The broad new motorway which used to connect Central Europe with Greece and Turkey was eerily empty when I took it last autumn. On the fertile Vojvodinian lowlands between Belgrade and the Hungarian frontier, the freshly ploughed fields were dotted with pieces of twisted iron, sculpted by Nato pilots during the bombing campaign. At one point, an oil refinery has been turned into a group of half-melted steel toadstools; at another, the broken arch of a bridge across the Danube points curlicues towards the sky. The charred skeleton of a building flashes by every now and then. The approach to Belgrade is signalled by occasional sightings of crowded and dilapidated buses on suburban lines, but it no longer announces itself by that yellowish glow against the night sky which normally heralds places of this size.

The city is pockmarked by bomb damage: a glorious Art Deco façade turns out to be just that – there is nothing behind it. Hidden between the onion domes of the Russian Orthodox church and the children’s theatre, the site of the bombed Serbian television station looks like the gap left after a tooth extraction. The Chinese Embassy in New Belgrade, with its pagoda-like roof of green ceramic tiles, at first appears untouched, but round the corner a whole slice of the building is missing, revealing a cross-section like an architect’s model. In the old town, rebuilding has begun. The shattered windows of the Orthodox Patriarchate have been replaced. At one of the main intersections stand the ruins of the twin buildings of the General Staff headquarters, built in the 1970s and clad in rose marble to evoke the canyon of the Sutjeska River in Bosnia-Herzegovina (the site of one of the more famous of Tito’s offensives). The Neoclassical Foreign Ministry across the road is hidden by scaffolding. On the pedestrianised Knez Mihajlova Street, the American and French cultural centres are still vandalised and daubed with anti-Nato graffiti, but British Council library staff have been reshelving books behind shuttered windows.

I felt old and tired revisiting my native city. So many of my school and university friends have emigrated that my telephone book is a museum piece. Those who remained were worried about the approaching winter and tired of discussing it. Power cuts had already begun and public transport was appalling. The Serbian Government, like Nato, appears keen to play down suggestions of any environmental damage caused by the bombing raids, but Belgrade buzzes with wild rumours about low-level uranium radiation, pollution and poisoned river water. One tabloid has advised young women not to conceive for another year or two.

The one political question that was still discussed was the future of Montenegro, Serbia’s only remaining partner in the Yugoslav Federation. In an apparent attempt to insulate itself from the inflationary policies of the Federal Government in Belgrade, the tiny Montenegrin republic has adopted a unique double currency system: both the Yugoslav dinar and the German mark are in official circulation. Belgrade banks have responded with tough restrictions and those who travel between Serbia and Montenegro are subject to currency controls.

The motorway west out of Belgrade, leading towards the airport and then on to Zagreb, reminds one of earlier ruptures. The road signs point to places no one travels to any more. Instead of rows of German cars driven by Turkish guest-workers on their way to Anatolia, the carparks in front of the fast-food outlets contain only one or two battered Yugoslav Zastava cars from nearby villages.

From Belgrade I flew to the small Adriatic resort of Tivat (at this stage the airport at the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, was still closed for repairs after the bombings) and drove from there to the capital. The airport in Tivat, with weekly flights to Budapest, Zurich and Ljubljana, was positively bustling.

Internal support for Montenegrin independence is probably increasing, but many Montenegrins still consider themselves part of the Serbian nation while at the same time believing they are in some ways distinct. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs in Serbia (including Slobodan Milosevic) are of Montenegrin descent and many retain strong links with Montenegro. My Montenegrin grandmother would certainly have been surprised to hear that she was ethnically different from the Serbs, although, having grown up as a subject of the last king of Montenegro, she took great pride in her identity and the singular traditions of Montenegrin statehood.

In common with the city-state of Dubrovnik, which disappeared in the Napoleonic invasion of the Eastern Adriatic, Montenegro continued to enjoy de facto independence and statehood after the other medieval states in the Balkan peninsula were swallowed up by the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. Until the middle of the last century, when secular Western ideas intruded, this mountainous principality was Europe’s closest approximation to Tibet – a theocracy, ruled by celibate orthodox prince-bishops selected from the boys of the Njegusi tribe, who live in the stony valleys south of the former capital, Cetinje. The last of the prince-bishops and the greatest Romantic poet in the Balkans was Petar II Petrovic-Njegos (1813-51), six foot eight and broad-shouldered, with raven hair and beard, and a bullet scar above his right eyebrow. A magnificent portrait of him dressed in a traditional pelisse and black silk-rimmed cap, with silver pistols tucked behind a striped cummerbund, still hangs in his palace in Cetinje, next door to the monastery dedicated to his uncle, St Petar I. As well as books of Orthodox theology, Njegos’s library contains Russian translations of Byron and Thomas Gray. In Dalmatia and Montenegro, published in 1848, Sir Gardner Wilkinson, an English traveller to Montenegro, described how Njegos impressed his guests by shooting down a lemon thrown into the air, adding that this was ‘a singular accomplishment for a bishop’.

