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.
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.
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.
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.“)