There’s a place we know, a tiny nation of staggering beauty clinging to the coast of the azure Adriatic with a mild Mediterranean climate, dramatic jagged mountains and happening little towns and villages full of boutiques, wine bars and history. We’re a little reluctant to share, to be honest. After all, a destination that’s beautiful, affordable yet still something of a secret to the wider world is not something you discover every day. Montenegro is just 13,812 square kilometres (for reference, Tasmania is 68,401 square kilometres) so it’s possible to go the full Monte in one spectacular, memorable trip. Believe us when we say that Montenegro needs to not only be added to your must-visit list, but also moved up the queue. Here’s why.
The mythic beauty of the Bay of Kotor
The Bay of Kotor
There are almost as many myths associated with the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kotor as there are steps leading to the Castle of St John, 1200 metres above the town (that’s about 1350 steps, FYI). Locals say a fairy advised a king to establish his domain here; the ancient Phoenicians believed the Argonauts founded Kotor after finding the Golden Fleece. No one knows for sure, but archaeologists say it was built on the foundations of the ancient Roman city of Acruvium. The submerged river canyon hemmed by majestic mountains and crowned by medieval city walls and fortifications is a popular spot for cruises, while smaller pleasure boats spend days exploring the coves, bays, grottos and islands of the royal-blue harbour. The Old Town is all boutiques housed in former Venetian palaces, cool squares lined with bars and cafés and labyrinthine cobbled streets where the city’s many cats (there are museums dedicated to Kotor’s feline inhabitants) stroll with well-fed self-assurance.
The brilliant beaches
Mogren Beach outside of Budva
The epitome of Euro beach-life, Croatia might monopolise much of the absurdly picturesque Adriatic Coast – but so do seemingly all of Europe’s holidaymakers, from lobster-red Londoners on bucks weekends to sensibly sandalled German families. Montenegro boasts 295 kilometres of coastline, and while some beaches have the requisite sun-lounges, beach bars and bronzed bods, many of them have nothing at all except clear blue water, powder-soft sand and the occasional beachfront restaurant serving just-caught fish and invigorating glasses of the ubiquitous rakija.
The Serbian Orthodox Ostrog Monastery is carved into the Ostroška Greda
Despite its devastatingly beautiful natural landscape, some of Montenegro’s most arresting sights are man-made. Museums housed in former Venetian palaces in Budva, the Serbian Orthodox Ostrog Monastery carved into the Ostroška Greda mountainside, and the incongruously modern Millennium Bridge – the architecture in Montenegro offers a timeline of its history. Wander the streets to watch the passing of time, from the stark communist apartment blocks of its recent past to medieval fortresses of those who sought to possess these lands and the remnants of ancient Greek and Roman civilisations, some of which are now submerged in the Adriatic.
Cafe-lined squares are the perfect places to while away sunny afternoons
For years travellers have been making a beeline for nearby Croatia for budget-friendly breaks that guarantee natural beauty, historic towns and good times. And yet, just across the border is a similar experience with a few notable differences: Montenegro lacks that made-for-visitors shine that comes with sustained tourism – it’s got something more authentic going on – and it’s even cheaper than its flashy northern neighbour.
But it doesn’t have to be…
Sveti Stefan, a restored 15th century village that's now the plush Aman resort
Of course, you can still splurge like a Russian oligarch if that’s more your speed. The Aman Sveti Stefan is a singular hotel experience. The luxe resort occupies a fortified 15th century village and a 1930s villa on the islet of Sveti Stefan, a few kilometres from the town of Budva. The island village’s artfully restored stone buildings offer 50 rooms, suites and cottages while Villa Miločer, a former summer residence of the Serbian royal family, is set in landscaped grounds and has eight suites overlooking the bay. Reached from the mainland by a stone causeway, Aman Sveti Stefan is devastatingly picturesque and romantic – with a price tag to match.
Stari Bar, Montenegro's "Pompeii"
Stari Bar is referred to by locals as “our Pompeii” and indeed it’s a captivating time capsule of a Byzantine fortress city. Over its 1000-plus-year history Stari Bar was occupied by successive waves of conquerors: Venetians, Serbians, Hungarians and Ottoman Turks, all of whom left their mark. Stari Bar’s steep narrow streets wind around ruined mosques, an 11th century fortress and what’s rumoured to be the world’s oldest olive tree, the 2000-year-old Stara Maslina. In the old town, bougainvillea tumbles from ancient stone walls and few of the buildings have roofs. The ruined fortress city is located inland a short distance from the new city of Bar. Following an earthquake in 1979 it was abandoned for the new town, but when the aqueduct was restored inhabitants began to return. Now it’s home to about 1800 people who make their living in shops and restaurants built into the old ruined fortifications and live on the outskirts of the town.
Montenegro's 295 kilometres of coastline offers a plethora of seafood
You will be well fed. Anyone who’s ever encountered an Eastern European knows there’s a cultural tendency to generosity. Expect to gain a couple of kilos in Montenegro; it's worth it for the plates piled high with lemon-doused octopus, the honey-sozzled pastries and that extra glass of rather strong rakija your host insisted you down (at breakfast). Just like the reminders that dot the landscape, a mark has been left on Montenegrin cuisine by successive waves of foreign occupation. Diners can expect plenty of fresh seafood, salads, local olives, pasta and the specialty, squid-ink risotto. So far, so Mediterranean – but there are also Hungarian-style meat stews, local cheeses, apple strudel, Serbian-style burek and Turkish-style sweets like baklava (the Montenegrin version has raisins).
