Recently in Albania, three people were arrested as they tried to enter a former arms factory. The intruders from Russia and Ukraine said that they were bloggers and liked to photograph old buildings.
People who have seen too many James Bond movies are now arrogantly thinking: “Oh please, you could have come up with a better excuse!”
But I, as a world- and Balkan-experienced blogger myself, understand that this may well be true. On Mount Vrmac in Montenegro, I once met two young Russians who graciously allowed me to join them on their exploration of a military fortress. (Okay, one of the two I really suspected to be a spy, but for a different reason. More about this in the report of said trip.)
Along the coast of Montenegro, probably the most beautiful coast in Europe, there are dozens of these fortresses, all abandoned by now. They predate World War I, when Austria was still a maritime power and sought to protect its bays, harbors, and ships in the Adriatic. (Ironically, the end of Austria as a naval power began in the bay of Kotor in 1918, but that is another story, yet to be told.)
Because Montenegro is a laid-back, friendly country with responsible people, no one needs to cordon off these bunkers, tunnels, and munitions piles or put up signs yelling “No Trespassing!” at you in a rude voice. In the spirit of man’s emergence from self-imposed nonage, one simply decides for oneself through which entrances and exits to emerge and submerge.
As far as I have seen, these military installations have always been built with meter-thick walls, so they can’t really collapse. Hence, for your next family vacation in Montenegro, you can keep in mind that they are perfectly safe playgrounds for the kids.
Speaking of family holidays: When I lived in Montenegro, my brother and my mother visited me. (Every family is happy when at least one member leaves the capitalism rat race behind and becomes a vagabond, so they can visit me in a different country every year.)
And back then, I happened upon a story that shows how easily the curiosity of tourists can be misinterpreted as espionage. After all, it is quite natural to have an interest in ruins, abandoned airfields and military installations, isn’t it?
In any case, we were driving along the coast when, on Luštica peninsula, I spotted yet another one of those Austrian fortresses. I suggested that we take a look at the ruins and go explore them. My brother was excited, my mother was not. She prefers botanical gardens, coffee shops and bookstores. And at the time, she urgently wanted to be taken to a hospital.
Now, in democracy, two votes are more than one, so we decided that mom would have to wait just a little while, so that my brother could finally explore a Habsburg fortress from all sides and angles. It was raining cats and dogs, so my mom didn’t want to get out of the car. Ever thoughtful, I parked the car so that it was just in front of the cliff, with a perfect view of the stormy sea and the raging thunderstorm. That way, she wouldn’t be bored, I thought. I also left her a book, which anyone would admit is the pinnacle of thoughtfulness.
“We will only be gone for 15 minutes.”
My brother and I explored the fortress, climbed around a bit and took photos. These fortresses are all similar, probably built after the same model, planned far away in Vienna. But this one on Luštica peninsula had something which I hadn’t seen before: a shaft leading down into the depth of the fortress. Very deep down. So deep that we could not see the bottom.
Inside this shaft was a metal ladder. It looked pretty sturdy. Besides, there were two of us, so one could go ahead. If he didn’t make it back, the other one could still call for help. My brother is more tech-savvy than me and even had a flashlight with him.
Because I’m heavier, I was the first one to descend. If the ladder could support me, it would also support him. It’s hard to estimate how deep down it went, but it took a few minutes to reach the bottom. There, I found dead rats and, even more shocking, dead moles.
And then I saw something really disturbing: cables, metal pipes, electric wires, switch boxes. That didn’t look like World War I anymore. Honestly, it didn’t feel right. If I had been alone, I wouldn’t have dared to go any further, but the two of us explored the corridors and hallways, getting lost deeper and deeper in a labyrinth of cables, concrete and rubble.
Because we were deep inside the womb of mother Earth, we forgot about our own mother. We no longer paid any attention to time. That deep into the lithosphere, we didn’t even notice that the storm was turning into a hurricane.
Until we suddenly heard water rushing.
An enormous, thundering, powerful roar of water. As loud as the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi. Or like Iguaçu Falls in Paraná.
“We have to find the ladder and climb back up,” I shouted, over the din of the waters casting their echoes through the dark tunnels.
But my brother was more adventurous: “Let’s go see where the water is coming from.” Maybe he was also more brave because he knows hot to swim. I don’t. Our family is very poor, so they could only afford swimming lessons for one of us.
So we fought our way through the intertwined tunnels, now always following the unmistakable sound of the masses of water. It became more rhythmic, like a waterfall being turned on and off. Or like strong stormy waves slapping against a quay wall.
