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.