Art & Architecture
Montenegro's historic preoccupation with religion and war focussed its earliest artistic endeavours on sumptuously painted churches, beautifully crafted weapons and epic poetry. The modern stereotype of the bed-wetting poet whimpering on about romantic failures or fields of daffodils had no place in macho Montenegrin society; traditionally the role of the warrior and the poet went hand in hand. Peacetime in Communist Yugoslavia saw a flourishing of divergent artistic expression, particularly in the fields of painting, sculpture, cinema and architecture.
Towering over Montenegrin literature is Petar II Petrović Njegoš (1813–51); towering so much, in fact, that his mausoleum overlooks the country from the top of the black mountain itself. This poet and prince-bishop produced the country’s most enduring work of literature, Gorski vijenac (The Mountain Wreath; 1847), a verse play romanticising the struggle for freedom from the Ottomans. It’s not without controversy, as the story glorifies the massacre of Muslims on Orthodox Christmas Eve in 1702, known as the Montenegrin Vespers. It’s not certain whether it actually happened, but according to the story, Vladika Danilo, Njegoš’s great-granduncle, ordered the leaders of the Montenegrin tribes to kill all of their kinspeople (men, women and children) who had converted to Islam. Some commentators have drawn a parallel between this story of ethnic cleansing and the atrocities that took place in Bosnia in the 1990s.
Following in the same epic tradition was Avdo Međedović (1875–1953), a peasant from Bijelo Polje who was hailed as the most important guslar (singer/composer of epic poetry accompanied by the gusle, a one-stringed folk instrument) of his time. If you think that ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is too long, it’s lucky you didn’t attend the marathon performance over several days where Međedović is said to have recited a 13,331-line epic.
He may have been born a Bosnian Croat, but Ivo Andrić (1892–1975), Yugoslavia’s greatest writer, had a home in Herceg Novi. Andrić was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1961 for his brilliant Bridge over the Drina (1945). While you’re rafting along the Tara River, it’s worth remembering that the Tara becomes the Drina just over the Bosnian border.
Miodrag Bulatović (1930–91) was known for his black humour and graphic portrayals of dark subjects. His most famous books including Hero on a Donkey (1967), The Red Rooster Flies Heavenward (1959) and The Four-Fingered People (1975) are available in English.
Danilo Kiš (1935–89) was an acclaimed author of the Yugoslav period who had several novels translated into English, including Hourglass (1972) and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976). He was born in what is now Serbia but moved to Cetinje with his Montenegrin mother after his Hungarian Jewish father was killed in the Holocaust.
Montenegrin-born Borislav Pekić (1930–92) was another significant name in Yugoslav literature. His huge opus includes novels, dramas, science fiction, film scripts, essays and political memoirs. His work has been translated into many languages, but at present only the early novels The Time of Miracles (1965), The Houses of Belgrade (1970) and How to Quiet a Vampire (1977) are available in English.
A popular modern author is Andrej Nikolaidis, whose novel Sin (The Son; 2011) won the European Union Prize for Literature and has been translated into English, alongside Dolazak (The Coming; 2009). Another one to watch is Ognjen Spahić, whose Hansenova djeca (Hansen’s Children; 2004) – available in English – won a regional award.
Montenegro’s fine-arts legacy can be divided into two broad strands: religious iconography and Yugoslav-era painting and sculpture.
The nation’s churches are full of wonderful frescoes and painted iconostases (the screen that separates the congregation from the sanctuary in Orthodox churches). A huge number were produced by members of the Dimitrijević-Rafailović clan from Risan in the Bay of Kotor, who turned out 11 painters between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Earlier Serbian masters (pre-dating Montenegro) include Longin, a monk from 16th-century Peć (in present-day Kosovo), whose unique approach to colour created otherworldly scenes of saints and Serbian royalty backed by blue mountains and golden skies. You’ll find his work at Piva Monastery. Following him half a century later was Ðorđe Mitrofanović from Hilandar (now in northern Greece), whose accomplished icons and frescoes feature in the Morača and Pljevlja monasteries. A talented contemporary of his was Kozma, who also worked at Morača.
Yugoslavia proved to be something of a golden age for the arts. Among the modern painters, an early great was Petar Lubarda (1907–74) whose stylised oil paintings included themes from Montenegrin history. Miodrag (Dado) Ðurić (1933–2010) was known for his accomplished surrealist paintings and drawings, but he also produced engravings, sculpture and, in later years, digital work. In 2012 an offshoot of the Montenegrin Art Gallery devoted to 20th-century and contemporary art was opened in Cetinje and named in his honour.
