Even with the current petrol prices, the best way to enjoy Monetnegro is by car.
There is stunning scenery almost literally wherever you look, you can see many unexplored places, you don’t have to rely on public transport (although scenic rail is still notoriously unreliable) and/or get stuck in the usual tourist haunts all of which, after a few days, become a bit stale. Furthermore, the new highway linking Podgorica and Kolašin makes the trips between the coast and Northern Montenegro (and the Serbian border) much easier as it bypasses the stunning, but notoriously dangerous road through the Morača gorge.
Rising above the magical landscape of Lake Skadar and lower Morača valley, Žabljak Crnojevića is a dreamy fortification which served as the capital of the Crnojevići noble family who ruled Zeta (territory of central or “old” Montenegro) after the collapse of the Serbian Empire. Crnojevići were instrumental in maintaining the region free from the Ottomans and established their capital in a castle which probably dates to 11th century, only to lose it to the Ottomans in 1478. Later, they moved to Rijeka Crnojevića (Obod) and later Cetinje and founded the first, albeit short lived, printing press in the Balkans in 1490s, but that, along with their state, came to an end in 1496, when Đurađ Crnojević left for the Venetian republic (although his younger brothers joined the Ottomans and maintained some privileges).
Some 30 minute drive from Podgorica, Žabljak is rarely visited as it is still in a ruinous state, surrounded by a small village with a few nice cafes floating on the waterways. Although Rijeka Crnojevića and Virpazar (with its newly restored Besac fortress) are more popular with tourists, I found Žabljak much prettier and interesting as you basically get to have a whole castle to yourself. There are many stunning photos of the place at Nestvarna mesta blog (where I first heard of Žabljak).
Architecture in Herceg Novi
Montenegro’s best city, Herceg Novi is a rare place that is at the same time gorgeous, vibey, not overrun by tourists and has good places for swimming. As I managed to be there on a rare rainy day in the summer, I got to experience it not only a place where I would jump into the sea and eat sea food in a “konoba”.
I was especially drawn to many beautiful buildings built in the city in various epochs, many of them which tried to make the best use of its steep terrain and lush greenery. The city’s beauty drew in many famous residents – Ivo Andrić, Yugoslavia’s only Nobel prize winner spent many years there, while Tito had two of his villas there – as also many great architects who tried to give it a chic feel. The first of them was Momčilo Tapavica, a Serb athelte and architect born in Nadalj in Bačka, who was the first and only Slav to have won a medal (bronze, in tennis) at the 1896 Athens olympics representing Hungary. Driven out of Novi Sad through various political intrigues, he settled in the then Austro-Hungarian Herceg Novi and worked for Prince (later King) Nikola of Montenegro on major commissions in Cetinje. In his adopted city, which was developing its tourism industry after a railway line (dismantled during SFRY) connected it to Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, he built the beautiful belle epoque Hotel Boka, which was sadly destroyed by an earthquake in 1979. Still there are several ingenious buildings of his that remain in Herceg Novi and Bijela, where his villa now serves as an orphanage.
Another great architect who left a trace in Herceg Novi was Nikola Dobrović, one of the trail blazers of Modernism in Yugoslavia, whose post office in Herceg Novi and hospital in Igalo epitomise his playful approach to architecture combining stone and concrete. There are also many remains of nostalgic Yugohotels dotted around the Pet Danica promenade, the former rail road turned into a great coastal walkway and named after five partisan women who were killed in WWII.
Finally, Tito’s two villas are in Meljine and Igalo and are both great examples of how “socialist architecture “ of Yugoslavia was far from drab. Thankfully, despite over-urbanisation of the Monetnegrin coast there are still great local architects working there, such as AKVS studio.
The tradition of the religious institutions to occupy best real estate in countries was a source of a lot of contention in Montenegro in the past few years, however, unlike individuals, companies or the state they managed not to fall for the urge to overdevelop, nor commercialise and managed to keep some of the old coastal vistas. There are plenty of stunning (orthodox and catholic) churches, monasteries and mosques on hills around Montenegrin coast that you should visit if you want a bit of a break, with a good dash of history, art and spirituality. This time around, I finally visited Savina and Reževići. Savina, in Herceg Novi, is stunning both for its eclectic baroque-ish architecture and its treasury and also produces excellent wine and loza. Reževići, on the road between Sveti Stefan and Petrovac, is preched on a cliff and offers great views over the Adriatic as well as three wonderful chapels.
Grahovo, a town between Risan and Kotor, developed in medieval times on a very fertile karst-field, and is famous for its lambs who graze fragrant local herbs. However after an obligatory stop at Grahovac 1858 lamb-roast break to cool off from the heat and stress from driving on a dramatic road which rises from Boka bay, you should venture in a bit towards the town to see one of the best Yugoslav era monuments: Miodrag Živković’s and Ivan Vuščić’s monunment to the local partisans who died fighting fascist occupation in WWII. Although the city centre never recovered from the 1979 earthquake, a bit fruther up, by the ancient church of St Nicholas, there is a unique setting of Stećci, UNESCO-protected mediveal tombstones inside the town cemetery. If you are also lucky to know a local Grahovo resident, you will also get to hear about their many military exploits from the Battle of Kosovo (a host of Hercegovina knights met in a church nearby to go against the Ottomans) to the battle of Grahovo in 1858, when Montenegro scored a big victory.