Miločer and I

After Serbia came out victorious from the very bloody WWI in 1918, it came into possession of the southernmost parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire, its vanquished foe, which comprised the wonderful collection of bays and coves on the Adriatic, south of the bay of Budva, which were ruled by the Paštrović clan, since the medieval times.

A bit more than a decade later, the victorious Karađordević royal family decided to build a sumptuous summer house and a park in one of the most romantic spots in this area: Miločer, next to the, by then mostly abandoned, Sveti Stefan village, which was the seat of the clan.

The construction on this wonderful project started in 1934, and the architect of the summer house was Dragomir Tadić.

In line with the attempts of Yugoslavia to create a special identity and privilege vernacular architecture for major projects, this majestic house referenced Montenegrin and Dalmatian stone houses, but using the famed Brač stone, which was used in construction of Diocletian’s palace in Split as well as many of palazzos in Venice.

Even more magical than the royal summer house, was the magical Mediterranean park, which surrounded it. Behind its vaguely Neo-byzantine gates and wrought iron fences, lie two of the most beautiful beaches in Budva Bay, surrounded with pines and many extravagant cedars , magnolias and palms brought from all around the world for the pleasure of its inhabitants, as well as a wonderful small vague Ottoman arched bridge over a canal . The garden also included a few villas for the friends of the Royal family, some staff accommodation.

Besides creating this wonderous place, Karađorđević’s restored one of the most romantic Serbian Orthodox monasteries: Praskvica, very esteemed by the local Paštrovićs, and also bought a few houses on the Sveti Stefan.

Although Miločer was closed to the public, the mystique of the royal summer house started luring many to this part of the Adriatic coast.

In 1939, Tadić was asked to design the first proper hotel in Budva – Avala, named after Belgrde’s closest mountain – which was founded by an enterprising Belgrade merchant planning to develop it as the main destination for Belgrade elites to spend their summers. Previously it was only really Dubrovnik that functioned as a tourist destination in this part of the Adritaic and it was there that a first tourist from my family, my paternal grandfather, a lawyer from Nikšić, spent summers with his friends.

However, as much as it was intended to bring calm to its inhabitants and those enchanted by it, the tumultuous fate of Miločer, became apparent from almost its very conception: King Aleksandar I never get to enjoy his summer house. He visited it just before the fateful trip to Marseille where he was assassinated alongside the French foreign minister by a Bulgarian irredentist. Nevertheless, his widow Queen Marija and his sons spent many a summer in the house before WWII enveloped Yugoslavia in 1941 and the royal family fled the country in a plane from Nikšić airport.

After the war the property was nationalised and a new chapter started for Miločer.

Tourism was seen as the path forward for largely unindustrialized and poor Socialist republic of Montenegro. Money was poured into the ambitious project of making Sveti Stefan , finally fully depopulated by 1955 , a world class resort. Miločer was of course, also treated as a premier tourist site during the Yugoslav times, Tito’s guests from all around the world, from Soviet generals to Sofia Loren and Richard Burton were invited to enjoyed its beauty. Besides the global gliteratti, it was also open to those in the higher echelons of the Yugoslav bureaucracy, including my granddad and his family.

My father, born just a few years before Sveti Stefan was finally converted into the fanciest Yugoslav resort in 1960, described how he spent some of the best summers of his childhood bathing on its beach, especially as close family friends had a house nearby. 

Although Sveti Stefan and Miločer started edging out of our familial price range in 70s and 80s, thanks to the said friends, Miločer remained part of our familial summers. Whenever he could, my dad tried to escape to the shade of the “Pod Maslinama” restaurant, just outside the gates of Miločer, where he prepared his University exams, and later, celebrated his graduation with its famed lamb “pod sačem”. When he met my mom, in the early 1980s, he dazzled her by knowing the locals and ensuring they can access the guest only areas on the sly. 

Although my very first memory is of nearby Bečići, which in the late 80s was a series of family friendly company-owned holiday homes, it was Miločer and the nearby village of Pržno that formed my idea of what a summer holiday is as a child.

Yugoslavia stared disintegrating in the 1990s and tourism in Montenegro started struggling due to the sanctions, which ended up making Bobby Fischer, a chess grandmaster, an international fugitive for winning a rematch with Spassky at Sveti Stefan in 1992.

The strange circumstances of those times, meant that we could stay in Pržno, at Maestral Hotel, which is probably to blame for my love of the Yugohotels.

Daily walks around the pines of Miločer and swimming at its beaches were staples of every summer. My mom made up stories about kings and queens hiding in the forest as we walked through the former royal park as the cicadas were buzzing around us.

As the years went by, the crowd visiting Miločer changed – every year there were more tattooed mafiosi and local political grandees – seeing Milo Đukanović, the a charismatic young PM of  Montenegro was common – but the air of democratized wonder and beauty was always there. Everyone could come there like in the Socialist times, but unlike in the socialist times, things were visibly falling apart. The spherical glass lights were often broken and not replaced, and year after year Masteral was becoming shabbier and shabbier.

Things changed significantly after 2000: Milošević was deposed and Montengero opened up to foriegn tourism.