Other names to look out for include Milo Milunović (1897–1967), Jovan Zonjić (1907–61), Vojo Stanić (born 1924), Filip Janković (born 1935), Dimitrije Popović (born 1951) and sculptor Risto Stijović (1894–1974). The best places to see the works of these and others are at Cetinje’s Montenegrin Art Gallery and the museums and galleries of Podgorica.
Of the contemporary crop, one to watch is Jelena Tomašević, whose paintings and video installations have been exhibited in New York, Berlin, Milan and Venice. Born in Belgrade to Montenegrin parents, performance artist Marina Abramović won the Golden Lion in the Venice Biennale in 1997. One of her most well-known pieces was The Artist Is Present, where she sat immobile in a chair in New York's Museum of Modern Art for 75 days while museum visitors took turns to sit opposite her.
In the decade since independence, Montenegrin cinema has yet to set the world alight. Someone that’s working hard to change that is Marija Perović, who is credited with being the country’s first female film and TV director. She followed up her 2004 debut Opet pakujemo majmune (Packing the Monkeys, Again!) with Gledaj me (Look at Me) in 2008.
Montenegro-born Veljko Bulajić has been directing movies since the 1950s, with his most recent being Libertas in 2006. His Vlak bez voznog reda (Train Without a Timetable) was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1959, while Rat (War) was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 1960 Venice Film Festival. In 1969 he wrote and directed Bitka na Neretvi (The Battle of Neretva), which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Another noteworthy Yugoslav-era director was Živko Nikolić (1941–2001), who directed 24 features from the 1960s to 1990s.
Montenegro’s biggest Hollywood success is cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, whose titles include King of New York (1990), Kalifornia (1993), Mr & Mrs Smith (2005), Hairspray (2007) and Rock of Ages (2012).
Ironically, the movie that springs to most people’s minds when they think of Montenegro is the 2006 Bond flick Casino Royale; the Montenegrin scenes were actually shot in the Czech Republic. The Golden Palm–nominated Montenegro (1981), directed by Serb Dušan Makavejev, was set in Sweden.
Traditional Montenegrin houses are sturdy stone structures with small shuttered windows and terracotta-tiled pitched roofs. In the mountainous regions a stone base is topped with a wooden storey and a steeply pitched cut-gable roof designed to let the snow slide off. The kula is a blocky tower-like house built for defence that’s common in the country’s far eastern reaches. They are usually three to four stories tall, with no windows on the lowest floor, and they sometimes have ornate overhanging balconies in wood or stone on the upper level.
The influence of Venice is keenly felt in the walled towns of the coast, which echo the spirit of Dubrovnik and other Dalmatian towns. Cetinje’s streets include late-19th-century mansions and palaces remaining from its days as the royal capital.
It’s easy to be dismissive of the utilitarian socialist architecture of the Yugoslav period, yet there are some wonderfully inventive structures dating from that time. James Bond would have been quite at home settling in with a martini beneath the sharp angles and bubbly light fixtures of some of the 1970s hotels. It would be a shame if those that haven’t already been bowled over or modernised aren’t restored to their period-piece glory.
As for the concrete apartment blocks of the cities, they may look grim but they’re hardly the slums you’d expect of similar-looking housing projects in the West. While nobody seems to be charged with the upkeep of the exteriors, inside they’re generally comfortable and well looked after.
Feature: Music, Sacred & Profane
Archbishop Jovan of Duklja was producing religious chants in the 10th century, making him the earliest known composer in the region. Traditional instruments include the flute and the one-stringed gusle, which is used to accompany epic poetry.
The most famous Montenegrin musician of the moment is 30-year-old classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglić, who won the Breakthrough Artist prize at the 2012 Classical BRIT Awards and has been touring the world on the back of number-one recordings on the US, UK and Australian classical charts.
In the 1990s, the excruciatingly named Monteniggers carried the torch for home-grown hip hop. Continuing on the unfortunate name theme, Rambo Amadeus is Montenegro’s answer to Frank Zappa. He’s been releasing albums since the late 1980s, flirting with styles as diverse as turbofolk, hip hop and drum and bass – all with a large serving of laughs. In 2012 he created one of the more memorable Eurovision Song Contest moments, performing his song 'Euro Neuro' backed by a wooden 'Trojan donkey' and breakdancers.
