Wedged in the coastal southern part of the Balkan region is the intriguing county of Montenegro. A small sea side and mountainous territory that was recently part of Serbia and is the most recent of the former Yugoslav republics to declare independence. The country retains many ties and similarities to Serbia including use of the Cyrillic alphabet alongside the Latin alphabet and hoards of Serbian tourists come and visit every summer.
It’s orthodox Christian religion makes it somewhat culturally similar to Russia and as such also made it very popular with Russian holiday makers. Many of which came in to start a a new life (or as we’ll discover, more like a new mafia) at the beginning of country’s independence. This sounds very different to any place I’ve visited before, and not your typical over commercialised Mediterranean tourist taps like you will find in Spain and Greece. Intrigued of what I would find in Montenegro and I was very keen to visit. Read on to find out what it’s like experiencing solo travel in Montenegro
I was hanging out in Dubrovnik, Croatia passing time waiting for some friends to arrive in a couple of days, when the opportunity to visit Montenegro came up during a late night discussion at my hostel. The Montenegrin border is only about an hours drive from the centre of Dubrovnik. So it really is possible to see the best of this country in 1 day and return to Croatia in time for dinner. Right now, I must confess, I was not totally alone in Montenegro. I had a driver who took me back and forth from Dubrovnik. He had one of the best mullets I’ve ever seen, but even better than that he was able to answer any questions I had or pass on some random facts on the drive there. Like many people from this part of the world, he was lazy. So as soon as we pulled into a town he went off to find somewhere to sleep leaving me to wander on my own and discover things for myself. He was also sneaky, driving like a maniac on the back unpaved roads. This saved us some time, also avoided the police and took us through a border crossing that wouldn’t be so intimidating to our car and its Croatian number plates (still not a popular site amongst some Montenegrin motorists).
And speaking of the border crossing that was our first stop. The Driver instructed me to take off my sunglasses, put away my camera out of sight, and don’t say anything at all. It seems they are still unimpressed with Croatians (like my guide) coming to visit and it’s likely that they will take any excuse to make our entry more difficult. Thankfully we were in smoothly with only a few questions from the guards all directed at the driver.
The Bay of Kotor
I had seen Montenegro on TV a couple of months before. Prior to this I had no idea of the beauty of the place, and it was only seeing that show that I decided to even consider going to Montenegro. For me the environment has a Milford Sound, NZ feel to it. With towering mountains falling steeply into deep emerald water. Only unlike in Milford Sound, there are ancient forts and settlements dotted around it. Nowhere was this beauty more evident when I got my first view of the Bay of Kotor, often (incorrectly) called Europe’s southern most Fjord.
The Bay of Kotor provided the perfect backdrop for the drive to the Fort of Kotor. There is actually a ferry that allows you to cut across and save some time. But trust me this is a beautiful drive you will probably want it to last longer than cut any time off it. So take the long way around along the waterfront road.
Here are two churches located on adjacent islands. One is Catholic, the other Serbian Orthodox. There is a cool legend and festival that takes place every summer called Fašinada, when local residents take their boats and throw rocks into the sea, widening the surface of the island. If you’re big into your culture you can learn more about it and how the island was formed by seamen at the Wikipedia page for the island.
Before to long, around the bend appears the Fort of Kotor, a UNESCO world heritage site, containing walled town built by the Venetian Republic. That was something I had expected to see. What I wasn’t expecting was the huge flock of cruise ships and tourists everywhere snapping pictures. It had seemed this tucked away exotic place was actually quite the tourist trap (something that I’m allergic too). Oh well nothing for it. At least the ships made for an awesome photo with the mountains.
I won’t bore you with a history lesson, but there is a lot of it beyond those walls, including many beautiful Catholic and Orthodox churches, a stunning town square, and most importantly a night club on top of one of the walls. If this the fort and its history interests you I again refer you to Wikipedia page that will tell the story more accurately and eloquently than I ever could.
By the way, here is the driver heading off for a sleep in the park. I told you that mullet was killer!
Next Destination: Budva
The drive to Budva is not as pretty as what I witnessed so far, so it was the perfect moment for the driver to tell me about the seaside resort we were approaching. Now keep in mind these an anecdotal from person who lives across the border. So I can’t verify how true it all is, but this person has no reason to lie to me.
