A Balkan Odyssey in a Baby Renault
By Andy Bannister
The country – its name means “black mountain” – was part of Yugoslavia from 1918 until that nation disintegrated in the 1990s, and more recently was in a loose confederation with its larger neighbour, Serbia. After many years of economic isolation it became independent in 2006 and is now seeking greater ties with the European Union.
Blessed with a coastline on the beautiful Adriatic Sea and some of the most rugged national parks anywhere in the world, the compact size of Montenegro and its challenging roads make it the perfect place for a driving adventure.
With its small 1200cc engine and city car dimensions, the Twingo – Renault’s smallest model, slotting in below the Fiesta-sized Clio in the company’s range – isn’t the most obvious choice as a conqueror of the mountains, and I must admit I initially had my doubts about whether it was up to the job.
It’s a car which in its current form (launched in 2007) I have always felt curiously indifferent to, and ordinarily it wouldn’t have made it on to my shortlist for even an urban runaround.
This non-image is largely because today’s Twingo sits in the shadow of its predecessor. The first-generation of the car (which made its debut way back in 1992 to huge acclaim at the Paris Show) was one of those rarities in the auto industry – an innovative product which was spot on target with its one-box design and clever interior. It had a long and distinguished career of 15 years, with its main rival being Ford’s equally distinctive Ka.
The new-model Twingo has little of its predecessor’s visual appeal. In fact, the styling doesn’t quite work, looking bland from some angles with some slightly awkward detailing, particularly evident on the most basic model.
Its main distinguishing feature (one of the few things carried over from the previous model) is an old-fashioned and fiddly exterior door handle of a type that dates back to the original Renault 5 of 1972. Inside it is distinguished by clever sliding individual rear seats, making it more flexible than most very small cars.
The Twingo is – appropriately enough – made in Slovenia, the country which once formed the northernmost province of former Yugoslavia, in the factory which for years built the Renault 4, one of the company’s longest-lived workhorses.
Renault 4s, together with Fiat 600-based Zastava 750 Ficos, are two of the vehicles which put the peoples of former Yugoslavia – Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim alike – on the road. Many are still to be seen today in all the republics, although often in a rather down-at-heel state.
My Twingo turned out to be a bright red special edition Rip Curl model, with various odd bits of extra equipment added to give it a pseudo-sporty look, including side decals, logos on the seats, door tread plates and red trim on the dashboard. A red pod containing just the rev counter dominates the driver’s eye view, with the rest of the instruments offset in a central binnacle.
Given the rather modest 1200cc engine, this device is of limited use, but it does make the inside of the car look a little less stark than most economy models. Similarly, stylish alloy wheels and the paintwork lift the car’s exterior, making it stand out in a crowd.
Whilst nowhere near as small and wieldy as the Fiat Seicento Sporting I have as a second car at home, the Twingo is streets ahead of the little Italian in build quality and robustness, with the doors and hatchback closing with a reassuring thud, and the controls giving the impression of a larger car.
Its compact size is a positive asset on the often terrifyingly narrow mountain roads of Montenegro, which cling to the side of precipices with – on many occasions – no guard rail. One such road I took leads up from the valley of the River Zeta to the Ostrog Monastery, built within a cliff face and containing the mortal remains of St Basil, and thus one of the holiest places of the Orthodox religion, attracting thousands of pilgrims.
Such is the saint’s reputation that despite the perilous and badly surfaced road, no accidents are said to have taken place there – which certainly can’t be said of the main highway in the valley leading from the town of Niksic to the capital, Podgorica.
Podgorica, which once rejoiced in the name of Titograd in honour of war hero and communist president Josip Broz Tito, is not the loveliest of Europe’s capital cities, being sullied by far too many functional and resolutely square apartment blocks in that peculiarly dehumanising socialist style. In the city’s traffic, gleaming new BMWs and Mercedes jostle with the omnipresent Yugos and quite a few other old vehicles dating from Tito’s era, many the products of fraternal socialist countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.
In complete contrast to gritty Podgorica stands the old royal capital, Cetinje, set in a bowl of mountains. In its dinky little palace, Montenegro’s first and last King, Nikola, played host to the crowned heads of Europe in the years leading up to the First World War.
Cetinje is reached from the ancient Venetian port of Kotor by an incredible road of 32 hairpin bends, built by engineers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the years 1879 to 1884. Kotor at that time lay in Imperial territory, with Montenegro’s frontier high in the mountains, and for generations the Montenegrins had resisted any such connection to their territory, reasoning “a road that will serve a cart with also serve for artillery”.
The drive from Kotor via this route, little changed in over a century except for a thin covering of tarmac, is an exhilarating one, beautifully graded with breathtaking views at each bend down the sea far below. At the crest, over 3000 feet up, another, smaller, road, winds its way sinuously almost to the 5500 foot peak of the country’s near-sacred mountain of Lovcen, where in a socialist-era mausoleum, Prince-Bishop Petar II Njegos lies in stately splendour on the peak, reached by 461 steps.
An ancestor of King Nikola, Petar stood around seven feet tall and was the author of the country’s most famous literary work, The Mountain Wreath, the cornerstone of Montenegrin independence and patriotism.
Fierce and uncompromising sums up the national mindset of this warrior people, and they are words that can be equally applied to local driving techniques, which interesting to say the least.
Many motorists seem to negotiate bends with a mobile telephone permanently clapped to their ear, and giving way to oncoming traffic on narrow roads can become something of a battle of wills.
Despite the best efforts of the police, who lie in wait for speeders on many main highways, the rules of the road are rather loosely applied, particularly when it comes to overtaking on bends or at traffic intersections, which are often a chaotic free-for-all.
Once you adjust to this type of driving it certainly is a good way to press on, and given the country’s terrain and the lack of major highways, maintaining a certain pace is the only way to get to a destination within a reasonable time.
Most of my endeavours in the mountains seemed to consist of trying not to let the little Renault lose revs while jostling with a slow truck on a steep incline, steering round a herd of cows or roadside donkeys, or trying to make it back to civilisation ahead of the setting sun, as night driving on twisty and unlit roads is definitely not to be recommended.
One of the ironies about the former Yugoslavia is that while border controls and inter-country formalities have largely been dismantled across wide swathes of Europe in recent years, a veritable industry of frontier post building and official bureaucracy has sprung up between newly-independent republics where there used to be none.
Tempting though it is to sample the delights of nearby Croatia or Bosnia, the frontier formalities can be quite tiresome, and in any case there was plenty I didn’t manage to see in Montenegro itself, particularly the northern mountains close to the Serbian border.
Overall, having initially been unsure about the charms of the little Renault, it gradually won me over and I left it behind at the end of my trip with a fair amount of respect for its capabilities. Even the styling has grown on me.
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