If anyone doubts the relevance of Eurovision, they should travel through Montenegro. Montenegrins love their local pop, particularly if it’s a gut-wrenching power ballad or a cheesy ditty played loud and accompanied by a thumping techno beat.
The Montenegrin language lends itself to poetry and it was once commonplace to frame formal language in verse. A British diplomat from the time of King Nikola reported that a government minister once delivered an entire budget in verse.
Northern Montenegro and other parts of the Western Balkans are a treasure trove of carved medieval tombstones known as stećci. Their origins and symbolism continue to puzzle archaeologists. A collection of stećci in Cetinje and the northern mountains were added to the Unesco World Heritage list in 2016.
Sidebar: Circle Dance
The unusual oro is a circle dance accompanied by the singing of the participants as they tease each other and take turns to enter the circle and perform a stylised eagle dance. For a dramatic conclusion, the strapping lads form a two-storey circle, standing on each other’s shoulders.
In this part of the world, questions of ethnicity are so thickly embroiled with history, politics and religion that discussions of identity can be a minefield. Yet to an outsider, the more you travel in the Balkans, the more you're struck by the similarities between its various peoples: the warm hospitality, the close family bonds, the social conservatism, the fiery tempers, and the passionate approach to life.
Ethnicity vs Nationality
Throughout the Balkans, people tend to identify more by ethnicity than citizenship. This is hardly surprising; a family that has never left its ancestral village may have had children born in Montenegro, parents born in Yugoslavia, grandparents born in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and great-grandparents born in the Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian Empires. Countries may come and go, but self-identity tends to stick around. It’s understandable then that an Albanian, Bosniak (South Slav Muslim), Croat or Serb might not call themselves Montenegrin, even if their family has lived in the area that is now Montenegro for generations.
In the last census (2011), the country’s main ethnic groups were Montenegrins (45%), Serbs (29%), Bosniaks (9%) and Albanians (5%). Tellingly, the next major group was ‘Does not want to declare’ at 5%. To give you an idea of the kind of ethnic knots people tie themselves in, smaller categories represented in the census include Montenegrin Serbs, Serb Montenegrins, Montenegrin Muslims, Muslim Montenegrins, Muslim Bosniaks, Bosniak Muslims, Bosnians and just plain Muslims.
In fact, these myriad ethnic identities have little to do with actual genetic heritage and despite the 29 ethnicities listed in the census, around 88% of the population could reasonably be labelled as some flavour of South Slav, with Albanians (5%) and Roma (1%) being the largest non-Slavic minorities. Scratch a little further and its even more complicated, as numerous armies have raped and pillaged their way through these lands over the millennia.
Montenegrins are in the majority in most of the country, while Albanians dominate in the southeast (Ulcinj), Bosniaks in the far east (Rožaje and Plav), and Serbs in Herceg Novi (due to a large influx caused by the Yugoslav wars) and parts of the north and east (Plužine, Pljevlja, Bijelo Polje, Berane and Andrijevica).
Religion and ethnicity broadly go together in these parts. More than 72% of the population is Orthodox (mainly Montenegrins and Serbs), 19% Muslim (mainly Bosniaks and Albanians), 3% Roman Catholic (mainly Albanians and Croats) and only 1% atheist.
A popular self-belief is that Montenegro has a better tolerance of ethnic and religious minorities than many of its neighbours. This is possibly true, although you may still hear some mutterings from locals about the threat of a Greater Serbia/Albania/Croatia.
The Warrior Spirit
It's no surprise that the areas where people most strongly identify as Montenegrin are those that were part of Montenegro before the dawn of the 20th century, especially in the old heartland around Cetinje. This is where the archetype of the noble Montenegrin warrior, fierce in battle and devoted to freedom and the Orthodox Church, has its origins.
A staple feature of nearly every museum in Montenegro is a display of weapons. These aren’t any old guns and swords. Inlaid with mother-of-pearl and set with precious jewels, these are finely crafted objects that have been handled with obvious love and care. The period architecture was solid and perfunctory and the paintings largely devotional, but when it came to making guns, the Montenegrins were happy to indulge themselves. Men weren’t properly dressed without a pair of fancy pistols protruding from their waistbands; one can only imagine what kind of accidental injuries were sustained.
