Investigating the Footsteps of Nero Wolfe

Gruber is an American living in Italy.

Nero Wolfe, the fat detective created by novelist Rex Stout, was a Montenegrin.

That is, he came from Montenegro, a rugged lozenge of mountainous territory a little larger than Connecticut; it was an independent state until 1918 and now is the smallest of Yugoslavia's six republics.

Much is made of Wolfe's Montenegrin origins throughout the dozens of stories and novels written between 1934 and Stout's death in 1975. It was part of his mystique, like the 10,000 orchids on the top floor of his old New York brownstone, his addiction to fine food, his refusal to leave his house on business and his brash young assistant, Archie Goodwin.

As a correspondent in Yugoslavia from 1978 to 1981, I visited Montenegro several times. But my concerns were always for different stories, and I never had time to indulge my fantasies about fictional detectives.

A Different Search

This time, however, I came not in search of political developments or economic situation pieces, but in search of Nero Wolfe.

Montenegro, an Italianized version of the Serbo-Croatian name Crnagora (pronounced Tserna-gora), means Black Mountain.

A Nero Wolfe adventure from 1954, called "The Black Mountain," marks one of the few times the ponderous sleuth does leave his home on a job. To investigate the death of his best friend, the Montenegrin restaurateur Marko Vukcic, Wolfe smuggles himself and Archie into Montenegro, where he makes contact with anti-Communist nationalists who want to overthrow Yugoslavia's leader, Marshal Tito.

Tito, of course, survived--he died in 1980--and Montenegro today, though one of the poorest of Yugoslavia's regions, has a thriving tourist industry along its astonishingly beautiful Adriatic coast. A 4,500-foot mountain wall rises from a glassy sea, and ancient fishing villages and towns cling precariously to the shore.

Travel With Patience

Several airports in the region have connections to Belgrade but, like Nero Wolfe, I came at night by sea, taking the overnight car ferry from Bari, Italy, and carrying a dogeared copy of "The Black Mountain" tucked in my bag.

Bring patience with you if you travel this way: Boarding arrangements, ticket checking and passport control were chaotic, both before embarkation and on the boat. Americans do not have to get a visa in advance for Yugoslavia--you can get them at the border.

I docked in Dubrovnik and, ignoring one of the most beautiful cities on the Mediterranean, immediately drove south along the coast into Montenegro.

The coast gets more beautiful as you go farther south. One reason is that there is less new construction obscuring the view. Yugoslavia has enjoyed a boom in tourism; new hotels, restaurants and other tourist facilities are everywhere.

The tortuous Adriatic highway, which snakes down the length of the coast, can be jammed in summer months with German, Czech, French, Hungarian, English, Austrian and Yugoslav vacationers, to name a few.

Scenic Coastal Drive

A couple of hours south of Dubrovnik is the stunning Gulf of Kotor, the unspoiled entryway to the Black Mountain. A ferry crosses the narrow mouth, but it is worth it to drive the 30 miles or so around the gulf instead.

The scenery, with those mountains plunging straight into the smooth surface of the water, and two jewel-like monastery islands in the middle, is extraordinary--as is much of Montenegro.

The towns along the way--Risan, Perast, Kotor--are worth visiting, though they still bear scars of a 1979 earthquake that devastated the area.

According to "The Black Mountain," Wolfe landed in his little fishing boat south of the gulf, near Budva. Providentially, that is near two of the best hotels on the Yugoslav coast: Sveti Stefan, a fishing village on a tiny offshore island whose buildings have all been turned into a luxury hotel, and Milocer, a formal royal palace set in a sumptuous park on a curved private beach. It looks out at Sveti Stefan, which is connected to the shore by a causeway.

The vine-covered veranda at Milocer is a glorious setting for a meal, but I would suggest that you drive a few kilometers to one of the villages and eat at one of the growing number of privately run restaurants that serve fresh fish, grilled in garlic, for as little as $5 or $6 for a full meal, including wine.

The beachfront restaurant 3 Ribara in Becici was recommended by a waiter at Milocer who told me the luxury hotel, which is not privately run, does not serve fresh fish, only frozen, at two or three times the price of a meal in a private place.

Next, Turn Inland

Many of Wolfe's adventures in "The Black Mountain" take place in southern Montenegro within easy striking distance of Milocer and Sveti Stefan, but I advise moving on from there, after enjoying the beach, and turning inland.

From the coast, Wolfe marched across the mountains to Rijeka Crnojevica, but I suggest a detour to Cetinje, a town that feels on top of the world, and which served as Montenegro's capital when it was an independent state.

Cetinje is still a fairly isolated place. Until new roads were built recently, it was accessible only with difficulty on poorly surfaced roads that were little more than a series of hairpin turns.

There is a fairly good road up to Cetinje now from Budva, but if you don't mind heights or mountain driving, it still is best to take the rather hair-raising old road from Kotor over the Lovcen Pass that zigzags up, up and up the Black Mountain face until you pop out into a moonscape of huge karst boulders, seemingly hurled this way and that like enormous rubble.

