Montenegro: between wild and concrete

A beautiful country’s sad story of the race for growth and money.

Finding a travel destination can be both the most exciting and frustrating thing ever. I usually spend hours juggling between dozens of open tabs, my favourites being Google images and the Easy Jet website, and I always end up getting lost on Google Earth not finding the way out of Mongolia. Anyways, this year was quite different as I blindly followed the advice of an old Bosnian man I met in a youth hostel in Vienna (don’t ask….) . The place of all dreams had to be Montenegro.

Skadarsko Jezero, “the Blake Lake”, near the Albanian border ©Chloé Farand

The truth is, I had to double check where Montenegro was on the European map(on the Adriatic coast between Croatia and Albania), but that only increased my excitement: I was then certain to have chosen an unknown destination.

Montenegro, smaller than Wales, has only been independent from its mother Serbia since 2006. Its history is a succession of invasions, wars, alliances and a fragile equilibrium between autonomy and domination. A little googling revealed a beautiful turquoise sea, green valleys and barren mountains. The decision was quickly made: Montenegro would be my exotic European destination for the summer.

The Slav world is so incredibly different from what we are accustomed to in Western Europe that it only confirmed my thrill for Europe’s diversity. To start, the Cyrillic alphabet leaves your mouth open and soundless as you try to pronounce the name of the capital city. Thankfully, Montenegro, as part of its long term vision of joining the European Union, has made colossal efforts to increasingly introduce the use of the Latin alphabet.

Life is slow and calm. People contend themselves with very little.

Yet, very few people speak English, and those who do often blend it into a single “foreign language” which incorporates German, Italian and Russian flavours. Besides, all tourists are expected to understand “Montenegrin” – the official language since 2008 which is actually the equivalent to a Serbo-Croatian dialect.

Countless are the times I had to stand through a full Montenegrin conversation, not understanding a word, but nodding politely to the flow of sounds and exclamations. A few locals confirmed the assumption that was already on our minds: here, language has clearly become a political issue and epitomises the country’s divide between traditional Russian and Serbian ties and the new born influence of the EU.

Wooden huts in the Durmitor mountains, in the North of the country ©Chloé Farand

Although Montenegro is ranked by the UNas a “middle-income country”, in the hinterland where the mountains attain over 2100m of altitude, time seems to have stopped about thirty years ago. Abandoned villages and ramshackle houses are the reminders of past wars and devastating earthquakes.

Little huts with sharp roofs are scattered across the high plateaus, people live off the vegetables, wheat and maize they grow, and the cattle their breed. Local olive oil and wine production often make a little extra. Hay is still scythed and gathered into pear shaped stacks with wooden picks. The lucky ones might have an apartment or a room to rent, which attracts both hikers and skiers depending on the season. Life is slow and calm. People contend themselves with very little.

An old lady looking for wild mushrooms ©Chloé Farand

The mountains’ summits cling to the clouds, the air is pure and fresh. In the highs, wild bears and wolves enjoy the peace of hidden lakes and breath-taking landscaping. Here and there, hanging on a cliff, in the middle of meadows or lost in pine woods one can find orthodox monasteries. There are over 200 of them in Montenegro alone, a huge amount regarding the minute size of the country. One cannot deny the floating spiritual atmosphere of the place. The journey takes you out of time.

The red star, symbol of former Yugoslavia ©Chloé Farand

And yet, Montenegro accumulates indecision and paradoxes. Since its independence, it has turned to the West for a model of development. The government of Milo Đukanović, a former communist, made a radical shift towards capitalism and took the path of rapid return to investments and intense privatisations.

Today, Montenegro’s economy relies essentially on services and the boom of tourism. On the south coast, huge concrete hotel complexes grow out from the earth like mushrooms. In some places gigantic cranes have replaced the mountain view of the inland regions, and fields of chemical blue pools are trying to compete with the beautiful turquoise robe of the Adriatic. Russian investments constitute Montenegro’s latest invasion as the sea front is progressively being conquered by endless rows of plastic parasols safely guarded by armies of ruthless Jet Skis.

There is something woeful in witnessing such a wild coast being turned into a single Machu Picchu shaped hotel.

There is something woeful in witnessing the vision of the Montenegrin government, turning their wild coast into a single Machu Picchu shaped hotel and increasingly attracting the bling-bling Russian tourism. As they say: “The Russians are the ones with the money” and every last bit of public land, down to former military zones are being sold for gold.

Still living in the shadow of the communist past ©Chloé Farand

However, the people, powerless in front of the boisterous and unconstrained programmes of constructions, continue to hold their land closer to their heart than they do their nation. Montenegro remains a beautiful enclave in the Balkan countries and certainly a place which deserves to be discovered. Yet, you have been warned, time is running out before the entire coast transforms itself into a giant attraction park.

This ephemeral shine is essentially a lure to foreign investments and a mirage for Montenegro inhabitants who hardly see its benefit. The hard reality of the inland reveals the dire poverty in which people lack basic commodities and live in the decadent past of the Tito era and the former communist regime.

At the window of modernity ©Chloé Farand

Like many other “developing” countries, Montenegro today seems to be at a cross road between its traditional way of life and its desire to catch up with the West, following our model of development. Such urge for quick booms yet do not provide the country with a sustainable path for growth but rather has created a vicious circle in which rapid incomes of money prevail over democratic and ecological agendas. Sadly, Montenegro’s current strive towards luxurious and exuberant tourism constitute the government hopes for an economic catch-up and a consequent application form to European Union membership.

Montenegro seems trapped in a vision of development, which appears profoundly inappropriate. Not only does it overlook the needs of its own people, but it is destroying one of Europe’s most beautiful places at light speed.

Published on The Yorker July 27, 2013
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