The train line from Prijepolje in the south Serbian Sandžak to Podgorica in Montenegro is perhaps the most dramatic in Europe. You go through tunnel after tunnel, skirting the precipice of one of the world’s deepest canyons. The mountains here are indescribably rugged, barely cultivable and scarcely inhabited. Here and there in the midst of this grey wilderness of barren rock you see a lonely stone-built hut surrounded by grassy plots cleared of stones for the grazing of sheep or goats, but you see no people. The landscape is far too inhospitable. Gradually the mountains give way and the train descends along a green river to a fertile plain upon which sits the capital of Montenegro, Podgorica, which means “under the mountain”. As soon as you disembark from the train, which is full of young, jolly holiday-makers from Serbia, the climatic change hits you immediately. The air is subtropical and you sense that the Mediterranean is now close.

Podgorica struck me as a kind of rough-and-tumble town. During the war it was rife with mafiosi. Petrol, cigarettes and guns were smuggled from abroad through Montenegro and Podgorica into Serbia and Bosnia, and something of the illicit atmosphere of those times still clings to the city. It is loud, fast-paced, flashy and cheap. You can’t call it a charming town by any stretch, but it does have a certain lawless, Wild-West , frontier town kind of life to it. You sense immediately, as you sense in some other Balkan frontier towns, that the city is awash with black money.

I was only passing through Podgorica, and within hours of having arrived in the town I had boarded a bus in the direction of Nikšić. The bus was crowded and hot and full of crying babies and women fanning themselves with tissues. Leaving Podgorica the bus climbed rocky, barren mountains (never have I seen so much rock; Montenegro is all rock, when it is not water). I got off at an unmarked crossroads in a landscape which looked like Nevada, where I had been told I could head off to the monastery of Ostrog.

Ostrog is spectacular for its rugged setting. Like the Turkish Black Sea monastery Sümele, it is embedded in the face of a cliff, seemingly carved out of the rock. For years it was impregnable to any invading force, an eternal stumbling block to the Turk. To get there I walked up a dusty road winding up a sheer mountainside inhabited it would seem only by Albanian shepherds with fierce, wolf-like shepherd dogs trained to fly at strangers.

Upon reaching the monastery complex you walk through a parking lot full of tourist busses bearing Serbian and Montenegrin pilgrims, souvenir booths selling crucifixes, guslas – the single stringed instrument of Serb bards – icons and all manner of religious kitsch, a couple cafes blaring the usual Serbian and Montenegrin narodna music, serviced by waitresses wearing T-shirts bearing the visages of Karadžić and other indicted war criminals. Then, following a winding path which takes you through cypress and olive groves, you climb the cliffside leading to the monastery, which the very pious are supposed to toil up to on their knees. 

The monastery is a kind of glorified monk’s grotto, with cells and chapels hewn into sheer rock dating from 1665. Inside of one lies the embalmed body of St Vasilje, the ascetic bishop who lived out his life in one of these caves and died here in 1671. It was said that after his death a sweet scent began to issue from his holy remains, much like St Nemanja at Studenica. Many miracles are ascribed to St Vasilje and his relics are visited not only by Orthodox pilgrims but by Muslim Slavs and Albanians. A monk presides over the coffin and you may ask him to say a prayer for you and light a candle.

I felt a bit like a voyeur spying on someone’s private rituals, and I merely popped in and had a brief glance of the sarcophagus before making my way back down again to the road leading down the mountain, where I attempted to hitch a ride back to Podgorica.

I stuck out my thumb and after around ten minutes an old beat Mercedes picked me up.

Kamo idete?” said the driver. Where are you going?

“Podgorica,” I said.

“Hop in,” replied the Montenegrin. “I used to hitchhike myself.”

And the Montenegrin drove like a mad man, while at least four crucifixes jogged from his rear view mirror, which was perhaps an indication of how much he needed the grace of God to protect him on the road.

We descended the steep road which wound down from Ostrog and turned on to the main road to Podgorica, with bleak stony mountains on either side and the monastery of Ostrog off to the left. It looked like Nevada, but it was the heart of the Balkans.

