From piracy to paddleboarding: on the trail of maritime Montenegro

Lord Byron famously called Montenegro’s coastline the planet’s ‘most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea’. Not surprisingly, visitors are lured to its blonde beaches studded with fishing villages, glitzy marinas and buzzing old towns. But following this trail also uncovers the fascinating heritage of seafaring Montenegro – from Venetian seamen’s palaces and tales of Ottoman-era piracy to summer festivals celebrating the locals’ relationship with the sea.

The impressive view across the Bay of Kotor © Julian Love / Lonely Planet

The impressive view across the Bay of Kotor © Julian Love / Lonely Planet

Tracing the serpentine coast from Boka Kotorska (or ‘Boka’, as the Unesco-listed Bay of Kotor is locally called) to Ulcinj (the southernmost mosque-studded beach town) exposes quaint villages flanked by stone villas and small fishing boats. As evidenced by the recent growth in tourism, this historic maritime region caters marvelously to visitors. Yet authenticity remains, handsomely preserved in medieval forts and churches, grand baroque palazzos, museums filled with naval relics and legends owing to the centuries of foreign rule.

Perast: baroque seafaring capital

The tiny Venetian town of Perast on the Bay of Kotor © Julian Love / Lonely Planet

The tiny Venetian town of Perast on the Bay of Kotor © Julian Love / Lonely Planet

The tiny stone town of Perast was once the seafaring capital of this stretch of the Adriatic. Nineteen baroque palazzos bear witness to its former prosperity, particularly during the 17th and 18th centuries. Bronza Palace and Kolović Palace are striking visitor-friendly waterfront properties, built by wealthy families of seamen and merchants. Bujović Palace is now home to Perast’s seafaring museum.

But the highlight of Perast floats offshore, where you’ll find two picturesque island churches: the 9th-century Benedictine abbey of Sveti Ðorđe (St George) and the 15th-century Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks). It’s believed the latter was erected by locals depositing stones around a rock apparition of the Madonna and Child. Boats transfer visitors frequently from across the bay.

Time a visit around the Fašinada festival (on 22 July), when the people of Perast row in a convoy of boats to drop stones into the sea around Our Lady of the Rocks, symbolically reinforcing it. It’s followed by a vibrant regatta of Boka sailboats, celebrating Perast’s seafaring history.  If there’s a sweet scent lingering in the air, it could be the traditional bobi (a fried sweet) or Perast’s famous almond cake, worth a nibble.

The Adriatic has long been ally to Boka livelihoods and many locals still live off the sea, from expert fishermen to captains of cruise liners. In the summer months, small operators offer all sorts of watersports adventures. Hit the bay on a paddleboard or by kayak, go waterskiing, rent a sailboat or join a guided day cruise – the choice is yours.

Kotor: ancient walled town

St Tryphon's Cathedral in Kotor's old town © Anisha Shah / Lonely Planet

St Tryphon’s Cathedral in Kotor’s old town © Anisha Shah / Lonely Planet

The town of Kotor is a showcase of crumbling churches and Venetian-inspired architecture, with palaces of wealthy seamen dotted along the shore.  As Venice took control of Kotor from 1420 to 1797, the shipping and maritime trade thrived, keeping the region afloat.

Delve into the Maritime Museum of Montenegro, housed inside an 18th-century palazzo in Kotor’s Unesco-inscribed walled old town. Naval instruments, paintings, adorned weapons and model ships fill one of the most comprehensive museums on the Adriatic coast. Positioned at the Square of Boka Marine, the initial collection was founded by the Boka Marine seafaring fraternity, whose honorary admiral was Yugoslavia’s President Tito.

The guild is credited with guarding ancient traditions, best highlighted during the Boka Navy Day celebrations every 26 June. Traditionally robed sailors are given the flag and keys of Kotor, after performing a dance. The custom dates back to 1420, when the dance was performed before the Patron of Kotor, St Trifun, by sailors from Asia Minor.

Sampling fresh seafood is an essential part of a coastal road trip. Kotor’s Galion restaurant serves upscale seafood on a pontoon. Squid-ink risotto, seafood bouillabaisse and monkfish dishes are washed down with Montenegro’s best wine. At the peaceful Stari Mlini, a 300-year-old mill just outside Kotor on the edge of the bay, the menu also focuses on locally sourced fresh fish and seafood.

Ulcinj: former pirate lair

Fishing huts on Port Milena near Ulcinj © Darko Vrcan / Shutterstock

Fishing huts on Port Milena near Ulcinj © Darko Vrcan / Shutterstock

The Ottomans eventually grappled control of the southern town of Ulcinj, giving it today’s Eastern feel, in stark contrast to the Venetian-influenced Boka. Ulcinj gained repute as a formidable pirate lair, evoking tales worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. Today, the town is loaded with maritime heritage and has a predominantly Albanian community.

Presiding over the town, the Sailor’s Mosque (and former lighthouse) commemorates Ulcinj sailors and offers sumptuous sea views. It’s believed that the mosque was built by the Moors in the 14th century to serve as a place of worship for their merchants while they traded along the Adriatic coast.

Ulcinj has some of the most beautiful beaches in Montenegro including, surprisingly, one where you can bare it all, against a skyline of minarets and floating calls to prayer. Deep-sea fishing is a popular activity, while diving enthusiasts will delight in ancient shipwrecks, destroyed by the patrolling pirates. Booming piracy during Ottoman times led to a thriving slave trade across town, with the main square once acting as the slave market.

Tivat: superyacht playground

Porto Montenegro superyacht marina in Tivat © courtesy of Montenegro National Tourism Organisation

Porto Montenegro superyacht marina in Tivat © courtesy of Montenegro National Tourism Organisation

The youngest kid on the tourist scene is a stark contrast to the ancient fishing villages of the Bay of Kotor. Welcome to Tivat, the coastline’s showy newcomer. Positioned on a sunny peninsula at the foot of Mt Vrmac, it was once the region’s centre of salt manufacturing and a strategic naval base. Today, the town hosts an international airport and is undergoing a jetset-lifestyle renaissance thanks to its new superyacht marina. Porto Montenegro, a massive redevelopment of the old naval base and shipyard, is a burgeoning tourism hub, drawing in huge foreign investment and the international nautical community.

The deep-water harbour is flanked by luxury properties, a yacht club and the regal Regent Hotel. Soak in the high-end ambiance with coffee and cake on the harbour before visiting the Naval Heritage Collection museum, pinpointed by its star attraction, a P821 submarine. The beaches are havens for watersports and shallow-water paddling.

Tivat’s current facelift continues its former persona as the summer residence of Kotor aristocracy. At the 500-year-old fortified Buća-Luković Museum & Gallery, the region’s powerful fishing heritage is displayed.  In summer, the grounds host outdoor theatre and concerts.

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