Bursting at the seams with majestic mountains, breathtaking beaches and larger-than-life locals, minuscule Montenegro proves once and for all that good things do indeed come in small packages.
A Warm Welcome
It's nigh on impossible to come across a travel section without someone trumpeting Montenegro as the new 'it' destination. And though the country is rightfully revelling in the spotlight, the people remain as they've always been: candid, convivial and charming. Unlike in many other emerging destinations, hassling and scamming visitors isn't big on Montenegrins' agenda; for the most part, you're more likely to encounter a spontaneous bear hug than a bothersome tout. Whether you're chasing highland hospitality or coastal comradery, expect gregarious greetings, the shirt off your host's back and the addition of at least 5kg; these folks love to feed.
Where Land & Sea Embrace
It's not even 300km from tip to toe, but Montenegro's coastline crams in some of Europe’s most spectacular seaside scenery. Mountains jut sharply from crystal-clear waters in such a way that the word 'looming' is unavoidable. Ancient walled towns cling to the rocks and dip their feet in the water like they're the ones on holiday. In summer, the whole scene is bathed in the scent of wild herbs, conifers and Mediterranean blossoms. All of this – and much, much more – is wrapped up into an area two-thirds of the size of Wales.
When the beaches fill up with Eastern European sunseekers, intrepid travellers can easily sidestep the hordes by getting off the beaten track in the rugged mountains of Durmitor and Prokletije, the primeval forest of Biogradska Gora, or in the many towns and villages where ordinary Montenegrins go about their daily lives. Hike, horse ride, mountain bike or kayak yourself to somewhere obscure and chances are you'll have it all to yourself. This is, after all, a country where wolves and bears still lurk in forgotten corners.
Living on the Edge
Ever since the Roman Empire split in two 1600 years ago, Montenegro has sat on the borderline between east and west. The richness of its cultural history can be seen in the mosaic floors of Roman villas, flamboyantly painted Orthodox monasteries, ornate Catholic churches, elegant minarets of mosques, and the sturdy fortresses built by the numerous powers that have fought over these lands. Then there's the legacy of 50 years as a non-aligned communist state, independent of both the Eastern Bloc and the West. For those with even a passing interest in European history, it's a fascinating place.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Montenegro.
Morača (founded in 1252) is one of the most important Orthodox monasteries in Montenegro, with some of its most accomplished religious art. Its two churches are plastered in frescoes; the Church of the Dormition (Crkva Uspenja Bogorodice) has external frescoes by the celebrated master Djordje Mitrofanović, plus beautiful doors inlaid with geometric patterns. Inside are icons by Mitrofanović as well as other masters. The monastery is located near the banks of the Morača River, 46km from Podgorica.
Christian MonasteryOstrog Monastery
Resting improbably – miraculously? – in a cliff face 900m above the Zeta valley, the gleaming white Ostrog Monastery is the most important site in Montenegro for Orthodox Christians, attracting up to a million visitors annually. Even with its numerous pilgrims, tourists and souvenir stands, it’s a strangely affecting place. A guesthouse near the Lower Monastery offers tidy single-sex dorm rooms, while in summer sleeping mats are provided for free to pilgrims in front of the Upper Monastery.
Slicing through the mountains at the northern edge of the national park, the Tara River forms a canyon that is 1300m deep at its peak (the Grand Canyon plummets a mere 200m deeper). The best views are from the water, and rafting along the river is one of the country's most popular tourist activities. If you’d rather admire the canyon from afar, head to the top of Mt Ćurevac (1625m) – although even this view is restricted by the canyon walls.
Lovćen’s star attraction, this magnificent mausoleum (built 1970 to 1974) sits at the top of its second-highest peak, Jezerski Vrh (1657m). Take the 461 steps up to the entry where two granite giantesses guard the tomb of Montenegro’s greatest hero. Inside, under a golden mosaic canopy, a 28-tonne Petar II Petrović Njegoš rests in the wings of an eagle, carved from a single block of black granite.
FortressKotor City Walls
Kotor's fortifications started to head up St John's Hill in the 9th century and by the 14th century a protective loop was completed, which was added to right up until the 19th century. The energetic can make a 1200m ascent up the fortifications via 1350 steps to a height of 260m above sea level; the views from St John's Fortress, at the top, are glorious. There are entry points near the River Gate and behind Trg od Salate.
Christian MonasteryGradište Monastery
Perched on a hill overlooking Buljarica Beach, Gradište Monastery is a tranquil collection of stone buildings facing onto a central courtyard. The monastery was first mentioned in documents from 1305, although it’s believed to date from 1116. Like many Montenegrin monasteries, it’s had a rough time over the years at the hands of invading armies and has been rebuilt several times.
The ancient walled town overlooking Mala Plaža is largely residential and somewhat dilapidated, a legacy of the 1979 earthquake. This is part of its charm – this Old Town really does feel old, with its uneven cobblestones and paucity of street lighting. Allow at least an hour to simply ramble around to your heart's content. Whatever else you find, spectacular views of Ulcinj and the beach below are guaranteed.
Hulking Mt Orjen (1893m) separates Herceg Novi from Hercegovina and is higher than the more famous Mt Lovćen. It’s a popular spot for hiking and mountain biking (bring plenty of water). A hiking trail commences near the bus station at Herceg Novi (look for the red and white markings); heading towards Kotor, take the first road to the left, followed quickly by a right turn. This is the start of the mammoth Coastal Mountain Traversal hiking path, which goes on to Lovćen, the shores of Lake Skadar, Mt Rumija and Bar.
Christian MonasteryPiva Monastery
Small Piva Monastery has an intriguing history: originally constructed between 1573 and 1586, it was the only Serbian Orthodox monastery to be built during the Ottoman occupation (the Grand Vizier was a relative of Piva's founder; connections have always been everything in Montenegro). It hulked by the Piva River until the late 1960s when plans for the Mratinje Dam forced it to be moved – brick by brick, fresco fragment by fresco fragment – over 12 years to its current location near Gorankso village.
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