***

The next day I boarded  bus to Budva, which rose again into the mountains before descending into the town of Cetinje, the old capital of the kingdom of Montenegro, and last, impregnable bastion of the hardy Montenegrins against the Turks.

I would later spend some hours in Cetinje, but this time round I merely passed through, ending up an hour later in the coastal town of Budva. Many of the signs were in Russian. Russians now owned much of the high-end real estate here, and the Montenegrins were largely happy to have them.

The connection between Montenegro and Russia is not something new. Peter the Great had a soft spot for the Montenegrins, proclaiming Prince-Bishop Danilo Petrović Njegoš as his ally “to conquer the Turk and glorify the Slav faith and name”.

The Montenegrins in turn repaid the Russians with undying loyalty. There is an old story about a traveler who said to a Montenegrin, “How many of your people are there?”  and the Montenegrin reportedly answered, “With Russia, one hundred and eighty million.”

At some point around Montenegro’s bid for independence in 2006, the little country of 600,000 suddenly became fashionable, if not only for the number of Russian oligarchs who would vacation in this small Balkan statelet and the fact that Roman Abrahamovich would  moor his yacht here. In 2006 James Bond director Martin Campbell jumped on the bandwagon and set his Casino Royal in Montenegro. The only thing is that the fantasy of Montenegro far outstripped the dusty Balkan reality, and there was very little here in fact that could square with the demands of a glamorous international spy thriller.

In one scene Daniel Craig hurtles towards Montenegro in a Japanese style-bullet train, sipping champagne. The reality: Montenegro is reached by a rickety Yugo-era communist clunker, and champagne is certainly not served. In another scene Bond plays poker in the baroque Hotel Splendido. Fact is, no such architecture exists here and the scenes had to be shot in Czech regal spa town Karlovy Vary. Finally, Bond emerges from the turquoise waters after a refreshing swim; only thing is, Montenegrin coastal waters were evidently not crystal-clear enough and so the scene had to be shot in the Caribbean.

There has always been something of a discrepancy between image and reality with regards to Montenegro. In the years when it was a small kingdom on the Adriatic it had for Western observers something of a comic operetta air about it, obscure and at the same time mythic and yet not quite taken seriously. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Gatsby lays it on thick, producing a decoration for “valour extraordinary”  from “little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea.” Somehow the country was arcane enough for this bogus accolade to pass muster.

I didn’t come to the Balkans for Mediterranean seaside resort towns occupied by tourists, and while I was in Budva I didn’t even bother to venture into the historical center. I merely set my sights on an old fortress turned bunker on a precipice overlooking the town and made my way to the top, whiling away the rest of the day basking shirtless in the sun above the sparkling blue Adriatic, filling in my journal and spending the night there over the twinkling lights of Budva in my tent.

The next day I made my way along the shore route, stopping off at appealing beaches for a swim. The heat was like an oven as I walked parched with thirst along the hot asphalt through scrubby landscape past abandoned stone farmhouses and churches, weeds thriving in every cranny, lizards flickering on the stones. It was a Sunday and the few shops I came across were shut. I found a small fishing village, took a swim and had a sumptuous seafood lunch on the terrace of a restaurant off the pier. It was one of the best meals I ever had.

Eventually – after another night spent atop a bunker and beset by large flying beetles – I made it to Tivat and the Bay of Kotor, the largest inland fjord south of Scandinavia, taking the ferry across the bay and boarding a bus to the seaside town of Herceg Novi, one of the most charming and relaxed seaside towns on the Adriatic, and holiday home of Serbian film director Emir Kusturica.

There is something rather Italianate about Herceg Novi, full as it is of traces of Venetian influence, from the time when it was known as Castelnuovo. It is famous for its subtropical climate which fosters many exotic plants and flowers. It is rather a strange thing to see palms and blue sea and at the same time dark Orthodox churches hung with icons, swimming in incense.

