I travelled a lot this year already, especially across the Balkans. Every country there has plentiful things to discover, but assuming that you’d have to choose one country for your summer vacation – where do I send you?
Croatia is loved since years for summer camping by marvellous beaches and outdoor activities and more and more young people are lured to the all-inclusive beaches in Bulgaria. Great festivals make Serbia a beloved destination and the nightlife in Tirana has come to some fame lately. But for this summer I personally choose – Montenegro.
Montenegro is a small country packed with mountains which flow down into pebble beaches and then into the dreamy turquoise-blue Adriatic sea. Montenegro offers mountains and beaches, UNESCO world nature and culture heritage side by side and picturesque old cities built from massive stones are easy to reach from the modern capital, Podgorica.
Some Facts to begin with
Montenegro was part of Yugoslavia until the very end. In the year 2006 the country declared its independence from Serbia and is nowadays one of the smallest countries in Europe inhabited by roughly 623.000 people. It does not have an own currency, but uses the Euro, despite not being a member of the European Union. Montenegro has candidate status to join the EU since 2010. Being on the fence between Europe and Russia, Montenegro joined the NATO just this year in June, stating a will for closer integration into (Western) Europe.
Let the journey begin at… the mountain
When I came to Montenegro, I crossed the border coming from Kosovo at a Southwestern check point in the mountain. The border post lies amidst dark fir forest and has a spooky atmosphere to it. I am not surprised to hear that this is a favourable spot to smuggle drugs and all other kinds of things. The dark high forest is followed by a mountain landscape we usually only know from the advertisement for mountain milk from happy cows. Rich grasslands sprinkled with flowers, wooden houses and small farms, I see cows, goats and donkeys grazing peacefully under fruit trees. An unprecedented idyll, it is calm and the sun does not burn too hot. I take a break in the small town Berane where curious eyes follow me and a lovely lady wants to know why I would come here. “I’m transferring to another bus”, I reply and my Macedonian counts for weak Serbian. “I just wanted to enjoy some fresh air.” Yes, the air is very good, she agrees and so is the view. The tourists which bring money to this region come less in summer though, but mostly in winter when the peaks and valleys are covered in snow. The ski lifts are empty now and so are the numerous hotels and guest apartments. Whoever is looking for some solitude in the mountain in summer should come here. In the Northern part of the country mountain fans can – and only few people know that – find the deepest canyon of Europe in the heart of the Durmitor-mountain: the Tara Canyon.
On the way to Podgorica I cross a forested canyon during sun set which awakens memories of my favourite childhood heroes like Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter (Ronja Räubertochter). It seems almost as if the splitted Matt’s Fort (Mathisburg) sits enthroned in the misty light of the early evening. I can’t but think that I am passing the most beautiful part of Montenegro right here. But I haven’t even seen much yet!
Podgorica is, as a city, not particularly spectacular, but nice and friendly. While I walk through big streets with high houses I almost get the impression to walk through a really big city, but the impression is wrong. The streets are only so wide, because there is so much space. In Podgorica I enjoy a great vegan dinner and at night it feels to me as if I’d be in the heart of Europe and not far away from it at the Balkan peninsula (it’s up to you what to take from that). The atmosphere is relaxed and casual. It’s also up to you to decide how much time you want to spend in Podgorica, but I’d recommend it mostly as a stopover before you travel further towards mountain or the coast. Have some Niksicko beer and a good dinner, before you move on. Looking for the Montenegrinian (capital) city life I definitely recommend to make use of couchsurfing. There’s a surprisingly big couchsurfer community, I immediately received several invitations after I published a public trip and my couchsurfer helped me greatly with some trouble I experienced trying to get to his city. Alternatively there are, like all over Montenegro, cheap hostels (ca. 10€/night).
The old capital of Montenegro, the president resides here until today, is, if you want to put it like this, the outsourced old town of Podgorica. Upsettingly, I didn’t make it there – my bus thwarted my plans (good to know: always bring room for improvisation to Montenegro – and all other Balkan countries). But I only heard the very best and will definitely not miss it during my next visit. And maybe I will also be able to make a detour to the bordering national park?
And it’s about to get even better – the Coast
Montenegro is known for its coastline at the Adriatic Sea, the Italian influence in the old port towns and this is where the tourists go which make the Montenegrian tourism sector flourish. The nice thing about the coast is that it’s yet not lined by big white hotels, the sad thing is that it is changing. Because I don’t want to miss a swim in the sea I settle into Budva, one of the oldest settlements at the Adriatic sea. The old time used to be an island, but is now connected with the main land through a sandbank. At the left side of the old town young people get drunk with sweet cocktails and chase each other through the cold water, accompanied by a strong beat. I decide to walk to the beaches at the left side of the old town where families spend afternoons and evenings at natural pebble beaches.
In Budva not only tourists sit in the cafés in and around the old town, hostels are very affordable (I pay 9€/ night in the Freedom Hostel which I highly recommend!). Surrounded by tourists I still feel like I am right at the heart of Montenegro, learning something about its history and culture. By Budva you find as well Sv. Stefan a much-liked postcard picture. The offshore island which used to be a village is not free to visit as it is packed tightly with hotels nowadays which are very much out of my league.
The coast of Montenegro invites for a stroll by foot, bike or a trip by car – that’s the perfect way to discover spots the mass tourism has not yet revealed.
The Bay of Kotor
What a paradise a place is where world culture and nature heritage meet can be seen at the bay of Kotor. The bay leads in astonishing blue water through big green mountains almost 30km from the sea into the country. Around the city of Kotor the Bay has been listed as UNESCO nature heritage. The only downer, like everywhere at the Adriatic: the roaring cruise ships which blow their dirty smoke into the perfectly blue sky. The best view onto the bay I have from top of the old fortifications of Kotor. In the beaming sun I wander uphill. The view is simply stunning and almost too much for my eyes who are used to stare at a far too small little screen right in front of my nose tip.
The old town of Kotor is shaped as a small triangle surrounded by old city walls. Many of the buildings are not preserved, but were rebuilt after two devastating earth quakes in 1979 with international support. It doesn’t take anything away from the flair and the beauty. If I wouldn’t have been a budget traveller, I totally would have bought some of the very adorable wooden Christmas decoration – you can never start too early to buy Christmas gifts.
In Kotor your hostel of choice should be the „Hostel Anton“, I liked it, at least.
A small country with great potential
Montenegro is a small country, but I enjoyed my time here very much – especially because it is so small and has in this smallness so much to offer. Other than in Croatia tourism is still developing and it is much (!) cheaper than travelling the Northern neighbour. Obviously, you’ll find tourist traps here as well, especially taxis like to charge tourists horrendous amounts. You definitely should avoid to take the first you see and call yourself a cheap one instead, I just asked young people who were around for help. In Montenegro it was for me easy to profit from Couchsurfing and in general the “Rakija-Hospitality” is great. I haven’t tried it myself, but I heard of many travellers that they had no problems hitchhiking the country – they were all men though. I myself travelled Montenegro in May. For your (late) summer vacation I think September would be the best month to travel. Temperatures are still pleasant, but drop down from the burning heat. The summer tourists return home and some normality returns to tourist spots. The sea is still warm, but not a bathtub anymore.
I’m looking forward to the next encounter with Montenegro – with more time and maybe a rented car to discover the roads less taken. I am excited to hear how you experience Montenegro!