Recently, my husband and I had the opportunity to take a daytrip into Montenegro with a local guide from Croatia. I was interested in seeing a little bit of this tiny, relatively new country—roughly the size of Connecticut—but I got a lot more than I bargained for in the form of a history lesson from a local’s perspective when I hired a driver to take us there. Montenegro, with its rugged coastline; small, fortified towns surrounding the Bay of Kotor; and “black” mountains for which it was named, is worth a detour from Dubrovnik. I would characterize it as “a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay.” Dubrovnik makes a nicer home base, and you can easily cover the major towns centralized around the Bay of Kotor—the highlight of this country for most travelers—in a day.
As we set off from Dubrovnik, I am happy to have someone else driving us (I don’t know how glad until we hit the border road between the two countries, but I’ll get to that in a minute). We have driven a decent bit of Croatia’s notoriously windey costal roads and need a break to relax and enjoy our trip instead of trying to follow maps and directions and not drive off of a cliff in the process. We aren’t far outside of Dubrovnik when our driver pulls off the road, though, and says he wants to show us something first. We are discussing the recent war that ravaged so much of the Balkan region and the situation of the current government. He pulls into a complex of luxury hotels… or what used to be a complex of luxury hotels.
Photos: Former Croatian Hotels Destroyed During the War
“Everyone who was anyone in the communist party used to stay here, including Tito” he tells us. “You know who Tito is, of course?” he asks without really asking.
And we do, Tito ran Yugoslavia in its infancy. My history books tell me he’s the only one who was really able to hold the country together. Our driver—we’ll call him Josip since I didn’t ask his permission to share all of his very frank and honest opinions—disagrees. He says Tito just did a better job of intimidating internal insurrection and playing the west vs. Russia to keep his country economically afloat.
We get out of the car and walk around the buildings a little. They have been completely gutted by bombs. All of the windows have been blown out; there are pockmarks in the cement walkways and scarring the entire exterior of the buildings. At certain points you can see the steel frame running through what concrete used to encase. Time has only increased the precarious way the complexes appear to be balanced. I wouldn’t exactly call them a safe structure to wander, particularly since they were obviously shelled at some point, but we walk through one of the open arched hallways to look down at the beautiful shoreline a few meters away. There are several other hotels along the water we can see from here looking just like this one, bombed out and decaying.
“Why haven’t they rebuilt any of these?” I wonder. “This is prime real estate.” I think about how crowded Dubrovnik is, and how there isn’t really much room for tourists to stay within the city itself, how the majority of tourists stay on the Lapad Peninsula where the resort hotels are—well outside of the walled city. Some are much farther than this is from the city center.
The answer he provides, though, is complicated. The government owns the property; no one can decide what to do with it (sell it, keep it, develop it). At some point, someone bought one of the hotels and then someone killed him (I hope those two events are unrelated, but I don’t ask). He goes on to elaborate that the problem in Croatia is that the politicians will not work together. Coming from the United States, this is not a new concept to me, but I still don’t quite understand why developing coastal land that has already been developed once is controversial. Apparently, rules change about as often in Croatia as runway models change outfits, and all of the bureaucracy makes it nearly impossible to invest in projects here.
As we depart the destroyed resorts and continue to drive south, the road gets progressively worse until we’re driving on an uneven dirt road strewn with large rocks. Even slowing to a crawl doesn’t seem to help all of the dust and gravel being kicked up by the tires of his BMW, and I cringe as I hear rocks periodically clip the car.
“What are they doing to the road?” I ask Josip.
“What do you mean?” he asks back.
“The construction, why is it in such bad shape?”
“If you think this is bad, you should have seen it last week,” he laughs. “This is a great improvement.”
If this is a great improvement, I think to myself, I don’t know how anything but a tank got down this “road” last week. Josip explains that if it weren’t for the tours he does, he would never enter Montenegro, neither would the majority of Croatians. Some tensions still exist between the two countries, leftover from a war that is still too fresh in their minds to be completely left in the past, like two neighbors who aren’t particularly fond of one another but tolerate each other because neither one can really move. When Croatian politicians try to spend tax dollars to fix the roads that connect the two countries, the majority of people protest about their money going toward such a project. Croatians feel the only people who benefit from a better road are the Montenegrins, and why should their tax dollars be used to help them?
He tells me the Montenegrins utilize the road to reach the Dubrovnik airport for cheaper travel, as a thoroughfare to reach their relatives in other parts of Europe, and to transport stolen cars in and drugs out. He says the border has been experiencing a lot of issues with drugs being smuggled into Croatia. Josip repeats a popular travel motto known throughout Europe in the early 2000’s—‘come to Montenegro, your car is already here waiting for you’—in reference to a problem with stolen cars across Europe ending up in Montenegro. I take everything I hear with a grain of salt. Montenegro, in our guide’s perspective, is run by the Mob more than a legitimate government. When I do my research later, I find that the slogan he referenced is quite popular, and there is some truth to previous Montenegrin government officials having ties to organized crime, so maybe he’s not so far off the mark.
When I ask, “what about the tourists who want to go there?” in reference to the road to Montenegro as we continue to bump along, he replies that locals would ask why they would want to encourage tourists to go and spend their money elsewhere? Good point I guess.
“Why are they trying to fix the road at all then?” I question.
“Because we are entering the European Union in July . We need to build up our infrastructure in order to do that. Montenegro and Bosnia wish to join, as well. Someday we will not have ‘borders’ anymore to worry about—whether some of us like it that way or not.”
Finally, after a bit more bumping around, we reach the border. He hands over all of our papers, but as seems to be the trend in this general part of the world, our American passports aren’t even opened. They just look his papers over carefully. Americans equal welcomed tourist dollars, and no one wants to hassle us. Josip does us a favor, though, and gets the guard to stamp our passports for us. We love collecting stamps, and with the EU now, even when we cross borders we can only rarely get one.
“He’s a Croat,” he says, motioning to the guard. “It’s not a problem. A Serb would not have done it for you. They are not fond of Americans like we are.” I ask why and he launches into an explanation of the politics of the 1990’s war. He’s a huge fan of George W. Bush—this is a shock to me because in most of Europe it’s best not to mention his name unless you want to bring on a tirade from a local. Josip gives the Clintons their fair share of praise, too, though. “Without them, we would still be at war; if the US deserts us, we will end up back at war,” he says frankly. He feels NATO was their savior. “The UN did nothing for us. They say they will send in peacekeepers and everyone feels safer. Then they stand by and watch as thousands of us are massacred and won’t lift a finger. What was the point in their coming at all? NATO restored peace, their presence ensures peace continues.”
Josip does not have high praise for the European Union or Croatia’s plans to become members in July, either. “We just freed ourselves from one power, why do we want to now tie ourselves to another? We know what it’s like to be controlled, and it has not worked well for us in the past, has it?” he asks referencing their break from Yugoslavia. “I would rather become the 51st State of the United States than become a part of the European Union.”
by Meghan Perkins