Fact 1. Budva is kind of like the Surfers Paradise: Magaluf or Cancun for Serbians and Russians. IE It’s a tacky place where many ordinary folk take their summer holiday.
Fact 2. The place is rife with corruption: As the republic of Montenegro only declared independence from Serbia in 2006, the many Russian gangs took it upon themselves to get in on the ground floor and establish organised crime that has control of much of the town. As a result you will see hotels that have been built in the middle of the neighbouring national park, and other sceptical development approvals all thanks to bribes paid to officials to grant permission for construction.
Fact 3. Ugly girls were once forced to leave the street at night. The people running Budva (both official and unofficial) wanted the town to be known for having some of the most beautiful women in the world, as a result, officials would comb the streets to send ugly girls back to their homes / accommodation just as the sun was coming down and the city getting ready to party. I still have trouble believing this one. If anyone can verify this story please leave a comment below.
Fact 4. No water, No parking, No organisation. The city grew rapidly with little thought given to planning. As such there are dead-end streets or narrow streets just hacked out of the bushland, making it hard to turn around and leading to increased traffic jams. There is not enough tap water in the summer months to meet the needs of the holidaying population as such better take your shower early before the water is shut off. Despite all these setbacks the place continues to grow as a tourist destination, and according to Wikipedia the tourist population peaks at 100,000 in the summer months.
So this is actually sounding pretty good to me . – a beach side resort that’s run by the Russian mob, with no ugly girls. I can’t wait to play! Sadly the town has since cleaned itself up. The legendary all night outdoor clubs now close at 1am and anyone (no matter how ugly or beautiful they are) is allowed to roam the streets freely.
First stop was the old town for the obligatory bit of history. This is a pleasantly converted place from old walled city to water front resort with its own small beach and plenty of chilled out bars and cafes to grab a coffee or cocktail. It has a very Mediterranean in feel and would not seem out-of-place in Italy, France or Spain. For what I was after though the pace was a bit slow. So I decided to head along the main beach.
The main beach (Slovenska Beach) looks like where the action happens, it is roughly 1 – 2km long and sprawled with beach clubs along the sand selling deck chairs and day lounges for hire. Behind the sand on the a grassed area is a string of outdoor clubs. From what I recall beach clubs cover the entire length of the beach, so you can forget about laying down your towel and sunbaking for free. That said it was reasonably cheap to grab a deck chair and they are open to a bit of haggling. My experience here was one of the few situations, if not the only situation where service industry staff have struggled with English. Russian and Serbian are definitely the main languages here and this is represented in the majority of signage you see as well for ordering drinks and food.
If there is a positive about having to pay for a place to sit on the beach is that the beach club is usually paying music to make the scene more enjoyable. When I was there in summer 2011 Danza Kuduro (Spanish track the goes Oi Oi Oi) over and over and over) was the song of moment. I was loving it just as much as the locals at the time. But be prepared for whatever is THE dance track of the summer is going to be played ad nauseam. Another good thing? Drinks / ice creams / dirty pizzas and hamburgers with questionable meat can be brought right to your deck chair. Just a word of warning to be careful that you check the change and ask for a bill to check that you weren’t overcharged. They love to rip-off the carefree foreigners at these places. If grabbing a beer, I recommend the “Niko Pivo”, a beer brewed in Montenegro and was once the most popular in Yugoslavia before the break up.
After a dip in the sea (the water was really dirty by the way) I had to get back to meet the driver at our meeting point. He had sworn to leave me behind if I wasn’t on time and that wasn’t something I really wanted to risk in case I’m not considered good lucking enough by the powers that be come night time. It was time to head back to Croatia. This time instead of driving all around the Bay of Kotor we took the short cut with the ferry. We arrived late due to road works and the ferry was very close to departing when we arrived. There was a large queue of cars waiting to get onboard, however the driver just drove right passed them and secured one of the last spots on the boat. Much to the dismay of many waiting in line (mostly Western European tourists based of their German and Dutch number plates).
Montenegro, or at least the part of it that I saw is a truly fascinating place and is surely a contender as one of the most beautiful countries in Europe. Things are done a little bit differently here to what many western tourists would be used to. But if you have an open mind and are keen to holiday like the Russians do. Then Montenegro should be high on your European summer bucket list.