One of the most famous Montenegrin warrior stories (and there are many) is about Aleksandar Lekso Saičić, a volunteer in the Russian army in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. The oft-told tale – immortalised also in song – goes that the Russian commander asked for a volunteer to duel to the death with a legendary and hitherto invincible samurai. The cowardly Russian troops shuffled their feet, but the Montenegrin villager put his hand up and – in a whirl of savage sword clanging – decapitated the Japanese samurai, paid tribute to the body and gained instant junak (hero) status for life (and beyond).
The warrior spirit may traditionally have been at the heart of Montenegrin society, but today most people are keen to get on with their lives and put the turbulence of the last 25 years behind them. Gunshots can still be heard here but only in celebration. It’s the traditional accompaniment to weddings and other festivities, as a flight from Ljubljana to Podgorica discovered when it took an accidental hit during celebrations for Orthodox Christmas Eve in 2008. There were no casualties.
Tied in with the warrior culture is the importance of čojstvo i junaštvo, which roughly translates as ‘humanity and bravery’ – in other words, chivalry. In the past, it inspired soldiers to fight to the death rather than abandon their mates to the enemy or face the shame of being captured. While it might not have exactly the same practical application today, don’t expect a Montenegrin to back down from a fight, especially if the honour of their loved ones is at stake. Luckily Montenegro doesn’t (yet) attract stag-party groups – it doesn’t take much to imagine the sort of reception that drunken louts would receive if they were stupid enough to be disrespectful to the local women.
On a warm summer’s evening, the main street of every town fills up, as they do throughout the Balkans, with a constant parade of tall, beautiful, well-dressed people of all ages, socialising with their friends, checking each other out and simply enjoying life. In summer, life is lived on the streets and in the cafes.
The enduring stereotype of Montenegrins is that they are lazy, an accusation that they themselves sometimes revel in. Certainly the cafes and bars are always full, but perhaps no more so than in the neighbouring countries. As a popular local joke goes, ‘Man is born tired and lives to rest’. This accusation of indolence probably derived from the era when occupations other than fighting and raiding the neighbouring Turks were seen to be beneath a man's dignity. It's certainly not true of Montenegrin women, to whom all the actual heavy labour fell.
Montenegrin society has traditionally been rigidly patriarchal and women were expected to kiss a man's hand as a sign of respect. In 1855 Prince Danilo caused a scandal by publicly kissing the hand of his beloved fiancée; one of his officials berated him, saying: 'I would never kiss the hand of a woman or a Turk'. Despite major advances in education and equality for women during the communist years, distinct gender roles remain. If you’re invited to a Montenegrin home for dinner, for example, it’s likely that women will do all the cooking, serving of the meal and cleaning up, and it’s quite possible that an older hostess may not sit down and eat with you but spend her whole time in the kitchen.
These days you’ll see plenty of younger women out and about in cafes and bars. Literacy and employment levels are relatively equal, and basic rights are enshrined in law including (since 1945) the right to vote.
Montenegrin society has traditionally been tribal, with much emphasis placed on extended family-based clans. This can create the potential for nepotism; accusations that major employers and public officials favour family, friends or business associates are commonplace. Family ties are strong and people generally live with their parents until they are married. This makes life particularly difficult for gays and lesbians or anyone wanting a taste of independence. Many young people get a degree of this by travelling to study in a different town.
Although people have drifted away from the more remote villages, Montenegro isn’t particularly urbanised, with about half of the populace living in communities of fewer than 10,000 people. Roughly a third of the population live in the two cities that have more than 20,000 people (Podgorica and Nikšić).
Feature: Montenegrin vs Serb
The issue of identity is particularly thorny with regard to current Montenegrin-Serb relations. For centuries, Montenegrins considered themselves 'the best of the Serbs', keeping the flame of independent Serbian culture alive while their brethren elsewhere were under the Ottoman yoke. Pro-Serbian graffiti covers the country and while most Montenegrins feel a strong kinship to their closest siblings, this is usually coupled with a determination to maintain their distinct identity.
