by Brooke Chilvers
Who knows when the idea of traveling to Montenegro entered my brain? Maybe while reading Les Aventures de Tintin, by Belgian comic-strip artist, Hergé (1907–1983). A half-dozen of his many titles, starting with King Ottokar’s Scepter (1938), take place in the tiny fictional East European monarchy of Syldavia, ruled by the benevolent King Muskar XII from his capital, Klow. Its Cyrillic alphabet, population of pelicans, and endless skirmishes with the Turks recall the Balkans, specifically Montenegro, with touches of Albania, Hergé avowed.
We landed in more accessible Dubrovnik, in Croatia, and traveled overland with our agent, Slavisa or “Sasha,” to the stunning Bay of Kotor where we picked up a worn but reliable Skoda. Over 14 days, we drove through the pristine Durmitor mountains and through the 4,300-foot deep Tara River Gorge on the border of Bosnia; to Lake Skadar and Ulcinj with its muezzin calls to prayer, both neighboring Albania; then along the Adriatic Coast, visiting Venetian-influenced Budva, Kotor, Perast, and Tivat, the hang-out of exiled yachts.
We wound our way up steep, narrow roads, from sea level through the evergreen and black beech forests—for which the country is named Crna Gora, or Black Mountain—to Mount Lovćen’s 1,657-meter Ezerski Peak, home to the “loneliest grave in the world.” After 461 additional steps in the clouds, we paid homage to the beloved and oft-reburied Southern Slavic poet, philosopher and statesman, Petar II Petrović-Njegoš (1813-1851). Finally, we descended the brittle, glacier-beaten mountains to the remote former royal capital, Cetinje, founded in 1482, far from the Ottoman-dominated shores.
There, we “met” the real King Muskar, Nikola I Petrović-Njegoš (1841–1921)—King Nikola I of Montenegro—the country’s first and last monarch, ruling first as reigning prince (1860-1910), then as king of a kingdom that became a constitutional monarchy in 1905. When, during the Great War, Serbia and Montenegro were defeated in 1916 by Austro-Hungarian forces, Nikola fled first to Italy and then to Bordeaux, France, whence he led his government. Deposed by the Montenegrin National Assembly in 1918 to usher in unification with Serbia, he died in exile in Antibes in 1921.
It’s impossible to outline the country’s border-fluid and complicated history. Corinthians and Illyrians, with a touch of Rome. The arrival of the Slavs in 6th century AD. Fighting for hundreds of years between warlords and clans, and between Christians and Ottomans. A 200-year dynasty of Petrović prince-bishops, or vladikas. In 1918, Montenegro became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929. In 1945, under Communist leader Josip Broz “Tito” (1892-1980), it became part of the Federal State of, then Republic of, Yugoslavia until the 1990 collapse and break-up of the six republics and two autonomous provinces. At first, Montenegro joined Serbia to form a “State Union,” then declared independence in 2006.
Or some version of the above. As Winston Churchill observed, the Balkans have “more history than they can comfortably consume.”
Despite naughtily joining the Serbs in the December bombing of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, during the Croatian War of Independence in 1991, Montenegro is a member of the United Nations (2006) and NATO (2017), and has used the Euro as currency since 2002. For more than 30 years, from 1991 until 2023, the country was dominated by Milo Đukanović, who served four times as prime minister (starting at age 29) and twice as president. The president today is the young, pro-western Jakov Milatovic .
Although King Nikola I was educated in Trieste and Paris, he preferred the Serbian ways of his own rough country. This served him well when he ascended the throne after his uncle, the reigning Prince Danilo I, was assassinated in 1860. The same year, he married 13-year-old Milena, daughter of a powerful landowner to whom he became betrothed when she was six years old. Together, they had 12 children; five of his nine daughters married kings or princes, making him, along with Christian IX of Denmark, the “father-in-law of Europe.”
In 1910, Nikola I did something remarkable. To deter invasion from Albania and Austria, he proclaimed all male citizens subject to military service and required that each one purchase a Gasser M1870—the so-called Montenegrin revolver and the only weapon named after a country! The soldier could pass it on to his children but never sell it, especially to foreigners. Costing between 14 and 18 guilders, the weapon could only be imported by the military ministry from the weapon’s sole manufacturer, Leopold Gasser Waffenfabrik, in Vienna, Austria. It has forever been rumored, but never proven, that Nikola had a financial interest in Gasser.