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I'm Off on the Road to Montenegro
Thursday, July 19, 2018 -- I suddenly have a desire to fly to Montenegro, spend some money there and tell total strangers that America loves and respects the little nation on the Adriatic Coast.

No U.S. carrier flies to Montenegro, of course, but I can cash United MileagePlus miles and hop on Austrian, Turkish or LOT Polish airlines to get there. There being Podgorica (TGD), the capital. As travel writers often say, Montenegro is so small that you can start at its lovely beaches in the morning and be in the mountains by the afternoon. It's a hot tourist destination, too.

Of course, tourists crowd the Balkan nation during the summer, so maybe I'll make it a side trip from Rome when I go this winter. (Alitalia offers nonstop Rome-Podgorica flights.) There's a heavy Italian influence in Montenegro and the country's name means "black mountain" in the Venetian dialect. In fact, there's even a Bolognese amaro named Montenegro. I have never tasted it, but my wife and my friend Joan are both amaro fans, so maybe they'll buy me a couple of shots when we get to Italy.

The U.S. State Department is a big fan of Montenegro, too. I found this glowing review on State's Web site:

"The relationship between the United States and Montenegro has promoted peace and prosperity in the region and around the world. U.S. policy toward Montenegro is structured to help [it] transition to a prosperous, market-based democracy, fully integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union. Montenegro has demonstrated its commitment to international peacekeeping efforts, including in Afghanistan where it has contributed troops."

I dunno about you, but I'm a fan of countries that came to our aid in Afghanistan, the troubled land that nurtured and harbored the plotters of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And I'm happy that Montenegro last year joined NATO, the defensive alliance that has repelled Russian and Soviet expansionism for 70 years. No business traveler should forget that the only time Article Five of the NATO charter was invoked was in defense of the United States after the 9/11 attack.

I'm a big history buff and that's another reason why I think I'd like to visit Montenegro soon. The Balkans is the most fascinating--in ways good and bad--part of Europe. In case you don't know, Montenegro has always been one of those small nations that existed largely under the thumb of another regional power. It was part of Yugoslavia, the Serbian-dominated confederation, until it dissolved in the early 1990s. Montenegro was the last Yugoslav entity yoked to Serbia and didn't gain its full independence until 2006.

Lately, though, Russia has been pressuring Montenegro, a nation that would normally be friendly to the Russians given the shared religious (Orthodox Christian) and ethnic affinity (Slavic). Russian interests were heavy--if shadowy--investors in the country even before Montenegro secured its independence. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin's burning desire to recreate the old Soviet empire eventually drove Montenegrins away from Russia. Putin didn't take kindly to the rebuff and was even more furious when Montenegro joined NATO to escape Russian hegemony. Last year Putin's thugs tried to overthrow the democratically elected government.

Of course, Russia's interest in the Balkans in general and Montenegro in specific isn't just a matter of religious and ethnic commonality. Anyone who knows anything about historical Russia knows it has a unique geographic challenge: an acute lack of warm-weather seaports. That is why Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea, something it also did in 1783.

Guess what country also has a warm-weather port once dominated by Russia and/or the Soviet Empire? Yup, Montenegro. And Montenegro is an advantageous place from which to get to the crucial Mediterranean. It's a short and unobstructed sail down the Adriatic, a better option than Russia's Black Sea ports, where ships must navigate the Bosporus controlled by an often-hostile Turkey.

All this history and geopolitical intrigue makes Montenegro appealing to me, especially since some politicians and TV commentators this week have ragged on this interesting little nation that has been nothing but friendly to Americans.

Besides, a well-regarded Hilton hotel opened in Podgorica during the last two years. Folks tell me it's a good renovation of the 1950s era lodging star of what was then called Titograd. It's cheap, too. You can score a 495-square-foot king room with a park view tomorrow night for around 150 euros.

I'm a sucker for good, cheap hotels in little countries with great beaches, nice mountains and citizens who love and defend Americans. Montenegro sounds like it's just the ticket, don't you think?

This column is Copyright 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.