For adventurers who like to be one step ahead of the tourist hordes, the Balkan state of Montenegro has that frisson of the "destination about to happen". Increasingly accessible to international travellers, it's a place that evokes both Croatia and Lake Como.
Tiny Montenegro is starting to be noticed beyond the Balkans. The former Yugoslav state, only recognized as an independent nation since 2006, is being talked about as the next Croatia by travellers looking for that country’s coastal attractions without the crowds.
They’re half right. Montenegro, which borders Croatia and is actually closer to Dubrovnik airport than Dubrovnik itself is, does have coastline reminiscent of Croatia: pebble beaches, the remarkable clarity of the Adriatic, and the striking sight of mountains that appear to run right into the sea. Also like Croatia, it boasts beautiful and well-preserved walled cities.
But Montenegro also resembles another part of former Yugoslavia: Slovenia. That’s because the vast majority of Montenegro is, like Alpine Slovenia, mountainous, and a haven for adventure sports. The combination of beaches, history and beautiful terrain is quite a package for a small nation that many would struggle to find on a map.
If Montenegro is the next Croatia or Slovenia, then it is at a point of development several years behind either, which is either part of the appeal or a frustration depending on your point of view. On the plus side, crowds are certainly lesser than on Croatia’s beaches, but they are increasing fast, and that will challenge the local infrastructure. For example, almost any travel around the country requires the traveller to cross Kotor Bay on a car ferry (there is no bridge yet), for which there are queues in high summer. Also on the plus side, accommodation – a self-catering apartment with a nice view, for example – is considerably cheaper than in Croatia. A range of accommodation exists in Montenegro, from top (local) resort hotels to backpacker places, but it’s clear that international five-star hotels and real ultra-luxury boutiques are for the future (though several are in development now).
One could argue that the heart of this intriguing country is not the capital, Podgorica, but the Bay of Kotor. An unusual shape, it describes two inland bays of the Adriatic: a large one bordered by both Croatia and the pleasant Montenegrin town of Herceg Novi; then, beyond a narrow bottleneck, a second, inner bay the shape of a bow tie, surrounded by sheer mountains. Here, the comparisons that come to mind are not Croatia but Italy’s Lake Como, or a Norwegian fjord: clear water bracketed by sharp-angled slopes.
Happily, several of the country’s most beautiful towns are along the shores of this bay. The biggest and most developed is Kotor itself, which has an immaculate walled old town dating back more than a millennium, and from where one can take boat trips or even go kayaking.
There are many walled towns in this part of the world, but what’s distinctive about this one is that over the centuries, fortifications have been built right up the mountain behind it: today you can walk to the top of those fortifications, a steep but thrilling climb up 1300 steps to a partly ruined castle, the Montenegrin flag raised proudly above it. Another track takes you higher still, right to the top of the mountain, from where you look down not only on the lake but the castle.
A little further around the lake is the town of Perast, perched right on the water near two small islands. The fledgling tourist industry is starting to market Perast as a little Venice, with a clutch of waterside restaurants and bars in front of a well-preserved town that nestles into the hill behind it; Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones are said to have bought a place here. Boat trips run from Perast to the nearby islands, which cry out to be photographed and are once again reminiscent of a Slavic cousin, this time Slovenia’s Lake Bled. Numerous other hamlets around the lake are worth attention, notably stone-built Prcanj and Morinj, and a circumnavigation of the inner bay is a pleasant way to spend the day.
Right next to Kotor, along a stretch of prime and perfectly-appointed waterfront, is a derelict hotel. It’s easy to imagine that within a few years it will be the site of a five-star luxury hotel and spa.
Not far away on the coast, the two most celebrated places are Sveti Stefan and Budva. Sveti Stefan has a small, beautiful island linked to the coast by a causeway, and although the island itself is entirely occupied by a state-run hotel within the classic stone buildings, it is enormously photogenic from the mainland beaches. Budva is another walled old city, a mini-Dubrovnik on the edge of the sea, with a citadel, beach and marina.
Moving further along to the coast towards Albania, a drive inland takes you to Lake Skadar, a pristine fresh-water lagoon through which the Montenegro-Albania border passes. Boat trips, taking in bird life and a former prison island that Montenegrins consider their own little Alcatraz, are idyllic. As in the coastal places, the food of choice here is seafood, but whereas on the coast you will be tempted by sea bass, on the freshwater lakes you’re more likely to find carp and trout.
While there are a handful of excellent seafood restaurants – and not always in the most obvious places – there is a slightly disappointing glut of pizza and pasta outlets in Montenegro. Traditional restaurants are called konoba and can be a better bet than bigger places in the towns. Aside from the fish, local dishes include goulash, a spicy beef stew called muckalica, grilled kebabs, and a dish called sarma which is made of cabbage leaves with mincemeat inside. The main local beer is the refreshing and tasty Nikšićko, and it is common to see local people downing rakia, a common Balkan spirit distilled from fermented fruit (and typically at least 40% proof – more for homebrew). You wouldn’t call Montenegro a fine dining paradise yet, but one can eat well.
Further inland, Montenegro is considered one of Europe’s most exciting locations for white-water rafting. It’s a three-hour drive from the coast, but the Tara River canyon is said to be one of the world’s deepest within which rafting takes place. All around here are beautiful and somewhat uncharted national parks that appeal greatly to walkers and climbers. On one relatively accessible mountain, guides report that new caves are still routinely discovered. The interior also boasts monasteries, some of them clinging precariously to cliff faces.
A small country, it’s tempting to pop across to neighbouring locations: Dubrovnik is mandatory. And while others don’t exactly have always had the best of reputations, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Serbia and Albania do have their charms.
Montenegro is increasingly accessible. International flights from the UK have commenced into Podgorica, and it is easily reached from Croatia’s Dubrovnik airport, too. Hiring a car is not essential, but helpful in reaching more remote locations. And while the driving can be occasionally perilous, it also takes in roads with exhilarating destinations – a famed example being one that leads to the Lovćen national park behind Kotor.
All over Montenegro one sees billboards for new developments: Lustica Bay, Porto Montenegro, One and Only Resorts. Qatari Diar, a state-backed property development owned by the gas-rich Gulf emirate, is investing Eu250 million in the construction of a hotel, and Egypt’s Orascom is behind another. There is a sense that everything will change here before long – expats who’ve been here a while say it already is – which increases the allure of going to see it while it’s still considered remote.