Nestled in the heart of the Western Balkans, Montenegro has a mysterious reputation from years of tourist neglect underpinned by the troubles in the region as a whole. However, now the shutters have been thrown open on this intriguing country, predominantly through Russian investment of late, it is well worth taking the plunge.
Here is a first-timer’s guide to navigating your way around Montenegro…
How best to get there?
For those of you looking to fly straight in to the country and want to explore the mountains first, then Montenegro’s capital Podgorica is your best bet. Outside of that Tivat, on the coast, gives you an option to start dipping your toes in the Adriatic from the outset. If you want to make Montenegro part of a multi-country sojourn then, for the more adventurous, try flying into Sarajevo and venture south or, if you are looking to take in the spectacular old town, seek out the charming coastal Croatian city of Dubrovnik first.
Tip: Find a taxi driver with good English at the airport. If you can guarantee them another fare, they should come down on price overall and throw in interesting local insight too.
Avoid the silly season
This is hugely important to get the best out of your holiday as Montenegro has the distinction of being a summer haven for sun seekers from the likes of Russia, Ukraine, Serbia and the like. The July and August high season here makes the Costa del Sol, Canary and Greek islands look positively deserted. Should you prefer not to sharpen your elbows and take in the rugged coastline at a more leisurely, less populous pace then May, June and September provide a better option. The same goes for the inland scenery, nevertheless the burgeoning ski scene could well deliver a cheap and cheerful alternative in the winter months.
Tip: Book up accommodation on the fly in the quieter months
Shoots of recovery
What with the country’s formidable historical alignment with Russia, it was only a matter of time before the mostly Orthodox country caught the eye of the Russian oligarchs. There was an influx of Irish money into the country as well, before Ireland’s much publicised economic downturn, leaving the path clear for the likes of Roman Abramovich to pump a substantial amount of funds into revitalising the sleepy coast.
Tip: Learn some basic Russian to interact more with the locals.
There is something for everyone on the road south from the Croatian border, Herceg Novi’s Serbian influence an interesting counterpart to the traditionally Montenegrin towns further south. Once you have taken in the old town, you drift down into the Bay of Kotor that winds its way around the bottom of imposing, yet beautiful, steep cliffs. Perast is worth dropping by while Kotor itself is a haven for the sailing community, its marina often home to lavish yachts throughout the sunnier months. Tivat, as it stands, is primarily known for its airport therefore Budva represents the next worthwhile destination despite the crazy construction boom currently swallowing up the hillsides behind. If you can look past that, the old town has echoes of Dubrovnik in its marbled streets ahead of the next stop Sveti Stefan five kilometres south that drew gasps of admiration from tourists and locals alike on our bus. If you prefer a more sedate, enchanting slice of Montenegrin hospitality then seek out Petrovac which boasts a cute promenade and Lucice beach, mere minutes away on foot. An idyllic pocket to soak up the sun and wade into the Adriatic, it provides one of the last tourist friendly places until you hit the towns of Bar, more known for its industrial port, and Ulcinj that is more Albanian than Montenegrin in feel.
Tip: Watch out for price by grams in restaurants as it could prove expensive. Agree price for each dish while ordering as fish, especially, can be way more than initially advertised.
Stuck in the middle with you
Lovcen National Park forms the perfect backdrop to the glittering Adriatic, but once you start climbing into the hills it might as well be another country altogether. Sparsely populated, its craggy features hold more of a mirror up to the national psyche of old than the burgeoning coastline. Mt Lovcen stands tall, the old capital of Cetinje a curious mix of royal splendour and peasant life. Moving further east Lake Skadar National Park is a twitcher’s paradise, its wetland bird reserve part of an impressive liquid sprawl that reaches all the way down into Albania. If you can spare the time, there is the occasional village dotted around its circumference that takes you blissfully back in time. Capital Podgorica emerges from the mountain passes in a big plain and looks remarkably ordinary from afar, however that doesn’t do justice to the pleasant tree-lined streets and rivers cutting through it. There is not exactly much to see culturally, so relax in one of the cafes sprouting up, lounge around the main square and maybe even take in a football match for an astonishing £1 at the national stadium.
Tip: The local bus service is cheap and regular throughout Montenegro. Ask at your hotel reception for information or seek out the central bus station for daily timetables.
Up, up and away
Once you’ve seen the coast and central region, you can venture further north to the likes of Ostrog Monastery housed in the cliffs above the Zeta valley which really has to be seen to be believed. After that, it’s time to visit the Durmitor National Park where you can get your adventure kicks surrounding the 18 glacial lakes sprinkled around. Whether you have a hankering for white-water rafting on the Tara River or skiing at Durmitor in the colder months, you are more than catered for. The hiking is wonderful, aided by a phalanx of amazing wildlife that roams the countryside, Biogradska Gora National Park also delivering handsomely on all fronts with Kolasin’s challenging and affordable ski runs another feather in the cap of a country finally emerging into a brave new world of tourism.
Tip: Travel to Montenegro quickly before the secret gets out.