I spent three days in Herceg Novi, hanging out in cafes populated mainly by local townspeople, and sauntering down to the pebbly beach for a dip in the clear and soothing waters. No more wandering about. Just idling. Forget. And, best of all: the seaside without Germans or English.

Most of the people I encountered during my stay were local Montenegrins, lolling around in the shade of seaside cafes, not lifting a finger all day, in dolce far niente. Among those, were several Serbs, who constitute a minority in Montenegro. They were sore that the country had opted for independence from Serbia.

One of the folks in Herceg Novi I spoke with was the owner of a small bookshop on the market square, named Petar. He was a close-shorn, tall, scholarly looking man who spoke fluent English and answered my queries about books on the subject of Serbia and Montenegro.

Petar was a Serb and looking over his spectacles he told me to feel free to ask him any questions I might have about Serbs and Serbia. And so I asked him if he could tell me a little bit why the Battle of Kosovo Polje still seemed to loom so large in the Serb psyche more than six hundred years after the fact, and why Serbs keep trying to hang on to Kosovo, though the cause seemed so much wasted labor. Why couldn’t Serbs just write it off and move on?

Petar wrote down the date 1389 on a piece of paper. That was when the Serbs fought and lost against the Turks at Kosovo Polje, the Field of the Blackbirds. Serbia, he said, could be defined by what it was before and after this date.

“Imagine what it is like,” said Petar, “when ninety percent of your country’s leaders have been killed. Our King Lazar made a choice. He decided to die for freedom. He did not want to live enslaved under the Turks.”

Petar then proceeded to draw a square and within the square he made many dots. These dots were the churches and monasteries of Kosovo. Kosovo was full of them, built from the eleventh till the thirteenth centuries.

“And Serbia can’t give up Kosovo. It can’t give up this fifteen percent of its territory. It is not like giving up fifteen percent of an arm or a leg. It is like giving up fifteen percent of the heart.”

I glanced around the shop. There were books in Serbian as well as English and postcards with Montenegrin motifs. I asked Petar if he was the owner of the shop.

“God is the owner,” said Petar. “I am the one under God.”

It made him think of a tale he had heard in his childhood. It was about a farmer — every time someone asked him how much land he owned, and he would answer, the land would go up in flames, until it dawned on him that he should say when asked, that God owned the land and he was merely using it.

“Look,” said Petar, “we live in earthquake country. I remember very well the earthquake of 1979.”

Petar took hold of his pen and shook it rapidly to and fro so that it appeared to wriggle like rubber.

“I saw houses shake like this. I saw houses disappear in the ground. And so I say all this belongs to God and we are just using it.”

On the subject of Montenegrin independence Petar grew morose.

“People voted for independence because they were ill-informed. Throughout history Montenegro has always dreamed of union with Serbia. It has never wanted to go it alone. The Montenegrins are Serbs. That they are ethnically distinct is a historical lie. This whole country is a lie. We are living a cultural lie, a religious lie, an ethnic lie. But look, if you keep being told that milk is black one day you will see it as gray. I think this whole independence farce came about because people don’t read. They only listen, and certain people – America, NATO do all the talking. Your country wants us to be stupid so that they can do what they want with us. Now certain people – the Americans, who want this region – have put a lot of money in the pockets of Milo Đukanović so that he can push through independence for the country. Then they can do what they want. Look, property prices are rising. Still it is good. Still the people are happy. But this is the end. People are living in the last happy days.” Petar heaved a deep fatalistic sigh.

***

A couple days later, saturated as I was of sea and sun, I boarded a bus for Cetinje, the old capital of the kingdom of Montenegro, which sits in a stony crater encircled by barren rocks, a natural fortress against the Turks.

No one could conquer Montenegro. A big army would starve here, and a small one never stood a chance. The men sniped from the rocks with guns three yards long, the women set off landslides. The children fetched ammunition and fired catapults.

