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mini, but mighty, montenegro

Updated: Nov 15, 2018

Montenegro only became its own independent country in 2006, making it the second newest state in Europe. This young nation is tiny in both land mass (roughly the size of America’s Connecticut) and population (less than 630k citizens). Though small, Montenegro has a huge array of natural and man-made wonders that lie within its 5,333 sq miles.

Arriving into Montenegro should have been a lot easier than it actually was. The intended route was London to Vienna to Podgorica. However, a delay out of Heathrow resulted in a missed connection in Vienna, which then had us rerouted through Istanbul which was certainly not the most direct route (see map below) and tacked on about six extra hours of travel.

The configuration of the airplane from Vienna to Istanbul was your typical single aisle, with three rows of seats on either side - ABC on the right; DEF on the left. Not rocket science. However, the flight attendant must have confused our frustration for stupidity because as we boarded she instructed us to 'go straight and then turn right at row 10.' Super helpful.

My friend I finally made it to Podgorica by night fall, but our suitcases, which we were forced to gate check in London, were not as lucky. After filing claims for the missing baggage, the Hertz car rental kiosk was closing. We had to beg them to stay open a few more minutes to rent us our car so we could drive an hour and a half to our hotel in Ulcinj. It also turned out that Montenegro was outside my world mobile phone plan, so when trying to sort out the car and confirm the hotel would still be open, I racked up £90 in fees, within one hour of being in Montenegro. We were not off to a great start.

By the time we got to the hotel it was around 11pm. We were staying at Hotel Palata Venezia, a former king’s palace, at the top of a fortress, so there were quite a few stairs to climb, in the dark. Fortuitously, we had no luggage to carry.

We woke up fresh on Saturday morning, determined to not let the previous day's travel nightmares affect the trip ahead of us, put our same clothes on from the day before and enjoyed a lovely feast of a breakfast, which was included in the £54 nightly rate. The views from the hotel were amazing and the weather was perfection! Things were looking up!

After overindulging, we drove 15-minutes south to Solana Ulcinj, a discontinued salt production plant turned wildlife sanctuary. It didn't look like much when we arrived and I was actually a little concerned that we were in the wrong place.

...But if you walk about 5 km, at the right time of year (April - early June is ideal), towards the border of Albania, you'll see something incredible – white flamingos. They were majestic!

It’s free to enter Salinas, but it is a private reserve so you must announce your arrival in advance, via email. We were the only people there. It was very tranquil.

We spent about an hour and half leisurely strolling around and flamingo watching, but as the temperature began to raise and the breeze died down, the swarms of non-biting bugs, hovering near the still water, became unbearable. There were millions of them. That was our queue to move on to our next destination.

We then headed up the coast, about an hour and half, to Hotel Adrovic, for lunch and some photos. This is where you get the money shot of Montenegro’s most iconic site - Sveti Stefan. Today, the island is home to Montenegro’s most luxurious 5* holiday resort, Aman Sveti Stefan, starting at ~€800/night (excluding taxes and service charges). It is only open seasonally (1st May – 30th September) and is inaccessible to those who are not guests. However, if you want to visit Sveti Stefan for less than that €800 price tag, you can make a reservation and dine at either The Taverna or Nobu.

The next stop on the road trip was a 15-minute ride around the cove to Budva where the next two nights were spent, at Hotel Astoria, in the heart the ancient old city, surrounded by well-preserved cobbled lanes, stone buildings, and a pebble beach. It was here that we were reunited with our luggage! Happy days!

The following morning, we breakfasted on the beach, paid €20 for the night's parking and then drove in the direction of Cetinje, to visit Lipa Cave. It’s one of Montenegro’s largest caves and about 2.5kms of it can be explored (for roughly €10). It was an hour-long tour. During the high-season, there is also an option for adrenaline junkies to do an Extreme Cave Tour, which actually looked quite fun, but we were there too early in the year to partake. It’s chilly and damp in the caves, year-round, so layer up.

Having missed seeing Lake Skadar on the first day (as a result of our travel mishaps), we decided to squeeze it in after the cave tour. One of the luxuries of having a car! Lake Skadar is the largest lake in the Balkans. About 70% of it lies in Montenegro and the remaining 30% in Albania. We followed Google maps, for about 20-minutes, towards the Pavlova Strana Viewpoint. The roads were single lane only with tight switchbacks and no guardrails. It was not a drive for the faint-hearted, but the view of horseshoe bend made it worth the risk.

Fortunately, we were able to take a different route to Budva and did not have to backtrack along the same hairpin turns we took to arrive. We did, however, have to contend with a sheep traffic jam and a policeman pulling us over (but not speaking English, so why were stopped remains a mystery). Always an adventure!

That Sunday evening, we bopped around Budva, but ultimately ended up at Hemingway Bar and Restaurant, within the Majestic Hotel. It was a civilised dinner and drinks spot to start, but turned into a rager come about 10pm.

