Montenegro: High times for Balkan hikers

A new walking holiday explores the mountains that loom over Montenegro's fast-developing coastline.

Even in Montenegro's land of giants, I was bowled over by the height of the policeman who sauntered into Caffè Lazaret on the quayside in Petrovac. He was at least six foot eight, his shoulders almost broad enough to warrant walking in sideways. A one-man crime deterrent, I thought, as he responded courteously to my "dobro vece" (good evening). Montenegro may be one of the smallest countries in Europe, but it does pack in some of the tallest people on the continent. And some of the friendliest.

Montenegro was new to me, but some time back in the 13th century, my father's side of our Serbian family originated here. The height gene obviously survived the centuries: my dad, at six foot tall, was the runt of the family.

The Montenegrins' great height is a good match for the scale of the mountains that dominate the interior and hover over the jagged coastline of curving bays and wooded headlands. It's almost enough to distract you from the fact that Montenegro's coast has become one long building site. It seems that everyone wants to buy a piece of this beautiful sweep of land and build a resort on it.

The nation's best-known landmark is the village of Sveti Stefan, whose 15th-century cottages form a bright terracotta circle on the tip of a narrow isthmus. Yet when I was there it was closed in order to be converted into Amanresorts' latest complex. And in the main resort of Budva, I could see cranes everywhere and shells of hotels to come, the Venetian old town just visible on a small promontory.

But it was the mountains rather than the beaches that were the attraction for me as I joined HF Holidays' inaugural walking trip in Montenegro. The tour leader, Freddie Daniel, had wisely ditched the original plan of basing the tour in crane-filled Budva. Instead, we were to spend the week at the attractive – and smaller – Petrovac, which lay 15km further south. Aside from the world's biggest policeman, Petrovac has a large public beach with lively café terraces, pretty stone houses and a miniature 16th-century Venetian fort guarding a tiny harbour. We were fussed over by the friendly and helpful staff at the Hotel Rivijera, a taste of the warmth to come from a naturally hospitable nation.

A 20-minute drive up to the Pastrovici mountains north of Petrovac took us to our first walk. A stony path led through woods filled with wildflowers – including tiny, delicate orchids – with sage perfuming the air. Barren mountains rose in the distance as we ascended and reached a small restored chapel marooned in the stone remains of a hamlet.

About an hour later we encountered a magnificently bearded monk. Along with an assistant, he was in charge of Sveti Spiridon, the smallest monastery I've ever seen; a donkey and two dogs were the only other residents. I warned the monk's colleague that groups of British people would be tramping past the monastery every week during the walking season. "Odlicno!" he said. Excellent! That was the general reaction from people in isolated hamlets, when they came across our strange caravan of people as we trooped along tracks meant for mules. "Are you Russian? German?" they asked. "British, but my parents are Serbian," I'd say. "Odlicno!" was the immediate response. "Stop and have a coffee."

Strong Turkish coffee, followed by a shot of rakija (brandy), was definitely the thing I needed after the second day's walk. The weather had turned nasty as we headed towards Europe's southernmost fjord, in the Bay of Kotor. We started in the hamlet of Gornja Lastva on the Tivat peninsula, which overlooks the Adriatic as well as the frighteningly short runway of Tivat airport. Even the darkening sky couldn't mask the beauty of the old stone houses and the 14th-century church of Sveta Marija.

As we walked past cypress trees and into the clouds, the view of the sea became a memory until we reached the ridge and arrived at a fierce-looking fortress built by the Austrian army in the 19th century.

The Austrians' zig-zagging road down to the Bay of Kotor was a feat of engineering I could only grudgingly admire as we made our descent in the rain, on what had become a broken, overgrown and sodden path. Eventually, the sky cleared marginally and I could see Kotor on the far side of the bay, its medieval walled town forming a triangle on the waterfront. Later in the week we would explore its enchanting tangle of streets and squares that resemble a more agreeably workaday version of Dubrovnik.

The sun had returned in good time for an unforgettable walk in the Lake Skadar National Park the following day. Even before we reached the lake, we found ourselves walking in a magical green world of watermills, rocks covered in vivid moss and stone arched bridges that led to the hamlet of Poseljani. Our goal was the riverside village of Rijeka Crnojevica, where Vido the boatman was waiting with his little six-seater. He was to take us along the serpentine river that empties into Lake Skadar, the largest in the Balkans. As Vido quietly serenaded us with Montenegrin folk songs, we drifted on a still, glassy surface watching the resident herons, cormorants and grebes. The current picked up once we entered the lake, with Albania's mountains clearly visible on the other side. As we drew closer to the jetty in Virpazar, Vido cut the engine so we could listen to the birds for a few peaceful minutes.

More good weather was in store for a later walk that took us to the mountains overlooking the southern coastal town of Bar. As we wandered through olive groves that grew in rocky terraces on the hillsides, I could see things taking on a more eastern hue. Tiny family cemeteries had Muslim headstones; mosques replaced Orthodox churches. The cobbled street leading to the ruins of the old town (Stari Bar) looked distinctly Ottoman.

We stopped for a drink in Kaldrma, a restaurant with the sort of naturally rustic look that would have had interior designers drooling. It didn't serve alcohol, but the juice from mountain berries made a fine substitute for the Montenegrin beer we'd previously enjoyed.

The week's highlight was intended to be a walk in Mount Lovcen national park, home to King Petar II's dramatic mausoleum that somehow perches on a narrow peak at 1,657m. Unseasonably late snow prevented us from climbing to the mausoleum, and even cut short our walk lower down as it didn't occur to anyone to bring snowshoes.

The hair-raising drive back to Petrovac took us down countless hairpin bends that led down to the Bay of Kotor. Along the way is Kafana kod Pera na Bukovicu, the oldest bar in the region, which has been running since 1881. Its morose elderly owner looked as if he'd been there from the beginning, barely acknowledging our presence and grudgingly bringing us Turkish coffee. Either he was having a bad day, or we managed to meet the only unfriendly person in Montenegro. But he certainly didn't dent my appreciation of this country's astonishing landscape.

Travel essentials: Montenegro

Getting there

* The writer travelled with HF Holidays (0845 470 7558; hfholidays.co.uk), which offers a seven-night walking holiday in Montenegro from £659 per person. This includes return flights with British Airways to Dubrovnik from Gatwick, half-board accommodation at the four-star Hotel Rivijera in Petrovac and five guided walks.

* Local transport is an extra €71. *Dubrovnik is also served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) and bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com).

More information

* National Tourism Organisation of Montenegro: 00 382 20 235 155; montenegro.travel

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