Kotor town walls
Wedged beneath the mountains in a moody corner of the Bay of Kotor is the little town from which the bay takes its name. Kotor started to fortify itself as early as the 9th century and by the 14th century it was completely encircled by walls, looping 260m up the slopes behind it. By day they blend into the mountain’s grey hide. At night they’re illuminated, creating a halo effect in the inky waters of the bay.
While the views of the town from the water are pretty extraordinary, wait till you see it from above. Granted, the overall impression is probably enhanced by the smug satisfaction of having successfully negotiated the 1350 steps to the top. From here, the Bay of Kotor looks more like an alpine lake than the fjord for which it’s often mistaken. Although there are better views revealing the twists and turns of the bay from the serpentine road further up, this is by far the better view of the town. Down below, the tight maze of terracotta-roofed houses is laid bare, punctuated by the towers and domes of its many churches.
After catching your breath and taking a few shots, you can rest assured that it’s all downhill on the way back.
As the ever-quotable George Bernard Shaw is reported to have said when he first visited the mountains of Montenegro, ‘Am I in paradise or on the moon?’
You’ll instantly recognise the validity of that question when you stand on the circular viewing platform behind the Njegoš Mausoleum and gaze over the lunar landscape of the Lovćen massif. It was the Italians who first called this the ‘black mountain’ (monte negro), bequeathing the tiny nation – which at that time was completely enclosed within the mountain itself – with its modern name.
The panorama really is spectacular, and like Kotor’s town walls, it’s the pay-off for a hard slog to the top. From the road, 461 steps head straight up a grand processional way to the tomb of Montenegro’s favourite son – poet, prince and bishop Petar II Petrović Njegoš (1813–51) – which sits atop Lovćen’s second-highest peak (Jezerski Vrh, 1657m).
The tomb itself is just as extraordinary: an elegant, understated stone structure built in the early 1970s, fronted by two granite giantesses. It represents arguably the pinnacle of Montenegro’s communist-era architecture – and the fact that it honours a cleric, and a royal one at that, is equally amazing. Inside, under a canopy of gold mosaics, a 28-ton image of Njegoš rests in the wings of an eagle.
The walled towns lining the Adriatic Coast are a wonder to behold. It’s the combination of creamy stone, terracotta roofs and sapphire waters – spiced up with a dash of Venetian panache – that leaves such a vivid impression.
Sveti Stefan isn’t the largest or the grandest of them. In fact, it’s more of a walled village than a town. But the image of this tiny fortified island, anchored to the mainland by a causeway, is one of the most unforgettable on the entire coast.
The fact that the whole shebang has been converted into an exclusive resort, and off-limits to nonguests, only makes the views over the island from the highway even more precious. Those suckers below may be spending a fortune on their luxurious digs, but everyone else gets to enjoy the main attraction – the views – for free.
From the Podgorica–Nikšić highway, Ostrog first reveals itself as a flash of white in the corner of your eye, high up a distant mountain. Although photos won’t do it justice at this distance, in some ways this is the most impressive view of this most extraordinary monastery. Two questions immediately leap to mind: how on earth did it get up there, and why?
The ‘why’ is easily answered. An Orthodox bishop, the future Sveti Vasilje (St Basil) moved his monks here after their original home in Hercegovina was sacked by the Ottomans. Mountains have always been popular locations for Orthodox monasteries, and the remoteness and inaccessibility of this particular site, 900m above sea level, offered it a degree of protection from the Turks.
The ‘how’ becomes even less obvious as you make your way towards it and realise that those slopes are almost as sheer as they looked from below. It’s not until you slog up the path to the Upper Monastery that you comprehend it’s actually built into a cave.
Of course, the views from this height stretch for miles (all the better to see the approach of encroaching troops), but it’s the sight of the monastery itself that’s really incredible. No camera will ever fully capture the implausible nature of the location. Take a mental snapshot instead.
Lake Skadar National Park
There are great views over the Balkans’ largest lake from the road running along the Rumija Mountains on its southern shore. However, the vista that makes our ‘top five’ barely features the lake at all. Instead it gazes along the serpentine, water-lily-lined loops of the Crnojević River as it meanders down to the lake. In the distance a pair of domed hills quietly illustrate why the locals refer to them as Sofia Loren.
The viewpoint is reached by a narrow road leading off the main Cetinje–Podgorica highway, heading towards the historic riverside village of Rijeka Crnojevića. A solitary hotel marks the best place to stop for those perfectly sensuous river views.