Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a bit of a Tintin fanatic.
I first encountered these animated story books at age eight, in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the kid’s section of the local library. I have loved them ever since. Today, one of my most prized possessions is a complete mint-edition set (of English translations from the original French) which I have read and reread so many times I worry that they might soon fall apart. Luckily, I also have two other sets in reserve (sadly, non-mint).
In many respects, “The Adventures of Tintin” are also the original source for my adult sense of wanderlust. In the course of 24 books, Hergé’s intrepid boy-reporter travels the world, to places as far-flung as the Congo, Morocco, India, Nepal, China, Tibet, The American “Wild West”, Peru and Indonesia. Mysterious and faraway places that as a child I dreamed of one day seeing, thanks to Tintin. And which I have since, slowly but surely, been ticking off one by one.
A good number of the locations in Tintin books, however, are fictional. Made up places that allowed Hergé greater freedom to embed cultural and political commentary into his stories (the Tintin books were first published between 1929 and 1976, and Hergé often used them as a forum to share his views on events, people and issues of the day: the end of colonialism, European fascism, racism, etc.).
The country of Syldavia is one of these made up places. It is the setting for my absolute favorite of all the Tintin books – “King Ottokar’s Sceptre” – as well as featuring in several others. From his imagination, Herge meticulously drew a detailed picture of Syldavia: a small and largely agrarian European country, population about 600,000, capital city Klow, local language Syldavian, local currency the khôr, the state symbol a black pelican.
Notably, Syldavia was also portrayed as a country under existential threat from Borduria, its much larger, militant, expansionist-minded neighbor. Which was kind of the point: “King Ottokar’s Sceptre” was first published in 1938, so Hergé’s commentary on the threat posed to Europe at the time by Nazi Germany is not all that thinly disguised.
In any case, I long ago filed all this info away in my Tintin memory bank, and then forgot about it. As a hard-core Tintin aficionado I knew I could one day aspire to eat noodles on the side of a Shanghai street (done that), ride a horse to Petra in Jordan (done that), or paddle a canoe down the Amazon (still to do).
But Syldavia was not a real place. So I could never actually go there, much as I may wish I could.
Roll forward thirty years, when circumstances and a super-cheap plane ticket got me to Croatia (see my previous post: You say Dubrovnik). From which one of the things to do is rent a car and make a brief day-trip into neighboring Montenegro, about 50 kilometers to the south.
Montenegro is a speck of a country on the Adriatic Sea, sandwiched in between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, and Albania. It was an independent kingdom a thousand years ago, after which it became a plaything of a place, for almost ten centuries swapped back and forth between various ruling powers, most latterly the Ottomans.
In 1918, after WWI ended and the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, Montenegro got swallowed up into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Thus ensuring that after WWII it became a part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, where it remained as a quiet and largely forgotten regional backwater for the next 50 years.
In 1992, when Yugoslavia collapsed, Serbia and Montenegro threw their lot in together, becoming the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and later (from 2003) a country known as Serbia and Montenegro. The union was relatively short-lived though, and in 2006 Montenegro’s 600,000 citizens voted to go their own way, and declared independence.
Making Montenegro the third newest country on the planet (Kosovo came into existence in 2008; South Sudan in 2011), the 40th smallest in terms of land area, and the 50th smallest in terms of population.
All of which statistics are, for me, the travelling equivalent of waving a red rag in front of a bull’s nose. Seriously, how could I possibly pass up the opportunity to visit if I was already in the neighborhood?
Our day began with a 45 minutes’ drive south from Dubrovnik, to the decidedly Cold War style border crossing between Croatia and Montenegro. Stern gun-toting men in uniform examined our passports closely, without as much as a flicker of emotion, before reluctantly stamping them and grunting at us to move on.
We continued our journey, following the only road into Montenegro, tracing the curve of a large natural bay until we came to a spot where the bay narrowed. There we loaded onto a rickety old car ferry. The wind was blowing and it was raining quite heavily, so on our short ride across the water we did not get to see much of the fabled scenery. But it was wonderful, nonetheless: glimpses of high mountains and verdant hills peeking out between drifts of mist and fog.
On the other side we drove on, to our first stop, Kotor, a perfectly preserved medieval town further down the bay. Sheer limestone cliff faces overhung the town, with a precariously balanced fort peering down from the very top. Massive protective stone walls ran the length of the town’s waterfront, before turning to make their way steeply up the mountainside. Around the walls was a water-filled moat. All of which gave Kotor the impression of a place forever trapped: perfectly sandwiched between the bay in front, and the dramatic mountains behind.
