Inside the Black Mountain

By Rob Packer

As the road snakes its way up from Budva towards the Montenegrin interior, the landscape undergoes a profound change: the relatively lush greens of the coast disappear and are replaced, in winter, by the browns and greys of a landscape that reminded me a lot of the surface of the moon. The first time I saw it on my way to Cetinje, I wondered how people survived on this land that—apart from a few areas of farmland and some terracing—appears to yield next to nothing. But rather than being a marginal, remote area of the country, this is actually its heart: the Black Mountain—what Montenegro means in every language I know—is the one area of the Balkans where neither the Ottomans nor the Habsburgs penetrated and where Montenegrins guarded their independence for centuries.

The Black Mountain: the view over Montenegro's mountainous interior.

The view of the coast from the road to Podgorica and Cetinje, the current and former capital.

Montenegro's rocky interior.

It has never been a rich place, and this is obvious from the start in a place like Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro’s prince-bishops before joining Yugoslavia after the First World War. Rather than a capital city it’s more like a village, and the handful of grand royal palaces and theatres seem like escapees from a 19th-century German principality next to former embassies that look more like farmhouses. The town has a sinister and lugubrious feel to it, as though the government moved out yesterday rather than in 1918. It’s become a habit on this trip to have an espresso in the afternoon, so I went to a grand but mostly deserted coffeehouse in what was once the Bulgarian embassy on the main square—also the only embassy made of stone. While two children tormented their dog in the square, the waiters in the coffeehouse cackled hysterically as if there crying out for something to take them away from this town. I decided to follow their example and make my way back to the coast.

Montenegro's National Museum in the former parliament in Cetinje.

Almost across the street from the National Museum, houses that wouldn't look out of place in most villages in the region.

Cetinje's Belgian embassy.

What was the Bulgarian embassy.

The National Theatre in Cetinje, yet another building that looks hopelessly out of place.

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