Nicola visits Montenegro & Croatia14.01.17 | Nicola Brereton
Montenegro? I can’t say I knew much about it other than the name and that it was in the Balkans and from what I had seen in travel brochures and magazines I knew it would be beautiful but I had no idea just how stunning!
As Croatia’s lesser-known neighbour, Montenegro shares a lot of the same architecture, scenery and climate. But where Croatia’s popularity has rocketed over the year, Montenegro is still relatively unknown. Just like Croatia, it has its own Adriatic coastline, historic walled towns, beautiful lakes and mountains but where Croatia has been bitten by the tourist bug, Montenegro still retains a lot of its old charm and warmth. Back in the 1970s it was the playground for the rich and famous as well as European royalty, but the Balkans conflict put an end to that, and since then the turbulent history and a lack of tourist infrastructure have helped keep it under the radar until now.
It is still one of the world’s youngest countries (only beaten by Kosovo). After the breakup of Yugoslavia it joined up with Serbia and was part of ‘Serbia and Montenegro’ until it got its independence in 2006. Although you can still see signs of the communist legacy, like deserted concrete former state-run hotels, there is a lot of redevelopment going on with new hotels and apartment blocks springing up along the coast. The country is investing hard as it tries to join to European Union.
The only way to describe the scenery in Montenegro is truly amazing! With mountain-edged coastlines, mystical islands sprouting from the sea, walled towns straight out of story books and their very own Tara Canyon – 2nd only to the Grand Canyon and especially the stunning fjords throughout the country. In my opinion, all making Montenegro the most naturally beautiful country in Europe.
With over 300km of coastline along the Adriatic Sea, with resorts ranging from tiny pine-fringed beachside villages to the main tourist town of Budva, known for its sandy beaches and nightlife, this historic district is home to a seaside citadel and religious sites like the Church of Santa Maria in Punta, established in the 9th century.
Just off the Budva coast, Sveti Stefan is a picture-perfect island made up of terracotta-tiled fishermen’s cottages dotted with evergreen trees set in a turquoise bay. Dating back to the 15th century it started off as a fortified fishing village. But the fishermen were replaced by royalty and celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton when it was turned into a luxury hotel in the 1950s. It was abandoned in the 1980s after the Balkan conflict but after a stunning and very sympathetic makeover was reopened a few years ago as part of the luxury Aman Resorts hotel group. It’s so exclusive that you can only go as far as the walkway onto the island before being redirected by hotel security. Not for the fainthearted, the resort is made up of lots of little pathways and steps leading off to what feels like very secluded cottages, most with stunning views across the bay. Breakfast is enjoyed under the shaded trees with the most magnificent views out to sea or towards the highest peak church, 1 of 3 on the Island.
A holiday to Montenegro cannot be complete without a visit to the beautiful Bay of Kotor (often referred to as Europe’s most southernmost fjord). It certainly looks like one, with towering peaks surrounding a rocky coastline dotted with pretty waterside towns. With the cruise ships docked in the harbour you could almost be mistaking for thinking you were in Norway – apart from the climate here being much more Mediterranean than Scandinavian. The Bay of Kotor – a submerged river valley that’s made up of four connected bays which look like a butterfly shape as they stretch inland from the coast, has scenery as stunning as any ‘proper’ fjord and with bags of history and culture it is no wonder UNESCO have listed it as one of their World Heritage sites.
The most famous town in the Bay is Kotor itself. From the outside it looks like a normal waterside town until you get up close and see its famous city walls. These stone walls run all the way up to the steep hillside above the town offering any ‘adventurer’ spectacular panoramic views across the bay. Inside the gates the jumble of streets mean it’s easy to get lost within the tiny lanes but that is all part of the charm and is an really enjoyable place to walk around, with fascinating architecture, piazzas, and a genuine small-town feel, snug in its city walls. And for cat lovers, Kotor is famous for its feline residents and even has its own museum dedicated to the local celebrities who can often be found lazing under shaded trees.
Further around the bay, about a 15 minute drive is the beautiful town of Perast, with its Italian style churches and palaces, you could be mistaken for thinking you are in Italy. Once a prosperous ship building town full of rich merchants living in the grand palazzos that overlooked the water the town is now home to only approximately 400 people – about 20 people for each church – with many of the once stunning palazzos now deserted and crumbling away. What it lacks in population it certainly makes up for in stunning surroundings. Small intimate restaurants pepper the waterfront with amazing views, and an afternoon whiling away in one of these restaurants with a bottle of the local wine and fabulous food is highly recommended.
Take a short boat ride out to the twin islands of St George and the man-made island of Our Lady on the Rocks. Legend has it that sailors spotted an image of the Virgin Mary on the rock here so each time they returned from a successful voyage they added another rock as on offering. Eventually so many were added that is island emerged that the church was then built on top of it. Even now the villagers still add rocks once a year as part of the fašinada festival. Brides still leave their wedding bouquet here with many dotted around the church and alter.
