About fortchoteau1

I first learned about Eastern Europe and the various nations in the region by watching the Olympics. The 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo was a formative experience in my life. I hold a B.S. in Political Science and a minor in History with an emphasis on International Affairs. My professional career reconnected me with Eastern Europe when I spent six years guiding tours and developing exhibits at a decommissioned Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile site that had been designated a National Park. From that point I began to read more widely about Eastern Europe and starting traveling throughout the region. I have now made thirteen trips to Eastern Europe. Much of this blog is the result of those travels. In my professional career, I currently serve as the Director of a large museum in the Rocky Mountain West.

A Tale of Two Princes – Petar & Nikola: From Selflessness To Selfishness (A Balkan Affair: #9)

After the congestion and noise of modern Budva, I was no longer regretting my choice of Cetinje for a three nights stay. I found the comparative silence of Cetinje soothing. The quiet streets started to seem more like a familiar home rather than strange avenues deep inside a foreign land. Cetinje was the kind of place where people stayed for a lifetime, whereas Budva felt like the kind of place where people only stayed for a week. Budva offered hedonism, Cetinje history. The past was palpable in Cetinje. Nowhere more so than at its two most famous attractions, King Nikola’s Palace and the Biljarda, Petar II Petrovic-Njegos’ famed palace. I was grateful that both palaces were finally open for visitation. Though King Nikola (Nikola I Petrovic-Njegos) and Prince-Bishop Petar II held power only nine years apart, their personalities and legacies, like the palaces they built, were radically different.

The difference between the two men is the difference between selflessness and selfishness. Petar was true to Montenegro, whereas Nikola was only true to himself. Nikola wanted to be more than a prince. That is why he created a royal house for himself and his family, then became king through self-proclamation as much as by recognition. Petar was interested in improving the lives of all Montenegrins while Nikola was interested in improving his own prestige at the expense of his people. Nikola set out to ingratiate himself to Europe’s royal families and that is exactly what he did. Petar, on the other hand, was father to a nation. Geopolitics for him meant acting in Montenegro’s best interest rather than his own self-interest. While Nikola died in southern France, Petar passed his final days in Cetinje. Nikola’s life could best be summed up by the mantra “All for one.” Petar’s by “One for all.” The latter had a more Montenegrin mentality, while the former was extremely individualistic and western in outlook. Evidence of each man’s personalities can be seen at their palaces.

One For All - Petar II Petrovic-Njegos

One For All – Petar II Petrovic-Njegos

The Man Who Would Be King – Reputation Mismanagement
King Nikola’s Palace was not exactly impressive from the outside. A two-story structure covered with a coat of deep red paint and white shutters, it looked more like a mid-sized embassy or a rich merchant’s house than that of Montenegro’s first and only king. The entrance reminded me more of a ticket booth than the grand entrée to a glittering royal residence. The interior was somewhat better. Lavishly decorated with period furnishings, it called to a mind a Habsburg Archduke’s summer residence. The rooms were sparkling with brilliance, European rather than Montenegrin in style. And that is just the way Nikola wanted it. He was given the affectionate nickname of Europe’s Father in Law, after he proceeded to marry off six of his daughters to European royalty. This may have helped Nikola’s reputation continent wide, but it did nothing to end the grinding poverty most Montenegrin’s suffered.

Nikola loved nothing more than to play geopolitics. He helped put Cetinje on the map, bringing it embassies and ministries. Despite his efforts, Cetinje was the opposite of his ambition. A modest, humble town that quite bizarrely found itself the capital of a European nation in 1878. Nikola wanted more for himself than his capital and he got it, lasting for 50 years as a powerful prince than proclaiming himself king in 1910. Another 8 years went by before he was deposed. Montenegro’s royalty went into permanent exile after the First World War. Nikola was on the winning side and lost anyway. He was no longer wanted nor needed at home. He died on the Cote d’Azur, all his grand designs having come to nothing. His legacy in Montenegro was little more than the palace. It became a museum only eight years after he was deposed. I can safely say that it was the one of the most anti-Montenegrin things I saw in the country.

All For One - Nikola I Petrovic-Njegos

All For One – Nikola I Petrovic-Njegos

Gamesmanship – The Biljarda
Royalty and refinement had little to do with Montenegro. The people were as tough as the landscape that had shaped them. The finest example was Petar, whose Biljarda Palace stood across the square from King Nikola’s Palace and dwarfed it in originality. Montenegro is a land of stone and that is the first thing that came to mind when I saw the Biljarda. The two storied, rectangular structure looked like a cross between a fortified castle and a sprawling palace. Towers were strategically placed at each of the Biljarda’s four corners, not for defensive purposes but aesthetics. These were connected by a high stone wall that surrounded the complex. The Biljarda was spacious in the extreme, befitting the residence of a man who was 6’8” tall. I wandered through its vast rooms – twenty-five in all – while looking at photographs and artifacts of Petar. It was all tastefully done, especially the museum pieces which displayed his literary output.

From the looks of things, Petar was an extremely serious and sober minded intellectual/warrior, but the name Biljarda offers a clue that he also had a less serious side. What other leader would name their palace after a beloved billiard table? Petar loved playing billiards to the point that following a trip to Italy, he had the table which gave the Biljarda its name brought back there. This was no easy feat. First the table had to be transported by ship across the Adriatic and offloaded at Kotor. Then it was carried along a mule track which was the only road to Cetinje at that time. This meant taking it up and over the mountains which separated the coast from inland Montenegro. Finally, it arrived at the palace where it had to be carefully placed inside for Petar to enjoy games of billiards with his closest confidantes.

National Pastime -Billiard Table at the Biljarda

National Pastime -Billiard Table at the Biljarda

Symbolic Moves – The Better Half
The billiard table which is housed inside the Biljarda today is said to be a replica. Whether symbol or stand in, I found the table on display an impressive sign of frivolity. It made Petar seem more human and likable. The more I learned about Petar and the Biljarda, the more I respected him. King Nikola had the opposite effect on me. I found him self-centered, narcissistic and interested only in himself. Much of Montenegro’s 19th and early 20th century history is the tale of two princes, Nikola who made himself a king and Petar who made Montenegro.

(Note from my friend Matija Dragutinovic: “Great text. The biggest difference between them is that Njegos was a spiritual leader, he wrote many works such as Gorski Vijenac which are important for Serbian history, while Nikola was an illiterate ruler, to whom it was important to be at the head of the united Serbian state. An interesting thing, although he had bad relations with the rulers in Serbia, Nikola sided with Serbia and soon after the declaration of the Austro-Hungarian War on Serbia, Montenegro declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire.“)

Sizing Up Cetinje – Sleepwalking In Montenegro’s Historical Capital (A Balkan Affair: #8)

My first impression of Cetinje was one of confusion. Never had I been in a city of such importance that seemed so silent. The streets were pretty much devoid of people and the shops shuttered. The first memorable sight I came across were two Orthodox nuns walking briskly down a street. In a pattern of Montenegrin politeness that I would experience on several occasions, they stopped so I could snap a photo without getting in the way. They had no idea that I wanted them in the photo. Their flowing black robes went right along with the stark surroundings. The nuns were walking down one of the main streets through town. This was also where scattered groups of people were strolling up and down the thoroughfare. No one looked to be in a hurry. It was New Year’s Day in what looked and felt like a provincial outpost.

