Once were warriors

Glorious Italianate architecture and stunning coastal scenery are luring tourists back to Montenegro. Christian Walsh reports

Road signs in Montenegro depict a grim, not to mention imaginative, range of fatal scenarios. From unsettling exclamation mark, to cartoon car falling off a cliff edge, to black spot. "That's the scariest of the lot!" laughed Marko Rakocevic, my guide, as, again, he accelerated towards a blind corner.

Road signs in Montenegro depict a grim, not to mention imaginative, range of fatal scenarios. From unsettling exclamation mark, to cartoon car falling off a cliff edge, to black spot. "That's the scariest of the lot!" laughed Marko Rakocevic, my guide, as, again, he accelerated towards a blind corner.

We were racing through a corridor of rock, the Moracha valley, towards Cetinje, the ancient capital of Montenegro. Marko, an American-Serb of Montenegrin descent, was demonstrating the same reckless warrior spirit that kept this tiny princedom free of Turks for 500 years. Or he was just testing my nerve.

"This country is a natural fortress,' he shouted. "When the Turks invaded Serbia in the 14th century, many Serbs fled into Montenegro, which was virtually uninhabited. The Turks kept trying to take Cetinje, but they couldn't. In the past the men never worked – they raided the Turks for their provisions. Now people in the Balkans joke about the Montenegrins being lazy. But it was a warrior's life, always on horseback, battle-ready, their women walking alongside."

Just as I was about to ask to be let out of the car, we dipped into a limestone bowl at the bottom of which was Cetinje. Children sold wild strawberries and blueberries by the roadside – little else grows in these tough thickets that live off rock and air.

The few streets that make up modern Cetinje have grown around a modest 19th-century palace, an 18th-century monastery and some Italianate civic buildings. The portraits in the Royal Palace depict several hundred years of the Petrovic Njegos dynasty, bishop princes who ruled by the cross and the sword, with muskets stuffed into their waistbands for good measure. Standing in the monastery, regarding the third shrivelled hand of St John that I have seen in as many countries, I read the words of Montenegro's national treasure, the poet-priest and ruler, Petar II Petrovic Njegos. In his epic work The Mountain Wreath, Njegos writes: "Though broad enough Cettigné's Plain/ No single seeing eye, no tongue of Turk/ Escap'd to tell his tale another day!/ We put them all unto the sword/ All those who would not be baptiz'd."

A pocket of Christianity within the sprawling Ottoman empire, Montenegrin resistance was a troublesome thorn that pricked the pride of the Pashas of Constantinople. The extent to which this thorn irritated the Turks is apparent in the National Museum, which displays hundreds of captured Turkish standards. These are pathetic and ragged flags, some so bullet-ridden that the crescent of Islam is unrecognizable. "Most museums have standards bought from dealers and museums across the world," the attendant said. "But all of these are paid for in blood."

On our way to Kotor we decided to stop for a swim at Budva, Montenegro's most popular seaside town. The road down to the coast was as spectacular as any in Corsica or Amalfi. A sea mist hovered at 1,000ft and gradually lifted with our descent to reveal a succession of shimmering bays and beaches around which clustered red-tiled houses and bobbing yachts.

Byron's words adorn tourist brochures with the same frequency that St John's hand appears in obscure European churches, but in this instance he seems justified in calling this coast "the most beautiful encounter between land and sea". Of course, it has been bypassed by tourists since war broke out in the Balkans in the early Nineties.

Inside the walled port of Budva, Renaissance façades and medieval doorways clamoured for attention. Every turn and twist of the old cobbled passageways is counterbalanced by ever prettier squares and sun-splashed terraces overlooking the Adriatic. The Italian influence here is ever present, as it is in all of the seafaring towns of the region. Venetian architects and masons were imported to build mansions and churches all along the coast.

Next morning we rounded the bay and entered the Boka Kotorska – a vast salt-water inlet encircled by mountains whose sheer flanks have created the deepest fjord in southern Europe. At the head of the Boka is medieval Kotor, a Unesco world heritage city. We explored by boat. From the water, it is as if the most beautiful chunks of Venice have broken off and been washed up across the Adriatic. Whole street fronts appear through the cypress trees, the water lapping at the steps of a perfectly proportioned Baroque cathedral.

We moored our boat alongside the island of Gospa od Skrpjela. Tradition has it that passing sailors would drop a stone to guarantee a safe journey, thus creating an island where before there was nothing. I surreptitiously dropped a stone over the edge of the boat without Marko noticing. The return journey was looming, and even a cynic such as myself becomes superstitious under such circumstances.

Return flights to Tivat or Podgorica via Belgrade with JAT Yugoslav Airlines (020-7629 2007; www.jatlondon.com) cost from £282. From either airport it is a short drive to Budva, Cetinje and Kotor. Car hire is available through Hertz (0870 599 6699; www.hertz.co.uk) from £238 per week. Hotel Velzon, Mainski, 85 310 Budva (00 381 86 453 400) offers rooms from €85 (£55) per night. Hotel Marija, Stari Grad 449, 85330 Kotor (00 381 82 325 062) offers rooms from €65 (£42) per night.

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