Rugged mountains, medieval villages and a dramatic Adriatic coastline; Montenegro is the pearl of the Balkans
My friend E thinks I am mad. I have been to Montenegro.Often. My friend E does not do Eastern Europe. Especially not that bit of Eastern Europe. Which used to be part of what was once Yugoslavia. And which, during the 1990’s was at the mercy of a terrible civil war.
My friend E was a young Reuter’s rookie back then. She took photographs which she relayed back to her London office. But the images are still burned firmly in her memory. ‘Uh uh’, she says, resolutely shaking her head, ‘not for me’.
The war carved the Balkans up into small slices strewn along the Dalmatian coast: the Serbs and the Croats and the Bosnians are all separate from today’s Montenegrins who occupy the newest and tiniest country in Europe, all 700,000 of them, which is anxiously striving for EU membership.
We arrived in Kotor (via Dubrovnik’s Cilipi Airport, over the border in Croatia) one warm September afternoon in a cab that raced along the skinny-ribbon road that winds its tortuous and sometimes terrifying way around the Boka Kotorska (The Bay of Kotor), hugging the precipitous overhang of mountains slipping into the sea.. The Boka (literally, ‘inlet’) is a fjord that runs inland from the Adriatic Coast for 28km, and the walled city of Kotor, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stands at its furthest recess. The bay is shadowed by the hulking massif of Mount Lovcen which rises with staggering and absolutely perpendicular splendour out of the sea, as if soaring to gasp for air. During the summer you’re advised to be on the south side of Kotor where the afternoons are cooler, during the winter, to the north because you can enjoy later hours of sunlight on cold days. The British who live here describe the south side as ‘The Dark Side’. Italian writer, Nicolo Carnimeo, would agree: of his experience of a winter in the Boka he wrote, ‘the sea freezes and in the morning the first rays of sun melt the ice, turning the water into a thin layer of very light fog. Boats then seem to sail on the clouds, as in a painting …’
But we, thankfully, did not need to worry about freezing seas or cold fogs. September in Montenegro is hot. Hot enough still for bikinis and bare feet, for late night al fresco dining, for swimming, Montenegrin style, directly off the roadside pier and into water.
We settled ourselves for the week into a small apartment on the ground floor of a 400-year-old villa. Much of the architecture here is Venetian influenced (in the 14th Century Kotor was part of the Venetian Republic) with its metre-thick honey coloured stone walls, dusty rose roof tiles and shuttered windows and much of what is – or has – fallen into disrepair is being bought up by eager property speculators and renovators, including the Russians who are in evidence everywhere splashing cash and drinking champagne on million dollar yachts moored in the Kotor Marina. In nearby Tivat, they have invested in a five-star luxury development, the Hotel Splendid (where you can rent the penthouse at $4.700 a night). The Splendido was a 300 ton brigantine captained by Ivo Visin who, in 1852, set out to circumnavigate the globe with ‘ten guns and a crew of eleven’. It took him seven years and he returned home to his Montengrin village of Prcanj to tumultuous applause and adulation. The boat’s name has inspired the naming of many hotels in the country, including the one in Tivat which locals refer to – with just a hint of derision on account of the opulent black and gold lobby – as the Russian Embassy.
And for a week we lived Montenegrin style. We wandered along the water ways, leaping in for a dip when the urge took us or the heat overcame us; we took local buses. The Blueline runs reliably and cheaply (a $18 cab fare translates as just $1.25 on the bus) every half hour between Herceg Novi near the border with Croatia and Tivat at the end of the Boka before the muddled, meandering fjord straightens itself out along the Adriatic Coast all the way to Albania and across which, on a clear day, you can see Italy. And we ate and drank locally. And copiously.
Not surprisingly Montenegro boasts fabulous sea food. We dined at the Galion restaurant, a Perspex cube on the water’s edge under the now defunct and objectionably 1970’s styled Hotel Fjord, and paid $9 for a bowl of delicious mussels. The next day we sought out the local fish mongers at Dobrota and bought them for $1.25 a Kilo and prepared them for supper ourselves with the local white grape ($4.10 a bottle), garlic and the fattest beef tomatoes you have ever seen. We ate squid stuff with the local meat, prsut, and cheese; we ate sea bass; we ate the biggest shrimps I have ever eaten. We just ate.
And we explored. Often on foot (to make up for all the eating). We spent a day in Perast, the ‘Jewel in the Adriatic Crown’. Not only does this picturesque little village host a jumble of fabulous sea front houses and small palaces, its profile is punctuated by half a dozen church spires, and directly opposite, as if floating on the waters that mirror this architectural tableau reminiscent of its Venetian ancestry, are two tiny islands, one of which is manmade.