The main unifying factor has traditionally been the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), but even that was shaken with the formation of a new Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC) in 1993, claiming to revive the self-governing church of Montenegro’s vladikas (prince-bishops) which was dissolved in 1920. Furthermore, they claim that all church property dating prior to 1920, and any churches built with state funds since, should be returned to it. The SOC doesn’t recognise the MOC and neither do the other major Orthodox churches. The SOC still controls most of the country’s churches and monasteries. Relations between the two churches has been acrimonious, to the say the least.
On a temporal level, things have been equally tense. After negotiating a reasonably amicable divorce from the unhappy state union with Serbia in 2006, relations took a turn for the worse. In 2008 Serbia expelled Montenegro’s ambassador after Montenegro officially recognised the former Serbian province of Kosovo as an independent country, joining around 50 other nations who had already done so. Serbia has vowed never to recognise Kosovo, which many Serbs view as their spiritual heartland.
Diplomatic relations between Montenegro and Serbia have since improved. After his election in 2012, Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić, regarded as a nationalist, stated, 'I recognise Montenegrin independence, but I don't recognise any difference between Serbs and Montenegrins, because it doesn't exist.'
Feature: Hello Up There
It's not just the mountains that are towering: Montenegrins are among the tallest people in Europe. The average height is 176cm (both genders), but you'll find plenty of folks teetering way above six feet. With this in mind, it may come as no surprise that gangly world number one tennis player Novak Djoković (1.88m) is of Montenegrin heritage.The mountain air, mixed gene pool and wholesome food have been cited as reasons for locals' loftiness. Vertically-challenged visitors may feel akin to gnomes, while tall women especially will (finally) feel right at home in such statuesque company.
Feature: What's In A Name?
Given the modern Western tendency towards unusual names, the monikers of Montenegro may stand out as being a bit same'ish; if you don't come across a Marko, Milica, Dragan or Dragana on your trip, you clearly haven't left your hotel room. Surnames are even more synonymous, with nearly every single one ending with ić (ich). The suffix was originally – and still is – used for diminutives; for example, a nose (nos) that is small is nosić. The same principle applied when creating surnames: the son of Petar would be given the last name Petrović. Today almost all children take on their father's existing surname. Montenegro's most common last name is Popović, which means 'son of a priest'.
It’s said that the first prison in Cetinje didn’t need to lock the doors: confiscating the prisoners’ pistols was enough to keep them inside as it was considered shameful to walk around unarmed.
The most common graffiti you’ll spot in Montenegro is a cross with the letter ‘c’ in each of its quadrants. This is actually the Cyrillic version of the letter ‘s’ and it stands for samo sloga Srbina spasava, meaning ‘only unity saves the Serbs’.
Sidebar: Women of Yore
In his 1848 book Dalmatia and Montenegro, Englishman Sir John Gardner Wilkinson noted that Montenegrin men were akin to ‘despots’ with women as their ‘slaves’: ‘She is the working beast of burden and his substitute in all laborious tasks’.
Football (soccer), basketball, water polo and handball are the national sporting obsessions. Given the national tendancy towards tallness, it's little wonder you'll find Montenegrins playing in America's NBA. Current players include Orlando Magic's Nikola Vučević (2.13m), Nikola Mirotić (2.08m) of the Chicago Bulls, and Minnesota Timberwolves' Nikola Peković (2.11m). Nikola is clearly a name of great stature.
Sidebar: Nero Wolfe
The fictional Nero Wolfe – of Rex Stout's famously hard-boiled detective stories – was a Montenegrin by birth. Stout chose Montenegro for Nero because he'd read that Montenegrin men were romantic, loyal, proud, brave and stubborn, traits that fit his intense character perfectly.
Sidebar: A Proud Paean
Montenegro's stirring national anthem – 'Oh, Bright Dawn of May' – celebrates its citizens' fierce independence and passion for the craggy country itself with lines like 'We love you, the rocky hills/And your awesome gorges/That never came to know/The chains of shameful slavery'.
National Parks & Wildlife
‘Wild Beauty’, crows Montenegro’s enduring tourism slogan, and indeed the marketing boffins are right to highlight the nation’s extraordinary natural blessings. In the mountainous interior are pockets of virgin forest and large mammals, long since hunted out of existence on most of the continent, still hanging on – just.
Durmitor National Park
Montenegro’s first three national parks were declared in 1952: Lovćen, Biogradska Gora and Durmitor. The most interesting and popular of the three is Durmitor, a magnificent place for nature-lovers, blessed with springs of clear mountain water and glacial lakes that mirror the heavens. In 1980 it was recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.