There was more silence than noise in Cetinje. When a car went up or down a side street, I could hear it long before it came into view. I could not quite put my finger on it, but there was something about Cetinje that felt much smaller than I could possibly have imagined. This was in effect Montenegro’s second most important city and it felt more like an oversized village. There were several impressive residences, most of which were former embassies built around the turn of the 20th century. I cannot say that any of these were architectural touchstones. The most garish building was the former Russian embassy, a neo-Baroque concoction with an exterior so lavish and bright that it looked entirely out of place. I could already tell that Cetinje was going to be an acquired taste, the type of place whose treasures were ones of nuance. I was beginning to see why the journalist Lovatt Edwards in the 1930’s referred to Cetinje as “a city of senior citizens”. It was not the age of its inhabitants, but the staid atmosphere in Cetinje that I found surprising.

Street Scene - Silence in Cetinje

Street Scene – Silence in Cetinje

A Soporific Effect – The Art of Indifference
Despite or perhaps because it was New Year’s Day, the handful of cafes still open were packed. At a couple of the larger ones, people sat outside in the chilly air where they smoked and slowly sipped strong shots of coffee. Their conversation was animated yet they always managed to look relaxed. Cetinje had a soporific effect inducing a feeling of somnolescence. The inhabitants were a reflection of this as they had perfected the art of indifference. The pace of life was laid back in the extreme. As a tourist, I was at a loss for what to do on my first day. With none of the usual attractions open, I went about randomly snapping photos while wondering what I was going to do here for two and a half days. The town’s uniqueness slowly began to dawn on me. Cetinje seemed so tiny because it was. I found it shocking that this had once been the nation’s capital. I found its small size disconcerting, especially when compared to the high esteem in which it is held by Montenegrins. Cetinje’s size in comparison to its exalted place in the national psyche fascinated me. It made me wonder if it was always this way. I soon discovered that it used to be even smaller.

In 1910 Cetinje had less than 6,000 residents, today there are just over 14,000. It had been Europe’s smallest capital city during the early 20th century. If still the capital today, that would continue to be the case. Those numbers were more akin to what might have been found in European cities during the Middle Ages, when societies were largely rural. The odd thing about Cetinje was that I had trouble believing there were 14,000 people in the town. One question kept coming to mind, what did that many people do for work in this landscape? The city was besieged on all sides by rocky hills. Those rocks had afforded protection from the Turks, but today they looked barren and cold, a reminder of Cetinje’s singularity and remoteness from everything else. This was deceptive because Cetinje stood between the Zeta Plain and the Adriatic coastline. As the crow flies, Cetinje happened to be equidistant from either place. The only problem was that viewed from Cetinje, those places might as well have been on the moon.

Ray of Light - Vlah Church in Cetinje

Ray of Light – Vlah Church in Cetinje

Nearer My Prince To Thee – The Rise to Greatness
Isolation and a creeping sense of loneliness washed over me as I walked through the streets. I felt like Cetinje was a million miles mentally from anywhere else. The heart and soul of Montenegro was said to be located here. I spent the afternoon looking for it or anything else I could find. This took me first to the most important sights of the old capital which were all closed. King Nikola’s Palace was boarded up, not for the season, but for today. The Biljarda, Petar II’s Petrovic-Njegos low rise palace, was walled off and locked away from visitors. Even the monastery showed few signs of life. Finally I found one attraction that was open, what is known as the Eagle’s Crag.

A 20 minute hike from beyond the monastery brought me to the top of a small hill known as Orlov krs (Eagles Crag), where I found the mausoleum of Bishop Danilo I (1697 – 1735), the man who had founded the Petrovic-Njegos Dynasty, the house of princely rulers that led Montenegro for over two hundred years. Beneath a blazing ball of sunlight atop a small plateau stood a sarcophagus surrounded by a white metal fence. The mausoleum, like so much else in Cetinje, had been constructed around the turn of the 20th century. It was a fine setting, both to bury a founding father as well as to get an inspired view of the surrounding area.

Orlov krs (Eagles Crag) - Mausoleum of Bishop Danilo I

Orlov krs (Eagles Crag) – Mausoleum of Bishop Danilo I

Looking Up – The Eagle’s Crag
From the Eagles Crag, I spied Montenegro’s most famous mountain Lovcen. This mountain gave rise to the term Crna Gora (Black Mountain), from where the name Montenegro comes from. Another mausoleum sits atop its summit, one which I could barely make out from my vantage point. This is the burial site for the most famous Montenegrin of all, Petar II. This sighting stirred a sense of wonder in me. Suddenly I understood that Cetinje and Lovcen were connected by reverence, by silence, by an awe inspiring landscape that formed the character of the the Petrovic-Njegos Dynasty and by extension, the nation of Montenegro.

Click here for: A Tale of Two Princes – Petar & Nikola: From Selflessness To Selfishness (A Balkan Affair: #9)

The Treasure Box – Budva’s Old Town: A Peek Into The Past (A Balkan Affair: #7)

The Old Town of Budva could not have been more different from the modern part of town. It was quaint and photogenic with a sense of quiet reserve. The Old Town was compact in the extreme, allowing it to be completely covered on foot in an hour or two. The narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets reminded me of Dubrovnik further up the coast, but on a much smaller scale. I found Budva relaxing and low key. Of course, I had come at the right time of year. A January journey to Budva is unlikely to appear on any tourist itineraries. Conversely, a visit in July would be insufferable. Budva gets by far the heaviest visitation of any place in Montenegro, accounting for an incredible 45% of tourist visits to the country.

For each resident of Budva there is an average of 33 visitors. Many of these never make it to the Old Town, as they instead enjoy the nearby beaches which are part of the Budva Riviera or they partake of the pulsating night life. On the day I visited, none of Budva’s summer personality was apparent. I counted only three other tourists besides myself snapping a few photos around the fortification’s once known as the Castle of St. Mary. Other than that, the corridors and alleyways were all but silent. This offered me an opportunity to contemplate both the past and future of Budva.

The Power & The Glory - Old Budva

The Power & The Glory – Old Budva

Shaken To The Core – Earthquakes in Budva
One of the stranger aspects of Budva’s Old Town was that it did not seem very old. It looked more like a museum than a place where people had ever lived. There is good reason for this, Budva may have survived the Saracens and the Ottomans, as well as the fall of the Venetian Republic and a century of Austrian neglect, but it only narrowly avoided total ruin due to two catastrophic earthquakes that struck the town over three hundred years apart. The first of these occurred in 1667. Most famously, this earthquake led to the destruction of much of Dubrovnik further northward. Budva was not spared either. An Italian by the name of Caterino Cornaro traveled to the city a couple of weeks after the earthquake to survey the damage. He discovered that 73 of the 802 inhabitants had been killed, there were five breaches in the city walls and every building had sustained some damage, including the mayor’s house which was transformed into a ruin within a matter of minutes.