And suddenly we stepped into a room, no, a hall. The size of a submarine hangar. And that was probably what it was: We had discovered a secret submarine base of the Yugoslav Navy.
From the photos, you can’t even imagine how enormously huge and gigantic everything was. Especially when you’ve just crawled through small, dark tunnels and suddenly find yourself in this cathedral of seafaring. It’s like walking through the narrow streets of Rome and then stepping into the Pantheon.
The best way to get an idea of the dimensions of the submarine base is to remember the type of ships for which it was built:
“The Hunt for Red October” is closely interwoven with family history, because it was the last film that my grandfather and I saw in the cinema together. This was in 1990, at the end of the Cold War and shortly before he drowned. This was the same grandfather who had lived in Yugoslavia for a few years in the 1940s under dubious circumstances. Had he built that submarine port back then? For whom had he spied? Why had my grandfather – in West Germany, mind you – taught me the Cyrillic script? Were we, his grandsons, now to be lured into a trap? Why was no one in this family permitted a peaceful life?
All these were questions that didn’t even occur to us. The water kept sloshing over the edge of the pool, and we had to be very careful not to be washed away. The concrete was slippery and full of holes, and there was no railing. Of course, we still ventured all the way to the front, where the rain was lashing down, the wind was blowing, and the sea was greedily snapping at us.
And there, further north on the coast, we spotted two ships. We climbed – rather daringly – to the other side of the submarine port. There was a hole in the wire fence. And we pretended not to understand the sign, which – for once – said something against trespassing. But then, who in the world speaks Montenegrin?
As we approached, the two ships didn’t look all that crispy anymore.
We took a run-up, jumped on board and looked around: Ammunition for anti-aircraft guns. The galley log, with entries from spring 2006, the last days before Montenegro’s independence. A radar set that was still emitting radioactivity. A helmet in a pool of blood. What had happened here?
Just as I was posing for a souvenir photo, someone on the shore shouted at us to get the hell off the ship. Whoever it was, he sounded mighty pissed. We obeyed the order, already suspecting that we were in for a teeny bit of trouble.
“Let me do the talking,” I said to my brother as we jumped off the boat. After all, I had been in similar situations before.
It was a soldier who wanted to know how anyone could be so stupid as to walk into a Montenegrin Navy base in broad daylight, climb onto warships and take photos there. All the while, he kept his hand on his gun holster. He looked even angrier than he had sounded.
“We are terribly sorry for the inconvenience, comrade,” I said, using the salutation “druže”, because the soldier looked old enough to appeal to his nostalgic feelings for Yugoslavia. (Lesson #1: As a prisoner, you must try to make your captor like you. That makes it much harder for him to kill you.)
“We went for a walk on the coast because I wanted to show my little brother that here is the most beautiful coast in all of the Adriatic.” (Lesson #2: Compliment the country you’re in. Everyone likes it when foreigners praise their country. – Lesson #3: Show that you have responsibility for others and that this is not a one-on-one situation. Younger siblings, innocent cats or old grannies are perfect for this purpose.)
“We saw the submarine tunnels first and were absolutely amazed. Really fascinating! And then the ships here, it’s all so incredible! We thought this was a naval museum.” (Lesson #4: It’s much better for the captor to think you’re stupid and naïve than dangerous and shrewd.)
The soldier took his hand off the gun.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“From Germany,” I said, glad that we were from a NATO country. Montenegro had joined NATO in 2017, so we were allies. It would be dicier if we were Russians or something. In 2016, there had been a Russian-backed coup attempt in Montenegro, which went strangely unnoticed by the rest of Europe. Like all the warnings about Russia, even if they come from Russia itself. But that’s another topic.
“Let’s see your passports,” the soldier ordered.
Stupidly, we had left our passports in the car. Despite lesson #3, I did not mention that we also left our mother in the car. I did not want the soldier or his colleagues to question her. Because, as cool and thoughtful as my brother and I were acting, we most certainly had not inherited that trait from our mother. And escalation was the last thing we needed.
The soldier spoke into his radio, which was good. As long as there is communication, no shots are fired.
The soldier’s commander came up with the same idea I had thought of already: One of us would return to the car, get the passports and come back. The other one would stay behind as a hostage. It was clear that I would stay and my younger brother would go.
So my brother had to walk back through the dangerous tunnels, shafts and the submarine port, all alone, probably explain to our mother why we were gone a bit longer than expected, get our passports and make the whole long arduous journey yet another time. In the rain. And try not getting lost, not falling down some hole and not getting killed.
