Montenegro’s wild beauty threatened

BUDVA, (AP) – «Experience Wild Beauty» is Montenegro’s newest tourist slogan. But while the beauty of the «Pearl of the Adriatic» is undeniable, the wilderness is disappearing. The tiny Balkan state – nestled in the southeast corner of Europe – is a breathtaking mix of colors: blazing blue skies, lush green mountains, white pebble beaches and turquoise Adriatic Sea waters. But since it split from much larger Serbia in 2006, Montenegro experienced a real estate boom, with mostly Russians and Britons investing en masse in new hotels, tourist resorts or even complete new villages. The result: Narrow, winding roads along the coastline are jammed with construction trucks, and hills and forests are being leveled to accommodate new concrete structures that dot the landscape. A small peninsula that used to be a thick pine forest on the entrance of Montenegro’s main resort of Budva is being turned into a Dubai-style skyscraper hotel, surrounded by a dozen luxury villas. «The nature is spectacular, but it is sad to watch how it is being eroded,» said Donna Jones, an English retiree vacationing in Budva, in the center of Montenegro’s 290-kilometer-long (180-mile-long) riviera. Even so, tourism is rocketing in Montenegro after a decade of bloody Balkan wars in the 1990s slowed the stream of visitors to a trickle. Most tourists now come from Russia, but the sparkling sea waters, stony mountain peaks, crystal-clear rivers and lakes increasingly draw Western visitors. According to official statistics, Montenegro was visited last year by 1.1 million tourists, a 50 percent increase over 2000, a figure that makes clear the tiny republic is back on the map. Bargain prices But Montenegro is still considered a bargain tourist destination for Westerners. A room in a private home goes from 20 euros per night, about half the price of a similar room in a beach town in neighboring Croatia. In new luxury hotels on the Becici beach south of Budva, the prices for a double room can start from 100 euros. Sveti Stefan, just south of Budva, is a tiny peninsula whose sun-bleached limestone homes were turned from a fishing village into a luxury hotel complex in the 1960s. It is currently under reconstruction after being taken over by a Singaporean company. Sveti Stefan, once frequented by movie stars like Sylvester Stallone, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, is seen from the towering mountains above as a tiny shining jewel neatly placed onto deep blue sea waters. Its 15th-century stone walls, narrow streets, tiny church at the top and red tile roofs shimmer in the sunlight, with oleander, bougainvillea and palms providing green and shade. Close by is Budva, featuring a quaint, stonewalled Old Town with its maze of little lanes lined with shops and restaurants buzzing with activity. With its Venetian fortress walls, Budva is a mini version of Dubrovnik, the much better known Croatian resort just to the north. Some of Montenegro’s best restaurants are located in Budva’s neighborhood. But those who seek a change of the classic Mediterranean scenery can visit restaurants located on wooden rafts on the Bojana River, covered with marsh grass and flocks of wild geese, where it joints the Adriatic in the far south of the riviera. Even though Montenegro is not a European Union country, the euro is its official currency. The best time to visit Montenegro is off-season – May, beginning of June and the end of September, as the Montenegrin Riviera tends to become overcrowded with tourists amid scorching summer heat, sometimes even triggering water shortages. «The main tourist season now lasts four months, compared to two months not so long ago,» said Nikola Lazarevic, owner of the Grispolis restaurant in the quiet village of Bigova, just north of Budva, perched on a deep sea bay nestled between hills covered with ancient olive trees. A day excursion from Budva to Mount Lovcen via the village of Njegusi, home of the best dried ham in the Balkans, is popular among tourists. Nearly all of the tiny country can be seen from the top of the mountain still covered with snow as late as May. Another worthwhile excursion is to Boka Kotorska, the largest T-shaped bay on the Adriatic, with the town of Kotor, whose stone-covered plazas and medieval churches are listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.