It is estimated that the 1667 earthquake would have registered a 7.0 on the Richter Scale. The upshot of this temblor was that the Old Town was rebuilt with the same structures and layout that can still be seen today. Ironically, this rebuild would have to be rebuilt three centuries later. That was because of another nasty earthquake in 1979. This one left Budva little more than a considerable pile of rubble. 98% of its buildings were damaged, including four hotels in the Old Town which collapsed. Because of the massive damage, it took painstaking work to rebuild Budva. The same stones as before were used in the reconstruction. Figuring out what went where was extremely difficult. Authenticity was as much a matter of contrivance as it was of preservation. The Budva that I saw during my visit is as much a product of reconstruction as of anything else. The Old Town was renewed once again despite a near cataclysm. While the rebuilding was impressive, something about Budva felt sanitized. The Budva Old Town is now as much a modern as it is a medieval concoction. In a paradoxical twist, most visitors, including myself, are older than the reconstructed Old Town.

On Eastern Standard Time - Old Budva

On Eastern Standard Time – Old Budva

The 1979 earthquake disconnected Budva from its past, but only until a meticulous restoration could be completed. Today, history still permeates the Old Town. I felt it most intensely while standing in the aptly named Trg Ismeou crkava (Square Between The Churches). Depending on which way I looked, Saint Sava Church, the Church of Santa Maria and Church of the Holy Trinity were all within my line of sight. A one minute walk away was Trg Starigradski (Old Town Square) where the Church of Saint Ivan, the grand basilica of Budva towers above the town. Saint Ivan’s tower provides Budva with its most monumental image, a single pinnacle reaching towards the sky. The tower can be seen well beyond the Old City walls, I first spied it on the bus from several kilometers away. Close to the churches stood the Citadel, much more Austrian than Venetian, as such it was a rather drab addition to the Old Town’s treasure box of architectural wonders.

Symmetry - The Walls of Old Budva

Symmetry – The Walls of Old Budva

Faith & Fear – A Window Into History
The churches and the Citadel in Budva represented more than architecture to me, they also symbolized the ideas of peace and war in Budva. While many had hoped for the former, it was the latter which they prepared for most assiduously. Faith and fear were powerful motivators that kept Budva’s citizens in a sort of suspended historical animation. They hid behind walls while praying most fervently for peace. The old walls and those churches were saviors, each of a different sort. They are still Budva’s greatest attractions, as popular today as they were in the past, but for very different reasons. The walls once offered safety, now they offer the best sightseeing. The churches once offered hope, now they offer a window into history.

My visit to Budva was short and offered just a peek into its past. I walked away from the Old Town feeling like I had just witnessed a miracle. Here was a tiny medieval town built on the bare edges of a rocky peninsula. Time and again Budva had been buffeted by the tides of European history, it had managed to survive pillage, conquest and natural disasters. Now it faced a trial by tourism. Hopefully it can survive the crassness of commercial tourism and the crush of millions of tourists. My visit, followed by later researches into its past, made me cautiously optimistic. Whether through deft diplomacy (falling under the sway of Venice) or stoic stubbornness (outlasting Austrian rule), little Budva has always managed to find a way forward with its elegance intact. Some places were born to be great, Budva is one of them.

Click here for: Sizing Up Cetinje – Sleepwalking in Montenegro’s Historic Capital (A Balkan Affair #8)

A Sea of Development – Budva: Development Gone Mad (A Balkan Affair: #6)

Many years ago, I lived for the first and only time along the coast of Florida. My apartment was right along Florida State Road A1A which runs north-south along the Atlantic Coast. For the reader this might conjure up images of scenic vistas of sand and surf. I recall a less idyllic image of high-rise condos and hotels stretching for miles on end. The beach was hidden from view by these towering concrete monstrosities. The only relief came when I got to the boundary of my place of employment, Canaveral National Seashore, a 24 mile stretch of protected seashore that allows the public to experience Florida’s Atlantic coastline in all its natural splendor. That stark difference, between over development and pristine nature has stayed with me over the years. I had the same feeling almost two decades later as I traveled to Budva on Road M2.3

There was a spectacular symmetry to my bus ride into Budva. I was taking the 7:47, Not a 747 jet, but the much more magnificent 7:47 a.m. bus from Cetinje that wound its way down a rocky tumult and into the town. My first sighting of the famed Montenegrin coastal town was fantastic. Budva was tucked into a cove that stood between unfolding hills of greenery and an immense blue sea. The Adriatic looked as though it stretched into infinity even though it went only to the shores of Italy. The plunge towards Budva by bus was made for drama. It was hard to believe that less than an hour earlier I had been standing amid the austere, stone laden mountainscape of Cetinje. Now the scene before me was positively Mediterranean. I eagerly anticipated the final approach to Budva, but as the bus made its way down from the mountains, I became more and more alarmed. Budva’s evocative Old Town, a testament to Venetian architecture at its finest was a minor blip in the distance. It was dwarfed by another sea, a sea of development.

Sea of Development - Budva

Sea of Development – Budva

Architectural Anonymity – Development Gone
The entry into Budva was an eye-opening experience, development sprawled all around and crawled up the hillside. Concrete condos and supersized hotels, the modern monstrosities of modern tourism reared their ugly head. Budva felt overdeveloped and in danger of being consumed by crass commercialism. The enchantment of its Old Town would have to wait as I attempted to navigate my way from the Bus Station to the Old Town. The walk was daunting. Budva looked more like a pseudo-metropolis rather than one of Montenegro’s must talked about treasures. I dodged traffic, spent a fair amount of time waiting on lights to change at crosswalks and picked my way through a modern beach town replete with fast food stands, scenically sighted palm trees and a series of structures that could best be described as architecturally anonymous.

It was the dead of winter, but the town was busy with the bustle of foot and automobile traffic. For a moment I was taken back twelve years to my time in the city of Antalya on the coast of southern Turkey. Back then, the Mediterranean mood had been ruined by the sights and sounds of a modern city bursting with development. Antalya has over 2 million people, Budva does not even have 20,000 when counting its immediate hinterland. Nevertheless, Budva felt much bigger, busier and modern than I expected.  I cannot say that the warning signs were not already there. Travel guides have noted the encroaching overdevelopment for years. In the American edition of The Companion Guide to Jugoslavia published in 1984, author J.A. Cuddon said, “In the high season Budva becomes a mundane and popular resort which is being exploited more and more. The Real Guide To Yugoslavia from 1990 called Budva, “an ungainly mixture of concrete and glass that’s edged by its Old Town.”

A Fresh Light on Budva - In the Old Town

A Fresh Light on Budva – In the Old Town

More recent travel guides amplify these sentiments. Lonely Planet’s Western Balkans guidebook from 2009, says that Budva, “has moved into a difficult adolescence, fueled by rampant development that has leeched much of the charm from the place.” The Bradt Guide to Montenegro from 2015 states that “with the bars and clubs jumping it isn’t hard to imagine the Budva Riviera rivaling Ibiza for action in the future.” I saw for myself that all the above was true. Even on a chilly winter morning in January, Budva reeked of crass commercialism and development gone mad. The wide boulevard I walked along while making my way to the Old Town reminded me more of Myrtle Beach than Montenegro.

