Montenegro: One month in a country of contrasts
Updated: May 13
After one month in Croatia we headed south to Montenegro. This little country of just over 600,000 people is bordered by Serbia to the northeast, Bosnia and Herzegovina to the north, Kosovo to the east, and Albania down south. So few people are familiar with Montenegro (which means black mountain), and it's no wonder... once part of Yugoslavia, Montenegro has only been an independent country since 2006!
After just a two hour drive from Dubrovnik, we found ourselves in our home for our first two weeks, the little town (we're being generous, it was basically a tiny grocery store and two restaurants) of Percanj, just outside Kotor, an ancient walled city on the far inner corner of Kotor Bay. We weren't in Kansas anymore!
The roads became smaller and more rural very quickly, and as we approached our apartment overlooking Kotor Bay we found ourselves on a single lane road with nothing between our car and the water except a one-foot strip of land - talk about keeping your fingers crossed when another car approached!
We soon discovered that in order to get to the stunning view of Kotor Bay that our apartment promised, we had to ascend a road that was so steep it actually had grooves to keep the rain from making it too slippery to use (and, yes, we did see cars unable to get up during our stay there).
It was impossible for more than one car to pass at a time and with the steep incline and wet, slippery surface, our car couldn't make it to the top without us taking a running start at speed, powering up the hill in first gear, and hoping no other cars would be coming down at the same time!
It made for interesting comings and goings, and when it rained, we really had to commit to an adventure. We also quickly learned a valuable lesson - don't forget to close the car window before it rains all night long (learned that the hard, wet way). The view of Kotor Bay was worth all the white-knuckled driving though, and every day we looked out over the water and walked past the small boats bobbing in the clear blue and green water just down our hill.
But the bay wasn't always clear and brilliant blue, as we discovered when the torrential rain and clouds rolled in. It became quite angry and one afternoon we watched as a lone sailboat spent more than an hour trying to make its way against the driving wind and rain before turning back to leave the bay.
We watched with binoculars as the boat was tossed by waves that went over its decks and could only imagine how miserable those poor people were on board were! You can see for yourself in the video - it was pretty scary to watch and we were so relieved when they decided to give up!
Kotor Bay is a deep inlet of the Adriatic Sea, often referred to as Europe's southernmost Fjord (though in actuality it was not carved by glaciers, it was formed by rising sea levels over a river valley). This is the southernmost point of the famed Dalmatian coast where mountains rise sharply to the sky, all the way around the lengthy shore of the bay.
It was stunning, even in the rain...which would be the hallmark of our time in Montenegro. We knew we'd be there during the off-season, but we didn't realize that meant we'd encounter some torrential rain during our month-long stay.
The town of Kotor dates all the way back to 168 BC, and today Kotor's old town remains completely enclosed by this fortress which begins at the edge of the sea and quickly rises high up into the mountainside, providing a perfect vantage point to be on the lookout for approaching marauders arriving by sea, or for us, a fantastic view of the old town below and the beauty of scenic Kotor Bay.
The walk to the top of the fortress is a 1.2 km hike up 1,350 stairs. It looks ominous from below but the views from the top are well worth the trek and we enjoyed a picnic lunch in the sun while overlooking the town.
The buildings in Kotor's old town are entirely limestone quarried from the surrounding mountains, giving it a truly charming and ancient feel. There are restaurants, shops, bars, and residences spread throughout the narrow pedestrian-only streets. And cats...so many cats!!
One of our favorite features of Kotor (and Montenegro in general) is the abundance of friendly cats. Yes, there is an overpopulation problem, but these are not the scrawny feral cats you might imagine. In Kotor they are well loved and well fed, and quite tame and friendly. There are cats all over the place and many shops and restaurants have one or two that they call their own. In one area in particular we discovered quite the gathering place.
Tourists flock there and the cats are all too happy to cuddle and accept tasty treats, which we carried with us at all times. At any given moment, there were twenty or so cats lounging around this particular corner of the old town, which we made a regular stop on our strolls.
So, you might ask, how does the beer get delivered to the kenobas (taverns) in an old, fortified town with rocky streets and small narrow alley ways? (And who doesn't ask themselves that important question when visiting a new town, right?) By an elderly gentleman peddling a delivery cart through the streets of course!
