Foreigners arriving in Montenegro often come armed with very little knowledge about our country and like most travelers, intend to find out more upon arrival. In terms of how much they see and do, it’s often dictated foremost by a stay on the coastline, and if I were a betting person, I’d say that the average person probably ventures into the Boka Kotorska littoral and spends time in Kotor and Budva if they only have three to five days. Along the way, they may stop at a few other places like Tivat, Risan, Perast and Becici, and of course a short foray over to Sveti Stefan – or in front of it better stated, for the token photograph before turning around and heading back to their hotel for the evening.
In the last few years, one other cultural stop seems to be high on people’s agenda’s, and that’s likely because they were offered the opportunity to visit it through one of the tour companies. I’m referring of course to an excursion to the final resting place of one of the greatest Montenegrin Kings, Prince Petar Petrovic Njegos on the top of Mount Lovcen. To me, a history buff, Njegos is one of the greatest Kings who ever lived, and if I had to tally up my list of favorite royals, Njegos is, in my opinion, the best King there ever was. There are many reasons as to why I believe that, but I will get to that a little bit later in another story. From the perspective of the tourist, however, many are surprised to learn that a country as tiny as Montenegro was once a Kingdom and when they discover this, the question most often asked is, “well where is your royal family today?” The answer is in exile in France. The current heir to the throne, Crown Prince Michael, and his descendants had to relinquish all rights to the throne when the communists took over in 1945. The new government has allowed them to return and visit but as private citizens. None of this is covered during the tour to Lovcen however, where the remains of Njegos are entombed in what is said to be one of the highest mausolea’s in the world. Njegos had wanted this and had specifically requested burial at the top of his beloved mountain well before he died, believing that it would somehow bring him closer to heaven and God himself.
If you’ve never been to Mount Lovcen you are in for a verifiable treat. It’s an imposing and beautiful mountain, craggy and karstic in outlook but blanketed with a sea of green conifers that rises majestically from the sea. It forms the largest portion of the backdrop that you will see when driving along the Boka Kotorska and extends in its highest peaks behind the walled town of Kotor and high up above it following the old path toward the former royal capital of Cetinje. Njegos had often ventured up its many hiking paths in solitude while struggling with the great political questions of his day and how best to answer them and serve his people accordingly. He was a great lover of nature, and those who knew him best said he felt most at home and at peace while on Lovcen. For this reason, the mountain has significant historical and cultural significance to Montenegrins, even to this very day.
I recall reading somewhere (and I wish I could recall where I stumbled across this) that when the Venetians first sailed past Montenegro hundreds of years ago, they coined the name of the country because of the thick black pine trees visible from the shoreline. They would have been referring to Lovcen of course because depending on what time of day the sun hits it, flora and fauna give off a wonderful dark hue that is evocative of past glory days and the pristine wonder of nature in its finest form.
Tours to Lovcen are nowadays almost always done by vehicle. You can venture off on your own along the narrow zig-zag road path (not for the faint of heart!) that begins in Kotor and winds its way up the mountain on the road towards Cetinje, or you can go with any of the chartered tours available below in the town. The tours usually begin after a sight-seeing sojourn in Kotor, but I’ve seen many tours advertised summer over summer that embark only for the Mausoleum. You won’t need more than 2-3 hours to complete it, and the view from the summit or the area where Njegos’ mausoleum is to be found is breathtaking. It’s truly worth it even if you are like me and afraid of heights. The peak on which his mausoleum is to be found is called ‘Jezerski Vrh’ (or ‘Lake Peak’). As the road winds and twists like one of those car chase scenes from a 1960s James Bond movie, you’re going to begin to notice how down below everything looks so much smaller and minuscule. At some point, the clouds may even appear misty and below you. If it feels like you’re floating on air and somewhere between heaven and earth, pinch yourself, it truly is real even if it looks like a fairy tale.
Small tour buses stop immediately beneath the mausoleum, and the rest of the hike takes place along a good rock gravel road for about 10 minutes. The mausoleum is a spectacle and is made of fine stone embedded circularly, resembling the highlander hat which forms part of the Montenegrin national costume if viewed from the air. At the entrance to the mausoleum, tourists are met by the unforgettable sight of two larger than life stone statutes depicting women in the Montenegrin costume and holding the roof of the mausoleum with their heads. They guard the entrance way to where Njegos actually rests. These two siren-like behemoths are the work of Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. I have seen them many times and they are just as impressive on visit #23 as they were on the first occasion over forty years ago. I remember returning in my 20s after my first trip to Athens and thinking that the Acropolis probably inspired Mestrovic. Either that or he truly had a thing for sculpting women because his atelier in Split is filled with similar looking creatures.
I’m not sure how Njegos would have felt knowing that in death he was guarded not by the King’s Guard owed a great leader like him, but by two solid and stealth like women encased in stone. Knowing that he was a man who was ahead of his time regarding thinking and outlook, I don’t think he would have minded all that much. Let’s hope not anyway.
There isn't much to do at the mausoleum except take in the view from the height (and you will notice that the peak on which the mausoleum rests is the lower of the two, a television cable tower being visible further up the adjacent slope a few hundred meters away). I’ve read guide books which say that on a clear day one can see from this vantage point as far away as Italy. I’d like to clarify that I have been to this place numerous times and have never once spotted Italy, Lastovo maybe but Italy no (sorry to spoil it for you).
If you want to do like the locals, however, take a few moments and bow your heard in prayer and solitude or just show your respect for the fellow who lies beneath the stone floor and who played a significant role in shaping the history of the tiny country you just happen to be visiting. He is known as our great Prince Bishop and Poet and even though he reigned well over 200 years ago, he’s surely in the top three of any list comprising the greatest Montenegrins who ever lived. More about that, however, in another story.