An Exercise In Absurdity – Beauty Goes To The Highest Bidder
The Old Town of Budva came to seem surreal long before I reached it. Trying to compare the crassness of modern Budva and the elegance of Old Budva would be little more than an exercise in absurdity. The dissimilarities between the two are as great as the medieval and modern worlds that each symbolize. Paradoxically, Old Budva’s magnificent setting and elegant Venetian fortifications have contributed greatly to the development which now obscures it. The Old Town drew so many tourists that it was inevitable the area outside its walls would become developed. The problem is that the development sprawls in all directions. The Old Town is now under a quite different siege from the numerous historical ones it suffered so long ago. This is ironic since the city walls were first constructed in the 9th century. Not coincidentally this was also the same century when Budva was sacked by the Saracens.

The Way It Was - Old Budva beside the Adriatic Sea

The Way It Was – Old Budva beside the Adriatic Sea

Standing atop the walls of Budva and looking inland, it is apparent that another battle has been lost. Budva has been overrun once again, not from within, but from without. The siege engines of mass tourism – in this case high rises – have been erected. Old Budva may still be standing, but with every new development it is fighting a losing battle. The price of defeat is a degradation of the visitor experience. That’s what happens when beauty and history are sold to the highest bidder. It is hard to blame the inhabitants of Budva for this vanity project gone mad. The economy of coastal Montenegro is reliant on mass tourism. Without the beauty of this stretch of coastline and the evocative Old Town what else would they have? The famous American conservationist John Muir once said that “nothing dollarable is ever safe.” He was talking about America’s most magnificent natural wonders, but he might as well have been referring to Budva.

Click here for: The Treasure Box – Budva’s Old Town: A Peek Into The Past (A Balkan Affair #7)



A Romance In Ruins – Fort Kosmac: To The Greatest Extent (A Balkan Affair: #5)

After Luka and I scaled the heights of Lovcen, my time in Montenegro took a decided turn toward the spectacular. On a crisp and cool Friday morning, with not a cloud in the sky, I took a short walk to the Cetinje bus station. I then purchased a ticket for the 43 minute ride to Montenegro’s Adriatic coastline and the famed Old Town of Budva. The night before, while thumbing through The Companion Guide to Yugoslavia by G.A. Cuddon, I noticed a reference to an abandoned fortress. A bit of research revealed that this had been built to protect the southern border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I was immediately transfixed by this discovery.

The reason I first became interested in Eastern European history was Austria-Hungary, but beyond Bosnia I rarely thought about the empire’s influence in Balkan affairs. I knew the Austrian portion of the empire had occupied and administered the Dalmatian Coast as far south as Dubrovnik during the 19th and early 20th century.  Because the Venetian architectural influence was so pronounced along the Adriatic I assumed the Austrians had built little in the way of fortifications for their far-flung frontier. Fort Kosmac proved me wrong. It was an attempt at exercising imperial control. From information in travel guides and online, I learned that it still stood today within site of the roadway I would be traveling along. The possibility of seeing the fortress, even from afar, would make the bus ride to Budva even better than I might have expected.

Beyond The Clouds - Fort Kosmac

Beyond The Clouds – Fort Kosmac

Imperial Designs – Filling A Vacuum
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a sprawling, geographically and ethnically diverse polity that spread out in all directions from the heart of Central Europe. Its territory included the snowcapped peaks of both the Tyrol and Transylvania, the sublime Puszta of eastern Hungary and the soggy marshlands of Galicia. The empire stretched from the alpine terrain of the High Tatras in southern Poland, to the mountain fastness of Montenegro. The latter was most surprising to me. I had never made any historical connection between Austria-Hungary and Montenegro, thus exposing my lack of knowledge. Sure enough, just as the Ottomans withdrew in Bosnia and the Austrians followed, so too did the Austrians surge into Montenegro following Venetian and Ottoman decline. This offered up yet another example of the truism that while empires have frontiers, they know no bounds. Empire always expands at the expense of weaker states. The Austrians were filling a vacuum, one they then had to fortify.

The bus trip from Cetinje to Budva left just before 8:00 a.m. The bus was less than half full and passengers were almost entirely locals. It was not long before we had wound our way out of Cetinje, heading through the mountains before what promised to be an epic plunge into Budva. In less than half an hour we came upon the small village of Brajici. I began to scan the near distance for signs of the fort. Before long, it appeared on the horizon. Standing on a barren hilltop, the fort was an isolated, ruined spectacle. The road was a kilometer and a half away from the fort. That made its scale difficult to comprehend, though I knew it was sizable. The setting was appealingly romantic, on a clifftop within sight of both mountains and the Adriatic. This was a remarkable frontier post surrounded as it was by natural beauty amid the most dramatic of settings. My face was nearly pressed to the glass of the bus as I tried to prolong that fleeting glimpse. Soon my camera was also pressed to the glass as I tried to snap a decent photo. The image captured in my mind of the fortress, proved to be much more powerful than any photo I would take.

A Haunting Memory - Fort Kosmac from the bus window

A Haunting Memory – Fort Kosmac as seen from the bus window

Haunting Memory – Stimulating Imagination
Fort Kosmac was everything I loved about history. Within reach, but also elusive. Forgotten, neglected and abandoned, a place that had long since lost its reason for being. It was unknown and at the same time within a few kilometers of one of the busiest stretches of coastline in Europe. I regret not telling the bus driver to stop and let me out. The fort was within walking distance. Perhaps I did not do this because I wanted to savor my initial reaction to the sighting. There was also the allure of Budva which drew me onward, but I knew that Fort Kosmac would now haunt my memory and stimulate my imagination for years to come. The best history is based as much on feeling as it is on facts, it is personal rather than popular.

This brief encounter led me to research the history of Fort Kosmac. I discovered that it was built in the mid-19th century as the last in a chain of forts in and around the Bay of Kotor to guard what was then the Austrian Empire’s (Austro-Hungarian after 1867) southern boundary. The 254 officers and soldiers posted at the fort had a bittersweet assignment. On one hand, they enjoyed breathtaking views of the Adriatic as they looked out from their multi-storied concrete and limestone perch that stood 800 meters (2,600 feet) above the sea. On the other hand, they were stuck at what most knew was the ass end of empire. They were beset by blazing heat and bitter cold, loneliness and isolation, with such difficulties it is not hard to imagine problems with alcohol consumption and discipline. Isolated outposts always look romantic to drive by visitors. The reality was almost certainly different, especially in an area where the locals were less than welcoming.

On the Edge - Fort Kosmac with Budva and the Adriatic Sea in the distance

On the Edge – Fort Kosmac with Budva and the Adriatic Sea in the distance

Imperial Ambition – A Place In History
In 1869, Fort Kosmac came under attack when the Krivosije Uprising broke out after the Austro-Hungarian administration decided to subject locals in the region to military conscription. While the fort was well armed with 240mm cannon, that was not enough to save its commander, Friedrich Merz. Either out of arrogance, stupidity or naivety – probably a combination of all three – Merz decided to go out for a walk while the fort was still under siege. He was subsequently gunned down by a local who was then proclaimed an on the spot hero. The highlight of the fort’s existence came during a visit by Emperor Franz Josef in 1875. This would have been a highly memorable experience for soldiers who probably wondered if anyone back home ever thought of them.