Cetinje has many solid nineteenth century houses which line regular, grid-like, tree-shaded streets full of cafes. There is more culture in Cetinje than in Podgorica or any other town south of Belgrade, reflecting the nearness of Dalmatia and Venice, but as Rebecca West wrote, the town’s architecture is marked by a distinct puritanism, reflecting the austere ways of the Montenegrins, who distinguished themselves mainly in the field of battle and never had much interest in the finer things of life. “If the country has a blatant fault,” wrote West, “it is a chilling blankness”. Villages “never warm into welcoming sociability”. The effect “on the stranger is cold and dreary.”

Its appearance mirrored the physical demeanor of the Montenegrins, she felt —  “the terrible purity of Montenegrin good looks”. “Such luster of hair and eye and skin and teeth, such unerring grace, chokes the eye with cream.”

In 1493, with Cyrillic type brought from Venice, the first printing press in the Slavic world was set up here of all places. It wasn’t long, though, before the lead was melted down for bullets. The barrack-like palace built for the prince in 1830 is called Biljarda, after the billiard table which the prince-poet bishop brought up by mule train, a sensation amongst the citizenry. 

Constantly at war with the Turks, and always under threat of extinction, it is said that the Montenegrins owed their survival to a single, blood-curdling event. After the Turks were beaten back from the gates of Vienna in 1683, they concentrated their energies on Montenegro, weaker and nearer to home. They marched through the mountains guided by Montenegrins who had converted to Islam and occupied Cetinje, which seemed as though it would soon fall to the Turks for the reason of their being so many renegades.

The ruler of Montenegro, Danilo Petrović Njegoš out of desperation summoned his followers and told them to go forth against the Islamized Slavs on Christmas Eve and offer every Montenegrin Muslim the choice of baptism or death. Five brothers named Martinović alone obeyed him. “Seizing their consecrated maces, they set forth in the dark.”

What followed was a bloody massacre, celebrated in Danilo Njegoš’ descendent Petar Petrović Njegoš’ epic poem, “ The Mountain Wreath” written in 1846. 

“Not one witness was able to escape to tell his tale about what happened there. We put under our sharp sabers all those who did not want to be baptized by us,” the warriors reported to the Vladika of the day, who like Njegoš, headed both Church and State. “We set fire to all the Turkish houses that there might not be a single trace left of our faithless domestic enemy.” 

The Vladika replied: “You have brought me great gladness, my falcons, great joy to me”.

Serb schoolboys learned the poem by heart, and Montenegrin villagers “found in it more than anywhere else the greatest expression of their way of thinking and feeling”, wrote Milovan Djilas, the one-time close aide to Tito.

Critics, however, have called the poem – with its call to the “heavenly people” to  “clean the country of devils”, root out the  “dog people” (i.e. Muslims) and destroy mosques and minarets – violently Islamophobic, lending moral support to the propagandists of ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia in the ‘90s. Tim Judah has called the poem “sinister” and a “paean to ethnic cleansing”, helping to “explain how the Serbian national consciousness has been molded and how ideas of national liberation are inextricably linked with killing your neighbor and burning his village”. In fact, when Bosnian Serbs went off to battle in the ‘90s many carried clumsily typed paperbacks of   The Mountain Wreath in their rucksacks.

The Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan Amfilohije Radović has said about the killing of Muslim “renegades” : “Many still complain about what Bishop Danilo is supposed to have done. Of course, it is terrible to kill people. However, still more terrible is the spiritual death sown by the false people of a false faith. Therefore, it is thanks to his victims that Bishop Danilo saved Montenegro. If this did not happen, there would not be an Orthodox soul in Montenegro today.”

Rebecca West likewise was unmoved by the bloodshed. Her sympathies were firmly for the Christians. “I am on the side of the brothers Martinović,” she writes. “Having seen what Turkish conquest meant to the Slav, it is certain they were justified in their crime. A man is not a man if he will not save his seed.” And then she says, turning to her husband, “Please give me some brandy…..I feel rather ill”.

