24 June 2006

Europe's undiscovered playground

By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 24 June 2006

Fearsome black crags jut up toward the belly of our aircraft as we float in the direction of Podgorica, capital city of Montenegro, the world's newest sovereign state.

From the air, it looks treacherous. A strange, bent universe of limestone spans the horizon: the Dinaric Alps. Weirdly shaped monoliths here and there break off into deep canyons, then rise again as highland plateaux. Many call this magnificent former Yugoslav republic a Mediterranean paradise.

Yet, after all the tectonic jolts of politics and war the Balkans have absorbed during the past 15 years, first-time visitors cannot help wondering about the lie of the land when they arrive.

A hopeful new chapter in Montenegro's political life is unfolding peacefully after a May 21 referendum in which voters chose to declare independence from Serbia. Yet by its very nature, this land still celebrates the violence of creation. A topographical wonderland, Montenegro is an ancient wound in our planet's skin, rendered by the furious forces that formed the planet.

We begin to descend and a break in the Dinaric peaks reveals a fertile valley. We soar over the vast Zeta plain, layered with vineyards and dotted with red-roofed country houses. An aquamarine river strewn with white boulders follows a jagged line through the valley, as if someone has scribbled playfully over the bright green ground with a giant blue oil pastel.

Then, somewhat alarmingly, as if the pilot has fallen asleep, we pass over tiny, concrete Podgorica and its little airport, drifting onward.

More vineyards and country houses appear below and the plain becomes waterlogged. Little brooks appear, then multiply and combine, forming the rim of an astonishing body of water - Lake Skadar, marking Montenegro's border with Albania, a shining swirl of turquoise and dark blue matted with lily pads and ringed by verdant hills.

The aircraft angles sharply, cutting a 180° arc back toward the city. We roar back, descend rapidly and fly low over the fields before touching down on the airstrip. Disembarking in the open air, we step out into a deliciously warm breeze.

The spectacular horseshoe-shaped approach to Podgorica's airport allows just a glimpse of this country's lauded "wild beauty". There is much more. Montenegro serves up a vast feast for the senses. It must be seen, felt and tasted to be believed - and nothing of what the air passenger beholds as he descends compares to the biggest draw: the beach.

Now that Montenegrin independence is certain - a formality to be worked out in technical consultations between Podgorica and Belgrade - this new country dearly hopes that the rest of the world will descend upon it. Tourism, never so big here as in Croatia, will be a key factor in Montenegro's success or failure. So let the world descend; there is no reason we should not. One need only touch down in the capital to start sharing Montenegrins' faith in their future as the owners and hosts of Europe's next great playground.

From the airport car park it is just a 45-minute drive to the sparkling Adriatic. The road passes through the stunning Lake Skadar region, ornamented with medieval ruins and ancient Orthodox monasteries. It then shoots through the 10-km Sozina tunnel, newly bored through the mountains between the airport and the coast.

It is less opulent than Amalfi and not so enormous as Big Sur, yet it resembles both. Montenegrin beaches, some sandy and some stony - many sparsely inhabited by sunbathers - lie where the mountains slope into the sea. In some places, enormous chunks of stone rest just offshore, somehow sliced off the mainland and hurled into the water.

Off Petrovac, a holiday idyll near the coastal end of the motorway tunnel, squint and you can spot a tiny stone seafarers' chapel improbably crowning one such island. Montenegro is packed with such marriages of heavenly and human ingenuity.

Many of those who visited Montenegro before Yugoslavia's wars of secession will think immediately of Sveti Stefan, a fishermen's island converted after the second world war into a tourist village and linked to the shore by a white stone causeway. Sveti Stefan is still there and it remains one of the pearls of the coast. But a more extraordinary, lesser-known gem is found to the north at Perast, on the the butterfly-shaped Boka Kotorska - southern Europe's only fjord, an ever-changing body of water fed by sea tides and freshwater aquifers.

Tiny, tranquil Perast was built by medieval Venetians and later adopted as a Russian naval port by Peter the Great. It is now a sleepy beauty spot. At the shore, local oarsmen wait to carry passengers to the picture-perfect islands in the middle of the fjord. One of the islands, heavily pine-clad, is home to a former Benedictine abbey. On the other, the Gospa od Skrpjele, a manmade stone platform set on a foundation of sunken ships, stands a blue-domed church. In the late afternoon, sunlight illuminates the humid air and shafts of light shine like spotlights on the jaw-dropping scene.

