After 88 years of hiding in the shadow of Yugoslavia, Montenegro emerged as an independent country in 2006. The tiny, new nation on the Adriatic coast, squashed between Bosnia and Herzegovina to the west and Albania to the east captured people’s imagination with its evocative name and feisty history. Montenegro translates in English as the “Black Mountain” and three quarters of the country is made up of untamed Dinaric Alps with deep canyons and craggy plateaus. The image of tall, Montenegrin farmers battling out life in remote hilltop forests, raising goats, twanging the stringed gustle to epic songs about brave forefathers resisting Turks was a far cry from Europe as I knew it, and it begged exploration. There were murmurs of a beautiful coastline, and the sublime Aman resort, the Sveti Stefan, an island unto itself, built of stone and terracotta cottages converted from a village belonging to 12 clans. It turned out to be reason enough to make the foray to this little known pocket of the Mediterranean.
Magical Bay of Kotor
A two-hour drive from Dubrovnik, Croatia, past a check post border brought us to Montenegro’s mountain-sheltered Bay of Kotor. Its natural beauty and well preserved, picturesque towns with Baroque architecture have justly earned it World Heritage Site status. Perast and Kotor, a 15-minute drive apart, are the two koh-i-noors of the area, propped between dramatically upright mountains and the placid bay. This place is all about the views, getting lost in the by-lanes, blundering into Orthodox churches with gentle faced priests waving incense burners and whiffs of lamb stew from kitchen windows. There was an unmistakable other-worldly feel about Kotor, as though it belonged to an older, more languid era.
As we drove on, the next few towns, especially Tivat and Budva had the commercial ring of the twenty first century. The massive Porto Montenegro development at Tivat, also on the bay, is solving for the lack of berthing spaces for international yachts in the area. It remains to be seen if this will turn out to be the new Monaco harbour, but for now nearby Budva is over run by beach loads of peroxide blondes, closely shaven blokes, loud pulsating music and strobe lights that pierce into the night sky. The antidote to badly zoned, over built Budva are the hills beyond, and we made our escape, driving past Centinje, the old capital, (stopping for a brief look at the Royal Palace Museum) before climbing into the folds of the lush pine forest.
Lovecen National Park’s focal point, the Mausoleum to Njegos, Montenegro’s national poet and hero, is on one of the highest peaks with staggeringly beautiful views of the surrounding hills and valleys. We felt elated, caught in the cool breeze between the barren peaks that extended in all directions; it was rust coloured nature in the raw. Montenegro is really all about the mountains, and as we drove to wards Kotor, the view down below the rugged scree, of a clutch of houses and churches next to the bay, made the heart turn.
How to get there: Fly Montenegro Airlines/JAT/ Austrian Airlines to Podgorica or Tivat or drive for 2 hours from Dubrovnik, Croatia
When to go: April to September
Stay at: The Sveti Stefan. The coastal Aman Resort is the poster child of Montenegro. Affordable Style- Ivanova Korita, a chalet with home cooked food in the forested Lovecen National Park.
Eat at: Demizana Restaurant, Slovenska Obala in buzzing Budva 3 033 455 028 Hotel Ivanov Konak, home cooked local specialties in a charming chalet in the Lovecen Mountain valley. Stari Mlini, a charming restaurant overlooking the Bay of Kotor
Explore: Bay of Kotor, Budva, Durmitor National Park’s Tara canyon, Lovecen National Park and the Montenegrin coastline.