During the reigns of Njegos and his nephew, Nicholas Petrovic-Njegos (1841-1921), Montenegro became a popular destination for aristocratic British travellers keen to venture inland from the ‘Illyrian’ coast. Indeed, so many of them wrote about it that by 1904 Edith Durham remarked that ‘the road from Cattaro’ – Kotor, on the Adriatic coast – ‘to Cetinje has been so often written of that it is idle to describe it once again, nor can any words do it justice’.

The first secular ruler of Montenegro, King Nicholas, was a poorer poet and playwright than his predecessor, but a shrewd statesman, known as the father-in-law of Europe: two of his daughters married Russian grand dukes; a third the future King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy; a fourth a Battenberg prince related by marriage to the British royal family; and a fifth the future King Peter of Serbia. (Nicholas’s son, Prince Mirko, is aid to have been the inspiration for Danilo Danilowitsch in Lehar’s The Merry Widow.

Nicholas’s support for the insurrection against Ottoman rule in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1870s inspired Tennyson’s poem ‘Montenegro’, which was published in May 1877, on the front page of the Nineteenth Century, accompanied by a long essay on Montenegrin history by Gladstone, who had encouraged Tennyson in the role of ‘Montenegro’s Byron’. Earlier that month, in a speech in the Commons lasting two and a half hours, Gladstone had eulogised the Montenegrins as ‘a bunch of heroes such as the world has rarely seen’. It was Gladstone’s description of the Montenegrins as those Serbs who had rejected Ottoman rule after the defeat at Kosovo in 1389, preferring to settle in their ‘mountain fastnesses’, that Tennyson took up in his poem. In King Nicholas’s poetry the Montenegrins are frequently compared to eagles.

In 1912, Nicholas was the ally of the Serbs, the Bulgarians and the Greeks in the First Balkan War, the aim of which was to push the Ottomans out of Europe. Fresh from Oxford, the novelist Joyce Cary volunteered to join the Montenegrins, keen to emulate Byron and gain ‘the experience of war’. As he recalled forty years later, ‘I thought there would be no more wars. And I had a certain romantic enthusiasm for the cause of the Montenegrins.’

At the beginning of the First World War, my paternal great-grandfather returned to Montenegro from Bute, Montana, with his Chicago-based brother-in-law and hundreds of other Montenegrin volunteers. Montenegrins were among the first to respond to the Austrian declaration of war, expressing, as Stevan Pavlowitch puts it in his recent History of the Balkans 1804-1945, ‘Serbian solidarity in defence of the Serbian nation’. When the Montenegrin Government capitulated to Austria-Hungary in January 1916 and the King left for Italy, my great-grandfather, like many of his fellow fighters, transferred his allegiance to the Serbian King, Peter I Karageorgevich and, in 1918, to the new state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Peter’s son Alexander rewarded him with a farm in Vojvodina, six miles from the Hungarian border, where he remained a frontiersman, just as he had been in Montana and, before that, in the Montenegrin mountains, for which he never ceased to be homesick.

Many of my ancestors changed citizenship several times without ever moving house. In the Yugoslavia of my childhood, led by the ‘Austrian corporal’ Tito, stories of life under the Ottoman sultan, the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, one Montenegrin and two Serbian dynasties, and the Germans, Hungarians and Italians in the Second World War sounded like exotic tales from a distant past. Yet now the members of my generation, exiles and refugees across five continents, share a not dissimilar fate.

The drive along the narrow coastal route into the fjord of Boka towards Kotor wipes away the thought of bombing and war for the first time since I crossed the Hungarian frontier. When we turn away from the translucent sea, the old Venetian palaces sparkling in the sun, and the lemon and pomegranate trees heavy with fruit, to climb Mount Lovcen on the way to Cetinje, we are stopped by policemen at a roadblock. They are dressed in New York Police Department uniforms and very different from their surly Serbian counterparts. They check our documents and, with a smile, bid us welcome to their ‘new state’. The pleasant greeting scares me. I understand the need for all this, but frontiers in the Balkans mean danger: innocuous greetings for those with the right passport easily turn into mortal danger for those who have the wrong one.

War still seems a remote possibility in Cetinje, a sleepy provincial town with an incongruous array of buildings that were once foreign legations or princely palaces. The villa that housed the British Embassy now houses a music school. The lovely Art Nouveau French legation is, for the moment, a library, but the Montenegrin Ministry of Culture will be moving there from Podgorica. The former Imperial Russian Embassy is the venue for an avant-garde art exhibition, part of a festival organised by the current claimant to the Montenegrin throne, Nicholas Petrovic-Njegos, a Parisian architect. In Podgorica (once Titograd), where there are none of the petrol shortages that plague Belgrade, we run into our first traffic jam.

On our way to the airport, we stop in the walled city of Budva, perhaps the oldest settlement on the Adriatic coast. It is said to have been established by Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, who married one of Aphrodite’s daughters. The tourists have gone and the narrow streets have been returned to schoolchildren and old women on their way from the market, making it nicer than ever. War again seems far away, but as the plane curves above the Adriatic on its way north to Belgrade I remember that this view of the Montenegrin mountains was enjoyed not so long ago by the fighter pilots taking off from Aviano.

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