The Nutshell Guide to the Montenegrin coast (1): The Bay of Kotor

Despite its great natural beauty and diversity, until relatively recently Montenegro was under the radar of tourists outside the Balkans, Italy and Russia. Tourism in Montenegro started in the times of Yugoslavia, from the opening of the luxury peninsular fishing village/ resort of Sveti Stefan in 1955, which has since hosted glitterati like Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and Bobbi Fisher, to the nudist camp at Ada Bojana, which attracted local free spirits and scandalised the patriarchal locals. This early expansion ground to a halt during the 1990s due to the wars in the neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia and sanctions imposed on the country, which meant that the only tourists were either local or came from Serbia. 

However, this tiny country shot into the spotlight about a decade ago, after gaining independence from the state union with Serbia. First, Casino Royale, the blockbuster Bond film, set its story in Montenegro, despite not having filmed a single scene there. Then, in the push to appeal to high-end tourists, the country courted a consortium of uber-wealthy yacht enthusiasts, including Peter Munk, Nathaniel Rotschild and Oleg Deripaska, who decided to build the  luxury Porto Montenegro at the site of a disused industrial complex in Tivat. Finally, in 2007, the uber-luxury brand AMAN resorts won in a bid to run Sveti Stefan and Miločer complex, which includes the former royal summer villa of Princess Maria of Yugoslavia. 

Although Montenegrin riviera is still a very long way away from reaching the allure of Monaco, Portofino, or even the historically and culturally closer Hvar, the headline developments are successful and things are significantly better than they were a decade ago. Although the crowd is still mostly ex-Yugoslav youngsters and Russian families, there are more back-packers from all around the world and the fancier set is attracted by subsidised mooring and re-fuelling prices at Porto Montenegro.

What can an experienced traveller expect in Montenegro?

Firstly the nature is stunning wherever you go, from the dramatic beauty of the bay of Kotor, over the skeletal karst boulders around Grahovo to the glacier lakes of Durmitor. Fittingly for the landscape, Montenegro had a tumultuous history with its small space divided between Ottomans, Venetians and various local clans who nobody could conquer due to their remote mountain abodes and fierce fighting skills. Montenegro started developing into a modern state once it received full independence from the Ottoman empire in 1878. The country expanded during the Balkan wars and WWI when it annexed former Austro-Hungarian coastal holdings in the Bay of Kotor and Budva, but  joined Serbia after a coup against King Nikola orchestrated by his grandson and future king of Yugoslavia, Aleksandar Karađorđević. 

This history of independence and fighting in harsh surroundings left trace in the mentality of the people, whose world-view still revolves around honour and family history. Although caricatured as lazy and macho by their neighbours in Serbia and Croatia, Montenegrins mix prickliness with sweetness rather well, and are very hospitable to those who show them respect. 

Although the whole of Montenegro has a lot to offer, from the endless sandy beaches of Ulcinj, glacier lakes at Durmitor and ziplining over the world’s second deepest canyon of the Tara river, if you are just wanting to get a feel for the country in less than a week I suggest focusing on the bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska), Budva, Lake Skadar (mentioned here) and Cetinje, which are most touristically developed and will give you a taste of this fantastic little nation with a great heart. 

Herceg Novi

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Located an hour’s drive from Dubrovnik, a city it was built to rival, Herceg Novi is the most liveable and pleasant town on the Bay of Kotor, and the one that has resisted the hollowing out of city tissue though tourism. Lovely belle epoque stone buildings look over sloped streets lined with oleander and palms onwards to the entrance to the Bay of Kotor. Beaches, mostly concrete or rocky, are good and populated with a mix of well behaved Serbian students and pensioners. Water is deep and fresh and there are also great excursions around the bay, especially to Luštice peninsula which, until very recently, resisted overdevelopment that plagued the coast.

Although most of the action is in the city centre, suburbs of the city (Savina and Igalo) are connected to the city with the wonderful Pet Danica corniche. There are plenty to budget rooms which you can find when you turn up at the bus terminal, but like everywhere, AirBnB works well.

Beware of one thing: although geographically closer to Dubrovnik, than Tivat, the queues at the border can take hours in the summer so a short hop to its more famous rival can turn into a 3 hour wait at the border.

Do:

  • Wander the old town and have a coffee in the beautiful terrace of Gradska Kafana
  • Watch Jadran, one of the best waterpolo teams in the world, play or practice in the big pool on the corniche
  • Take a boat to Rose, a wonderful town across the bay for a nice swim

Food + Drink:

  • Prostorija – opened last year, this is by far the coolest cafe on the Montenegrin coast I’ve been to
  • Pivnica – located on the corniche, this beer-focused cafe is great for people watching and is popular with the younger crowd
  • Tri lipe – famous grill place, offering reasonable priced local fare in an informal setting
  • Feral – an upmarket “konoba” (tavern) with great local specialities. I strongly recommend the octopus stew and the local rose from Savina.