As the 19th passed into the 20th century, the fort’s weaponry was upgraded. Meanwhile, its soldiers waited for something to happen. When it did, the fort went into decline. It was abandoned by Austria-Hungary at the end of the First World War and only saw sporadic use over the ensuing decades, most recently by Italian troops occupying the area during World War II. More recent accounts from visitors chancing a look at the crumbling fortress, state that the interior has largely collapsed while the structure is in danger of becoming a total ruin. On the day I saw Fort Kosmac it stood austere and silent, the last remains of an imperial ambition that reached its ultimate limit on a remote hilltop in the Balkans. Its place in history, like its place in Montenegro, totally obscure.

Click here for: A Sea of Development – Budva: Development Gone Mad (A Balkan Affair: #6)

Poet-Warrior – The Transcendence of Petar II Njegos-Petrovic (A Balkan Affair: #4)

Inside the mausoleum of Petar II Njegos-Petrovic was a towering granite statue of the great man himself. Somewhere beneath where we stood, the man deemed by his countrymen as the greatest Montenegrin was buried beneath the rocky soil of Mt. Lovcen. After spending a couple of minutes contemplating the penetrating silence of this austere tomb, Luka and myself walked around the mausoleum to a circular viewing platform which offered spectacular views. The scenery was breathtaking. Luka pointed out the Bay of Kotor where I would be headed in a few days. It was hard to believe that one of the most famous tourist towns in the world was only a few miles away.

Hidden behind mountains and great chasms of rock that tumbled down to the sea, Kotor could hardly have seemed more distance. The same could be said for Italy, which Luka reminded me was on the other side of the Adriatic. I would later learn that on a clear day, Italy can sometimes be seen from this vantage point. Much closer was a village that I spotted down in a valley. I asked Luka the name of this village. He said “Njegusi.” That’s where Petar was born.” The fact that we were at the great poet-warrior’s end and could see his beginning was impressive. His life had not quite come full circle. Instead it was more a rise to greatness from humble origins. It left me wondering just who was this man that had conquered the hearts and minds of Montenegrins.

Mountain Mausoleum - Tomb of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš on Mt. Lovcen

Mountain Mausoleum – Tomb of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš on Mt. Lovcen

The Making of Montenegro – State Building In A Star-Crossed Land
Anyone referred to as a “poet-warrior” demands a closer look. The title sounds more like an oxymoron than it does an honorific. It is hard to imagine that at a time when Montenegro was considered rebellious, violent and primitive, this star-crossed land would produce a one-man modernizing force. That is exactly what happened during the first half of the 19th century with the ascension of Petar to the most powerful position in the land. Known as the Vladika or Prince-Bishop, vested within this position was both spiritual and temporal power in Montenegro. The only problem was that prior to Petar the idea of centralized control was based more on theory than reality. Montenegro was a land of tribes, powerful chieftains and blood feuds. Add in the persistent threat of the Ottoman Turks and the upshot was a land beset by violent lawlessness. State authority was weak at best.

Enter Petar, whose family was part of the powerful Petrovic clan. He was not an obvious choice to lead Montenegro. Petar only gained the throne after one of the heirs died before he could assume power and the other ended up joining the Russian Imperial Army. Once Petar took power, rival claimants were ousted in ruthless fashion. Once firmly ensconced in power, Petar not only managed to keep the Ottoman threat contained, he also began to modernize the country. His most controversial reform involved the raising of taxes in order to fund projects that would improve the lives and livelihoods of all those who lived under his rule. Tax collection made Petar many enemies, inciting revolt on several occasions. Nevertheless, Petar was a wily operator who managed to outmaneuver those who opposed his policies.

Veneration - Tomb of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš

Veneration – Tomb of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš

Poetry In Motion- The Mountain Wreath
Once the treasury began to build up tax revenue, Petar used much of this to modernize what had been an impoverished and backward country. Roads were built, a police force was created that managed to tamp down on blood feuds and the capricious violence that had been endemic to the countryside. Petar also fostered the creation of a senate that lessened the power of clan leaders. Education was improved as well, which helped diminish illiteracy. The effect of Petar’s farsighted reforms was the first period of modernization in Montenegro’s history. At the same time, Petar was a brilliant poet. Though he had not learned to read until he was twelve years old, he eventually studied at several monasteries and fell under the tutelage of Sima Milutinovic, a Serbian poet who introduced Petar to some of the greatest bards in western literature. The upshot was that Petar wrote The Mountain Wreath, which has become the greatest epic poem in Montenegrin history and one of the most famous in South Slavic literature.

The Mountain Wreath is based on a fictionalized early 18th century incident where an ultimatum was issued to Montenegrins in the Zeta Plain who had converted to Islam. They could either reconvert to Christianity or face execution. Many suffered the latter in what was termed the Montenegrin Vespers. The meaning is clear, defections to the Ottoman side would never be tolerated. The highest price is to be paid for disloyalty. The ends justify the means when the honor and existence of Montenegro is at stake. While the poem is now much loved, the same could not be said about Petar during his reign.
He was a controversial figure in his day. That is easy to understand when one considers the historical context of those times. Montenegrins saw themselves as less of a specific group and more a collection of clans and tribes who fought as much with one another as they did with the Ottomans.

The Greatest Montenegrin - Petar II Petrović-Njegoš

The Greatest Montenegrin – Petar II Petrović-Njegoš

The Defining Quality – History In Harmony With Nature
Petar’s greatest achievement was his ability to create the foundations of a modern state despite the fractious political and social environment he inherited. His ability to do so speaks volumes about his leadership skills. It is also the main reason why he has been deified by his countrymen. The mausoleum plays a large role in that deification. Petar wanted it this way. He was the one who decided that his remains would be buried on Lovcen. When he died of tuberculosis just two weeks shy of his 37th birthday, plans were made to construct a chapel Petar had designed. When it was completed in 1855, his body was reburied there. The chapel was eventually superseded by the grandiose mausoleum that stands on the mountain today. Both monuments are testaments to his enduring accomplishments, but the greatest monument of all is Lovcen. It only makes sense that Montenegro’s greatest mountain would be the final resting place for its greatest son. This is history in harmony with nature, the defining quality of Montenegro.

Click here for: A Romance In Ruins – Fort Kosmac: To The Greatest Extent (A Balkan Affair: #5)

In The Hall Of A Montenegrin Mountain King – Summitting Mt. Lovcen (A Balkan Affair: #3)

I started my second day in Cetinje much like the first, wondering if any of the historical attractions I had come to visit would ever be open. It seemed that January 2nd was not much different than January 1st in the town. Almost everything in Cetinje was still closed. Fortunately, I arranged for Luka, the young man who had driven me from the airport in Podgorica to Cetinje, to take me for another ride. This time we would be winding our way around hairpin turns and an endless succession of switchbacks to the top of Mt. Lovcen to visit Petar II Njegos-Petrovic’s mausoleum. When Luka arrived to pick me up, I asked him if he was sure that the mausoleum would be open. In broken English he stated emphatically, “it is always open.” This made me cautiously optimistic.

