As British passport holders we are incredibly privileged to have access to 174 countries and territories around the world either visa-free or with visas on arrival. These stats rate the British passport #1 in the world (tied with Finland, Germany, Sweden and the United States).
In comparison, the Russian passport is rated #38 in the world with access to 100 countries and territories. Throughout Europe there are only a handful of countries that allow Russians in visa free, as a result Montenegro is an incredibly attractive country to visit for Russians.
Unfortunately the divide between the rich and the poor in Russia is vast. This is reflected by a survey conducted in 2012 by the Levada Centre. Only 17% of Russians possess an international passport; 78% of those surveyed had never been outside of the country and only 3% had travelled outside of Russia more than once a year. Travel (or leaving the country forever) is exclusively for the rich in Russia.
It’s not unusual for privileged Russians to ‘up sticks’, according to the UK’s most reliable source for unbiased information*, The Daily Mail, Russian millionaires now buy one in five of London’s most expensive properties. For Russians who prefer a slightly warmer climate than London, Montenegro is an obvious choice, they’re both Orthodox and, as Slavs, their languages are related.
Montenegro is an exceptionally beautiful country, sadly many of its visitors don’t see beyond its 72km of beaches. The verdant interior is lush and dramatic and offers some outstandingly stunning driving. The coastline around Budva, is the heart of tourism, and is lovingly referred to as the Budva Riviera and occasionally Moscow-on-Sea by our British counterparts.
According to some newfound friends in Budva, Russians now own nearly 50% of properties in Montenegro. Unfortunately this substantial Russian investment in Budva means that it is developing rather hastily in a fairly unplanned fashion. High rise apartments, casinos, open-air nightclubs and gaudy hotel complexes fight for attention along the ever-expanding coastline.
The beautifully quaint old town, a treasure chest of cultural heritage and well worth a visit, is now sandwiched between the rather obnoxious Avala Resort & Casino and the Duckley Marina, which can now thankfully accommodate yachts up to 70m. Perfect for those Russian Oligarchs who don’t want to be out-done by the multi-billionaires with their +100m yachts.
Unfortunately just 400m away from the old town is the Russian playground; gaudy is the prevalent style along Budva’s ‘Bar-Street’. Open-air nightclub sound-systems battle for your attention trying to lure you in to their uniquely themed bars. Who could resist a bar that looks like a pirate ship or if you were feeling continental maybe a Paris (complete with 10m Eiffel Tower) themed bar would be more appropriate. The old phrase “money can’t buy you good taste” is apt, and that is Budva’s problem, it is confused. It is a holiday resort that wants to punch above its weight with 5-Star luxury but unfortunately enters the ring to the theme tune of Serbian ‘Turbofolk’ (possibly the worst genre of music ever!) wearing a bright pink real mink fur coat and 6-inch heals necking shots of Vodka.
This Russian investment is obviously creating jobs and revenue for Montenegro (although most of the people we met working in hospitality were from Serbia) and the tourist industry is clearly thriving. Using Budva as a base we spent 10 days exploring the surrounding coastline and documenting the beaches outside of the typical tourist season. The resulting photographs tell a story all of their own and to some degree answer the question – Is Russian investment going to have a long-term detrimental effect on Budva?
Two worlds of war and peace are forced together in Western Kosovo where a 700-year old Serbian Orthodox Christian monastery quietly nestles amongst chestnut groves in a mountain valley. The approaching road displays evidence that racial tensions still exist here- Serbian Latin writing on every road sign has been scrawled over with paint. We were heading for Deçan not Dečani. This was the first religious site we have visited where we had to drive through checkpoints, around roadblocks and submit our passports to gun-wielding military before entering.
Visoki Decani Monastery has been described as "the largest and best-preserved medieval church in the entire Balkans" with several thousand Byzantine frescoes adorning the interior walls. The paintings took 6 groups of artists ten years to complete and cover an area of 4,000m2.
25 monks live within its heavily guarded walls, although the last direct attack was grenades in 2007, the threat of ethnic violence remains.
I have never seen Andy’s jaw drop as it did as we entered the church, stepping across the original marble floor at the foot of angular, stone columns. The frescoes greet you like a window from the past, where several thousand Byzantine paintings depicting 1,000 portraits of Saints stare silently from all sides. Their intricate, colourful detail cover almost the entire interior of the church. Uniquely, the religious depictions include the only existing image of Jesus with a sword, Petar clarified “this is a spiritual sword, representing the Word of God, in which the sword is cutting sins”.
Nearby, on the ‘Crucifixion’ fresco we noticed what many people believe to be two UFO’s with men inside. “Not so” Petar smiled “in Byzantine iconography, these two ’comets’ represent the sun and the moon, and a man inside is the personification of the heavenly body of the sun and moon”
We felt incredibly privileged to have such a personal, knowledgeable insight. “Can you identify all of the frescoes inside here?” I asked him “After 13 years… almost” he replied humbly.
The Monastery was established in 1327 under the instruction of Serbian Medieval King St. Stephen of Decani. The monastery is both his life’s work and his mausoleum; his 684 year-old body remains in a coffin at the head of the altar. Petar informed us that 10 years after his funeral, the body of St Stephen was found intact in his grave, perfectly preserved and undecomposed, with a sweet smell which exists until today. “We do nothing to preserve the body, it is forbidden in the Orthodox Church to do anything with a human body after death- we don’t even know any technique to do it! We have no interest to preserve the body, because this is not an important factor when considering someone as Holy”. Petar explained “The body is still whole and fragrant, even when constantly exposed to air and kissing. We believe this is because God’s energies are still present in it.”
Every Thursday, the coffin is opened to allow worshippers to show respect, say prayers and offer Thanks to St Stephen. Petar invited us to join them for this service in 5 days but, with people awaiting our arrival in Montenegro, we regrettably declined the offer. We were however, fortunate enough to accept his invitation to join them for their evening worship.
The feeling that so much had changed outside of these walls in the last 700 years, yet inside the marble walls the rituals, words and music were untouched by time. The candlelight flickered the walls, making the gold tinged frescoes glimmer- our eyes were seeing exactly what worshipers saw 700 years previously. The heavy smoke swung from incense thuribles. Ceremonial devotion frozen in time.
I asked Petar what he hoped for the future of the Monastery; “We hope it will survive because it is under God’s protection. He has preserved the Monastery during seven centuries under very difficult circumstances. We are determined to stay and live here no matter what happens, trying to have love also with our enemies”.