Montenegro: A Rough-Cut Diamond

Montenegro: A Rough-Cut Diamond

the bend, a hot sheath of panic enveloped me. We had
been driving for over six hours and for the last 40 miles
everything around us had been a canvas of grey – grey sky, grey
mountains, grey mood. We should have stayed in
, I reprimanded myself internally…

Traversing the interior of Former Yugoslavia in our
sapphire-blue Ford Fiesta, we passed through the murky terrain of
Republica Srpska, a largely autonomous entity in the middle of
Bosnia and Herzegovina that seems to count a total of 17 large cows
and four humans as citizens.

Along a winding country road somewhere east of Mostar, we had
come upon a tailback of battered old Golfs which stretched as far
as the eye could see, twisting onward beyond the horizon of softly
rolling hills. Sweltering beneath the midday sun, we peeled
ourselves from the sticky leather upholstery of the car and joined
a group of disgruntled looking locals who had abandoned their
vehicles for the grassy knoll at the side of the road. Man, woman
and child pulled on cigarette after cigarette, global investment in
lung cancer awareness evidently falling short of reaching

After many minutes of surreptitious gazes surveying us from head
to toe and furtive glances darting over to our Croatian car
registration plate, one weather-beaten, sallow gentleman ventured a
hesitant “Where from?” in our direction. “Ireland”, James replied
with a smile. A bemused expression painted the face of our
chain-smoking friend, and he swung round to consult the cohort of
stranded drivers at the road’s edge. “Ireland”, I ventured again,
brandishing the details page of my passport for our audience to
inspect. “IRELAND!” they beamed, nodding approvingly and proffering
unbranded cigarettes which I suspected were stronger than anything
legally produced in the Republic. Two hours and two cases of severe
dehydration later, our parade of traffic began to snake its way
along the only road to Montenegro.

We had planned a road trip spanning the length and breadth of
the former federated states of Yugoslavia from the gurgling
melodies of the Zadar Sea organ to the breath taking engineering of
the bridge at Mostar, made all the more impactful by its dark
history. I remember distinctly the moment that Montenegro found its
way onto my aspirational conquest list of “one day, I will
visit…” destinations. Many years ago, lost in the pages of F.
Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I resolved to visit the shores
of this under-appreciated nation state. Gatsby himself waxes
lyrical about his WWI Valour award – “Every Allied country gave me
a decoration – even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the
Adriatic Sea!”

From childhood through to my university days, I had devoured
every book I could lay my hands on that told of the Slavic people
and their chequered past. Tiny yet proud Montenegro captured my
imagination like no other; at the crossroads of multiculturalism
for centuries, the state has been a veritable mishmash of
ethnicities, religions and political orientation since the mighty
days of the Ottoman empire. In July 1941, Montenegro was the site
of the first armed uprising against the Axis powers in
Nazi-occupied Europe. What’s more, the resistance of 32,000 strong
was made up of both men and women – trailblazing in the 1940s.

Somewhere just past the Bosnian border we pulled in at a filling
station to ask if they had a cash machine (they didn’t) or if they
could tell us the quickest way to Budva (they couldn’t). The
Bosnian soccer team were disembarking their coach at the side of
the road in front of our Fiesta, and the fair-haired number seven
summoned just enough English to direct us eastwards for Kotor and
on to Budva.

On and on we went, twisting and turning through mile after mile
of non-descript at best, desolate at worst, countryside. My heart
sank deeper into my chest with every moment – the Montenegro of my
dreams was nothing more than a concocted fantasy.

Delirium was setting in and we hadn’t uttered a single word to
one another since the petrol stop; round every bend I hoped for a
sign announcing our proximity to the coast – but instead we were
continuously flanked by a carpet of bleak, grey stones and an
equally dreary sky, the two melting into a godforsaken tapestry of
lunar-like terrain. I was preparing my most grovelling apology for
dragging us to this inhospitable corner of the earth when a
sparkling beam of sun bolted from the roof of clouds above,
spreading like wildfire across the countryside and kissing all
beneath with golden hue. It was like the touch of an alchemist’s
hand; everything looked better bathed in sunlight and serendipity
was smiling on us for almost as soon as the sun appeared, we
rounded the bend to

A picture-postcard perfection nestled within the hills of
Montenegro, the Black Mountain of the Adriatic. Down, down, down we
went along the winding freeway hewn into the cliff face,
zig-zagging like slalom racers and narrowly avoiding two head on
collisions with thrill-seeking local motorists. I couldn’t take my
eyes off the scene in front: a sprawling bay of ocean blue lake
stretched for miles around, chocolate-box villages scattered
intermittently along the water’s edge.

The sun electrified the waves as they gently lapped against
brightly coloured fishing boats, and at the epicentre of it all sat
the terracotta-roofed pièce de résistance, Chiesa della Madonna
dello Scarpello – meaning Our Lady of the Rocks. As if marooned by
time, the church has stood regally in its solitude for centuries;
legend has it that the islet was made over the course of many
lifetimes by voyaging Croat seamen beholden to an ancient oath
after discovering the icon of Madonna and Child on the rocks in
Kotor Bay during the summer of 1452. Each time they returned from a
successful journey, the seamen laid a rock in the water. Hundreds
of years passed until one day, the rugged mound emerged from the
sea, bursting forth with majesty like King Trident’s sceptre

We pulled up at a layby on the easterly bank of the water and
sunned ourselves on the hot stones flanking the lake’s edge. Five
minutes’ walk along the shore, enticing aromas of freshly baked
pastry wafted over us on the gentle breeze. Sitting outside on a
scarlet-painted battered old bench, we devoured two bureks each and
sat for what seemed like an eternity absorbing the idyll around

By the time we sauntered back to the Fiesta to make the final
leg of our odyssey to the Adriatic Coast, we had attracted some
unwanted attention in the form of two dour looking, Montenegrin
police officers. With hardly a word of English from them and less
than no local language from us, we were at stale mate until one of
the disgruntled men in uniform produced a ticket book, scribbled
€100 in thick black ink and thrust the paper in our faces. It
seemed we had parked the car in a designated set down area, a set
down for what we weren’t quite sure as from what we could see, the
only traffic in and out of the inlet was the baker’s van and the
occasional accidental explorer like ourselves. Without a single
piece of cash, we were stranded at an impasse – two irascible
constables between us and our final seaside destination.
Remembering our encounter with the locals back in Bosnia, I chanced
upon our only card: our universally enjoyed nationality. Gracefully
proffering my open passport in front of the authorities, the
countenance of hostility melted to matching grins and the typical
utterance, “Ah, Irish!” was the last whisper of any difficulty we
had in the state of Montenegro.

An hour later, leaning against the side of the rusty car ferry
to Budva, the sun beat down warmly on our backs and I smiled fondly
at the fortune of our heritage. Here we were, living my early
teenage dream, the only Irish people for miles around and content
in majestic Montenegro, the rough-cut diamond of Europe.