In 1452, two fishermen – so history relates – rowed into the bay with a boatful of rocks. Their mission was to create a chapel for the blessing of sailors. But first they had to build an island to put it on. A lofty plan: it took nearly 200 years for the community to complete Our Lady of the Rock; the building of the island began with the hulls of scuttled ships and then an awful lot of stones, boatload after boatload of them, rowed laboriously out into the bay. Anybody who can afford to buy in Perast will enjoy Montenegro’s trade mark view, featured on the cover of dozens of guide books. We couldn’t afford to buy a house there, but we could afford lunch (delicious tuna salad doused in olive oil) and a visit to the little maritime museum which boasts dozens of portraits of gloomy Serbs and stunning views from upstairs windows across the water. And we could afford a boat ride to the island. Once, only a few years ago, you’d have had to persuade a local fisherman to take you across and it would have cost you mere cents. Now it’ll cost you $6 and you can take a ride on any one of dozens of boats that chug to and fro between the mainland and Our Lady of the Rock which lies alongside a second tiny island – a natural reef this time rather than a man-made one – upon which stands the cypress shaded Benedictine Monastery of St George and is the burial place of generations of past sea captains.
Our Lady of the Rock isn’t just a tourist destination. It remains – quite firmly – a sacred place. The chapel that stands there, with its distinctive octagonal bell tower was dedicated to the intercession of the Virgin Mary in 1630 and its interior pays prodigious and quite beautiful homage to the work of a local and self taught artist, Tripo Kokolja (1661 – 1713), 68 of whose paintings cover the walls and ceiling. We arrived on the island with two travelling Germans and for about seven minutes could enjoy the exquisite blue and white peace of the place. Until a vast cruise boat of French appeared and decanted onto the island, rushing about with cameras, posing against centuries old statues and generally making a raucous nuisance of themselves. I sat in a scant scrap of shade and observed with some satisfaction as a G-string clad woman was firmly evicted by the resident priest. She minced crossly back to her boat and sulked on board until her travelling companions had tired of their picture taking. And then they all left and we were able to savour the quiet, watery sanctuary until our own sea taxi returned.
We explored the walled city of Kotor and sat in a café in the square beneath the Cathedral of St Tryphon and ate some more. We drank cold local beer or white wine and indulged in a spot of that perfect café-culture past-time: people watching. We saw Roma gypsies plying their lace; children who lived in the extraordinary city practicing their cheer leading techniques, teenagers being teenagers, tripping along cobbled streets polished to dangerous sheen in impossibly high heels, lounging like lizards in bars, playing on their cell phones, smoking their cigarettes (Montenegro is still disarmingly smoker-friendly, tossing two defiant fingers at the legislation that keeps most smokers in Europe out in the cold, literally) and hiding behind huge sunglasses. Kotor-cool. It is cool. It’s vibrant and noisy, music throbs from every bar as if in competition with one another, it’s colourful and chaotic, cats caterwaul and whilst no vehicles are allowed inside the city you can hear the roar of motorbikes outside the city walls. It is young and old and the decaying scent of history is perfumed with the promise of youth and newness.
For the more energetic, there’s always the option to walk the wall. Kotor is surrounded by a 4km city wall (twice the length of the one around more famous Dubrovnik) that staggers up the mountain behind the city, interspersed with the odd chapel, and then plunges back down again. Guide books suggest making the hike before it gets too hot and going armed with sufficient drinking water. We witnessed a number of earnest tourists doing just that on our way into the city for a mid-morning espresso. We preferred to admire it from a small distance. It’s almost invisible by day, its stone walls camouflaged against the scrub and rock on which it sits. But come nightfall, it is lit up and hangs on the mountain like a brilliant string of bright beads. My husband and I spent a little time every evening admiring it and considering what its outline brought to mind: a love heart lying on its side, said I (a romantic to the last). A lion’s head, said my husband. Or a shark with its mouth wide open. ‘Look, you can see its teeth’.
And then we went shopping and I was seduced into buying a lambs-wool coat by a boutique owner who told me it was the work of one of the country’s youngest and funkiest and up-and-coming (like Montenegro itself) designers. Utterly seduced (and despite the fact I spend most of my year living in shorts and flip flops), I made my purchase and belatedly was struck by a moment of panic. ‘What if she was lying?’ I asked husband worriedly, ‘what if it was made in a sweat shop in China?’.
But the label said: Made in Serbia. Which was close enough.My friend E is going to be dead jealous when she sees it. www.visit-montenegro.com
WORDS: ANTHEA ROWAN
IMAGES: FOOD & TRAVEL, ISTOCK