2008 Audi A4 Cabriolet - Adriatic Odyssey

Joe Sherman
Richard Newton

In Sarajevo, our host, Morgan Sowden, is an English expat who came to the Balkans in 1995 with the idea of starting an Internet café in a war zone. By the time it opened, the war was over. But the café became a hangout, drawing UN officials, journalists, and foreigners eager for java, talk, and Web access.

Sowden sounds a tad irked when I refer to coastal Croatia as the new Riviera.

"It's not a Riviera. It is a spectacular place. Very clean."

That tag does seem like a real-estate gimmick fostered on the coastal region by developers and promoters trying to sell prime seafront and bus tours. But plenty of Croatians have bought into it. The people up here are different, Sowden says. "Bosnians and Serbs still shoot off their guns at weddings."

At breakfast, from a city overlook, it appears that they've also buried a lot of dead below us. Numerous cemeteries are packed with white crosses. In the distance are minarets. "Today," Sowden says, alluding to the city's tense mix of Muslims, Christians, and Orthodox, "everyone here wants to trade. They just don't want to live together."

Leaving Sarajevo for the coast, Newton and I pass through a roadscape of postmodern eye trash, tacky service buildings, and bullet-ridden reminders of ethnic cleansing. In the daylight, Bosnia looks scared and exploited. But soon we are driving through a spectacular gorge alongside a green river. An Islamic settlement is carved into a stone hillside south of Mostar. We pass through customs and rejoin the coastal highway, leaving the real Balkans behind, and are soon in Dubrovnik.

The once-independent republic whose ships traded goods across the Mediterranean for centuries is showing signs of tourist wear. Dubrovnik feels like Aspen-by-the-Sea. We do a fast walkabout, through plazas and to the harbor, then head farther south to Cavtat, a seaside town that also has been discovered. "Prices have gone up ten times in the last five years," a construction worker tells us. Eating dinner by the harbor, we see why.

"It's the British dinner-party set," Newton says, glancing over his shoulder at blazers and colored slacks. "Ugh."

Morning is better. Pointed cedars poke through mist. As it burns off, there's a moody blue sky. We enter Montenegro and are waved through customs with no problems.

There are still rare places on the road that touch our dreams, where we are Kubla Khan entering what in our time is as close to Xanadu as we're going to get. Driving around the long, undulating shore of the Bay of Kotor, which is carved out of rock, the town of Kotor itself huddled in a deep finger bay, Venetian ruins strung like an antique necklace high above and white cruise ships in the harbor below, I feel I've entered such a place. Newton, a road salt who has been virtually everywhere, soon stammers, "I've never seen anything like this." This is the Ladder of Cattaro.

"Daunting but thrilling," Jan Morris called it in The Venetian Empire, "a dizzy zigzag path [that] clambered up the sheer face of Lovcen in a series of seventy-three narrow and precipitous loops." The Ladder of Cattaro was for centuries the route to the mountain stronghold of Cetinje, the royal capital of Montenegro. Everything from the sea left Kotor, traveling up on the backs of mules and the shoulders of men. Today, the ladder is a road. There are fewer switchbacks but little traffic because a new, faster route has been built. In the Audi, the old road is simply a knockout thriller. Even though it lacks all-wheel drive, the A4 exits each corner crisply, the transmission seamlessly drops a gear or two, the tires dig in, the next corner comes into sight. This goes on and on, the cruise ships getting smaller and smaller far below. I have only one complaint: the rank stink of garbage. Montenegrins ought to stop throwing their trash over these banks or erect signs: Most beautiful view in the world from a dump.

We spiral down into Cetinje. We drink coffee. We stop at the president's house, where two guards stand in colorful regalia. Historically, Montenegrins were known for flamboyance and individuality. Swaggering, argumentative, often armed to the teeth, they never surrendered to the relentlessly aggressive Turks. I was advised to be wary of their descendants, thieves and worse who might rob me. Today, from what I can see, there is little to fear. The men behave much like the rest of us, sitting around beneath awnings that advertise beer and cigarettes, drinking espresso, talking, wasting time.

Leaving delightful Cetinje, I drive down into a lush landscape that looks and feels tropical, with pine trees and big aloe plants. I cross the inland sea of Skardarsko, the view to the north a vast panorama of mountains - soft, high, wild, almost untouched - and it brings to mind Tahiti when I first saw its mountains from the water almost thirty years ago. Then it, too, was off the beaten track. Now it's paradise trashed.

Today, however, our destination is Tirana. The former capital of paranoia is said to be hip. A young mayor, Edi Rama, commissioned artists to pain city buildings to brighten up decades of Stalinist gray. The streets were filled with Mercedes-Benzes driven by twenty-somethings with sketchy backgrounds, I was told by an Albanian guy in Prague. "It's like we got the golden keys from Mercedes," he said.

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