Could you point out Montenegro on a map? I’m not sure I could have done at the start of 2015. All I really knew was that it’s a tiny country in Eastern Europe, that had supposedly been the location for the climax of Casino Royale and a friend over at A Brit and a Broad had been recently and recommended it highly.
Not being one to dip out on an adventure to somewhere new, a trip was organised and soon myself, Antonia and another couple, our friends Paul and Chloe, had booked flights, car hire and an AirBnB and were flying our way to Podgorica (pod-gorr-it-sa).
We picked up our car from the airport and after negotiating our way out of Podgorica, we began the drive up to Kolasin, the mountain resort, popular with Russian skiers, we were to be staying in. Visiting Montenegro in April we had anticipated warm spring weather and sunshine. Finding ourselves driving into the mountains passing cars with a foot of snow on their roofs made us seriously question how we were going to spend the next few days and whether we were prepared.
Fortunately, upon arriving in snow-covered Kolasin, Antonia spotted a Bianca Resort & Spa, designed to cater to said Russian skiers, but at that point completely empty. Our AirBnb was a short drive outside of Kolasin, but still walking distance, so we ditched our stuff and promptly headed back into town to make use of the spa and facilities.
The hotel had more staff than guests as far as we could see, but they were all extremely welcoming and obviously glad to see someone. We made good use of the large indoor pool and various saunas and steam rooms, before heading off in search of some serious Montenegrin mountain food at the highly recommended local restaurant, Konoba. I’d say it was in Kolasin’s old town, but there didn’t seem to be much other than the old town. It’s pretty, tiny and full of buildings that have clearly been there a very long time, some as old as the Ottoman Empire. After a delicious meal of cheese, polenta, more cheese and some pork, we headed home, exhausted, full, and excited to see a bit more of Montengro during the day.
We’d decided to explore the mountains the next day, so we headed for the Black Lake, which sounded like something straight out of a Tintin story. Sadly, no submarines or quirky professors to be found, but plenty of beautiful scenery, winding roads and, much to Antonia’s delight, friendly dogs.
After a few hours driving up into thickly forested mountains, round roads that wound themselves into ever tighter corners and road surfaces that at times made for interesting driving, we found ourselves well above the snowline and at the Black Lake. At this time of year though, it really ought to have been the White Lake as it was completely frozen over and covered in snow from the previous day. Nonetheless though, it’s a beautiful spot and well worth the drive.
A snowball fight later, we headed back down through the mountains to stop off at Lake Biogradska, which we had been informed in the summer was a lovely swimming spot, but at this time of year seemed more like to be a lovely hypothermia spot. After an atmospheric stroll up to the lake through a skeletal forest, meeting various people along the way with varying opinions on whether it was worth the walk (it was), we headed back to the car and wound our way back to Kolasin, hungry for more polenta and cheese.
After a meal at the Traditional Restaurant Vodenica, located in an old watermill with the water still thundering under the restaurant, we headed for home and collapsed into bed exhausted from the day’s walking and helped along by a glass or two of excellent Montenegrin red wine.
The following day beckoned a complete change of scenery, weather and sites. We were headed for the coastal town of Kotor, via the Ostrog monastery. Perched, in the most precarious of sites, high up in the mountains, the Ostrog monastery gives a good insight into the history of Montenegro and its quite conservative Christian tradition. To make a pilgrimage up to the monastery, which a steady stream of people were doing, is no mean feat. Although there are car parks pretty close and roads all the way up, the final walk is still pretty much straight up the side of a mountain. The views, it has to be said though, are spectacular and it’s not difficult to see why the spot was chosen by the monks.
From there the drive down to the coast wove through stunning countryside and tiny villages perched on the edges of cliffs, that seemed to have survived the Soviet era virtually untouched. On the drive down the temperature had steadily climbed to the low twenties we’d been expecting. Blue skies stretched out above us, broken only by the odd journey through a tunnel and soon we were crawling along the winding coastal road watching the villages get prettier and prettier until we reached the almost impossibly beautiful Perast. This place is so pretty apparently Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones bought a house there.
We went for a leisurely stroll along the waterfront and the girls found cats to play with in Perast’s winding backstreets, before we stopped at a café for a drink to admire the view and soak up some much needed sun.
You can visit the islands off the coast from any of these small villages, the locals didn’t seem short on boats and I’m sure do a roaring trade in the summer. Sadly we didn’t have time though, Kotor and our hostel for the night called. On we drove.
Finally reaching Kotor we hit the first traffic jam of our trip and my undoing, but more on that in my Surviving a Morning in a Montenegrin Court post. We stayed in the beautiful Old Town Hostel East Wing, which is (unsurprisingly) right in the heart of Kotor’s Old Town and the rooms are off a spiral staircase worthy of any medieval castle. It’s also got a nice little cave-like common room and is very social. Kotor is well and truly on the Eastern European backpacker trail. We even met a German guy who was cycling to China and potentially on to Sydney! Although he might need some modifications for that…
After a night in which I slept even more deeply than usual, and a morning in a Montenegrin court, we drove a bit further along the coast to Budvar and visited its Old Town. Imagine Dubrovnik on a much smaller scale and you get some idea of what it’s like. Terracotta roofs abound, winding alleys galore and plenty of great little sandwich and ice cream shops.
A little further round the coast is the private island resort of Sveti Stefan (maybe he really smelt?), out at the end of a Chesil Beach-esque peninsula and home to an apparently exorbitantly priced hotel. Us plebs weren’t even allowed to walk the length of the peninsula, for fear of Bond-esque capers I’m sure. It’s a beautiful spot though and I recommend visiting if only for the setting and taking great pleasure in driving through the private gardens and roads to get there.
Hopping back over the other side of the mountain to Kotor, we parked the car on the seafront and did the only sensible thing and climbed the hundreds of steps behind Kotor up to the fort that looks out over it and the harbour. It became immediately apparent from the fort why Kotor had thrived and was such a beautiful town. It had clearly been extremely wealthy by controlling one of the few safe ports on the Montenegrin coast.
Having expended more energy climbing up to the fort, we put on our smartest clothes and paid a visit to Kotor’s most upscale restaurant. Galion is built just on the other side of the waterfront from the Old Town and sits in a suspiciously modern glass building, but has a fantastic view of the town and water, particularly at sunset. It also has a wonderful menu and the staff were superb. One of the big draws of Montenegro is also that fact that even at the smartest restaurant in town, you can guarantee not to break the bank.
One final piece of driving back to Podgorica in the unbelievably fuel-efficient hire car (four hours driving and no need to fill up seemed almost magical) and we were back on a plane to London after an all too short visit to one of Europe’s real gems.
If you’re looking to head to Montenegro and fancy doing something similar to what we did, we’ve teamed up with the guys over at Casey Travel, so that you can. All you have to do is click on the link below and you could be having your own Montenegran adventure!