***

It was my plan to set off from Cetinje and climb the Lovćen, the famous grey mountain at the top of which sits perched like an eagle’s nest the mausoleum of Montenegrin poet and king Petar Njegoš (1813-1851). Everyone I spoke to in Cetinje said it was impossible to make it to the top of the mountain in one day. Nevertheless, I set off for the many-legended Lovćen, leaving Cetinje behind me as I climbed the first rocky outcroppings overlooking the town. Along the way I passed sober stone houses, neat farm-yards, tiny goat-ravaged fields hemmed by rocks. Higher up the landscape grew more desolate and one passed deserted stone-built farm houses with weeds growing from the roofs, some houses with a plaque and a portrait telling of a famous Montenegrin warrior that once lived there.

Resting against the ruins, I thought about the heroes who once populated these crags and valleys. In the words of Robert Burns, it was once, perhaps a hundred years ago “the birthplace of valor, the country of worth”.

“Have the Montenegrins not made enormous sacrifices to preserve their independence?” writes Rebecca West. “Greater than you can believe,” responds her interlocutor. “They have sacrificed almost everything except their heroism. They are nothing but heroes. If they eat or sleep it is so to beget little heroes, who would not trouble to come out of their mothers’ wombs were they not certain that they would grow up in heroism. They are as like the people of Homer as any race now living: they are brave, and beautiful, and vainglorious.”

The race had since died out; left home; moved abroad. The last representatives, big, quiet men were to be seen sadly smiling behind the bar of some local restaurant, shirking hard work.

William, archbishop of Tyre, who visited Constantinople in 1179, had described the “rebellious Serbs” as “an uneducated people, lacking in discipline, living in mountains and forests, unskilled in agriculture.” Yet today, even for the lackadaisical Serbs, the lazy Montenegrins are the eternal butt of jokes. “Montenegrins are so lazy,” runs one Serb joke, “they have to marry a pregnant woman”. Or another: “Why are more and more Montenegrins moving to Bosnia Herzegovina? Because they heard there’s no work there.“ 

But up in the mountains I thought about their ancestors, the race of mountain men who once nimbly trod these stones armed to the teeth with guns and knives, accustomed to sleeping bare-headed under the rain at night in the mountains, ready to fight the Turk at a moment’s notice. Old perils haunted these rocks and the whole landscape was full of the memories of these people; their ghosts lived in the stones.

I climbed the Lovćen to the mausoleum of Petar Njegoš. Towards the top road signs were perforated by bullets, fired no doubt, by some drunken Montenegrin in excess of glee. And then finally the mausoleum, with its sheer granite walls, rising like an outgrowth of the mountain. The Nazis would have loved this place. It was pure fascist architecture, totally in the spirit of Albert Speer and the most amazing thing you have ever seen. You had to go up endless steps, through a long, dimly lit tunnel to get to the mausoleum which stood in an enclosed courtyard lined with somber caryatids and guarded by a gigantic brooding black stone eagle. A couple of dour Montenegrins in nationalist T-shirts sold flags and patriotic souvenirs. They would have preferred me to be a Serbian or Montenegrin. Maybe I was Czech? They had at least hoped I was a Slav. Alas, I was only an American, lowest on the rung. They reluctantly gave me a ticket. I checked out the mausoleum, running my hand over Njegoš’ granite sarcophagus and standing for a few breathtaking moments on a terrace at the tip of the mausoleum looking out over the bleak mountains of Montenegro which heaved and undulated like a grey, fossilized sea. I stood there and stared raptly at the Montenegrin landscape glaring dazzling in the midsummer sun.

There was no question of making it down the mountain back to Cetinje. I had to spend the night on the mountain. So in a plot of grass cleared of stones I set up my tent and went to sleep. That night there was a thunder storm that put the fear of God in me. I had never in my life heard such thunder. The heavens sounded like they were cracking open and the ground under me shook. I thought of Petar Njegoš, who used to climb this mountain during thunder storms to commune with the elements. The next morning I walked down a winding zig-zag road called the Ladder of Kotor to the old Venetian town of Kotor. A Montenegrin gave me a ride down the last stretch of the corkscrewing road.

“What a beautiful place Montenegro,” I told the driver.

“Stones,” he sighed. “All we have are stones.”