Traveller's Guide: Montenegro
It's one of Europe's smallest countries, but it packs in spectacular landscapes and glittering beach resorts, says Mick Webb.
Friday 01 June 2012
The sun sets over the Bay of Kotor, turning the placid water from blue to gold and highlighting the cream stone of the villages against the granite grey of the high, surrounding cliffs. It is one of the natural splendours that have made tiny Montenegro (population 620,000) one of the most attractive Adriatic destinations. Thanks to improved flight links to Dubrovnik (whose airport is conveniently close to the north of Montenegro) and to the country itself, it is also easier than ever to reach.
Most visitors will be drawn to Kotor or the rest of the 300km of beguiling coastline. But since Montenegro is only half the size of Wales, exploring its crumpled interior, a patchwork of mountains and canyons, is not difficult. Don't expect motorways or high-speed rail links, though. Montenegro was one of the poorer relations of the former Yugoslavia and has been a nation only since 2006, when it declared independence from Serbia; service and infrastructure can be patchy, particularly away from the coast.
Montenegrin history has had as many twists and turns as its roads. For centuries it was a fluctuating East-West frontier between competing empires, ideologies and faiths. It was the occupying Venetians who christened the area Monte Negro (black mountain) which was to become the country's name, as well as the architecture of beautiful coastal towns such as Kotor and Perast. It was annexed by Yugoslavia in 1918 and the legacy of President Tito can be seen in the huge, state-run hotels, some of them quite astonishing in design: the "Mayan pyramid" look of the Hotel Zabljak in the mountain town of the same name is a case in point.
Although a new wave of modern hotels has made an appearance, rooms and apartments in private houses and self-contained villa accommodation are often a cheaper alternative. This year, the company Explore Montenegro (020-7118 1002; montenegro holidays.com) has begun offering a portfolio of rental properties in and around the coastal hot spots of Kotor Bay and Budva. A typical week's stay in July or August for two adults and two children, at an apartment with shared pool within walking distance of Kotor town, costs about £2,000 including car hire and return flights from Gatwick to Tivat. The tourist board (visit-montenegro.com) lists more accommodation options.
The inland capital, and by far the largest city, is Podgorica, formerly Titograd, on the country's only extensive area of flat ground in the south-east. It was flattened in the Second World War and is now a collection of brutalist buildings, leavened by a few remains from the centuries of Ottoman occupation, such as the clock tower. The main holiday centre, though, is the coastal town of Budva, whose atmospheric old quarter, carefully restored after a powerful earthquake in 1979, is surrounded by apartment blocks and a zone of large hotels. Thomson Holidays (0871 231 4691; thomson. co.uk) offers a week's half-board at the Queen of Montenegro Hotel in Becici, just south of Budva, from £766 per person, which includes flights from Gatwick and transfers from Dubrovnik.
In the Sixties and Seventies, this stretch of coastline was the St-Tropez of the Adriatic, where the likes of Sophia Loren, Princess Margaret, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor holidayed. Today, it has regained a flavour of the glamour of its heyday with the restoration of Sveti Stefan, a compact and picturesque group of red-roofed former fishermen's cottages on an isthmus south of Budva. It is now operated as a luxury hotel by Amanresorts (00 382 33 420 000; amanresorts.com), with rooms ranging from €750 to €3,000 per night. On the other side of the bay, Villa Milocer, once the summer residence of Queen Marija Karadjordjevic, houses one of the restaurants and a lounge area.
Other companies providing coastal, hotel-based packages in Montenegro include Monarch (0871 423 8568; monarch.co.uk), Balkan Holidays (0845 130 1114; balkanholidays.co.uk) and Saga (0800 096 0074; travel.saga.co.uk; over 50s only).
Mick Webb travelled to Montenegro with Explore Montenegro
Around the Bay of Kotor
Towards the north of Montenegro's coast this unusually shaped body of water comprises an outer bay, which is connected to the twin-lobed inner bay by a narrow channel. Admire its beauty from the viewing platform at the top of Mount Lovcen.
If you needed proof that Montenegro is a destination on its way up, Purobeach (purobeach.com), which operates beach clubs in Palma de Mallorca, Marbella and Vilamoura, opens an outpost on Kotor Bay on 15 June with restaurants, bars and beach lounging. The location is Porto Montenegro (portomontenegro.com), a dazzling destination in the making on the eastern shore of the outer bay. Here, a former naval base is being transformed into a marina and village. Berths, residences, boutiques and restaurants have already been completed, with a Regent hotel opening in 2014 and long-term plans to develop further into the wooded hills.
The main existing towns on the outer bay are hilly Herceg Novi (the most popular summer spot in old Yugoslavia) and Tivat. This town, which also has the main coastal airport, is the gateway to the peaceful, unspoilt Lustica peninsula with its olive groves and beaches, best-known of which is Miriste.
The inner bay shelters the beautiful town of Kotor, a mini Dubrovnik. It was built in the main by the Venetians, with city walls that climb quite implausibly up the mountainside. Among its alleys and neat squares is a 12th-century Romanesque-Gothic Catholic cathedral, dedicated to St Tryphon. There's also one of the country's biggest clubs, Maximus (00 382 67 21 67 67; discomaximus.com), which fills the old town's summer nights with music ranging from dance to local folk. Perching at the top of the bay is the decorative Venetian town of Perast, which has an astonishing 16 churches and an equal number of gently decaying mansions.