Further around the Bay of Kotor, just past Tivat Airport is the very –up-and-coming Porto Montenegro. Once a naval shipyard named Arsenal, the port fell in to disuse after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the decline of the Yugoslav Navy, it is now a thriving, modern and luxury port which will have berths for up to 650 yachts – 150 of them super yachts, with the Saudi Royal family keeping their European super yachts moored here all year round.
The Regent Porto Montenegro is the Ports flagship hotel, commanding amazing views of all the surrounding harbour and adjoining the famous Montenegro yacht club. The rich, the beautiful and the jetset have made this their new ‘secret’ playground with high end boutiques and millionaires toys in abundance. With a real mix of old and new, walking around the marina with lovely palm trees along the shoreline, beautiful gardens and seasonal flowers is a must for any visitor or just sit outside one of the many cafe’s enjoying the sun and the stunning surroundings.
Direct flights from the UK to Montenegro and seasonal, however there are more flights into Dubrovnik in Croatia, approximately 73km away. The drive from Dubrovnik is simply stunning, with breath-taking views from start to end. The car ferry between Lepetane and Kamenari at the narrowest point of the bay (takes about 5 mins, costs €4 per car and runs every 15–30 mins of whenever it’s full) offers even more stunning views.
Montenegro is a perfect location for a beach holiday or just a short break if preferred, it is also a perfect destination for a twin-center with Dubrovnik, a fantastic place to visit — a walled, orange-roofed old city perched above the Adriatic, islands in the background. George Bernard Shaw once said, “If you want to see heaven on Earth, come to Dubrovnik” — and as a very well-travelled man, he would know.
With its awe inspiring landscape and wealth of history in this beautiful old town, you cannot fail to be enticed by Dubrovnik’s many charms. It is visually truly beautiful, the old town being like something straight off of a movie set with a lot of Game of Thrones filmed within the walls of the medieval town. The immaculately cobbled streets and magnificent stone buildings make an amazing backdrop amongst the hustle and bustle of the local restaurants, cafes and bars that spill out all along the main streets.
During the Croatian War of Independence with the Yugoslavian Army fought between 1991 and 1995, Dubrovnik played an important role in fighting for Croatian independence. After a 7 month long siege of the old town they were successful in pushing back the opposing army and defending the city and surrounding areas. Today you would struggle to find any visual evidence of the damage caused to this beautiful city apart from the apart from the odd bullet hole left behind. The old city was quickly and sympathetically restored back to its forma glory.
For breath-taking views of Dubrovnik and the surrounding Adriatic Sea, a cable car ride up to the top of Mount Srdj is a must. Visitors to the Old Town have been enjoying the cable car ride up 778 metres in around 3 minutes, affording the most spectacular panoramic views since the 1960’s. Although it was destroyed in the war, along with the cross that sits atop, both were fully restored and have been a must for visitors ever since.
No visit to Dubrovnik is complete without a walk around the stone walls surrounding the old town – considered one of the best protection systems in Europe. This impressive defensive structure has been protected the city of Dubrovnik and it’s people for thousands of years and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The walls are open daily; however, it is recommended you do this either first thing in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the hot sun and the throng of tourists that decent on the city. With two entrances to the city and wall, you can only walk in a counter clockwise direction. Local guides recommend starting at Ploče Gate in order to get the hilly part and the majority of the stairs completed at the beginning, starting here is also where you will get the best views of the Old Town.
As the sun sets over the harbour, the city takes on a completely new vibe. As the tourists and cruise ships leave, the streets take on a whole new beauty with plenty of restaurants and bars that are hidden down side streets becoming alive, many of which offer stunning views of this amazing city and its surrounding coast. Head to the main area of Stradun, and sit back and enjoy watching the hustle and bustle of the beauty of Dubrovnik at night. With plenty to offer the most discerning clients from great restaurants, and jazz bars to more intimate venues as well as family friendly dining options, Dubrovnik is sure to cater to everyone.
As well as touring the stunning city, be sure to make time to head out and into the beautiful surrounding areas or simply enjoy the experience of swimming in the Adriatic. The Bellevue Hotel or the Excelsior Hotel are both set in stunning locations with facilities to swim in the sea or head to a public beach like City Beach, just outside the Old City. Beyond that, there’s Lokrum Island just off the coast, a short boat ride from the hotel will take you across to the island where you can enjoy a day at the beach and swim in calmer waters. Nearby are also the island of Korčula as well as the resort town of Cavtat – the southernmost town in Croatia which can be reached by a boat trip from the city harbour in Dubrovnik. With a population of around 1500 this quiet but beautiful spot is well worth a visit in its own right.
No matter what you decide to do, one thing is for sure,Montenegro and Dubrovnik will both leave lasting memories of beautiful destinations, which you will want to return to time and time again.
Contact Nicola to book your holiday to Montenegro and Croatia.