A Wild Country of Beauty
This is the story of a short 3-day solo journey to mysterious Montenegro, a little-known country well hidden among the Serbian and Croatian cousins, nestled in the Balkans and bathed by the Mediterranean Sea. Snow-capped mountains, wild forests, legends of kings and pirates, lively sunny beaches: Crna Gora – its local name, meaning literally “black mountain” – has a rebellious history, and with its love for freedom and autonomy has given a hard time to its conquerors, being them Romans, Turks or URSS.
Montenegro is small in size but unique in variety, with:
– 5 national parks – the biggest, Durmitor National Park, has the second deepest canyon in the world after Colorado Canyon, carved by its river Tara, and a virgin forest, while the Skadar National Park includes the Skadar lake, the niggest in the Balkans shared with Albania;
– 4 fascinating UNESCO historic places like the Kotor Region, Durmitor Park, Stecci Medieval Tombstones, Venetian works of defence in Kotor;
– 300 km of beautiful Mediterranean coast, with lively cities like Budva, Kotor, Perast, Bar, Ulcinj;
– a traditional cuisine rich in foreign influences (Italian, Turkish, Austro-hungarian): from the black risotto with cuttlefish ink to the Montenegrin lamb in milk, that you can find only in the North, not forgetting the typical Balkan burek and cevapcici, till the sweet pancakes (palacinke).
It’s still a low-cost and undeveloped travel destination, now risking to be the “new country” for summer holidays together with Albania, as some overbuilding I have seen in Budva seems sadly to suggest. Here are some suggestions, before it’s too late
Podgorica, Nova Varos & Stara Varos
I land in the small Podgorica airport at about 9.30 am. I immediately start looking for the “phantom” shuttle of Montenegro Airlines, that according to my Bradt guide and certain forums’ rumors for 3 euros should take you directly to Trg Republik. Bear in mind that everyone talks about it but DOES NOT EXIST: for 12 euros, instead, you will find taxis that will take you directly to the center.
Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, takes its name from the hill Gorica, meaning “below Gorica”, and is the political centre of the country since 1946, when it was called “Titograd” by the URSS; before, the capital was Cetinje, still cultural reference and former seat of the “prince-bishops”, religious rulers of the country.
I have to confess, I didn’t fall in love with Podgorica: almost completely destroyed during WWII, seems to have an anonymous soul, expressed by its orthogonal structure, soviet blocks and clumsy attempts to evolve in a contemporary architecture, but has very beautiful corners in Stare Varos and a good potential shown by places like the Centreville Hotel. If you are a lover of Eastern blocs, in the outskirts you can find your cup of tea!
After my anding, I start with my exploration: the first stop is Velika Pijaca, the market, where I buy delicious strawberries from a kind old lady. Then I move to Nova Varos (New Town) and I visit the opulent Hram Hristovog Vaskrsenja (Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ), just in time to clandestinely participate in a Orthodox wedding. The cathedral, very modern, doesn’t drive me crazy with its arrogant hugeness and overflowing gold, however the fresco where Titus, Marx and Engels are portrayed in the midst of the flames of Hell, all passionately together, is impressive!
I cross the Millennium Bridge, Podgorica’s iconic symbol, and here I am in Stara Varos, the Old Town, tracing back to the Ottoman Empire with its blocky clock tower and the Ribnica Fortress on top. My real gem, however, is the St. George’s Church, the oldest Church in town at the foot of Gorica hill. Just behind the church, a very dark and weed-infested cemetery hides a disquieting legend… all the graves are said to be empty, because the bodies of the buried Christians were exhumed and beheaded by a group of Muslims, taking revenge for the murder of a merchant.
I stop a taxi and head towards Dajbabe Manastir, a beautiful nineteenth-century monastery carved into the rock below the Dajbabska Gora hill in 1897. It is a real emotion to enter the inner cave and to admire the paintings whose surface follows the curved lines of the rock walls, a marriage between artand nature, while in the heart of the sacred place a long-bearded orthodox priest spies on you…
Back to the city center and here I am on my bus to Budva. After 90 minutes of “ups and downs” among wooded mountains, the coast is almost a mirage. Budva is an ancient city with Greco-Roman origins: according to the legend, it was founded by Cadmo and Armonia during their search for Europe kidnapped by Zeus. It is said to be the one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic Sea.
Now it is surrounded by 15th Century medieval walls and still retains the typical narrow medieval streets: a real pleasure to get lost between the Venetian walls in the Old Town (Stari Grad), seems like to wander in the much more popular centres of Split and Dubrovnik. The view from its Citadela is stunning, and nearby you can visit the nice St. Ivan’s Church and St. Sava’s Church.
The food scene in Budva is interesting and for every taste: before going home personally I chose to eat at the Konoba Stari Grad, touristic place but with a fantastic view on the sea and with good seafood. After dinner I go to rest to Freedom Budva, where the friendly Milos explains life, death and miracles of the town.
Budva is very popular for its beaches. Some of them are really close to the city center, like the Mogren beach, 150 m from the Old Town and renamed by the Spanish sailor Mogrini who landed on the coast here after a shipwreck, the famous Jaz Plaza beach and the Sveti Stefan beach, close to the Sveti Stefan Island with its 5-star resort. With beautiful white sand and clear water, they are a typical summer destination, sadly already suffer from commercial over-building. But there is no time for negative thoughts, my solo journey to mysterious Montenegro has just started…
- I went to Montenegro during spring, in my opinion the best season to visit the cities and the coast together with autumn. Winter is perfect for skiing, summer for hiking in the national parks.
- Citizens of EU countries, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, USA, Israel, Japan and most countries of eastern Europe do not need visas for single-entry 90-day visits (for citizens of Russia, Albania and Ukraine the limit is 30 days).
- I chose to get around by bus and train: it is completely safe and there are good connections between the main cities, but if you are here foor a longer period you could evaluate renting a car in your solo journey to mysterious Montenegro.
- You will not find a lot of people speaking English: once arrived I bought this conversation book, but you can also rely on Google Translator.
- Bear in mind that data roaming charges apply!