Prices started going up sharply, with lots of old hotels being sold and closed. Karađorđević’s now allowed back into the country, tried getting Miločer back, but to no avail. I also became a teenager and holidays with family became boring and embarrassing, not matter how beautiful the destinatio.

After 2000, Miločer ceased to be part of our usual summers, but for one trip in 2006, which I spent reading the Magic Mountain and hoping noone would notice me being there with my parents.

I visited once more, on a one memorable day with my friends after we finished high school in 2007, but then Miločer already started becoming more obviously exclusive, although we managed to bathe on all of its beaches, apart from the one of Masteral, which was already turned into a fancy hotel.

But that was it for me.

Miločer became a fully exclusive after it became part of Aman resorts in 2008 and we found other places to visit. Young cool people in Belgrade started preferring Ada Bojana and Herceg Novi (or decided to go to Croatia) to Budva Riviera, so my last visit to Miločer was with a friend from London on a long tour of Montenegro in 2017.

On that jaunt, it was strange to see places that were always accessible to you closed off: the Queen’s beach was out of bounds, while the others were subjected to the weird Montenegrin practice of charging for beach access. I was happy, however, to see that the a cretain sheen of class returned to Miločer and to be able to show its beauty off to my frined. Yet I felt something was lost, primarily and viscerally to me, as I was reluctant to pay exorbitant prices to relive my childhood memories.  

Rationalizing it now, it was sad was to see a beloved place reduced to the tastes of a global tourist, albeit a luxury one, more motivated to seek where to spend their 2 weeks of holiday by a price comparison website and a few photos, than by a  long held familial or cultural bond. That was most obvious as I picked at a ceviche at what was formerly “Pod Maslinama” now “Olive”, remembering my dad’s stories about its excellent lamb, which was expunged from the menu. 

To make things worse, “Olive” was no longer the star of the Sveti Stefan culinary scene. It played second fiddle to global luxury chain Nobu, and was just another luxury-ish beach restaurant for a passing tourist, with nothing to set it apart from a similar place in Mykonos or Amalfi.

That is probably a sad fate awaiting all countries relying on tourism and money from richer visitors: make everything bland to a tourist palate, make it fungible.

Unfortunately, unlike Italy, France and the UK, which are visited for their sense of place, Montenegro (like Serbia, Croatia – most of the world really) is evaluated by the global tourist for its  generically assessed beauty and for how much it can approximate the global travel trends: can you eat the latest global fad food? Does it provide the latest global fad activities? Does it maintain a veneer of authenticity (measured in street art and hipster cafes) in offering this bland fungible product?

What made things worse and made the whole idea of exclusivity a bit of a joke is that the rush to overdevelop area around Miločer  – including our family friend’s place – with unseemly apartment blocks which destroyed the formerly, pristine, beautiful nature that made Miločer (and Montenegro in general) remarkable.

This year however, due to political changes in Montenegro and COVID (Montenegro had one of the highest mortalities in the world) Miločer, is miraculously open again.

As soon as we heard about the decision of Aman not to reopen for the season, Dad and I rushed to see it and for once again (maybe the last time) remember all the good times we had there while walking freely around its storied park.

We tried to remember our familial lore about the place and the names we gave to its various parts when I was a kid.

We didn’t mid that the water on all the beach showers was shut off by the current owners, and that they took away the shower heads and faucets, making the beach amenities worse than they were in 1990s. Despite this, the fact that there were only a few dozens tourists at the beaches, mostly local, Serbian and Russian, made the beaches seem more exclusive than I ever saw them – including during my 2017 trip.

The local food vendors who mushroomed to fill their COVID-emptied coffers by  selling beer and water were complaining that nobody is buying anything and that they are just going to supermarkets and brining the wares from there.

“Dok jedom ne smrkne drugom ne svane” I thought. “The Sun does not rise for some before it sets on others”.

If it wasn’t for Karađorćević’s and the War this stretch of land would have never received the magical park and structures that made it stunning. If they weren’t sept away by another war, Miločer would have never been open to my family in the first place, but if it wasn’t for that openness it would have never been privatized and shut for us, seemingly for good during its uber-gentrification. When I was writing this, I was sitting on a deserted Queen’s beachl, thankful that I could relive my childhood awe of its beauty, somewhat hoping that at some point, in more normal times, I will be able to take my kids here in future…

Still, I am sure that there are many kids, who visited Miločer while I was away,  and whose lives were enriched by this wonderful stretch of coast and who probably cherish it even more than we do. Indeed, my Dad once met a Hungrian pilot who regularly used the few days he could to leave the Iron Curtian to come to Miločer with his family. It was here that his kids leant how to swim and his family had their happiest memories. They retuned to it every year (more regularly than we ever did!) and it was such a big part of their lives that this pilot’s mother in law asked for her ashes to be scattered there.

It is this sense of place, of investment and putting down roots in a temporary location, where you spend only a few blessed days of a year that makes a holiday place something more than just a mere destination, as a mere tick on the interminable list of fashionable and beautiful places in the world. As a keen collector of new countries to visit, as I am sitting here, I think I need to revise my approach. Maybe return to Miločer every year? I wonder, as I take a sip of my 1 euro beer, bought at a supermarket, and bite into a local prosciutto sandwich my Dad prepared…

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