Everything is white, like frozen sea waves or gargantuan bleached bones. The road is so bad, and so precipitous, that you don't really expect to find civilization at the other end.

Wind-Swept Cetinje

The hourlong drive from the coast to Cetinje takes you up to a 2,000-foot plateau and removes you from the flashy, crowded world of the normal tourist track. Foreigners, aside from those on charter bus trips from the coast, are few, and prices drop considerably (the modern Hotel Park charges $20 or less for a comfortable single with bath, breakfast included, compared to $50 or more at Milocer).

It is a pastel provincial town in an incomparable setting, wind-swept and clean. Walk around and look at the grand buildings that once housed foreign embassies to the strange royal court that ruled until 1918 and notice the tall, good-looking Montenegrins, descendants of a warrior race.

The former royal palace, built about 150 years ago, is known as the Biljarda after the billiards table that was hauled up Lovcen Pass, then just a track, at the whim of the prince.

Cetinje has several museums, and an impressive scale-model relief map of Montenegro in a building all its own. I recommend taking a look at it to get an idea of a region that, according to legend, was formed when God dumped a sackful of leftover rock on a piece of already barren wasteland.

Back Into Wolfe Country

From Cetinje, I headed back into Wolfe country. Taking the wide new road toward Titograd, I turned off toward Rijeka Crnojevica onto what until four years ago was the main road, a ribbon of highway looping over the hills and sometimes not wide enough for two cars to pass.

To build Rijeka Crnojevica, the village where Wolfe, in the book, makes important contacts, "all they had to do was knock off chunks of rock, roll them down to the edge of the valley, stack them in rectangles and top the rectangles with thatched roofs," said Archie Goodwin.

Except for the thatched roofs, his description is not bad. There is not much to the place. When the new Titograd highway bypassed the town it was a death sentence and the village, still showing damage from the 1979 quake, looks pretty much a ghost town.

Pass through it quickly, pausing to note the extraordinarily beautiful view of an old Turkish-style bridge and perhaps a few characteristic pointy-nosed fishing boats.

Carry on toward Virpazar, along one of the most beautiful roads you'll ever see. I wanted to stop every 50 feet to take pictures.

Between Mountains and Lake

Rijeka Crnojevica is at the tip of Lake Skadar, a large, shallow, island-studded lake that Yugoslavia shares with Albania to the south, and the road to Virpazar runs above the shore.

Virpazar, dramatically placed between the mountains and lake, boasts the big new 13 Juli Hotel and also at least one private rooming house, the Pelikan, where you can eat lake fish.

Fishermen will also, for a fee of $3 or $4, take you out in a boat to see the wide variety of waterfowl making their home on the lake.

It was from Titograd, however, that Wolfe set out for Albania, 10 miles or so away and the climactic scenes of the novel, passing en route a ruined farmhouse near the Albanian border that he points out as the place he was born.

It was there that I headed, or tried to head. Using a map, I somehow found the road as described in the book leading out of town along the Cijevna River, a strange stream cut, like a miniature Grand Canyon, into a flat plain. The route took me past some sort of shanty town and other unsavory parts of the city.

Wild Country

The road followed the north side of the river. Soon the asphalt ended and it became a dirt track, very rough, and climbed higher into extremely wild, inhospitable country.

It was a blazing hot day, and the road was edged with blackberry brambles. According to a road sign, a couple of villages lay somewhere ahead, so I kept going, hoping my tires and suspension would hold out. And hoping the villages existed.

At one point I met another car, driven by a villager who obviously couldn't figure out what a single foreign woman in a BMW with foreign license plates was doing on this God-forsaken track.

"I want to see Albania," I told him.

He seemed to think that was a logical response (how would he have reacted if I had told him I wanted to see where Nero Wolfe was born?) and told me to go on for a few hundred yards more and then look across the gorge; the border was just on the other side, a couple of miles away, just where Wolfe said it would be.

Arrived at Albanian Border

I went a bit farther and stopped. There was Albania. I could see the glint of a border guard house on one of the peaks. One of the two villages supposedly on the road was in sight, too, so I bumped along there and stopped.

I hadn't quite reached my objective--I could see the second village up ahead, another few miles on that terrible dirt track. After that, according to the map, the road ended.

But I took another look at the road and another look at the lonely terrain and turned around to go back.

Given the circumstances, I think I had come close enough to Nero Wolfe's birthplace for it to count.

An automobile is the best, and sometimes only, way to see Montenegro and other remote parts of Yugoslavia. You can easily rent cars in major cities.

Make sure you take spare parts (make sure the spare tire is OK), and be advised that roads can be terrible. Some may start out as good highways but without warning turn into dirt tracks, be washed away or be pitted with potholes. Also, gas stations are few and far between: Keep your tank filled.

For more information contact the Yugoslavia National Tourist Office, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 280, New York 10111, phone (212) 757-2801.

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