November proved to be an incredibly wet and cool month, but a few days after our arrival we were fortunate to have a beautiful sunny day with temperatures of 60 degrees F. It was perfect for a boat tour of Kotor Bay! The small runabout boat met us at a dock right at the end of our hilly street and the excursion took us all around the bay to some fantastic sights.
Our Lady of the Rocks is a beautiful little artificial island in the middle of the bay. Sitting in 60 feet of water, it was created by sinking captured ships and dropping thousands of rocks, eventually forming this small island, which is home to only one building, a Roman Catholic church called Chiesa della Madonna dello Scarpello.
Of course, we also visited the requisite "blue grotto" (even though we'd sworn off blue, green or any other grottos at this point in our travels), which sits inside the edge of the limestone cliffs on the outer lip of the bay. Grottos are a natural phenomenon where a cave is carved into the bottom of the cliff by the ever-pounding surf, and the sun's rays from outside the cave reflect off the bottom and illuminate the clear water in a glorious burst of azure that reflects off the cave walls.
We also traveled inside a hidden submarine cave that is carved into the limestone edge of the bay. These date back to the 1950's when the now defunct Yugoslav navy constructed tunnels to hide submarines and torpedo boats from enemy aircraft. This cold war relic is certainly an eerie sight from the inside! All in all it was a beautiful day on the water and a great way to see the area for the first time.
So what do you do in a small Baltic nation that's off the beaten path? You hike and explore because there isn't much else to do!
We started with Lovćen National Park. The way there was straight up over the mountain - the nav screen showed a wild series of switchbacks were required in order to weave our way up and then down, and the drive was even more harrowing than the screen looks - but the mountainous peaks (which were actually the inspiration for the name Montenegro) and views were spectacular once we made it. We could even see some snow!
The next park, Shkodra Lake, is half in Montenegro and half in Albania and is the largest lake in southern Europe. Again, once we made it there the scenery was stunning.
We were the only people hiking through the deep woods along the mountains. And, if you don't count the six vicious attack dogs that wanted to kill us and snack on our bodies for lunch as we hiked by the walled compound they were guarding (and had us ready to defend ourselves with sticks and rocks), it was a perfect day.
We also drove 15 minutes around the bend from our apartment to Tivat, a coastal town that was like stepping into a different world. It's undergone massive change with the addition of Porto Montenegro, a luxury development with upscale shopping, great dining, a marina for super yachts, and amazing residential buildings. There is so much development in Tivat, and Montenegro in general, that the country is being the called the next "French Riviera."
This development was really apparent in the town of Budva, where we spent the last two weeks of our month in Montenegro. Known for its sandy beaches and nightlife, Budva sits on the Adriatic Sea and combines a medieval old town with new luxury high rises and resorts.
The views and sunsets from Budva are amazing, and Italy is only 163 miles across the Adriatic - there's even a ferry to get you there, but it does take 14 hours. There were lots of cars with Russia and Ukraine license plates, and we learned that Montenegro had become a place where many people had relocated to escape the war in Ukraine.
Budva is also filled with cats, so once we ran out of things to do we decided to pitch in to help a local organization, Kotor Kitties, in their effort to spay and neuter homeless cats. We joined up with a wonderful local volunteer named Branka, and trapped seven cats that we brought to a local vet for sterilization. Then, after they were ready to be released, we brought them back to their colony and set them free with big helpings of food to keep them well fed. It was really gratifying and fun to do something good for all the cats who we enjoyed during our time in their country.
From blue skies and warm sun to pouring rain and mountains shrouded in clouds, from ancient towns to new development, we found Montenegro to be a country of contrasts.
Upscale luxury developments were the opposite of the old stone buildings and historic sites. When the weather was nice it was gorgeous but when it was rainy it was downright dreary. There are some really lovely modern dining experiences and lots and lots of traditional restaurants heavy on smoked meats and pork. During the high season, Montenegro is a hot spot for vacationers seeking crystal clear water and green mountains, but off season there isn't much to do if you're looking to do more than spend time in nature - which isn't a bad thing.
The next few years will undoubtedly bring lots of changes to Montenegro with increased development and the money it brings from visitors and new residents. Montenegro has become a hugely popular location for ex-pats to settle because of the low cost of living and beauty - the best of both worlds. Our month there was unique in so many ways, we hope the country can thrive without losing its charm.
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Enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.