Let me begin by saying that Montenegro is a super awesome country and if you’re reading this, you need to visit ASAP. It’s really tiny, but it seems to have a little bit for everyone. Perhaps we’re biased because it was such a breath of fresh air after the high prices and big crowds of the Croatian coast.
While they were both part of the former Yugoslavia only 20 years ago, there is an immediate and palpable difference the moment you cross the border from Croatia to Montenegro. Perhaps it’s because the cyrillic alphabet is much more prominent or because tourist dollars haven’t eliminated the many dilapidated communist-era structures along the road. In any case, our first stop was Kotor, a small town at the very end of a bay that seems like a fjord in the middle of the Mediterranean. The endless twists and turns as the bus wound around the bay revealed ever more amazing views (And made Skylar motion sick).
The town itself is perched right on the water and is surrounded by dramatic mountains that rise directly from the sea. Despite daily cruise ship visits, it never felt overcrowded and the views from the top of the old city walls were worth the 1,400 steps it took to get there. Mostly though, we just enjoyed wandering around the old town and relaxing by the bay. Back when we first arrived in Split, I made a point of noting that we couldn’t leave the coast until we saw a yacht with a helipad. Well, Kotor did not disappoint! The yacht was not even close to the nicest of the yachts tied up on the docks, but it had it’s own color-coordinated helicopter, so it automatically wins for most indulgent.
After a couple of days in Kotor we headed inland to Montenegro’s former royal capital city, Cetinje. The bus ride alone was worth the trip as we ascended from the coast up to the steep mountains that give the country its name. City is probably a generous word when describing Cetinje, but this overgrown mountain town was worthy of an overnight visit. During the Ottoman invasions into the Balkans, the seat of government was moved here since its location up in the mountains made it easier to defend. It has an abundance of tourist sites, but we got the impression that outside of Montenegrins themselves, very few people visit. We had the National History Museum, National Gallery and an important Orthodox monastery almost completely to ourselves. The monastery supposedly contains the right hand of John the Baptist, but we weren’t able to get a look at the relic. As a former capital, Cetinje is also riddled with ornate, crumbling mansions that acted as foreign embassies. We tried to find the former Austro-Hungarian embassy, but couldn’t pinpoint exactly where it was located.
The benefit of visiting a tiny country is that nothing is ever that far away, so from Cetinje we took a 45 minute bus ride to the current capital, Podgorica. Formerly called Titograd, everything we read suggested that Podgorica was a dreary city filled with communist-era apartment blocks and little in the way of tourist-oriented activities. However, we both thoroughly enjoyed our time, due in large part to our wonderful host, Bosko. What the city lacks in visual charm, Bosko made up for in spades. We were treated to countless glasses of his mother’s homemade elderflower juice, cups of Turkish coffee and lots of homemade rakija. His home was a bit out of the center of town, but he frequently dropped everything to give us a ride or call a taxi to pick us up. By the way, Podgorica has the cheapest taxis ever and they’re even metered! A ride across the entire city never cost us more than €2.50! While it is true that the city isn’t much to look at, we had a great time strolling the wide boulevards and sitting at cafes in the evening. We also stopped in at the newly constructed, massive Orthodox temple and were blown away. Nearly every surface was covered with beautiful icons and those that weren’t were covered in beautiful marble geometric designs.
Early one morning Bosko drove us in his fancy Mercedes to the holiest Orthodox site in all of Montenegro, Ostrog Monastery. It’s not clear how it was constructed, but it’s placement high up on the side of a mountain is fairly impressive. However, most of the site’s appeal is for the numerous pilgrims that visit and pay homage to the bones of St. Basil. It was interesting to watch the rituals and there were some very pretty icons, but Skylar and I both felt there was a knowledge gap that prevented us from really understanding what we were watching. The next day we took a day trip to Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkan Peninsula. There wasn’t much to see and the boat tour we took wasn’t a great value, but the lake was pretty and we enjoyed relaxing on the water. I think giving the lake its proper due requires a rental car and several days to explore the coast line.
After our day trip to the lake, we took a bus to the small town of Trebinje in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) or should I say Republika Srpska? The politics of geography get very complicated once you cross into BiH. More to come soon.
I don’t know that I’ve sold Montenegro as best as I can with this post, but I assure you all that it is stunningly beautiful and everyone we met was incredibly nice. So as I said above, go to Montenegro ASAP!