The 39,000-hectare park comprises the Durmitor mountain range and a narrow strip forming an elephant's trunk along the Tara Canyon. The Durmitor range has 48 peaks over 2000m including Bobotov Kuk (2523m), which is often referred to as the country's highest mountain. There's actually a higher peak in the Prokletije Mountains bordering Albania, but Bobotov Kuk is the highest mountain entirely within Montenegro. The Tara River is hidden in the deepest canyon in Europe (1300m at its apogee). It's not the sheer force of the water that has gouged such an impressive rift through the mountains, but rather the carbon dioxide in the water reacting with the hard limestone (calcium carbonate) to form soluble calcium bicarbonate.
Popular activities in the park include rafting (between April and October), skiing (from January to March), hiking, rock climbing and jeep safaris (best in summer). These can all be organised from Žabljak, the park's gateway town.
Lovćen National Park
Lovćen National Park’s 6220-hectare offering is cultural as well as natural, encompassing the old Montenegrin heartland and the impressive mausoleum of the national hero, Njegoš. Like many of Montenegro’s mountains, Lovćen is karstic in nature with craggy grey-white outcrops, sparse vegetation and, below, caves. Water disappears into the rock and bubbles up elsewhere to form springs.
Heading up Mt Lovćen (1749m), the lower slopes are covered in forests of black beech. Once these deciduous trees lose their leaves and their distinctive black trunks are bared, you’ll understand why the Venetians named it the ‘black mountain’. Higher up, the beech is joined by an endemic pine called munika. Healing and sweet-smelling herbs poke out from the rocky slopes, including sage, rosemary, balm, mint, chamomile and St John’s wort.
Cetinje, Montenegro's historic capital, is a great place to base yourself while tackling the park's hiking and mountain-biking trails, although Kotor and Budva are also nearby.
Biogradska Gora National Park
The smallest of the national parks, Biogradska Gora covers a 5650-hectare chunk of the Bjelasica Mountains which includes 1600 hectares of virgin forest – one of the most significant untouched stands remaining in Europe. Here you’ll find groves of juniper, wild rose, pine, beech, maple, fir and elm trees, the tallest of which reach 60m.
There are no settlements within this park, but campsites and bungalows are available near the park office. Mojkovac is the nearest town, although Kolašin makes a better base. Hiking is great in summer but autumn is the best time to visit, when the leaves erupt in colour.
Lake Skadar National Park
In 1983, Lake Skadar became the country’s fourth national park and the first non-mountainous one. Skadar is the largest lake in southern Europe, stretching between Montenegro and Albania, where it's called Shkodër. It’s mainly fed by the Morača River in the northwest and drained into the Adriatic by the Bojana River at its opposite corner. The lake is what is known as a cryptodepression, meaning that the deepest parts are below sea level. The lake's marshy edges are carpeted with white and yellow water lilies, reeds, willows and edible water chestnuts. Rare endemic species of orchids may also be found.
Lake Skadar National Park protects 40,000 hectares on the Montenegrin side of the lake, but the whole lake is recognised by an international treaty, the Ramsar Convention, as a ‘wetland of international importance’. It is home to a quarter of the world’s population of pygmy cormorants and 262 other, mainly migratory, species including the great snipe and the great bustard (mind how you read that). Other fabulous flappers include the Dalmatian pelican, the largest of all pelicans, which is the posterbird of the park.
As well as birdwatching, activities include hiking, kayaking, swimming and boat trips to various island monasteries and fortresses. The weather is usually best in August. Virpazar is the main gateway, but other settlements include Murići, Vranjina and Rijeka Crnojevića.
Prokletije National Park
Montenegro's newest national park was declared in 2009, covering 16,000 hectares of the mountainous region on the border with Albania and Kosovo. It contains the country’s highest peak, Kolac (2534m); on the Albanian side of the border, the Prokletije mountains soar to 2694m. There has long been talk of declaring the entire range a cross-border Balkan Peace Park, but the politics have yet to be ironed out.
Ancient glaciers formed the Plav Valley on the edge of the mountains. Lake Visitor, in the mountain of the same name above Plav, has the unusual quirk of a floating island. Local legends say that it was once a raft used by the ancient shepherds to transport stock. Because it was well fertilised, it developed soil and foliage and now drifts around the lake.
