Get away from the crowds in beautiful Montenegro
Eastern Europe as a travel destination has been rising in popularity over the past decade, with countries such as Croatia and Poland attracting huge numbers from around the world. Of course, the downside of this is overcrowding, sometimes sparking a backlash from local residents. When planning a summer holiday, I was looking for somewhere in Europe a bit more off-the-beaten track with a lot less tourists and I thought about Montenegro. When I mentioned the country to a few friends, hardly anyone had been and many could not even point it out on the map.
Montenegro shares the same Adriatic coastline as Croatia, Albania… and if you go even further south, Greece. By European standards, it’s a relatively small country and takes a few hours to drive from the Albanian border to the Croatian. When it comes to flights from the UK, some of the budget airlines fly direct to Tivat (Bay of Kotor) and the capital Podgorica. However, these flights aren’t daily (at time of writing) and were quite expensive, so we opted to fly to Dubrovnik and rent a car from there, which is only 17km north of the border. As this piece is about Montenegro, I won’t linger too long on Dubrovnik. We decided to spend a total of two nights in the Croatian resort at the beginning and end of our holiday, staying at this cute little B&B Guesthouse Rustico in the Old Town. Daytime in the old town was pretty overwhelming thanks to the huge crowds of cruise ship travellers, but once they headed back to the boats in the evening, it’s was a lot more enjoyable and less frantic.
When it comes to renting a car for our trip to Montenegro, we looked at a variety of options, but decided renting a car from Dubrovnik would be easier. We had seen a few horror stories online regarding so-called ‘damage’ and high insurance excess from some local car companies so stuck to Hertz. Whatever car you rent, you must make sure you are insured to drive it in Montenegro (some companies may charge extra for leaving Croatia) and you must have the right car documentation to show at the border. When we drove into Montenegro, they didn’t ask for it, but on the way back to Croatia, they did request the vehicle paperwork. Overall, it was pretty straightforward process. The queue at the border was about 45 minutes, although it was a lot quicker returning to Croatia a week later.
After crossing the border, within 15 minutes we reached the stunning Bay of Kotor – one of Montenegro’s most popular tourist destinations. It is a stunning span of water surrounded by mountains with Venetian settlements dotted along the bay. If you want to cross to the southern part of the Bay, you have two options – drive all the way around or get the short car ferry connecting Kamenari and Lepetane. For our first trip around the Bay, we wanted to drive the whole way so took the scenic route past the various villages and towns, such as Herceg Novi, Lipci and Perast. Kotor town is one of the main hubs in the Bay and is often a stop-off for cruise ships during the day. As we were seeking a bit more tranquillity, we rented a self-catering apartment in Muo – a waterside fishing village 1.5 miles away from Kotor. We had a huge apartment with two double beds and a seaview balcony, with free parking and bike rental available. Within a couple of minutes walk, there were plenty of small, empty pebbly beaches or piers so you could easily go swimming in the clear blue waters.
One of the main attractions of the area is the Old Town of Kotor, still surrounded by its old walls. As a former Venetian settlement, you can expect lots of cobbled streets, alleyways, Medieval churches and palaces. If you’ve got the stamina you can walk the old town walls or climb the Ladder of Cattaro, an old caravan trail creeping up the mountain for amazing views of the Bay. All of our meals in Kotor were universally great, but I particularly recommend Galion, a romantic seafood restaurant with a stunning vista. We had a lovely candlelit dinner with a table right by the water (although admittedly it was dark for most of our meal). It had great service and good quality food, so would make a nice venue for a special occasion. We also had an amazing lunch at the alfresco restaurant of the Hotel Astoria in the Old Town, where we sat in very comfortable chairs and admired the Medieval buildings surrounding us.
If you’re outdoorsy and like exploring, you’ll find plenty to keep you occupied. We rented bikes for the day and cycled from Muo to Lepetane, taking the ferry to Kamenari on the north side of the Bay, and then cycling through Morinj, Lipsi and Risan to Perast. We stopped frequently at the various villages along the way, enjoying the views of the Bay and checking out the architecture. There are many derelict and abandoned properties, prompting several daydreams of buying a 17th century waterside home and restoring it. Although a lot of the architecture is Medieval, there are still remnants of Montenegro’s Communist era, such as the interesting Hotel Vrmac in Prcanj and the huge, abandoned Hotel Teuta that dominates the resort of Risan. On the road from Muo to Lepetane, you can park up and hike the half hour trail up the mountain to the mostly abandoned upper village of Gornji Stoliv. There were beautiful views across the bay and a lovely sense of tranquillity (apart from the noise of the crickets). Make sure you bring sturdy shoes and some bug spray if you’re planning to make the trek. Halfway through our 26km cycle, we stopped off at Verige 65 for lunch. It’s a contemporary and elegant restaurant and bar with alfresco seating by the bay. The view was phenomenal and the food was delicious. I particularly recommend the squid ink fettucine al vongole and an Aperol Spritz was only about €3.50, something of a bargain compared to London prices!
By the time we arrived in Perast – probably the Bay’s most exquisite town – we had done 26km in a humid 30c so were pretty shattered. We parked up and strolled around the tiny town, which has an amazing 16 churches and 17 grand palazzos. There’s plenty of waterside food and drink options, for which we later returned from our last night in Montenegro. Perast is a good base for boat trips to the nearby islands of Sveti Djorde (St George’s Island) with a Benedictine monastery and cemetery and Gospa od Škrpjela (Our-Lady-of-the-Rock Island) with its 17th century church. However, following our cycle, we chartered one of these boats back to our apartment beach in Muo as couldn’t face the remaining 16km on the bikes.
