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Investigating the Footsteps of Nero Wolfe

April 19, 1987|RUTH E. GRUBER | Gruber is an American living in Italy.

KOTOR, Yugoslavia — 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.

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