The juxtaposition of mountains and sea sends the spirit soaring here. Croatia may hog most of the Adriatic coast but Montenegro’s tiny section packs a lot into a very small area. Without the buffer of Croatia’s islands, more of Montenegro’s shoreline has developed into sandy beaches, culminating in a 12km continuous stretch leading to the Albanian border.
You can’t really say you’ve been to Montenegro if you haven’t visited the region that has always been its physical, spiritual and political heartland. A distinct Montenegrin (as opposed to Serbian) identity formed here from the crucible of resistance to Ottoman hegemony represented by Lovćen, the black mountain.
Podgorica is never going to be Europe’s most happening capital but if you can get past the sweltering summer temperatures and concrete apartment blocks, you’ll find a pleasant little city with lots of green space and some excellent galleries and bars. The city sits at the confluence of two rivers. West of the broad Morača is what passes for the business district.
The mountainous north’s premier attractions are its three national parks. Durmitor combines soaring peaks with the depths of the Tara Canyon, allowing for excellent skiing in winter and rafting in summer. Biogradska Gora shelters large swathes of ancient forest within the protecting arms of the Bjelasica mountains.
It’s easy to drive straight through Herceg Novi without noticing anything worth stopping for, especially if you’ve just come from Croatia with visions of Dubrovnik dazzling your brain. However, just below the uninspiring roadside frontage hides an appealing Stari Grad (Old Town) with sunny squares and a lively atmosphere.
In the throes of a major makeover, courtesy of the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of its old naval base into a superyacht marina, Tivat is becoming noticeably more schmick each year. Only a decade ago its palm-tree-lined waterfront was looking decidedly down-at-heel, and coffee and pizza seemed to be the only forms of sustenance.
If you want a feel of Albania without actually crossing the border, buzzy Ulcinj’s the place to go. The population is 61% Albanian (68% Muslim) and in summertime it swells with Kosovar holidaymakers for the simple reason that it’s a lot nicer than any of the Albanian seaside towns.
Rising from a green vale surrounded by rough grey mountains, Cetinje is an odd mix of former capital and overgrown village where single-storey cottages and stately mansions share the same street. Several of those mansions – dating from times when European ambassadors rubbed shoulders with Montenegrin princesses – have become museums or schools for art and music.
Durmitor National Park
Magnificent scenery ratchets up to stupendous in this national park, where ice and water have carved a dramatic landscape from the limestone. Forty-eight peaks soar to over 2000m in altitude, with the highest, Bobotov Kuk, reaching 2523m. From December to March Durmitor is a major ski resort, while in summer it’s a popular place for hiking, rafting and other active pursuits.
The Romans had the right idea, building their summer villas on this lovely bay. If only the new crop of developers had a scrap of their classic good taste. Still, once you get down to the pretty beachside promenade where lush Mediterranean plants perfume the air and a 16th-century Venetian fortress guards a tiny stone harbour, the aberrations up the hill are barely visible.
Lake Skadar National Park
The Balkans’ largest lake, dolphin-shaped Skadar has its tail and two-thirds of its body in Montenegro and its nose in Albania. Covering between 370 and 550 sq km (depending on the time of year), it’s one of the most important reserves for wetland birds in Europe.
Montenegro’s second-biggest city isn’t high on most tourists’ must-see lists and neither should it be. But if you fancy a blow-out in a lively student town, Nikšić (pronounced ‘nik·shich’) has an array of establishments that offer a more genuine (not to mention cheaper) Montenegrin experience than the tourist-populated bars of Budva.