 

Perast

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Perast is a wonderfully preserved Ventian town in the middle of the UNESCO protected Kotor-Risan Bay. Although it is now a pedestrianised town of about 100, in 18th century it was wealthy enough to pay 20 kgs in gold for its soaring campanile, which is the tallest in the Eastern Adriatic. The city also boasts two fantastically photogenic islands. St George, reminiscent of Bocklin’s “Isle of the Dead”, houses a wonderful Benedictine monastery and cemetery shaded with cypresses. Gospa od Škrpjela (Lady of the Rocks), which was constructed by the Perastians throwing stones in the water,  has a wonderful domed baroque church that can be visited.

Although incredibly romantic, the whole of Perast can be seen in a couple of hours, so I would suggest doing it as a stop between Herceg Novi and Kotor, or as a stop for dinner at sunset at the fantastic “Conte” restaurant (try the fish skewer in honey and nut sauce and the almond-based Perast cake) .

Kotor

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This ancient fortified city, at the foot of Lovćen, is by far the most striking in the whole bay, which means that if offers both fantastic vistas and frustration with cruise-tourists who descend upon it every day. Although less striking and smaller, Kotor offers what Dubrovnik offered before Game of Thrones fame and charging EUR 7 for parking. The old town is a quiet labyrinth of beautiful white stone houses, where you can stumble upon wonderful romanesque churches while disinterested cats walk around you. In Kotor you also need to climb onto the venetian ramparts to admire the bone-white karst mountains reflected in the blue waters of the bay.

Also be aware that the charm of the city is not confined within its walls.

Walk on Doborta’s corniche will not only bring you to the best bathing sports, but will also reveal beautiful villas and stone palaces built for the ship captains of this once great port city. The city cemetery has may ornate 19th century tombs of rich Kotor families, and offers a good way to escape the heat for those into melancholy spots.

Prčanj, across the bay from Doborta, has a wonderful church and “Tre Sorelle” palace which features in one of the many legends of loves lost at sea that Kotorans will gladly tell you. The palace housed three sisters who were all in love with the same seaman. When he left Kotor for another voyage, the sisters waited for his return by looking through their ornate windows. Unfortunately, their wait was in vain and as each of them died, a window was closed, apart from the youngest one’s who was so alone that no one could build over her window.

This palace, also tells the more recent if more tragic story of the neglect of heritage, as the new owner of the place decided to reopen one of the windows and destroy a legend  for the purpose of building yet another luxury accommodation. Sadly this type of a sad story is increasingly common in the bay, as ugly developments pop up from the thick Mediterranean bush and threaten Kotor’s UNESCO status.

I would suggest staying in one of Doborta’s many old stone houses as they are close enough to town for going out, but significantly more pleasant than waking up to streets filled with cruise tourists. By far the best budget option is booking a stay in family Erac’s wonderful house with a garden , where you will not only be treated with wonderful views but also great homemade breakfast and great stories from your hosts.

Do:

  • Walk up to Castello San Giovanni (Sveti Ivan) by using the old zig-zag road behind the city walls and enjoy better views and fewer tourists. Descend using the old city walls and see the beautiful chapel build by the noble family Luković
  • See the Catholic cathedral and marvel at the altar and the tiny but interesting museum
  • Get a local skipper to sail you around the bay to Perast
  • Visit the incense scented Orthodox church and the neighbouring square for great for those into church architecture from the past 10 centuries
  • If you are very adventurous and very fit, hike all the harrowing path all the way up to Njeguši

Eat+Drink

  • Hotel Vardar, the oldest in town, is great for some coffee and people watching
  • Dobortski dvori offers fantastic balkan fare in huge portions and great service
  • Portun offers fantastic fish with the view
  • Doborta has a fantastic fast-food joint next to the Aroma supermarket which does a wicked calzone stick

Tivat

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Just 15 years ago, Tivat was an unglamorous industrial town with an airport. Opening of Porto Montenegro made it the centre of Montenegro’s efforts to attract the well-to-do from all around the world. Although reminiscent of all similar developments for the uber-wealthy from Dubai to Miami, Porto Montenegro is charming and rather successful at maintaining the rarified ordered air. Of course, one may wonder why a country with average monthly income of EUR 600 is subsidising yacht-owning uber-rich with cheaper petrol, but still PM definitely put the country on the radar of the monied set and is transforming Tivat into a very pleasant town.

Even if you don’t enjoy the glitz, the place is great for a peek and grabbing an great gelato at the local branch of Belgrade’s Moritz Eis. Although, there is plethora of fancy restaurants and bars around, the depth of my pocket was insufficient to test the yacht-sized prices, so I leave that to you.

 

Next up: Budva, Lake Skadar, Cetinje and Podgorica

 

 

 

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