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Hay cart near Zabljak
Hay cart near Zabljak. Photo: Alan Grant

Zabljak is one of the small tourist centres in Montenegro's North. The steep and drawn-down roofs of its houses reveal that winters are harsh. The few socialist hotels are in bad shape, and most of the socialist-era ski lifts lie in disrepair. The transformations witnessed in the South and the capital Podgorica are slow to make their way up to Zabljak.

About a third of the total population of Montenegro - slightly less than 200,000 - live in the North. However, the North contributes only 18 percent to Montenegrin GDP (down from 25.5 percent in 1990). In May 2007 a newspaper found that the budget of the coastal municipality of Budva with only 16,000 inhabitants (EUR 44 million) was higher than the budgets of all 11 Northern municipalities taken together (EUR 42.5 million).

The North of Montenegro has been particularly isolated over the centuries. Ottoman forces, which conquered the medieval Balkan states in the 14th and 15th centuries, made little effort to enforce their rule in this poor and sparsely populated region, leaving the population to run its own internal affairs. Society was organised in tribes (pleme) controlling a certain territory. Beneath the tribe were smaller units of families that traced their descent to a common ancestor (clan or bratstvo). A clan could number as many as 250 members, and was usually headed by the oldest member of the clan. Every tribe had its chief and an assembly of elders.

It was not until the mid-19th century that the Montenegrin rulers in Cetinje managed to bring the tribes in the North under direct control. However, the Northern parts of Montenegro remained remote and inaccessible well into the 20th century. They saw bitter fighting in the Second World War.

Zabljak is still one of Montenegro's poorest municipalities. Slowly, with its mountains, canyons and traditional villages, the North is making a name for itself as a tourist destination. Residents of Podgorica like to take refuge from the summer heat of the capital in the mountainous North, and enjoy the tranquillity of village life. Foreign tourists have started to discover the forests, idyllic lakes and mountain paths.

The more adventurous ones enjoy rafting trips in the Tara Canyon. At 82 kilometres, it is one of the longest canyons in the world and has been proclaimed a world heritage site by UNESCO. It is part of the Durmitor national park.

April 2008

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