Once inside of Kotor’s walls we found, like in Dubrovnik, that the compact old town had been entirely pedestrianized, creating a maze of cobbled streets, squares, churches, and buildings which screamed out to be photographed at every turn. Also like in Dubrovnik, it was possible to walk along the top of the old walls that surrounded the town, a pleasant amble that took us about an hour. And just like Dubrovnik, Kotor had been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
But where Kotor differed from Dubrovnik was that the town had not yet totally given itself over to the mass tourism trade (although it did seem rather desperate to jump on that particular bandwagon: the parking lot outside of the walls was jam-packed with tour buses, and cruise ships now dock there in the summer).
What this meant was that in addition to the usual rash of tourist establishments, in Kotor’s old town we also got to see something different as well: local things. Like children playing ball games outside in the street. Or like stores selling stuff for the real-life needs of real-life residents: a pharmacy, a butcher-shop, a corner grocer.
Or, from our elevated perch as we walked the walls, we peered through the windows into real people’s homes, their laundry hanging out to dry and food cooking on kitchen stoves. All of which things seem to have disappeared completely in Dubrovnik’s old town, in favor of endless souvenir shops, guesthouses, and pricey cafes.
The rain lifted, and after a leisurely lunch of local cheeses and fresh salad in a picturesque vine-covered square, we left Kotor and continued down the road, crossing a series of mountain valleys filled with villages and farms that looked like they hadn’t changed in centuries.
In less than half an hour we reached the Adriatic Sea, and Montenegro’s #1 attraction, the seaside town of Budva. It too was centered on a fortified medieval town, on a promontory poking dramatically out into the sea, and also surrounded entirely by defensive stone walls (Budva’s walls were built about 400 years ago, during the time of Venetian rule, and come complete with ramparts, towers, fortified gates and a citadel).
Being by the ocean, Budva also had a distinctive nautical feel to it. The walls had a patina of crunchy salt baked into them, accumulated from years of facing the elements. Colorful fishing boats bobbed about in the small harbor. The air smelled of the sea, and the rhythmic sound of rolling waves followed us wherever we went. Just outside of the walls we found ourselves on a little stone beach, lined with cafes, small hotels, and restaurants selling grilled locally caught squid the size of my head.
And within the walls we were free to explore yet another pedestrianized Stari Grad (“old town”). A mishmash of narrow streets, piazzas, churches, and bursting flowerboxes, that seemed perfectly designed for a couple of hours of aimless wandering, and gawking.
All in all, Montenegro was turning out to be great: the scenery was grand, the people friendly, and the vibe pleasant, relaxed, and decidedly quaint. Like what I imagine Dubrovnik might have been, forty years ago.
More than that, it also felt oddly familiar to me, as if I somehow knew the place, even if I had never been there before. Although for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why.
That is, until we set off for our final destination of the day, the small lakeside village of Perast, known around Montenegro for its magnificent natural setting, and especially for the two small islands in the lake just offshore, on which are located a pair of old, romantic-looking churches. A short cruise around the islands in the late afternoon’s setting sun, followed by an early dinner at a lakeside grill, seemed like it would be an excellent way to end an excellent day in Montenegro.
As we drove away from Budva, I caught a glimpse of the flag of Montenegro, flapping in the breeze high above the Budva city walls. It showed a red field surrounding the Montenegrin coat of arms, which consisted of a two-headed bird, holding a scepter in one hand and an orb in the other, and topped by an ornamental gold crown.
Which, it suddenly jogged in my memory, was strongly evocative of the fictitious Syldavian coat of arms. And which in turn dredged up another factoid I had long ago filed away in my Tintin memory bank and forgotten: by Hergé’s own admission, his primary inspiration for Syldavia was none other than Montenegro, as it existed in the 1930s.
“Oh My God – we are in Syldavia!” I shouted out in a burst of excitement, at the same time yanking the car sharply over to the side of the road and coming to a complete halt.
My travelling companion, shaken out of a daydream by my sudden scream and erratic driving maneuver, asked in a worried voice: “Is something wrong?” So I quickly tried to explain the momentousness of the occasion to her. But she was not amused, and stared at me like I had lost my mind. She clearly did not think joining the Tintin dots was that much of a big deal; certainly not something worth almost rolling the car into a ditch for.
But trust me, it was. So much so that for the next four hours I was unable to think of anything else, jabbering on and on about Tintin, the plot of “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”, Syldavia in general, and the genius of Hergé in particular. But mostly I went on and on ad nauseum about how incredible it was that I had wound up in this place of my childhood fantasy, without even knowing about it.