The coastal strip
Budva is the most developed holiday town with an array of apartments and large hotels around its 17 beaches. The nicest are out of town at Przno and the public beach next to Sveti Stefan. Down the coast towards Albania, you'll find the quieter family resort of Petrovac. Further south, towards Bar, there are shingle beaches and clear water bays such as Maljevik that are good for snorkelling.
The longest beach on the eastern side of the Adriatic coast is the 12km of fine sand at Velika Plaza (Great Beach) in Ulcinj, near the Albanian border. The town is also an intriguing cultural mix reflecting its Albanian majority. Minarets and mosques outnumber churches.
Lake Skadar, a short drive inland from Bar, is a national park whose gateway town is Virpazar. Boat excursions, run by local fishermen, go to the heart of the lake; a one-hour trip costs from €10. Take the winding southern shore road to the forest-backed beach at Murici. Undiscovered Montenegro (020-3287 0015; undiscoveredmontenegro.com) has a week's self-catering with a choice of guided activities and some meals at Villa Miela, near Virpazar, from £380pp, excluding flights.
The beautiful north
Three national parks were created here 60 years ago. Durmitor, the largest, is about three hours by road from Tivat. At its heart is the mountain town of Zabljak, a winter ski centre, with hiking trails around its glacial lakes. A night at the Hotel Planinka, a Yugoslav-era dinosaur, costs just €22pp half board (00 382 69 456 772; cipa-booking.me).
North of Zabljak is the Tara Canyon, Europe's deepest, an awe-inspiring sight from the Durdevica Tara bridge. A day's rafting with Black Mountain (00 382 067 640 869; montenegroholidays.com) costs €75pp, including transfers from Kotor. Biogradska Gora was created as a national park 60 years ago and today remains a haven of forest and lakes. The most attractive is Biogradsko Jezero, which is signposted from the main road between Kolasin and Mojkovac. This is a starting point for a network of walks and bike trails, as well as the access point for Kolasin 1450 ski resort. It's the most modern of Montenegro's three resorts with snow-making equipment and a new high-speed six-man lift. It has a variety of runs (the longest is 4.5km) amid lovely birch forests. A day ski pass is €20 (kolasin1450.com).
Among the many attractive churches and remote monasteries, dedicated to Montenegro's majority Orthodox faith, the most inspiring is at Ostrog (pictured), a vertiginous 10km drive up a mountain road off the main highway between Podgorica and Niksic. The startlingly white monastery is hewn from the rock face, and there is usually a queue of pilgrims waiting to see the cloth-covered remains of the miracle-giving Saint Basil in one of two little cave chapels.
The main secular highlights outside the old Venetian coast towns are found in the small, pretty former royal capital at Cetinje. It's half an hour's drive inland from Budva, in an imposing mountain setting, and has a few grand and faded mansions, once the residences of ambassadors. Its pedestrianised main street, Njegoseva, is lined with pretty, pastel-coloured shops and cafés, ideal for an al fresco coffee.
Cetinje is also the home of the National Museum of Montenegro, which is in fact four separate museums in historic buildings in, or near, Kralja Nikole Square. The Art Museum (00 382 41 230 555; mnmuseum.org; 9am-5pm daily; €4) has a good collection of Montenegrin paintings but be prepared to be "escorted" around.
Food and drink
Away from the main tourist spots, one euro will buy you a cup of tea, a coffee or a bottle of refreshing Niksic beer. Specialities worth trying include hams and cheese; those of Njegusi are particularly prized. Among the best fast foods are the Balkan favourites, the burek (a filo-pastry pasty) and cevapi (kebabs).
Restaurant food ranges from the functional to the delicious, but is typically served in huge portions. The fresh fish and seafood are excellent, usually grilled and accompanied by the ubiquitous but tasty blitva (chard and potato). An atmospheric place to try it is Stari Mlini (00 382 32 333 555; starimlini.com), an ancient lakeside flour mill at Ljuta on the road between Kotor and Perast (mains from €15). A favoured mountain meat dish is lamb cooked under a metal lid, jagnjetina ispod saca, which is then covered in hot coals. The best Montenegrin wines come from near Lake Skadar; Vranac is a robust red and Krstac a decent white.
Homemade rakija – brandy made from plums, grapes and many other things – tends to be offered in the same welcoming way as a cup of tea. You have been warned.
Getting there and getting around
The only direct flights from the UK are with Montenegro Airlines (020-7864 4031; www.montenegroairlines.com), which has two flights a week from Gatwick to Tivat (close to Kotor and Budva) and one to the capital, Podgorica, near Lake Skadar. The alternative is via Dubrovnik, over the border in Croatia and a couple of hours' drive from Tivat. You can fly to Dubrovnik (pictured) with British Airways, easyJet, Flybe, Jet2, Monarch and Thomson. Buses from Dubrovnik to Herceg Novi are operated by Libertas Dubrovnik (libertas dubrovnik.com).
Buses connect the major Montenegrin towns. Autoboka (autoboka.com) runs three services every hour between Kotor and Budva. The 24km journey costs just €3.
Although there is only one passenger-carrying railway line, it follows a spectacular route between the port of Bar and Bijelo Polje on the border with Serbia (en route for Belgrade).
Two trains per day stop at Virpazar (for Lake Skadar), Podgorica and Mojkovac, for the Biogradska Gora park (zpcg.me).
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