WITH ROMANTIC MEDIEVAL PORT TOWNS AND FINE PEBBLE BEACHES, THE MONTENEGRIN COAST OFFERS GLISTENING BLUE SEAS AND A WEALTH OF TRAVEL OPPORTUNITIES.
As we disembark at Podgorica Airport, we are greeted by deep blue sky, salty sea air and the scent of pine forests. The photos we had seen while planning the journey depicted a mountainous country with a glorious stretch of coast bordering a sparkling azure sea, and we were eager to see whether the reality would live up to these tantalizing images during our one-week summer holiday.
Forget beach vacations consisting only of sand and sunshine, though... Montenegro also offers noble historic buildings, soaring limestone mountains, a sublime and varied coastline, and excellent facilities for sailing, scuba diving and adventure sports. Meanwhile the locals are proud, gracious and welcoming.
MEDIEVAL WALLS AND A DRAMATIC FJORD
We drive to medieval Kotor, 1.5 hours from the airport. Hidden away in the dramatic Bay of Kotor, a steep-sided winding sea channel (often described as Europe’s southernmost fjord), Kotor’s old town is enclosed within magnificent fortified walls, built by the Venetians between the 15th and 17th centuries. Both the town and the bay are UNESCO world heritage sites.
Entering Kotor’s old town through the Sea Gate (dated 1555), we arrive on a vast stone-paved piazza, rimmed by busy open-air cafés where locals drink coffee under big white parasols, overlooked by an elegant clock tower. From here we explore narrow winding cobbled alleys, lined by medieval stone buildings with green wooden window shutters, many now accommodating rustic seafood eateries, pizzerias and chic boutique hotels.
On the main square we see the 12th-century cathedral, and on another nearby square, the Naval Museum, which traces Montenegro’s history of seafaring, upon which Kotor’s wealth was based. Then we walk along the ramparts of the defensive walls, climbing steep stone steps uphill to the tiny St. John’s Fortress, and take photos of the stunning view back down onto town and out across the bay.
In the evening, we feast on delicious local seafood at a traditional konoba (tavern), with exposed stonewalls, heavy wooden tables and candlelight. The dishes are all made from fresh local produce, and follow recipes that hark back to the centuries spent under Venetian-rule - seafood dishes prepared with plenty of olive oil, garlic and parsley, such as rižot sa gamborima (scampi risotto) and brudet (fish stew served with polenta).
The following morning, we shop at the open-air market, immediately outside the town walls, overlooking the quay lined by yachts and a couple of big cruise ships (en route from Venice to Athens), and buy fragrant peaches, black olives, and sir iz mišine (sheep’s cheese matured in a sack made of sheep hide) to eat with fresh crusty bread.
BUDVA AND ITS BEACHES
After breakfast we continue down the coast to Budva. Like Kotor, it has a medieval-walled old town, and a labyrinth of pedestrian-only cobbled alleys, packed with restaurants and souvenir shops, and opening onto squares overlooked by centuries-old churches.
Bathed in golden floodlighting at night, its old stone buildings take on a romantic dreamlike quality.
East of town, Slovenska plaža is a long beach lined with sun beds and overlooked by big Yugoslav-era hotels built in the 1980s, which are now being upgraded to include luxury spa facilities and contemporary interior design.
South of Budva, Sveti Stefan is home to fine pink pebble beaches, and a superb five-star hotel, occupying an entire village of old stone cottages, once a fishermen’s settlement, built on a tiny islet accessible from the mainland by a short causeway. Locals are eager to tell you about the illustrious guests who have stayed here, including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Claudia Schiffer and Sylvester Stallone.
THE MOUNTAINOUS INTERIOR
To really appreciate Montenegro’s magic, you should leave the coast and head into the mountainous interior. Located between the coast and the mountains, Podgorica sits on the flat Zeta Plain, and is made up of wide tree-lined boulevards overlooked by modern high-rise apartment blocks. From here, the railway snakes its way through dense green pine forests and around deep rocky ravines, clinging to plummeting cliff faces, where mountain peaks disappear into the clouds. Now we fully understand the Montenegrin tourist board motto, “Wild Beauty”. The rugged heights reach altitudes of over 2000m, in a primeval landscape where bears and wolves can still be spotted. You might also try white-water rafting down the turquoise-blue River Tara, following rapids through the impressive Tara Canyon, said to be the second longest in the world after the Grand Canyon. Or, if you come here in winter, you can even try skiing. I wish you a nice trip in advance...
Extrem Sports Guide
Walking enthusiasts should head for Biogradska Gora National Park. Besides arranging various outdoor activities, here Villa Jelka runs Etno Village Vranjak where you can sleep in an authentic katun (wooden shepherd’s hut). Serious mountaineering enthusiasts might want to tackle Montenegro’s highest peak, Bobotov Kuk (2523m) in Durmitor National Park.
River Tara flows through the impressive steep-sided Tara Canyon. Various Žabljak-based companies arrange white-water rafting trips here - Eko Piva and Tara River Express are both reliable. The season runs between May and September.
Drawing a wire between the two cliffs of the Tara Canyon, Red Rock Zip Line offers an adrenaline-inducing descent. The starting point of the 360-meter-long cable is 160m above the canyon, and it rides down takes 40-50 seconds, during which you can expect to reach the maximum speed of 50km/h. Ziplining operates between May and September.
Turkish Airlines has direct flights to Istanbul-Podgorica-Istanbul every day except Monday and Wednesday. For information: turkishairlines.com