I should not have lamented my lack of luck in failing to visit museums and historical attractions in Cetinje. It could have been much worse. The town is known for receiving copious amounts of snowfall. The winter is usually associated with blizzard like conditions and swirling snow drifts. An average of 100 inches a year of snow falls every year in Cetinje, much more in the higher elevations of Lovcen National Park where we were now headed. Fortunately, there was no snow only sunshine on this day. Temperatures in Cetinje reached into the mid-40’s. The ground was bare, a rare occurrence for the area in the depths of winter. It was incredible to think that Lovcen is often buried in up to five feet of snow by January. That was certainly not the case this year as we began to wind our way towards the mountaintop. The higher we went, the more I noticed the rock covered landscape. Lovcen was an explosion of limestone.

Liquid Fire - On top of Mt. Lovcen with the sun shining off the Adriatic Sea

Liquid Fire – On top of Mt. Lovcen with the sun shining off the Adriatic Sea

Friends As Close As Family – The Way To The Top
Like so many national parks, the area surrounding Lovcen was an inhospitable no man’s land fit only for rock climbers or the tomb of Montenegro’s most famous son. A beautiful and brutal landscape, off-limits to only the most intrepid frontiersmen prior to the advent of modern roads and the automobile. For Luka and me, a Volkswagen was the only climbing gear we needed on this day. Four wheels and a four-cylinder engine helped us scale all but the very summit of Lovcen. Soon we arrived at an entrance booth to Lovcen National Park. Luka swerved around the short line of cars and waved at the attendant. The attendant smiled and waved back. Luka told me “that’s where tourists pay.” I asked out of surprise, “and we don’t?” “No, these are my friends. We all know each other.” One of the great things about the Balkans is the lack of officiousness found so often in central and northern European countries. Getting in to Lovcen for a local is not a question of money, but one of honor. Friends are often as close as family in Montenegro.

Soon the road began to get steeper as we drove higher and higher along the slopes of Lovcen. It was not long before we noticed cars parked beside the road. Luka sped past these. We were now on the shady side of the mountain where the snow had melted, run across the road and refrozen. Soon we were driving on what appeared to be black ice. As we slowed to a crawl, the car struggled to gain traction. We passed the last car parked along the roadside. Now we were all alone with another hairpin turn before us. Luka was trying to make it to the parking lot for the mausoleum. Thankfully, he took one look at the skating rink this last stretch of roadway had become and decided against it. We parked off the roadway just inside the hairpin turn. After carefully exiting the car, we slowly made our way upward on a sheet of sheer ice. Slow, ginger steps were required before we reached the entrance proper. That was when I realized that the real climb had just begun. Before us stood 461 steps, a bracing wind and the final approach.

Luka on Ice - The Road to Mt. Lovcen

Luka on Ice – The Road to Mt. Lovcen

The Mountaintop Mausoleum – An Epic Expression
I pride myself on being reasonably fit for a 48 year old man, unfortunately my level of fitness could not compare with Luka’s, a young man whose life revolves around the sport of Crossfit. Climbing steps was literally a walk in the park for him. As for myself, after the first couple of hundred steps I was breathing heavily. Along the way, I had to stop and purchase a ticket for the mausoleum. Of course, Luka was let in for free since the ticket seller knew him. Soon we entered a covered portion of the stairs that felt endless. I had the feeling that we would never arrive at the mausoleum, the final resting place of Petar II felt as distant as the life he lived during the first half of the 19th century. When we came back out the covered stairway, the afternoon light was nearly blinding. Off to my left and due west there was a blinding flash of light. It was as bright as the sun, precisely because it was the sun reflecting off the Adriatic Sea just a few miles away.

Tomb of the Known Soldier - At the entrance of Petar II Njegos-Petrovic

Tomb of the Known Soldier – At the entrance of Petar II Njegos-Petrovic

The view was astonishing, as though the sky had been turned upside down and the sun was floating in an ocean of quicksilver. It was my first sighting of the Adriatic in years and one that I was unlikely to ever forget. Conversely, the wind, the cold, the blinding light was harsher and more dramatic atop Lovcen as we approached the entrance to the mausoleum. The fact that there was a mausoleum atop this inhospitable spot was not lost on me. The dedication and devotion of Montenegrins to the memory of Petar II was symbolized by the construction of his final resting place on the nation’s most sacred spot. The mountain and the man were united here, inseparable in their magnificence. The mausoleum atop Lovcen was an epic expression of reverence. Looking at the two giant princesses flanking the final entryway to the mausoleum made me want to learn more about the man who a century and a half after his death still inspired a nation.

Click here for: Poet-Warrior – The Transcendence of Petar II Njegos-Petrovic (Balkan Adventure #4)


A Soft Fist In An Iron Glove – From Podgorica To Cetinje (A Balkan Affair: #2)

His name was Luka. He was tall, skinny, athletic and friendly. His English was scattershot and his comprehension of anything spoken in that language was infrequent. He was better at replying in English than understanding what was being said. He showed up ten minutes late at the airport. It hardly mattered because his pleasant demeanor was so charming. His job was to get me from the airport to my accommodation in Cetinje. Luka had not yet finished high school, but as I would later learn he was already an old hand at driving. His father had put him behind the wheel at the age of fourteen because he was a “crazy man” according to Luka. That crazy man taught his son well. His driving style was safe, smooth and without the usual Balkan passion for risk. Luka was mature beyond his age, the antithesis of most teenagers I have known.

Luka drove me around the fringes of Podgorica rather than straight through the city. I never saw the city center. Instead, I saw what looked like a construction site on Tito inspired steroids. There was plenty of excavated earth, half built structures and a general sense that the fringes of Podgorica were under development. The most interesting thing I saw in the near distance looked like a factory. Luka noticed me gazing in its direction. He then took it upon himself to announce that this was an electrical plant. I nodded politely. The structure and surrounding industrialized detritus looked like it had come straight out of the communist period. The most impressive thing about it was the fact that this plant looked like it was still in use. Usually such things are now abandoned in former Eastern Bloc countries.

A Smoldering Reality - Podgorica

A Smoldering Reality – Podgorica

An Industrial Revolution – Point of Pride
The electrical plant provided me with an opening to ask about something it likely powered, the capital city’s most prominent industrial concern, Uniprom KAP or Aluminum Plant Podgorica. At the mere mention of the plant, Luka’s eyes began to sparkle with pride. I was not surprised. In my experience, the inhabitants of small countries love to hear a foreigner say one of two things. Either try to speak the local language or ask about a homegrown industry. Both are a source of great pride, the latter perhaps most of all because it is providing jobs and paychecks. Luka proceeded to tell me in his broken English how the aluminum plant was good for the nation’s economy. It was not what he said, but how he said it that proved the plant loomed large in the Montenegrin psyche. In larger countries it is usually history that infuses people with nationalism. A foreigner knowing a bit about their history is almost always cause for animated discussions and undisguised happiness. For Luka, the mention of Aluminum Plant Podgorica had the same effect.

