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The National: Unexplored Montenegro

Published date: 13.06.2008 15:58 | Author: Kliping inostranih medija

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Unexplored Montenegro

Once in a while, because of political or cultural circumstances, a previously unknown or obscure place suddenly finds itself in the news. A new awareness of the area develops, and its discovery as a tourist destination is hailed and passed along from person to person. The location is then overrun, as though it had never before existed, in a mad rush by tourists who want to be among the first to lay claim to having been there. Places like Costa Rica, Thailand, Croatia and the Czech Republic have to varying degrees all experienced and encouraged this all-too-human tendency to seek out and exploit the new.

The Republic of Montenegro, a pristine and savagely beautiful land tucked into Europes southeast corner, faces a similar scenario. Long obscured by decades of communist isolation and the secessionist upheavals that followed it, this tiny nation is now being touted as one of the premier travel destinations in Europe. The newest fully recognised country in the world, whose split from Serbia in 2006 was the final death throe in the long and painful demise of Yugoslavia, Montenegro is struggling to maintain the fine balance that comes with being the popular new travel venue on the block.

Since the country gained its independence two years ago, the Montenegrin National Tourist Organization has been luring tourists and investors by promoting it as the unspoilt new adventure land on the Mediterranean. Wild Beauty is the catchphrase used repeatedly in television and print advertisements. This, combined with other PR boons, most notably Montenegros appearance as the main setting for the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale (which was actually shot in the Czech Republic), has helped push tourism to unprecedented levels. According to official statistics, 1.1 million tourists visited Montenegro last year, more than double the number in 2000.
This is not without good reason. Montenegros long political isolation and extraordinarily rich ecological endowment have helped to make the tiny nation one of the most genuine, beautiful and best preserved in Europe. Among its bragging points are Europes deepest canyon, its largest bird sanctuary, its southernmost fjord and the last of its virgin forests. More than a third of Montenegro is forested, and much of the countrys mountainous surface is dotted with historical towns, fortresses, monasteries and Ottoman-era mosques. Added to all of this is the 290-kilometre stretch of Riviera along the Adriatic Sea.

Montenegros coast is the undeniable draw for the majority of the tourists visiting the country. Located south of the same stretch of beachfront as the pricier and overcrowded Dalmatian coast in Croatia, the area has experienced a major spillover effect, as tourists and real estate prospectors have poured in looking for fresh new deals.

The resort town of Budva has taken the brunt of this activity. This quaint 15th-century town of stonewalled, red-roofed buildings and narrow, winding streets is surrounded by an ever-expanding tourist sprawl. In the hills above its carnival-like ferment of sultry beaches, disco bars and candy floss vendors, Budvas winding mountain roads are clogged with construction vehicles clearing newly purchased plots of land slated to house villas and other tourist amenities. A pine forest located on a small peninsula at the entrance to Budva was recently levelled to make room for what is being described as a Dubai-style skyscraper hotel.

Just south of Budva, the former fishing village of Sveti Stefan is undergoing similar transformations. Sitting atop an outcrop of rock in the middle of the sea and linked to the mainland by a causeway, the idyllic town is a true Montenegrin icon. Made up of sun-bleached limestone villas and set amid clusters of oleander and bougainvillaea, the town has been a secluded getaway spot ever since became a resort in the 1960s. In the frenzy of investment that has consumed the coast, uber luxury hotel group Amanresorts has recently taken over management of the island and is renovating the village with plans to turn it into one of the most exclusive and elite hotel complexes in Europe.

One of the main challenges for this region is to achieve sustainable development, said Milica Begovich-Radojevic, an economy and environment expert with the United Nations Development Programme in Podgorica.

The rapid growth has created a lot of issues that need to be resolved. Some of these relate to illegal building, water supply problems, pollution problems and the high level of noise in urban areas.

So far, the rest of Montenegro has been spared the large-scale influx of tourists and development, which is taking place along the Riviera. The result is that the remainder of the country, for the moment, retains much of its original charm.

This becomes evident as one moves north and inland from the coast. Here a different Montenegro comes into view: one that is less maritime, more rugged and ecologically delicate. Intersecting mountain chains, lakes, river systems, canyons, forests and archaic villages caught in mesmerising historical time-warps differentiate this cake of the country from the high-flown icing which is its coast. This is where one can witness and interact with the wild beauty that has become Montenegros beckoning mantra. But this wild beauty is also wildly fragile. One need travel only a short distance from the coast to appreciate how ecologically vulnerable the inland part of Montenegro is.

One such place is Lake Skadar, a few hours drive from Budva. Known locally as Skadarsko Jezero, the lake is the largest in the Balkans and straddles the border between Montenegro and neighbouring Albania. It is ringed in by forested mountains and dotted with verdant cone-shaped islands reminiscent of small volcanoes. It is also the largest bird preserve in Europe and a veritable ecological wonderland existing in a delicate balance between nature and humans. Here, wizened, grey-haired fishermen glide across the flamingo-populated waters on wooden punts fishing for bleak, carp and eel. Nearby, on tiny islets that dot the lakes southern shore, a handful of Serbian Orthodox monks keep solitary hermitage on tiny one-man-island monasteries.
We live here in the same way that we have always lived, says Bodjidar Vlajnic, a fisherman and lifelong resident of the village of Sestani, and a man who, at 70, looks no older than 55. The air is clean, I eat fish every day, and I dont have to rush to be anywhere.

The pervasiveness of nature becomes even more pronounced as one pushes further north, past the drab communist-era apartment buildings of the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, and into the untamed mountainous interior. Crossing into Montenegros rugged northwest region abutting the border of Bosnia-Herzegovina, one gets the sense of leaving the modern world entirely. Apart from small shrines commemorating the victims of car crashes that dot the dangerously narrow stretches of mountain roadside, one finds very little evidence of human habitation. So isolated are some of these mountains that they have long been rumoured to conceal Bosnian war criminals moving to and fro across the border.

Also found in this region is the most spectacular of Montenegros natural wonders: the mountains of Durmitor. A Unesco World Heritage site and national park, Durmitor is home to more than 30 mountain peaks rising above 2,000 metres, as well as patches of forest, glacial lakes and alpine meadows. Hiking and skiing and more recently adventure rafting have come to the area, placing some stress on the delicate ecological balance found here.

The growth boom in the south stands as a stark warning for the northern region, says Begovich-Radojevic. It will either repeat the mistakes from its southern neighbours, or it will embrace development that is based on the preservation and protection of nature and the environment.

In a centuries-old scene, a shepherdess herds a flock of sheep over an alpine meadow on the outskirts of Zabljak, Durmitors main town. Far in the distance below, a convoy of jeeps ferries travellers into the mountains. There is a sense that, regardless of how well (or not) Montenegro manages its new-found popularity, the outside world has arrived, and is here to stay.

Unexplored Montenegro