The Nutshell Guide to the Montenegrin coast (2): Budva, Lake Skadar, Podgorica and Cetinje

This is the second part of my guide to the Montenegrin coast aimed at visitors planning to spend a weekend or a week in Montenegro. The first part suggested places to visit in the Bay of Kotor

Budva

Both metaphorically and physically, Budva is at the heart of the Montenegrin riviera and concentrates all of its best and worst features in its wonderful bay. On the plus side, there is a fortified old city that stood in its place ever since Cadmus, a mythical Greek hero, escaped there with his wife Harmonia, or, more plausibly, the Greek colonists founded an emporium there in 4th century BC. There are also many coves and hidden beaches in the undulating coast, including Miločer-Sveti Stefan complex which is hands-down the best stretch of the Montenegrin coast. On the other hand, there is the godawful strip of open air clubs, game parlours and fast-food joints which appeal only to the young and reckless. Then there is the horrific disrespect of any planning conventions, which led to the city inspiring the pejorative term “budvanisation”.

In the past years however, there have been attempts to improve the city and they are bearing some fruits, as nicer joints have opened up and the unplanned parts of the city look slightly more decent. Despite the efforts to draw in the jet-setters, which included construction of innumerable “luxury” eyesores and charging extortinate prices for overcrowded beaches, they only really worked in the new AMAN resort of Sveti Stefan.

Although I would suggest visiting the city just for the taste of Balkan nightlife and chaos, I would not suggest staying longer than two days, unless you can afford a stay at AMAN and escape the urbanist chaos. The first day you can use to stroll around Miločer and rest on one of the beautiful public beaches near Sveti Stefan. The second day you can use to explore the old city, and maybe hop to St Nicholas island (aka Hawaii) or drive to Jaz or Drobni Pjesak beaches.

Do:

  • Walk around from Pržno through the former royal park of Miločer to Sveti Stefan, a Venetian fortified fishing town turned resort which hosted glitterati since 1950s
  • Watch a play at Budva theatre festival in the stunning old town
  • Dip in all the beaches from Budva to Kamenovo
  • Swim from Budva to St Nicholas island, avoiding scooters and boats
  • Party to turbo-folk music at the infamous Trocadero bar and finish the night rubbing shoulders with scantily clad Serbian D-listers at Top Hill club (not for the faint hearted)

Eat+Drink:

  • Black risotto at the legendary Jadran restaurant is a must. Extra points if you see its legendary owner Krsto, a hulking mass of charm, greeting the guests
  • Cake at Hotel Mogren or Mozart Cafe is a ritual for old-school Budva-enthusiasts
  • Lounge in the afternoon and dance at night at Kasper, a rarely sophisticated joint at the heart of the old city
  • Coffee and loza (grappa) with a view of St Stefan at the Olive, recently tarted up incarnation of the old favourite “Pod Maslinama”

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Lake Skadar

I waxed lyrical about lake Skadar before, but it is such a wonderful mystical corner of the world that it needs saying again: after the chaos of the coast its emerald waters and otherworldly mountains will feel a world away. Unfortunately, the serene atmosphere is at the risk of being ruined by yet another intrusive project, so make sure you head there as soon as possible.

The best way to get there from the coast is not through the Sozina tunnel, but using the old road from Budva, which will take you thorough wonderful mountains and down to Virpazar. The scenic roads to and around the lake are not for the faint hearted so skip them if you have motion-sickness or are afraid of driving on narrow roads over cliffs.

Once at Virpazar, the best thing to do is to hire a boat with one of the locals who can take you around the lake for either a few hours or the whole day (the quoted price is EUR 50 for 2 hours for the small boat with a skipper, but you can negotiate on site). Another great way of seeing the lake is driving on the old narrow road to Rijeka Crnojevića, a now delapidated town which used to be a summer residence of the royal Crnojević dynasty and the home of the first Cyrillic printing press. The drive is magnificent (if slightly scary) and the town offers nice hikes and some great local restaurants serving smoked carp.

Those into vine should also arrange a tasting at nearby Plantaže vineyards. Plantaže are a state-owned wiery producing excellent Vranac, a local red, and several mediocre white wines (best skip the Chardonnay, unless you want to mix it with sparking water for bevanda). Even if you are sceptical about the Balkan wines, it is worth a visit simply for its amazing size. Plantaže vineyard boasts to be the one the largest in Europe and they are even using facilities of an old airport to store their barrels.