Tourist infrastructure is limited in the gateway towns of Plav and Gusinje, but that is bound to improve. The park's potential for mountain biking, hiking and serious mountaineering has been realised with the establishment of the 192km Peaks of the Balkans transnational trail.
Many species of animals and birds have managed to find solace in Montenegro’s hidden nooks. Precisely because those nooks are so hidden, you’re unlikely to see any of the more dramatic mammals.
Birdwatchers are more likely to have their tendencies gratified with plenty of rare wetland birds congregating around Lake Skadar and near Ulcinj, and flashy birds of prey swooping over the mountains. King of them all is the golden eagle. It has a wingspan of up to 240cm and can sometimes supplement its rodent diet with lambs and small goats.
The big mammals (brown bear, grey wolves, Eurasian lynx) tend to keep their heads down so as not to have them blown off. Brown bears like to hang out in the forests at altitudes of 900m and higher. In 2000 there were estimated to be fewer than 130 remaining in Montenegro, concentrated in the northern and eastern mountains. Despite the male bears weighing up to 200kg, they pose little threat to humans unless they’re protecting a cub or are startled.
Likewise, grey wolves don’t pose much of a threat unless they’re rabid or starving. They too fancy forest living, but may venture out into the meadows to make closer acquaintance with the odd bit of livestock. For this reason, there’s still a price on their heads in some areas.
Look out for European otters going about their unspeakably cute business around Lake Skadar and the Tara River. Badgers hang out in Durmitor and Biogradska Gora National Parks. Balkan chamois join roe deer in Durmitor, while the latter also wander the Lovćen and Bjelasica Mountains. Golden jackals are known to live around Bar and Ulcinj, with three packs spotted on Ada Bojana. Foxes, weasels, moles, groundhogs, hares, shrews, bats, wild boar, red squirrels and dormice complete the diverse mammalian picture.
If you’re wandering the remote trails you’ll often catch sight of something reptilian scurrying off the path. Montenegro has an impressive collection of lizards, newts, frogs, turtles and snakes. The isolated glacial lakes of the karstic mountain ranges harbour species such as the serdarski triton, a type of alpine newt that only exists in one small lake in Durmitor. The European pond turtle is listed as near-threatened but can still be spotted in both Lovćen and Lake Skadar National Parks.
Of more interest or concern to most visitors are the snakes. Commonly spotted and often mistaken for a snake is the harmless slow-worm (sometimes called blindworm), a 50cm-long brown legless lizard. Rather less harmless is the horned viper. Reaching up to 95cm, this is the largest and most venomous snake in Europe. It likes rocky habitats (which doesn’t rule out much in Montenegro) and has a zigzag stripe on its body and a distinctive scaly ‘horn’ on its nose. If you’re close enough to spot the horn, you’re probably a little too close. The good news is that this guy isn’t at all aggressive and will only bite with extreme provocation, so mind where you tread.
Feature: Environmental Issues
Much of the credit for Montenegro's 'wild beauty' lies with the terrain itself. Its rugged contours haven’t just hindered foreign invaders, they’ve limited population spread and the worst excesses of development. The Montenegrin government has realised the value of this by declaring the country the world’s first ‘ecological state’, yet it remains to be seen what this means in a country where hunting is popular, recycling is virtually unknown and people litter as a matter of course. Despite trumpeting the existence of bears, lynx and wolves, no one knows what numbers remain. Hunting (illegal or otherwise) is of real concern.
On the coast, development continues unabated. With most of the Budva Riviera now given over to hulking resort complexes, attention has turn to the previously unspoiled Luštica Peninsula.
More than half of Montenegro is more than 1000m above sea level and 15% is higher than 1500m.
Sidebar: Bojana River
The Bojana River occasionally performs the unusual trick of flowing upstream. This happens in winter when the swollen waters of its Albanian tributary, the Drim, cut across it and the volume of water forces part of the flow back into its source, Lake Skadar.
Sidebar: Čovječja Ribica
One of Montenegro’s more curious species is the olm, a blind amphibian that can be found in Biogradska Gora National Park. Its Montenegrin name, čovječja ribica, means ‘human fish’ because of its human-like skin.
Montenegro has 500 types of herbs with medicinal properties, many of which are harvested for essential oils and ingredients for natural remedies. Wormwood is an ingredient of absinthe and was once exported to Italy to make the bitter liqueur Amaro Montenegro.