Luka’s already genial manner became that much more pleasant after I mentioned the plant. There was now a bond between us. Ironically, it centered around a factory that was started before either of us was born. One that went back to the days when Titograd’s (Podgorica’s name from 1948 -92) heavy industry propelled the economy. The fact that Titoism was much more reasonable and less lethal than Stalinism went some way in explaining its success. Yugoslavia’s brand of communism was like a soft fist covered in an iron glove. It was more human and sensible, thus some of its achievements were still sources of pride in the nations that had inherited them. This turned out to be a double-edged sword for Montenegro. While Aluminum Plant Podgorica was certainly an economic engine, it is estimated to account for 10% of the national GDP, it also has been an ongoing environmental hazard. A byproduct of the smelter, which extracts aluminum from bauxite mined in the city of Niksic, is the red dust that blows off retaining ponds at the site. This dust then contaminates the land surrounding the city or gets sucked into the lungs of Montenegrins. Nonetheless, many Montenegrins like Luka are proud of the plant.

Mountain climbing in Montenegro - The Road to Cetinje

Mountain climbing in Montenegro – The Road to Cetinje

Unforgiving Landscape – The Creation of a Capital
The drive between Podgorica and Cetinje took less than an hour, but the transformation in topography was breathtaking. The landscape changed radically as we drove out of the Zeta Plain into increasingly rugged topography. The land was entirely fashioned from rock with vegetation scattered across the surface. The road had been cut right through the rock, a craggy limestone which despite its rugged appearance also happen to be extremely porous. This was a land of stone, austere and unforgiving. It was also integral to the Montenegrin character, a people whose souls had been shaped and sculpted by this rocky terrain. Montenegrins were known for their toughness. It was easy to see why. To carve a livelihood from such inhospitable and infertile lands would have taken an incredible degree of toughness.

It was no mistake that Montenegro’s historic capital of Cetinje arose from such unforgiving terrain. The town’s creation was a matter of survival. In the late 15th century, the Lord of Zeta (a principality located in southern Montenegro/northern Albania) Ivan Crnojevic, founded Cetinje. He proceeded to move his seat of power to the new settlement and had a monastery built. Crnojevic selected the area because the karst field on which Cetinje stood was located at the base of Mt. Lovcen. The surrounding area afforded it a great deal of protection. Though the Turks would eventually torch the monastery and leave the place in ruins, they never really succeeded in subduing Cetinje or Montenegro. The same was true for the Venetians, Austrians and Germans. The people of this area turned out to be just as harsh as the landscape.

Capital of Stone - Cetinje and the Landscape surrounding it

Capital of Stone – Cetinje and the Landscape surrounding it (Credit: Marcin Konsek)

Getting Close – In Touch With The Past
As Luka made the final approach into Cetinje, I saw for the first time a town that did not look like any capital city, historic or otherwise that I had ever seen. Cetinje was filled with red roofed houses largely constructed out of gray stone. The town looked serene, a snapshot of stoicism. It was also quaint, a sort of tidy mountain village. One minute we were on the edge of town, the next we were turning down its quiet streets. It was hard to imagine that this had been the political and cultural epicenter of Montenegro through four and a half centuries. I was astonished when Luka pointed out a large stone building from the 19th century. He said it was the first school in Montenegro. This was the first hint that the past was extremely close here. One could literally reach out and touch it. I planned on finding out just how close I could get to history in Cetinje.

Click here for: In the Hall of a Montenegrin Mountain King: Summitting Mt. Lovcen (A Balkan Affair #3)

Falling At Your Feet – Stairway To Podgorica (A Balkan Affair: #1)

My Balkan adventure did not start with the late departure from Cleveland, my sprint across the terminal in Philadelphia just in time to barely make a connection or sleeplessness at the airport in Zurich while I awaited my final flight to Budapest. No, my Balkan adventure started the morning after my arrival in Budapest. It was New Year’s morning and I had slept through the final hours of 2019 and the first ones of 2020. Dawn was just beginning to brighten the day. Jet lag weighed on me heavily as I packed and prepared to head back to the airport for a flight to the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica. I had spent the night at my brother in law’s house in Zuglo, one of those strangely named places in Budapest that seem to abound in the outer districts of the city.

Sliding down the surface of things - Spiral staircase in Budapest

Sliding down the surface of things – Spiral staircase in Budapest

The New Year – One Step At A Time
In an hour, I was supposed to meet the taxi that would take me to the airport. As I took the first step down the stairs in my sock feet, I suddenly slipped, lost my balance and began to slither like a human slinky down the stairs. Trying to grab one of the stairs to arrest my fall only served to contort my body and wrist further. I made the approach to floor level by bouncing down the last stairs. Finally arriving at the bottom, I proceeded to slide across the floor until I came to a halt. Several of my knuckles were cut and beginning to bleed, while my wrist was throbbing with pain. This was not an auspicious beginning to my Balkan adventure. My personal catastrophe complete, I rolled over and laid in the floor writhing with pain. I tried not to moan too loud. The apartment was initially silent. My brother in law was not yet home from ringing in the New Year. I wondered if anyone else in the apartment had heard my fall.

Soon there was the sound of movement behind a nearby bedroom door which suddenly flew open. There appeared my brother in law’s wife with only a bed sheet wrapped around her. In broken English she asked, “Are you alright?” I winced, but managed to slowly rise to my feet. Feigning a smile, I said “Everything’s fine.” I am certain that I did not look fine and felt even worse. The only comforting thought was that I could stand on my own two feet. The fall could have, probably should have, sent me to the hospital. Instead, I was soon sitting on the couch sucking down multiple cups of strong coffee. The wounds from the fall would take a week to heal, but they did not delay my trip. Three hours after tumbling down the stairs I was high in the sky on a 45 minute flight from Budapest to Podgorica. The near calamitous start to my trip would soon be forgotten as I touched down in Montenegro for the first time in my life.

Podgorica calling - The departures board at the Budapest Airport

Podgorica calling – The departures board at the Budapest Airport

A Modest Proposal – Drive By Capital
Podgorica has very little name recognition when it comes to European capital cities. To place it in the same group as Budapest, Vienna and Warsaw would be an absurdity. It fits much better with Chisinau, Tirana and Prishtina, all marginal places in less well-known nations. Podgorica is a rather recent creation as a capital city. Strangely enough, it was the capital of the Yugoslav province of Montenegro (46 years) three times longer than it has been the capital of the independent nation of Montenegro (2006 – present). It also spent most of the latter half of the 20th century known by another name, Titograd.
An honorific to the Yugoslav strongman who made Montenegro equal with other constituent provinces of Yugoslavia. It was also under Tito’s rule that Podgorica became a full-scale city rather than a provincial outpost. In 1948 the population of Podgorica was just 14,369, by the time of Tito’s death in 1980 it had grown almost sevenfold.

Today, the city’s population stands at over 200,000. Building Podgorica up at such a rapid pace was easier than one might imagine since there was little left of pre-World War II. Podgorica was bombed an incredible seventy times during the war. From the rubble and ruin arose an industrialized, modernist landscape that still stands today. Upon arrival, my plan was to skip Podgorica and head straight to Montenegro’s historical capital of Cetinje. Podgorica would act only as a jumping off point for this trip. I had no idea what to expect of the capital, but I had no intention of delaying my foray into Montenegro’s famous mountains and on to its coastline in order to sit amid the shadows of gloomy Titoesque monstrosities. My only wish relating to Podgorica was to perhaps spy a few sights as I rode from the airport to Cetinje.