Dive off halfway between Perast's islands and the shore. Swimming back to the dock, you can bathe in the interplay of warm sea currents and the aquifers that spout chilly rivers of melted snow, channelled through underground waterfalls, into the fjord. Delightful.

The fact that ravishing, Unesco-protected Perast is not overrun by tourists is a clear sign that Montenegro's heyday has yet to arrive. This is because, for many visitors, retreats such as Perast are simply "boring" - as some tourists overnighting in nearby Kotor put it. No working hotel, no working restaurant: just the oarsmen, the humble Café Il Giardino, an ice cream vendor, the townsfolk renting rooms and the surrounding splendour.

This is not enough to attract the old stalwarts of Montenegrin tourism - many of them urban party-loving Serbs and Russians. But it could be perfect for an incoming class of high-end western visitors. Enterprising Montenegrins are keen to catch the wave.

If the Boka Kotorska is a butterfly, then one wingtip away from Perast lies the equally sleepy village of Morinj. Drive down a dusty road, local chickens racing you over the potholes, and you come across a restaurant called Catovica Mlini - the old flour mills of the family Catovica. Here, Lazar, the father, has built a glorious prototype for the future of Montenegrin hospitality, a "restaurant" in the original restorative sense of the word. Everywhere, brooks babble and little springs spew out of the ground. Birds tiptoe across the watery lawns, sending quiet calls out over a dining area where waiters erect great linen canopies to shield tables from the scorching sun.

Increasingly, such refined means of relaxation can be found throughout Montenegro. But a different scene still prevails in the big coastal cities. Many of these, like Perast, were built by seafaring Venetians, and the heritage shows in the ancient stone. Budva, Kotor, Herceg Novi, Bar and Ulcinj contribute understated urban tone, throbbing discos and shopping to a coast otherwise better suited to laying back.

Visitors who crave both action and idleness should simply stay near a city - Budva, Kotor and Herceg Novi are best - as many tourists have learned to do across the border in Croatia, where nearby Dubrovnik is already overrun by the camera-clicking horde.

If there is a mystery about Montenegro's potential to become a world-class getaway, it is the country's immense and imposing northern mountains. So long tucked away as a southern backwater of the former Yugoslavia, this republic somehow failed to advertise the fact that it possesses the second deepest canyon in the world, through which the emerald Tara River flows. Although the 144km Tara attracts local white-water rafters, it remains obscure outside the region.

The same can be said for Zabljak, a northern resort town. On its outskirts, peasant smallholders tend cows and bees. Spartan cabins for self-catering tourists, some going for just €15 (£10.20) a night, are scattered in the valleys. A mirrorlike Crno Jezero (Black Lake) reflects the peaks of Durmitor, the north's greatest massif. This is a playground for hikers for half the year. When the winter snow falls, it becomes a haven for skiers into the spring.

While comfort in the north remains scarce, the opening of a British-owned hotel in Kolasin, south of Zabljak, offers a vision of the future. The Bianca Resort and Spa, an old communist complex refurbished to current standards, offers tourists a stylish toehold in the north.

Amazingly, back at the coast, Montenegro offers another untapped resource. Daytrippers from Ulcinj and Bar have long known about it but few others visit the 12km beach at Ada Bojana. Broad fields of dark golden sand stretch as far as the eye can see.

Someday this giant, empty beach may become a seashell- strewn boulevard of Mediterranean mega-hotels - a new Ibiza or Costa del Sol. Today it is only the cry of a gull, the perfume of magnolias, the lapping of waves and an uninterrupted nap under the sun.

10 June 2006

From beer to champagne

By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 10 June 2006

A Chicago weatherman once delivered a radio report on the "mountains of Wisconsin". He referred to some resorts not far beyond Illinois' northern border - getaways frequented on weekends by Chicagoans wearying of the big city: Alpine Valley, Wilmot, a few others.

There was just one problem. Wisconsin has no proper mountains and along its southern frontier, nearest Chicago, there is barely a hill. The only "mountains" within easy driving distance from the city are mere wrinkles in the prairie, rigged up with gondolas. But if they feel like the Alps to northbound pleasure-seekers from Chicago, who cares?

