I wish I had another suitcase to bring home the many charming Montenegrins we met, but I don’t think we’d get through customs. Who wouldn’t try to bring all these new friends along? Lovely to speak to. Ready to please. Eager to engage. The country’s national treasure? Their people.
Add a stunning coastline and natural beauty stretching from the beach up through the mountains and into the sky; with fantastic wine you can afford and seafood you want to devour and what’s bad? Good service. Good food. Great natural beauty. Reasonable prices. So why don’t more people visit Montenegro? My bet is they will once the airlines do their part. Currently, there’s no direct flight from the U.S. To get as close as Croatia requires at least two planes from Manhattan. We opted to drive in from Dubrovnik. There’s no shortage of opinion on how travelers should cross the border into Montenegro. Croatians are so welcoming of their tourists they don’t make it easy to leave. We were told that immigration lines can take up to two hours. Some suggested that offers of booze might ease one’s passage. In planning our departure from Dubrovnik, we opted to act like locals: Turn off a few km from the main check point and seek out the lesser known (supposedly not-for-foreigners) customs booths. It worked! In under fifteen minutes we were through.
Driving from Herceg Novi to Tivat, we hopped a ferry to cross the Verige Strait between the villages of Kamenari and Lepetani. Five minutes by boat saved 45 by road and we got to slip in between a tattooed couple eating sandwiches in their car and a cement mixer. Getting there was half the fun. And it was worth it.
Montenegro is a relatively new nation steeped in history with denizens who have become inured to the continual renaming and redrawing of its borders. You can meet someone who now has a Montenegro passport but was born under a Serbian government. Their parents who never moved likely carried Yugoslavian documents and had grannies who were born when the same patch of land was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Serbians and Croatians speak virtually the same language but use two different alphabets — Serbian is written in the Byzantine influenced Cyrillic and Croatian is penned in Roman letters.
It can get confusing (trust me, we tried to claim an EU VAT refund in the Podgorica airport, but wait… Montenegro isn’t part of the EU!). The currency in next door Croatia is the Kuna, though it’s part of the EU; Montenegro uses the Euro but is still in the process of becoming an EU member. Despite its ancient heritage you can feel the population’s impatience to fully “emerge.”
Twenty-something year olds speak flawless English. They are curious about, not exhausted by, foreigners. They want to chat. It’s worth learning the name “Plantaze” as it’s one of the largest vineyards. Their better Vranac wines taste like an Italian Aglianico, and your appreciation will generate endless conversational opportunities.
Montenegro is the size of Connecticut with a singular traffic laden two-lane coast road that also serpentines up the mountains with continual switch backs and very few guard rails. GPS remains an approximation. There are no street signs. Locals maneuver their vehicles with one hand as they make hairpin turns and check their texts. Police hide in the trees to ticket foreigners going a smidge above the speed limit. Our rental car with automatic transmission screamed “outsider,” had limited pick up, and poor handling. In other words, conditions were perfect for adventure! Off we went!
There are four national parks (including deep canyons and bird filled lakes), the Adriatic Sea, romantic bays and small villages hanging from the cliffs that epitomize “picturesque.” The distance between towns is small but the travel time is great. Fortunately, the views can occupy your attention for days. Think Amalfi coast meets Maui’s majestic road to Hana.
The hills are lush and if I were in charge of naming the nation I’d call it “Monteverdi.” The rocks are white, the trees are green. The water, that’s almost always in evidence, is translucent blue. It’s gorgeous. You come to Montenegro to be outside; to perfect the art of doing nothing. While in Montenegro we learned a local expression: “Man was born tired and lives to rest.”
Actually, the “riviera,” as the coastline is referred to, is bustling with construction. The average monthly salary is 500 Euro whereas high-end hotel rooms fetch twice that for a night. It’s no surprise that the country has its eyes on promoting tourism and vacation homes. It’s building environments for all tastes. The shiny new Porto Montenegro is owned by a Dubai developer and caters to Russian and Arab clientele seeking shops from Manhattan and restaurants from Europe. The yachts are massive and the Tivat Airport has more private than commercial jets. Budva, by contrast, is on its way to becoming the next stag party destination – jammed with drinking joints and cheap eats.
There’s a surfeit of Stari Grads “old towns” nestled in various corners of the country with their requisite main square bloated with konobas, “tavernas,” that serve chilled Pilsner, peddle black honey and push an unappealing domestic hard cheese. We didn’t bother much with those.
Sveti Stefan was our home base for a few days. It felt like I was staying with relatives. The proprietors worked around the clock overseeing their four apartments and managing the most highly rated restaurant in town (other than the Aman resort sitting on its own island across the way, but that’s a whole other story). The family running our “hotel” was so confident in their cooking they had a scale at the entrance to the dining room. Then again, it weighed me in as lighter than when I left America, so maybe this was all a ruse to ensure that everyone finished the impossibly large portions that contribute to the country’s reputation as “feeders.”
It’s as if nature decided it would compete with itself to conjure up the most photogenic peninsular and so it made Sveti Stefan. You come here to admire. And to eat. To drink local wine. And to eat some more. Oh, and to walk the umpteen steps from hill top to beach. Every venue is built into the mountain. Some seem to simply put a door in a rock’s crevice. Upon entering, you are transported down the side of a hill with tables (and patrons) suspended on multiple gravity defying floors.
Parking also defies the rules of nature. You can leave your car facing in either direction. On the road. Or on the sidewalk. Laws seem to be suggestions here. For example, smoking inside is forbidden but no one seems to have told the natives. The excessive amounts of cigarettes are the big tell. Montenegro wants to be “modern” but they’ll need to adjust their pursuit of healthy practices. Joggers? Gyms? Nope. Didn’t see any of those. Then again, the prevailing activity (other than eating and resting) is climbing. Even the famous Njegos Mausoleum with its golden roof and supersized figures is most notable not for the historical figure it commemorates, but for the 460 stairs one has to walk up to get there and the resulting views at the top.
Which optical treat to pursue? That’s the daily question. When one “tires” of the sea there’s the bay. Kotor boasts the most beautiful protected body of water. Its adjacent residential area, Dobrota, has miles of boardwalk tracing the outline of the bay with Venetian style “palaces” on one side of the road and little private swimming jetties on the other. The water is warm and filled with a jumble of blow up boats, kayaks and massive cruise ships. Strolling as the sun sets is a popular sport. We also stayed here for a while.
Montenegro, a touch difficult to get to, a lot harder to leave. We will be back.