In any case, for me at least the rest of the day was lifted onto a personal bucket list pedestal like no other.
The walls we had seen that surrounded Kotor and Budva were no longer just any old walls. They had instead become the fortified ramparts that surrounded King Ottokar’s palace, as drawn by Hergé.
The Montenegrin flags blowing regally in the wind had become flags of Syldavia – a shield with a pair of black pelicans, two sceptres backing it and an ornamental gold crown on top.
The lake at Perast was no longer merely a body of incredibly scenic water, but was Lake Polishoff, the national lake of Syldavia. Where Tintin had saved the day in his first animated movie, Tintin and the Lake of Sharks (released in 1972, the year I was born, and later turned into a picture book too).
And the magnificent landscape of mountains, green valleys and rural villages we drove past was, in my mind’s eye, no longer Montenegro. Rather, the whole country had transformed into the panels of my much beloved comics, now magically brought to life.
Even the excellent dinner we had at a tiny lakeside grill in Perast – Montenegro’s national dish of lamb and potatoes cooked under a heavy steel bell – became something else to me. I was dining on the Syldavian specialty of szlaszeck, lamb kebabs that, in an effort to shock, were described to Tintin by a waiter as being “the hind leg of a young dog in heavy Syldavian sauce”….
By the time we began to make our way from Perast back towards the Croatian border, the sun had set completely. The road was dark, and I was driving quite fast. Ahead of us was a slow-moving tourist bus. It was the only other vehicle on the otherwise deserted road, so I overtook it at speed.
A few seconds later a policeman in a smart-looking uniform jumped into the middle of the road, waving a flashlight. He was signaling for me to pull over. Which I did with a smile on my face: even this scene was just like one in “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”, in which Tintin had been stopped by the local police while driving.
Evidently, however, the policeman standing at the window of our car was not too familiar with classical Tintin allusions. Because after ascertaining that I did not speak Montenegrin, he informed me curtly (and in pretty fluent English) that I had overtaken the bus across a broken yellow line. That was an illegal move in Montenegro, and, so the cop said, he would thus have to issue me with a ticket and fine.
This would not have been a problem, apart from the next piece of information: I would have to pay the fine in person at any post office in Montenegro. Only they were all closed, on account of it being after dark on a Saturday night, and would not reopen until Monday morning.
“You are not permitted to drive on or to leave Montenegro until the fine is paid,” the policeman said in a flat, emotionless voice. He seemed entirely unconcerned by the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere, without a hotel in sight. Or that we were obviously unprepared for an unscheduled two night stay in Montenegro, all our stuff being back at a hotel in Dubrovnik.
Even so, the gravity of the situation hadn’t quite dawned on me. I guess I was still feeling elated – almost high – from the unexpected joy of having spent a day in Syldavia. So without really thinking about it, I blurted out: “Seriously? Can’t I just pay you the fine directly and be on my way?”
Which, I realized almost as the words left my mouth, sounded an awful lot like I had just offered the policeman a bribe.
And which tactic probably would have worked in a Tintin adventure. But in the real world of independent Montenegro, circa 2017, I had just done something really stupid, and really, really bad.
“Sir, I cannot do that…” the policeman said, glowering at me for the crude attempt at resolving the problem. And, as if to drive the point home, he added slowly: “…because that would be a crime.”
“Oh, shit,” I thought, and swallowed hard, while the cop stared at me angrily for a few seconds. I think he was trying to decide on whether to issue the ticket, arrest and cuff me, or maybe just shoot me on the spot.
In the awkward silence that followed, I began babbling to the policeman: “Sir, I am really sorry, it was an honest mistake, please forgive me. We are tourists in your country, and having to stay here until Monday would greatly inconvenience us, and we would leave with bad memories. That would be such a shame because Montenegro is such a nice country.”
The policeman paused, a thoughtful look on his face. This appeal seemed to have registered with him: the honor of his country in the eyes of the world was at stake. Either that or the prospect of dealing with detaining two tourists and having to explain the whole messy situation to his superiors was more hassle than he could bear on a Saturday night.
“Very well, just drive more carefully until you are back in Croatia,” he said, and waved us on. I smiled. Tintin be damned, I had now become the hero of my own adventure story.
And so ended our day in Montenegro: a beautiful, laid-back, wonderful little country, made up of spectacular walled towns, scenic lakes, stunning coastline, and glorious, jaw-dropping vistas at every turn.
A country you probably know very little about, because it is yet to emerge onto the global tourism scene, but no doubt soon will.
And a country which, if you scrunch up your eyes and use your imagination, can be another place entirely: Hergé’s Syldavia, the land of the black pelican.