The fairy-tale islands
Our Lady of the Rock
Just a few kilometres from Kotor Old Town is Perast, a diminutive town that nonetheless is home to 17 churches, 16 Baroque palaces and numerous museums replete with fascinating artefacts. Perast was in the possession of Venice from 1420 to 1797, when many of its structures, all typically Venetian, were built. There are virtually no cars, making it an excellent place to while away a few hours on foot. Quaint and charming though it may be, Perast’s main claim to fame isn’t in town, it’s offshore. Our Lady of the Rock is a man-made island, one of two off Perast, built upon sunken ships and rocks. Legend has it the island came into being after local seamen found an icon of the Madonna and Child on a rock in the ocean and, upon returning from each voyage, laid a rock in their honour in the bay until the island began to rise out of the water. The church was built in 1630 and inside there are 68 incredible paintings by local Baroque master Tripo Kokolja and a famous tapestry by local woman Jacinta Kunić-Mijović who used her own hair in her work. She spent 25 years on the work as her hair turned from golden to silver waiting for her beloved, a sailor, to return home. The other island, St George, is a natural island and home to the 12th century Benedictine monastery of St George and a graveyard that traces the history of Kotor’s noble families.
It’s where the party’s at – if that’s what you’re after
Stari Grad in downtown Budva
These days, the walled medieval city of Budva is Montenegro’s youth and culture capital. The old Venetian city is full of café-and-bar dotted piazzas and, with some of Montenegro’s finest beaches within walking distance, it’s the country’s busiest, most-visited town. This is where you’ll find backpackers bronzing on the white sands, partygoers dancing into the wee hours and history-buffs exploring nooks and crannies among its well-preserved medieval alleys. Originally founded by the ancient Greeks more than 2500 years ago, Budva was fortified in medieval times. Now its walls lead straight down to the town beach, lined with sun lounges and cafés, though beyond the Old City it’s becoming all about sleek new hotels and unchecked resort development.
Rainforests, glacial lakes, bears and wolves
Tara Canyon in Durmitor National Park
It seems incredible that within close proximity are warm blue seas lapping white sand, glacial lakes, and glorious pine-forested mountains that remain the habitat of bears and wolves. Montenegro has five national parks covering about 10 per cent of its territory, each dramatically different in landscape and offering many possibilities for the adventurous traveller. Skiers and hikers head to Durmitor National Park, named for its mountain range, in the northwest, bounded by the rivers Piva and Tara. There are dozens of peaks, the highest of which, Bobotiv Kuk, reaches 2523 metres, and 18 sparkling, mirror-still glacial lakes dotted among the pine forests. The wild Tara River Canyon is second in size only to the Grand Canyon and popular with rafters and kayakers. There’s also the Biogradska Gora in northeast Montenegro, one of just three rainforests remaining in Europe, and Lovćen National Park where Mount Lovćen, the black mountain that gave Montenegro its name, rises sharply from the Bay of Kotor.
The boating life
The ideal way to explore the tiny deserted beaches, magical caves and grottoes and charming pantile-roofed villages along Montenegro’s 295 kilometres of coastline is by boat. Sailing is a favourite pastime here and it’s possible to rent a motorboat for the day, a yacht for a skippered tour or a houseboat for a relaxing week on the water.
It’s one big celebration
Even in winter there's celebrating - revellers dressed as lotus flowers pictured in Kotor for the winter festival
Montenegro is a festive kind of place; almost every month of the year offers something to celebrate. In February, it’s the St Tryphon’s Festival in Kotor which sees processions and folk-music performances in honour of St Tryphon, the patron saint of gardeners and winegrowers who was beheaded sometime in the year 250. That same month is the Kotor Carnival, when masked balls, traditional theatre shows, fireworks and parades take over the town. In Budva over the summer, a huge music festival is announced with an exuberant musical parade from the Old Town to the Square of Poets; and in August, many visitors head to Gornja Lastva, a little village near Tivat in the southwest, for its week-long celebration of traditional Montenegrin folk music and dance.
You can visit the seat of Montenegrin royalty
Njegusi, high above Kotor
It seems contradictory, but the seat of Montenegro’s most important royal dynasty isn’t one of the country’s elaborate palaces but a village that’s little more than a cluster of stone buildings high above the Bay of Kotor. It’s possible to reach Njeguši, the home village of the Petrović-Njegoš family who ruled from 1696 to 1916, on foot from Kotor, an arduous journey that should be undertaken in appropriate footwear. The Serpentine Road, named for its sinuous hairpin twists and turns, is the other option. Don’t leave without sampling the famous Nejeguši sir and pršut – types of cheese and ham respectively – from one of the roadside stalls.
The town is famous for its ham
Huff further up Mount Lovćen to visit the incredible mausoleum of the celebrated Petar Petrović-Njegoš (1748-1830) who not only defended Montenegro from Turkish attack but is also responsible for some of its most revered works of poetry and literature. It’s worth the trek for the view of the shining Adriatic and jutting black peaks below.
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