If you have seen a production of, or listened to the music from, Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”, you actually have some passing knowledge of one of the tiniest but fiercest corners of Serbdom, the Black Mountain – Crna Gora – Montenegro. Disguised with the pseudonym Pontevedro in the operetta, Lehar included elements of Montenegrin life throughout every aspect of the production. Premiering in 1905, the two leads, Mizzi Gunther (playing the eponymous widow, Hanna Glavari, a Pontevedran expatriate in Paris) and Louis Treumann (playing the dashing Prince Danilo), wore stage versions of traditional court costume; characters’ names were reflective of the region and the ruling dynasty, the Petrović-Njegoš family; an aria titled “The Song of the Vila” hearkened to the mythological vile (pl.) of Serb folklore, beautiful but temperamental female fairies who inhabited forests and mountains. The operetta was, in many ways, a Viennese nod to the Slavs of its kingdom, even though Montenegro lay beyond its boundaries. The land of mountains and eagles had never been fully conquered through five centuries of Ottoman presence in the Balkans; little did the Viennese know that in less than a decade, Montenegrin Serbs would be fighting off their armies, too.
In a corner bounded by the Sava and the Danube, three centuries before the common era, Celts found the abandoned settlement of a Thracian tribe, the Singi. Recognizing its strategic advantages and abundance of resources, they settled there. A fortress arose, in Celtic dun, and Singidunum was born. It was home to Celts, Romans and Byzantines for a millenium before the Slavs arrived. Seeing the pale limestone palisades in the distance, they called it the White City – Beo Grad. It became part of the kingdom of King Dragutin Nemanjić in the 13th century, and flourished under Stefan Lazarević in 15th century. It fell into Hungarian hands, setting into play a back-and-forth struggle between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire that went on for centuries. In 1594 as a reprisal for a Serbian uprising, Albanian Ottoman vezier Sinan Paša ordered the public burning of St. Sava’s relics on Vračar hill. The warring continued until Karađorđe liberated it on St. Andrew’s day 1807. The failed first rebellion led to notable migration of Serbs out of the region in 1813, and it took decades for the city to earn its place as capital of the Principality and Kingdom of Serbia.
The German geographer Johann Georg Kohl travelled through Dalmatia in the period between 1850 – 1852. Traversing the Dinaric alps, he stopped in Vrlika, which he described in his published notes as “a mouse hole”. Harsh, perhaps, from his well-travelled perspective, but it certainly is not a metropolis. Yet, talk to people who originate from Vrlika and you would think it could rival New York.
Bosanska Krajina is a term referring to the northern portion of Bosnia, bounded by the rivers Vrbas and Sava, and the Dinaric alps in the west. It was a region that for centuries represented the frontier of the Ottoman Empire, abutting directly against the Austro-Hungarian Military Frontier (Vojna Krajina). The word kraj means the end of something, or a region, and “Krajina” is used to designate a number of districts and micro-regions historically inhabited by Serbs (Timočka Krajina, Bela Krajina, Kninska Krajina etc). It is found in other Slavic languages as well; for example, Ukraine is a toponym derived from the Russian v’krajina, “in the outskirts”. Krajina, when applied to any area, has that connotation of being the outskirts, an outlying or remote area. The mountainous terrain of Bosanska Krajina certainly made it difficult to traverse and settle, and in that sense remained remote for a very long time. Continue reading