On Monday morning we checked out of Hotel Astoria, paid another €20 for the public parking and drove about 30-minutes to Tivat to have a little look-see. After we found street parking (which we were told was free everywhere within Tivat), we walked to Porto, the sparkling new marina within the Tivat municipality, sat at the foot of Mount Vrmac. This posh promenade bears zero resemblance to anywhere else in Montenegro and is more akin to Monaco with its super yachts, fancy boutiques, luxury hotels and first-class restaurants.

After enjoying an over-priced smoothie on the boardwalk, we carried on 20-minutes further to Kotor. Kotor is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its well-preserved Medieval-style architecture and landscapes.

Here, we were also staying right in the Old Town, so we had to park outside the walls in a public lot (parking costs were reimbursed by the hotel though). Boutique Hotel Hippocampus was tucked into the corner of the Old Town and was difficult to find, but it was elegant. And the view from our room was lovely, overlooking the narrow streets.

It didn't take long to notice the cat crazy nature of Kotor's Old Town! Not only was there an unusually high kitty population, but there were also endless cat souvenirs and donation boxes for feeding the many felines that inhabit the town. There was even a cat museum. We later learned that Kotor is often unofficially called as ‘Cat Town’ because of it's obsession.

Later in the afternoon, the temperature had dropped and the sun had hidden behind the clouds, making it the perfect weather for hiking up 1,350+ steps to the dominating fortress of San Giovanni, high above Kotor’s Old Town. It was still a sweaty journey up though and I wish I had worn more sensible footwear than flip flops.

The sweeping views of the bay and mountains made all the perspiration and effort well worthwhile. On the way down, we had to hustle a bit as it started drizzling and the stones would have gotten slippery if the rain picked up.

We had worked up quite a thirst after the hike, so we stopped at Old Winery Wine Bar for some adult beverages. The servers and service there was so lovely that we ended up dining there and staying all night. They made me Uštipci (savory fried dough balls served with soft cheese) even though this only appears on their breakfast menu. I had them when I was in Bosnia and had been craving them since arriving back into the Balkans.

The next morning, we decided to take a stroll along the Old Town walls before hitting the Bay for a boat trip.

The wall walk was underwhelming, but the 3-hour boat trip that followed was fantastic! This was the tour we did, for €30 each.

The first stop on the boat trip was into the tunnels that were dug into the Lustica Peninsula coastline, used to hide submarines during wartime.

We then cruised by Mamula Island, a WWII concentration camp where prisoners were tortured and starved that is sadly now being transformed into luxury beach resort.

From there, we were lucky that the tide cooperated and we were able to enter the Blue Caves, referred to as such because of the iridescent blue that bounces off the shallow bottom. It was too cold to swim, but the option did exist.

Next, we visited Our Lady of the Rocks, a Roman Catholic church on its own tiny island. According to legend, this islet was made over the centuries by Croat local seamen who kept an ancient oath after finding the icon of Madonna and Child on the rock in the sea on July 22, 1452. Upon returning from each successful voyage, they laid a rock in the Bay. Over time, the islet gradually emerged from the sea. The custom of throwing rocks into the sea is still alive today.

Our Lady of the Rocks' neighboring island is officially called St. George Island. Most of the island is occupied by a cemetery. Devoid of the living, the island is commonly referred to as the Island of the Dead.

The final stop on the boat journey was charming Perast, where we disembarked and walked along the one main street.

We decided to explore the area outside the walls of Kotor Old Town for dinner that night and ended up at Galion, known for its fresh fish and romantic atmosphere. It also comes with stunning views over the Adriatic, a picturesque harbor, and the walls of the Old Town. Once the sun went down, you could also very clearly see the lit up path to San Giovanni Fortress.

The final day of the road-trip led us about two-hours away from Kotor, towards the middle of the country, to visit Ostrog Monastery, a Serbian Orthodox Church carved almost in its entirety in a vertically positioned mountain cliff. You can drive all the way up to it if you follow signs the for 'Upper Monastery'.

We didn’t stay for too long, just snapped some pics and then hit the road again. We had to drive another hour to Podgorica (the capital city, which is quite industrial) to feed ourselves, fuel up, return the car and catch our flight.

Sadly, that was where our magical Montenegrin road trip ended.

If you decide to visit Montenegro, and I strongly advise that you do, below is a list of things you should know before you go:

  • Montenegro is a seasonal destination, due to its climate. The best time to visit is broadly between April and September. From October to early-April some hotels and restaurants close, but I can vouch for the fact that the ones that do stay open offer excellent rates.

  • Montenegro has adopted the Euro as its currency, despite not being a member of the European Union (yet).

  • They use the same wall sockets/outlets as the rest of continental Europe.

  • They drive on the right side of the road.

  • They have some weird traffic signs, like the no honking one pictured here.

  • We only came across one toll in all of our driving and it was €2.50.

  • Most of the roads are paved and it’s not too confusing to get around.

  • Petrol stations in Montenegro are full service. We only filled up once and it cost about €45.

  • Fellow drivers often warn you of police presence by flashing their high beams.

  • Every Montenegrin we met went out of their way to be friendly and helpful. They were very proud of their country and seemed happy to be sharing it with us.

  • Tipping is about 10%.

  • Overall, I did not particularly enjoy the wine nor food, but it was edible.


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