Do:

  • Climb Žabljak Crnojevića and Besac fortresses to admire the lake medieval-style
  • Take a boat and admire “Sophia Loren” – two massive hills in the middle of the lake – and sail past Grmožur, a notorious prison which is now occupied by birds
  • Walk up the remains of Obod in Rijeka Crnojevića
  • Drive around the lake and admire the various bays and rivers feeding into its green expanse
  • Book a wine tasting at Plantaže winery

Eat+Drink:

  • “Poslednja Luka” at Rijeka Crnojevića has a wonderful terrace overlooking the eponymous river and serves great local fish
  • Vranac ProCorde, produced by Plantaže winery, is very quaffable for the price even if its claims of helping with coronary problems are very dubious. If you want to treat your palate with something nicer, splurge on Vranac Barrique or Reserve
  • Grab a coffee at Hotal Vir, a typical old hotel in Virpazar

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Podgorica

Although Podgorica has a long history dating to the roman times and the city of Doclea, it has a reputation for being the most boring of all capitals of ex-Yugoslav republics and regions.  The reputation is not helped by the fact that Tripadvisor’s Things to do in Podgorica puts “Taxis and Transfers” as the 3rd best activity in the city.

Although I would be hard-pressed for things to do after two days, this sort of reputation is unfair. Given that Podgorica became the capital of Montenegro only after WWII, when it had just 10,000 souls, the city had a short time to develop, and what has developed since is eminently pleasant. There is some fantastic modernist architecture from the time it was named “Titograd”, after Socialist Yugoslavia’s president-for-life Josip Broz Tito. Descending into the little canyon of the Morača will make you feel like you are miles away from the city. Although small, even the remains of the old Ottoman town are worth strolling around and coffee in one of the many cafes in the pedestrian area is a must, especially during “korzo”, a nightly tradition of locals trolling around the pedestrian area.

In any case, Podgorica’s proximity to Lake Skadar and Cetinje, and relatively low accommodation prices make it a good choice as a base to explore the environs.

Do/Eat+Drink:

  • Take a dip in the Morača’s icy waters
  • Have a coffee on Njegoševa street
  • Admire the elegant Hotel Podgorica, a masterpiece of modern architecture designed by the local female architect Svetlana Kana Radević (now scarred by an unseemly tower development)
  • Walk around the Ottoman clock tower and mosque in the old town
  • Indulge in “popeci” in Podgorica’s famed Pod Volat restaurant
  • Visit the newly completed Orthodox church of Resurrection

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Cetinje and Lovćen

Cetinje is the old royal capital of Montenegro and still the seat of Montenegro’s president. Although it suffered from the transfer of power to Podgorica, the town retained its cultural preeminence because of its art academies and a wonderful museum complex. Its diminished importance however meant that it is preserved from overbuilding that plague its neighbours Budva and Podgorica. This means that walking around the old town still gives you an idea of the ambitions of the minuscule Montenegrin principality in 19th century, whose troubles with money were captured in Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Merry Widow”. Recently, investment in the old core and culture has born fruit. Old palaces and embassies look great and there is even a new contemporary art gallery located in a disused office building. There were even talks of Marina Abramović opening an institute for performance art in Cetinje, as an homage to her Montenegrin roots, however that plan seems to have stalled.

Lovćen, located about 30 minutes’ drive from Cetinje, is as close as Montenegro gets to a holy mountain. One of its white peaks is the final resting place of Prince Bishop Petar Petrović Njegoš, 19th century Montenegrin writer and ruler, and was even featured on Montenegrin coat of arms during the socialist Yugoslavia. Knowledge of Njegoš’s epic “Gorski Vijenac” (The Mountain Wreath) used to be considered a requirement for any self-respecting Montenegrin, while his efforts in ensuring Montenego’s independence from the Ottomans made him the epitome of Montenegrin freedom-loving spirit. It was Njegoš’s idea to be buried at one of the peaks of Lovćen, but his first mausoleum was a humble stone rotunda he designed himself. Sadly, his resting place was changed multiple times, first during the Austro-Hungarian occupation, when a monument to Franz Joseph was erected at Lovćen, and then in 1970s when the final impressive mausoleum was constructed according to the plans of Ivan Meštrović, the famed Croatian sculptor who also designed Belgrade’s Victor monument.

Below the Mausoleum, there is a wonderful flat area called “Ivanova korita”, where you can go for a less straining hike, or take the water from its famed spring. Further below is is the village of Njeguši, which is famous for its cheese and ham. From Njeguši, you can take a scenic but perilous path down to Kotor to complete your tour.

Do:

  • Visit the historical and art museum in Cetinje for a glimpse or Montenegro’s tumultuous history
  • Hike up Lovćen from Ivanova Korita (or drive to the restaurant just below the mausoleum)
  • See the worshippers at the Cetinje monastery
  • Check out Njegoš’s palace “Biljarda”, named after billiards, the price-bishop’s favourite game

Eat+Drink:

  • Ivanov konak at Ivanova korita offers fantastic local food at a reasonable price. Make sure you try Njeguš cheese and veal or lamb “ispod sača”
  • A coffee at Hotel Grand in Cetinje will give you a feel of the best of Yugoslav modernist hotel architecture

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