Traveling alone - Podgorica Airport

Traveling alone – Podgorica Airport (Credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons 3.0)

The First Port Of Call – Welcome To Podgorica
First, I would have to get through the airport which proved to be by far the smallest one I have visited in a European capital. The terminal was so small that it was hard to believe that this airport serviced almost the entire country. I was grateful to not be arriving in the summer. The crush of crowds in Montenegro during the high season is legendary. These facilities would easily buckle under the weight of a million tourists coming to relax and sightsee along Montenegro’s legendary coastline. Podgorica’s airport is the point of entry for many of them. The biggest problem was immediately apparent to me, the airport terminal is so small that a few hundred tourists could easily overwhelm the place. I found the airport quaint, if such a thing can be said about anything built under a communist system.

Passport control was typically Balkan in that the officers were pleasant and nonchalant in their approach. Their attitude was more typical of people on a lifelong coffee break rather than anything that might be called “official”. My luggage took only a couple of minutes to arrive. Proceeding to the main lobby of the terminal I expected the usual bunch of aggressive taxi drivers clamoring to take me for a ride at an exorbitant price. I could not have been more wrong. As soon as I exited into the arrivals area there were a few men and women holding signs with people’s names on them. A handful of taxi drivers also stood around looking indifferent. My driver to Cetinje had not yet arrived. This usually elicits aggressive pandering from the taxi drivers who suddenly realize an opportunity. In the Podgorica airport all they did was shrug their shoulders. I knew right away that Montenegro was my kind of place.

Click here for: A Soft Fist In An Iron Glove – From Podgorica to Cetinje (A Balkan Affair #2)

Pyramid Schemes – The Afterlife of Enver Hoxha: A Nation Entombed

You can tell a lot about an Eastern European nation by the most famous building in its capital city. In Budapest, there is the exquisite eclecticism of the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament, a statement of grandeur so striking that it single-handedly transforms how one sees the city. In Bucharest, stands the gargantuan Palace of the People, a hulking edifice of such ridiculous proportions that it acts as the ultimate monument of megalomania and an expression of just how depraved the ruling regime of Romania became after forty years in power. In Belgrade there is the Church of Saint Sava, a supersized Serbian rendition of sacred architecture that represents the centrality of Orthodoxy in the country’s consciousness.

In Prague, there is the Castle, a suite of structures so spectacular that the visitor senses a greatness in Czechs much greater than they could have ever imagined. Iconic buildings are more than capital improvement projects, they are expressions of the national soul captured at a particular point in time. This might also be said of the Pyramid in Tirana, Albania. It is a symbol of decadence and depravity, a mirror image of both the time period and man it was meant to extol, Enver Hoxha. What was once a dead dictator’s mausoleum/museum is now the symbol of an era in Albanian history that continues to rear its ugly head.

A Diabolical Design - The Pyramid of Tirana

A Diabolical Design – The Pyramid of Tirana (Credit: David r 1929)

Diabolical Designs – A Vanity Project
Pyramids must plague the nightmares of Albanians. If the one standing at the heart of Tirana was not bad enough, there is also the living memory of a pyramid scheme in 1997 that developed into a full blown financial crisis. The resultant fallout led to unrest throughout the country. The incident also resulted in hundreds of thousands of Albanians losing their savings. While the memory still haunts, the economy has thankfully moved forward since those dark days. On the other hand, Albanians have to live with more than a memory when it comes to that other pyramid. Those who live in Tirana cannot help but notice the pyramid that occupies an important space in the city center. This was just the way Enver Hoxha’s daughter and her co-architects envisioned it. Following Hoxha’s death in 1985, they designed a monument to the man they worshiped and almost everyone else in Albania loathed. It was a pyramid covered in marble tiles. Inside was a museum and mausoleum to the late, not so great dictator.

The pyramid was problematic from the very start. The country was so impoverished by the time of Hoxha’s death that it could scarcely afford such a vanity project. While Albanians were starving, construction proceeded apace. After three years the pyramid was complete. Ironically, the expenditures on the Pyramid likely helped to expedite the coming change of system. In another three years, the pyramid’s original function was rendered useless by the collapse of communism. Almost overnight, Hoxha became a pariah. His body was removed from the mausoleum and the building was re-purposed into a convention center. It is interesting to speculate what Hoxha, the human embodiment of resistance to capitalism would have thought about his tomb becoming an economic apparatus to stimulate the economy he had ruined.

Into the Abyss - Entrance to the Pyramid

Into the Abyss – Entrance to the Pyramid (Credit: Quinn Dombrowski)

Surreal Symbol – The Modernist Albatross
Unfortunately for Albania, the post-Hoxha years may have offered freedom, but they failed to bring prosperity. The Pyramid soon became a surreal symbol of post-communist Albania’s deterioration. The convention center failed, just like much of the nation’s economy. Various investors attempted to revive this modernist albatross without success. Meanwhile, vandals covered it in graffiti and souvenir sellers tore off the marble tiles to hock them for hard cash. At one point, there were several night clubs housed inside the structure. Once a tomb, then a house of tawdriness, the Pyramid was symptomatic of a nation lost in a maze of depravity and degeneration. Hoxha’s ghost was haunting Albania at its very heart.

In another bit of bizarre irony that would have made Hoxha turn in his tomb (if he had not already been removed from it), the Pyramid was used by NATO as a humanitarian staging area during the war in Kosovo. Hoxha hated foreigners with a passion and suspected that every one of them were spies. Now they were occupying his most sacred former space. When NATO vacated the Pyramid, in came television stations. Now mass media, something else Hoxha hated and feared in equal measure, was calling his former death digs home. The Pyramid could not escape the ghost of its Red Pharaoh.

Nothing to see here - View of Tirana from the top of the Pyramid

Nothing to see here – View of Tirana from the top of the Pyramid (Credit: Albinfo)

A Memory Marker – Sliding Down The Surface
A strange thing happened on the way to oblivion for the Pyramid, many Albanians began to grow fond of it. When the government wanted to have it torn down and a new parliament built to occupy the space, protests began to break out. The proposal went nowhere, as did the Pyramid which stood silent and forlorn. Meanwhile, young Tiranans got a cheap thrill from climbing atop and then sliding down what were left of the marble tiles. The Pyramid in Tirana had inevitably become another piece of communist kitsch, joining the ranks of Trabants, innumerable Lenin statues and red stars in the dustbin of history. The Pyramid went from loathed to not quite loved. Every time the government talked about tearing the Pyramid down, protesters rose to the occasion and managed to save it from destruction.

Why would any Albanian want to save the Pyramid? Because it was a reminder of a darkness that had nearly destroyed the nation and that should never be forgotten.  In a strange twist of fate, the Pyramid had returned to its original intent, a marker of memory. What had started off as a grand homage to Hoxha, had become a monumental monstrosity to his rule. The Pyramid was, like the system that gave rise to it, forever falling apart. It defeated all ideas for improvement. A waste of resources both financial and material, the Pyramid could be forever re-purposed and still be a useless eyesore. It was a money pit, in a land without money. A museum, whose only artifact was itself. A dangerous idea that never made sense. The Pyramid was the Hoxha era’s most lasting work of art and Albania has been all the worse for it.