Beautiful places often get slugged with the tedious tagline ‘The pearl of …’, and the southern coastline of Montenegro is no exception: in this case, it’s ‘…the Adriatic’. But this 80km stretch is less milky dewdrop than eye-popping opal; the malachite greens of the looming mountains and the intense blues of the reflecting waters are dazzling enough to cause hallucinations.
Ogle the splendid cap of northern mountains and impeccable drape of glittering coastline by all means, but to truly get to know Montenegro, a visit to the country’s core is a must. Its beating heart is Mt Lovćen, a 1749m-high symbol of national identity and the very black mountain that gives Crna Gora its name.
The mountainous north is the beefy brawn to the coast’s polished pulchritude. Peaking at 2534m, this is the roof of Montenegro, where profound massifs, otherworldly vistas and a picturesque smattering of old-school villages offer a literal and metaphorical breath of fresh air. The region’s main drawcards are its three national parks.
Wedged between brooding mountains and a moody corner of the bay, the achingly atmospheric Kotor is perfectly at one with its setting. Hemmed in by staunch walls snaking improbably up the surrounding slopes, the town is a Middle-Ages maze of museums, churches, cafe-strewn squares and Venetian palaces and pillories.
Budva is the poster child of Montenegrin tourism. Easily the country’s most-visited destination, it attracts hordes of holidaymakers intent on exploring its atmospheric Stari Grad (Old Town), sunning themselves on the bonny beaches of the Budva Riviera and partying until dawn; with scores of buzzy bars and clanging clubs, it’s not nicknamed ‘the Montenegrin Miami’ for nothing.
Standing at the entrance to the Bay of Kotor like an eager host, Herceg Novi welcomes visitors with bright bouquets, sparkling seas and almost-constant sunshine. Can’t find the party? Look down; it’s all happening in Stari Grad (Old Town), a few dozen wonky steps below the main street.
For a taste of Albania without actually crossing the border, head down to buzzy, beautiful Ulcinj (pronounced ul-tsin-ye). 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 the Albanian seaside towns.
Rising from a green vale surrounded by rough grey mountains, Cetinje is an odd mix of erstwhile capital and overgrown village, where single-storey cottages and stately mansions share the same street. Several of those mansions – dating from the days when European ambassadors rubbed shoulders with Montenegrin princesses – have become museums or schools for art and music.
Dominated by Montenegro’s main port and a large industrial area, Bar is unlikely to be anyone’s holiday highlight, but it is a handy transport hub welcoming trains from Belgrade and ferries from Italy. Otherwise, the only real reason to come is to use the city as a base for visiting the fascinating ruins of Stari Bar (Old Bar) in the mountains behind.
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. On the Montenegrin side, an area of 400 sq km has been protected by a national park since 1983; today, Skadar is renowned as one of Europe’s top bird habitats.
Durmitor National Park
The impossibly rugged and dramatic Durmitor National Park is one of Montenegro’s – and Mother Nature’s – showpieces. Carved out by glaciers and underground streams, Durmitor stuns with dizzying canyons, glittering glacial lakes and nearly 50 limestone peaks soaring to over 2000m; the highest, Bobotov Kuk, hits 2523m.
With no show-stopping sights, Montenegro’s second-biggest city isn’t high on most travellers’ must-see lists. 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.
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.