The lesson is that "mountains" are relative, as is so much else in travel and tourism. A tourist's experience has a way of rushing up to satisfy his expectation. The cold hard truth is that Wilmot is a pile of dirt, dumped and grassed over for recreational purposes. But maybe only the locals know it.

As recently as two decades ago, many people from southern Wisconsin - myself among them - were still bewildered by the way world-weary Chicagoans seemed drawn to our state like Israelites to the land of Canaan. No milk, no honey, no giant grapes, yet still they thought of our humble home as the Promised Land.

When state tourism officials tried to capitalise on the cross-border enthusiasm by distributing free car bumper stickers urging visitors to "Escape to Wisconsin", locals cut out the "to" and used them that way.

The misused marketing ploy illustrated Wisconsinites' admirable penchant for smirking self-deprecation. But it also highlighted a certain self-doubt that plagued parts of the state and, above all, the cities - especially Milwaukee, the state's biggest.

It has always been easy to understand why Chicagoans flock north to immerse themselves in Wisconsin's natural beauty: its vast forests and pristine lakes, its hospitable red-barn farm country and splendid golf courses.

But Milwaukee - a proud, brick-built brawler of the 19th century - has been another story. It suffered as many smaller Wisconsin cities did through the middle of the 20th century from a terrible double whammy of modern uglification and early post-industrial failure.

When Chicago was still busy preening itself, teaching the world about skyscrapers, two hours north along Lake Michigan's shore Milwaukee was looking ragged as the giant breweries that once helped to power its economy fell on hard times.

One could have been forgiven for wondering back then if Milwaukee, earlier renowned as America's thriving "Beer Town", would ever again amount to anything more than being Chicago's poor cousin "up north". It was not hard for pessimists to imagine an ignominious fate of monotonous middle-class oblivion for this miniature Mitteleuropa perched precariously in the heart of the New World, with its Germans, Slavs, Scandinavians and Italians mixing with its Africans, Latinos and Irish. The industrial revolution tossed them all together. But where were they going?

Milwaukee has spent the past two decades gradually proving any such pessimism wrong.

Although the big breweries are gone, apart from Miller, the fabled motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson remains, and the city's extensive light industry has so far proved itself adaptable in the age of globalisation. Local wealth did not collapse as many once feared it would - it changed.

A certain energy seems to have saved this city of 580,000 from the mediocrity that bedevils other metro centres of similar size in the American Midwest. Visitors find Milwaukee blooming in new and exciting ways.

Interstate 94, the highway north from Chicago, elevated as it enters Milwaukee, sweeps into town over lower and middle-income neighbourhoods: big, century-old houses crying out for reinvestment and streets marked by the mild, niggling poverty that afflicts inner cities of the Great Lakes region.

But poking up from one of those same neighbourhoods, I spot a billboard. It bears, of all apparently incongruous images, a portrait of Johannes Brahms. "Brahms in da Haus," it reads. Only in Milwaukee: gangsta slang, reverence for a great composer, and German, rolled into one.

Curiosity drives me to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the evening, where I hear Brahms' double concerto for violin and cello played very well. Handsome Uihlein Hall with its 2,300 seats is packed and lively.

In ways like this, Milwaukee exceeds a visitor's expectations and improves on memories of past decades. The city has quietly transformed itself into a cultural gem, even luring cultural tourists from bigger, wealthier Chicago and farther afield - a feat once unimaginable in the days when Wisconsin's top draws were god-given, not man-made.

The symbol of this transformation stands - or rather flaps - today on the broad, blue waterfront where Lake Michigan stretches, a chilly blue, over the horizon.

Visitors cannot know what to think, taking in the sight of the Milwaukee Art Museum's spectacular Quadracci Pavilion, completed in 2001 at a cost of $125m. Is it a bird, a whale, a yacht or just a building? Seen from outside, this white structure with two 50-tonne retractable sun-shade wings, conceived by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, looks like the strangely graceful skeleton of something - but what? The question is never answered.

But to enter the pavilion is to walk into a glass pyramid full of extraordinary angles, reflected light, sun and shadow, sky and water. Here is an extraordinary postmodern show-space for art that draws strength in its form from both a pre-modern faith in beauty and an unmistakably modern zeal for engineering and design.

Its director and chief executive, David Gordon, a former secretary of the Royal Academy in London, boasts that Milwaukee's arts scene "punches above its weight".

But this dynamic remains so little known outside Wisconsin that one simply must go there to absorb the impact of that punch.