of the causeway to take baggage to the formidable front gate.
Guests are given maps when they arrive, which are especially valuable at night, when it's almost impossible to avoid going astray on the island's poorly lighted, maze-like walkways and staircases. In the daytime, it's fairly easy to find the Serbian Orthodox chapel and postage-stamp-sized swimming pool below it, the cafe on the islet's southeastern side and the stunning, terraced dining room, which looks toward the Montenegro Riviera capital of Budva.
I spent two nights in a single, with hardly any view, a spread-less bed that looked like something out of boot camp, battered bureaus and chairs and a private bath, garishly tiled, but clean and serviceable. The hotel didn't seem crowded, but I had to plead with the reservations manager to let me move for my last two nights to a similarly shabby double that overlooked the mainland.
Breakfasts on the terrace featured blueberry juice and big, beautiful, cheesy omelets. Dinners were another matter, served by legions of waiters attired in penguin black and white, who presented lackluster fish and meat dishes. After two evening meals at the hotel, I went elsewhere, even though dinners were included in my room rate.
Like the hotel, the town of Sveti Stefan is rough around the edges. It's in the middle of condo and hotel development that bodes ill for its future.
To get to Budva the next morning, about 10 miles northwest of Sveti Stefan, I took a water taxi that let passengers on and off at several of the most popular beaches along the way.
The last stop was the mightily walled old town, or "Stari Grad," of Budva, topped by a citadel where open-air concerts and plays are staged in summer. Budva is an ancient place, mentioned in the writings of Sophocles, Pliny and Ptolemy. Excavations in the late '50s yielded riches from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras. Then an earthquake in 1979 uncovered more ceramics, gold jewelry, bronze implements and glass, now on display at the neatly organized Archeology Museum in an old Budva house.
The Bay of Kotor is a wonder, reached from the Adriatic through two other bays, separated by bottlenecks. It is surrounded by steep mountains, including Mt. Lovcen, the nation's spiritual cradle.
Anyone who has been to Venice will be enchanted by this late-medieval outpost of the once omnipotent republic, with its decorated palaces, clock tower, meandering lanes and secret piazzas.
My tour group then boarded a little boat and sallied forth onto pristine Kotor Bay. Halfway across, we saw the tall Venetian tower of the town of Perast and the two islets in front of it, crowned by churches. We stopped at one of them, Our Lady of the Rock, built stone by stone by local people starting in the 15th century.
In my heart of hearts, I'm fairly sure that Shakespeare's Viola landed someplace on the Bay of Kotor at the beginning of "Twelfth Night." Ultimately, things worked out for her. She found her lost twin brother and married a duke.
Things worked out well for me there also, even if the Adriatic Coast of Montenegro remains something of a mixed bag: in need of development but not too much, almost ready to welcome visitors but not too many. It's not quite an idyll, but as is, it's a fine place to be shipwrecked.

By Susan Spano