The soldier guarded me with wary eyes, his hand back on the gun. I looked at the ground with an innocent puppy look, pretending to be insanely worried about my brother.
Soon, a sergeant approached on a speedboat. To my relief, he was younger, friendlier and more relaxed. He immediately suggested that we move to one of the nearby buildings because it was raining. Then he offered me a cigarette. I declined, thanking him, but offered him a cigar. He declined, thanking me. We talked a bit, but more about Montenegro in general, how beautiful and interesting it was (lesson #2), that I was studying history (lesson #1) and that I wanted to show my brother this beautiful country (lesson #3).
Because I didn’t want to ask anything about ships or the Navy or other suspicious stuff, we soon ran out of things to talk about. My brother stayed away for quite a long time, and I began to suspect why. The older soldier was getting grumpy, the younger sergeant was getting bored, and I just hoped that they hadn’t sent a patrol to look for our car.
After about 45 minutes or so, my brother returned, running. He wanted to show that he had hurried. We handed the sergeant our passports. He took a notebook out of his pocket, and I saw that it was already full of names, addresses, and passport numbers. Apparently, curious photographers and bloggers enter these premises on a regular basis. I was relieved. It looked like in Montenegro, you didn’t get in trouble until you illegally entered a military base for the second time. A laid-back country, very likable.
“Did you take any photos?”
“Yes,” my brother admitted and showed his cell phone. After all, the soldier had been watching us on the ship. There was no point in lying. Besides, who sets out on this dangerous journey and then doesn’t take any photos?
The sergeant looked at the images and ordered us to delete the ones with the two ships. When he got to the photos of the submarine base, he said: “Oh, you can keep those. The submarine tunnels are no longer a restricted military area, so that’s not a problem.” I don’t know if I’ve said it before, but Montenegro is an extremely nice and friendly country.
“And you, do you also have a cell phone?” he asked me.
I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket, and he had to laugh. Which is what happens regularly when people see my phone.
“All right,” he said, “that’s it. If you want, you can stay here for a while, so you don’t have to walk back in the rain.” You may have noticed it already, but I’ll say it again: Montenegro is the friendliest and most amicable country in Europe!
But we preferred to set out immediately, because we still had our dear mom, who had been waiting for a few hours more than the promised 15 minutes. And because our mother is not from Montenegro, but from Germany, she would hardly be as relaxed as Montenegrin sergeants who caught two espionage suspects red-handed.
As soon as we both crawled through the fence, my brother said: “It took me so long, because I copied the photos onto the laptop.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said with a grin, feeling proud of my younger brother. It was particularly smart that he hadn’t deleted the photos on his phone, which would have only made us suspicious. It’s a real joy to work with professionals.
Our mom, on the other hand, was not proud at all. Quite the contrary. She was pissed off. And the more my brother and I were happy about the successful outing, the angrier she got. Maybe it was because the heavy rain had loosened the gravel on the slope and the car had already slid down the cliff a bit. I didn’t really think of it as a problem, because there was still at least half a meter between the car and the sea.
“But I left you a book to pass the time,” I tried to de-escalate the situation.
“Yeah, from that fucking Radoje Domanović, writing about people falling down into a canyon!”
“Oh.” I had given her an anthology of Yugoslavian storytellers to get to know the country and its people.
“And that stupid Ranko Marinković writes about heads being cut off. That didn’t make it any better.”
“Oh.” Next time, I should remember to bring some funny books.
“And can we finally go to the hospital, please?”
Oh dear, I think I had forgotten to explain before why my mother wanted to be taken to the hospital. A few hours earlier, she had broken her foot. I wanted to show them Zalazi, a village in the mountains, very high up. It’s in ruins, completely deserted, but you have a fantastic view over the bay of Kotor from there.
Unfortunately, I had only been there once, with a local hiking group, so that I didn’t have to pay too much attention to the path. Of course we got lost in the alpine territory, had to stumble across the rocks, where my mother fell and got injured so badly that we had to carry her back to the car.
For just one day, I guess all of this was a bit much for her.
Ever since, none of my family have visited me again.
- Another “lost place” in Montenegro is the Russian Embassy.
- Most of the photos are by my brother. After all, he is doing that professionally. That’s why, unlike me, he even has an Instagraph.
- In Albania, there is an even larger submarine base. And then, there are the subterranean airfields, one of which even housed the secret space program of Yugoslavia. Well, that’s all for the next trip.
- Further reports from Montenegro and Albania.
- And more espionage stories. But don’t forget to delete your browser history after reading!
- Sponsors of this blog will receive the exact coordinates of the entrance to the submarine tunnel upon request.