Following our few days in the Bay of Kotor, we headed to the Adriatic coastline, known as the Budva Riviera. The main town along the coast is Budva, the most popular resort in Montenegro for tourism. Budva’s Stari Grad (Old Town) has been compared to a mini version of Dubrovnik. Outside the Old Town, there has been rapid development with lots of hotels, nightclubs and bars. Within Stari Grad, you’ll find plenty of history and attractions, including churches, museums, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. On this particular trip, we were looking for somewhere quieter so rented an apartment 17km south in the smaller town of Sveti Stefan. The main attraction is the island of Sveti Stefan itself, full of 15th century villas that now make up the five-star Aman Resort, with rooms around £1,000 a night. The island itself is private and owned by the hotel so the only way you can visit is by being a guest or dining at one of their restaurants. They also own the sandy beach north of the causeway connecting it to the island, where it costs a whopping €100 to rent a beach set. With those prices, it’s no surprise to hear that we joined many of the locals and visitors on the free pebbly beach on the southern side of the causeway. On the mainland, a branch of Nobu has just opened so no doubt the resort will become even more popular with luxury travellers. The mainland part of Sveti Stefan features tall houses dotted on its steep slopes. We rented a great one-bedroom apartment nearer to the top of the hill which had a lovely balcony view of the sea (although not the island unfortunately), and really friendly owners. There were more great restaurants in Sveti Stefan, with the hilltop restaurant at the Hotel Adrovic boasting a good spot to watch the sunset. We also had some good pizzas at the Famelja Kentera restaurant and pizzeria a bit further down the hill, which has a rooftop garden terrace.
Along the Budva Riviera are plenty of beaches and resorts for sun-worshippers. However, for history buffs, it’s worth travelling south to Stari Bar – the original settlement to the coastal town of Bar. Situated near Mount Rumija, the ancient settlement is full of abandoned crumbling homes, churches, forts and streets, with fabulous views of the surrounding mountains. You could easily spend a few hours exploring the ruins, before stopping for lunch or dinner at one of the hillside cafes on the slope down to the car park. We had a delicious lunch at Konoba Bedem, a cosy café with a homely feel and a first floor terrace which was a great spot to people watch. I recommend trying the refreshing homemade pomegranate juice, which was just what I needed after a few hot hours in the archaeological site.
Following our time on the coast, we decided to head inland to the mountains for a change of scene. Although not quite a straightforward route to Mojkovac where we were sleeping, we took a detour via the Ostrog Monastery. The site is very important to Orthodox Christians with over 1 million making a pilgrimage there annually. The Monastery itself is built into a cliff face hanging 900 metres over the Zeta Valley so is a pretty amazing sight. Make sure to cover your legs and shoulders if you want to visit. The road to the Monastery is pretty terrifying, full of steep twists and is in poor condition.
For our few days in the mountains, we rented a traditional wooden hut at the Country House Eco Village Ćorić near the town of Mojkovac. The two bedroom hut had a lovely porch with a stunning view of the surrounding mountains. Growing up in London, I’m not used to such serenity and peace, so I found it particularly blissful. Despite not being a morning person, this was a place where I actually enjoyed waking up for the sunrise. Sitting on the porch with a cup of tea watching the clouds gradually disperse below me as the sun rose is one of my favourite memories from the entire trip. Mojkovac was a great base for exploring the northern mountains and the many national parks. We spent a morning walking through the forest and around the lake at the Biogradska National Park, where there is also a campsite. We then drove north to the Tara River Canyon for lunch and enjoyed a zipline over the deepest canyon in Europe which was a lot of fun. Although we didn’t have enough time to organise, adrenalin junkies can go rafting down the Tara River, as well as canyoning. Later that afternoon, we headed to the Durmitor National Park. We visited the Black Lake (Crno jezero), near the town of Žabljak. Around the Black Lake, there are plenty of opportunities for walks and wildlife spotting, while you can kayak or swim in the glacial lake itself, which is absolutely beautiful.
Following our days in the mountains, we headed back to the Bay of Kotor via the Njegos Mausoleum. The Mausoleum is situated at the top of Mount Lovcen’s second highest peak. At 1,657m above sea level, it’s the highest mausoleum in the world and has awe-inspiring 360 degree views across the surrounding mountains. On a clear day, you may even be able to see Italy. If you’re willing to climb the 461 steps to the Mausoleum itself, you can visit the tomb of Montenegrin hero Petar Petrovic II Njegos (1813-1851), which was built in the early 1970s. The old mountain road back to Kotor is not for the faint-hearted and has been described as one of Europe’s most dangerous roads. The 25 hairpin bends were both exciting and terrifying to drive around, but the various stop-off points along the way provided some amazing photography spots as you can look down over the Bay of Kotor.
Overall, I was completely charmed by Montenegro and its beauty. I’ve visited Croatia often in the past decade, but am finding the growing crowds of tourists are eroding my enjoyment of some parts of the country. I can imagine Montenegro will end up experiencing a huge tourist boom like its neighbour and rival Croatia in the coming years. However, for now, if you want to escape the crowds and enjoy an authentic Montenegrin experience, now is the time to go. We found the country very easy to get around in with a car and we enjoyed the variety of the Bay, the coast and the mountains. We found the people friendly and our meals and accommodation were very good value. I’ve been raving about it to my friends and family and encouraging them to go now. My only advice is if you rent a car and are planning to take some of the mountain roads, you should be a confident and careful driver.
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