I want to say flying into Podgorica from Istanbul’s Ataturk airport (departing from gate 307 no less) felt just like flying into somewhere like Blenheim airport back home. But actually it didn’t just feel that way, that’s exactly what it was like – and what a contrast! With a tiny passport control (consisting basically of a man and a small table), one small luggage belt and an arrivals hall that had a couple of hire car companies and one out of order ATM, in an hour and a half we had landed in quite a different world, and I loved it!!!
A third of the size of Wales, Montenegro’s population is around 6 hundred thousand (compared to Turkey’s almost 75 million), and we could feel the space around us as soon as we hit the road in our wee rental car. Almost instantly we were hit with the mesmerising beauty of the country’s famous mountains, even arriving on an overcast day they still took my breath away.
With the freedom of a rental car allowing us to go wherever, whenever we wanted, we decided to base ourselves in Budva. While it’s the biggest of the ‘resort’ type towns in Montenegro, basing ourselves there meant we had all the convenience of a tourist hot spot, (including beautiful beaches, numerous delicious food stalls, restaurants and supermarkerts) but also the ability to escape into our majestic surroundings whenever we so wished. Given we were visiting after the busiest of the summer months it also meant things were relatively quiet and not as crowded as they get in the height of summer.
Montenegro had never originally been on our to do list, in fact we had planned to spend the time traversing Croatia’s spellbinding coastline. But in need of a little R&R, and on the advice of my sister and Serbian sister in law, we changed course to base ourselves in the smaller of the two options, and I’m so glad we did.
Almost instantly I was struck with how stuck in a time warp this little slice of paradise is, from the fantastic two piece track suits being rocked left right and centre, to the 80’s music blaring from every pub and beach front establishment. Every which way you looked there were high pony tails galore, and prices so low it left us wondering if we were actually still in Europe. Add into this mix the kindness of the local Montenegrin people and it was a recipe for a fabulous week.
After a day hitting the beach in Budva and exploring the charm of its quaint old town, we hit the road to explore the Bay of Kotor. Now a lot of things have blown my mind throughout my travels so far, but I had to blink and pinch myself A LOT staring at the mountainous surroundings of this part of the world, to ensure what I was looking at was actually real. It was as it I was looking at the canvas of the most exquisite painting, a landscape so perfect it could only exist in a creative mind. But every last inch of it was real, and I didn’t want to leave, fearing, even with photos, I could never conjure the true amazing-ness in my mind again if I did.
After numerous photo stops, we eventually found ourselves at the old town of Perast, where we simply strolled taking in our incredible surroundings, ate the most delicious Montenegrin feast, drunk local beer, and took a boat ride out to Our Lady of the Rocks. Built on an artificial island created by rocks and sinking old ships loaded with rocks, according to the legend it was created over centuries by local seamen who stuck to an ancient oath after finding a Madonna and Child icon on the rock in the sea. Apparently the custom of throwing rocks into the sea remains alive today, with local people taking their boats out and throwing rocks into the sea to widen the surface of the island on a special day each year. If I had to try and conjure up perfection in the form of a day, I would say the day we spent exploring this place would have to be it.
With a belly full of food, we decided to leave checking out the Fortress of Kotor until the next day, a wise idea given it required climbing several hundred steps up the rock face to get there. But it was a climb that was well worth the effort, as the views, and surrounding old town, once again were simply spectacular.
The next morning we hit the road bound for Croatia. After about two and a half hours of driving, and a fairly lengthy border crossing, we were in Dubrovnik. Having seen plenty of photos of friends who’ve set off on med sailors or sail Croatia adventures from the sea side city, I knew we were in for another sensational experience, but there’s nothing quite like coming round the coast to see the expanse of the beautifully walled old town glistening against the water, it truly was beautiful. It’s amazing how quickly you can forget what crowds feel like though, and once we ditched the car and ventured by foot into the city walls I was blown away by just how many tourists were swarming around compared with across a very close border. And while I loved soaking up all Dubrovnik had to offer, a little part of me felt quite relieved to cross back into the world that while may seem a few decades behind it’s Croatian neighbour, offered us the kind escape we were after.
The next day we headed inland from Budva, again on the advice of my sister in law, to a small settlement called Rijeka Crnojevica. While the winding narrow roads through the mountains hand me questioning where exactly she had sent us, we eventually arrived and embarked on an idyllic river ride full of stalks, pelicans and all kinds of other beautiful birds. The natural beauty of Montenegro and the absolute crispness of its air quality reminded me so much of home. Even so soon after the height of summer, we somehow managed to time our arrival so we pretty much had the entire river to ourselves. Feeling so removed from everything, it was amazing to be able to experience a place that felt so untouched. The only downside was not dressing warmly enough for the excursion (something I’m often guilty of), but luckily we were blessed with a little more of that Montenegrin kindness, with our guide giving up his jacket for me.
Our final two days were spent relaxing and exploring the beaches and inlets surrounding Budva. Sitting on the beach enjoying yet another beer in the sun I couldn’t help but marvel again at being in a place that felt like it was from such a different time. Just like every other aspect of this time warped treasure, the beach was no exception, while there was not one sunblock bottle in sight (aside from ours of course) locals wandered daily up as down the beach selling bottles of oil! One lady I witnessed even dousing herself in a bottle of olive oil she’d probably grabbed from the kitchen on her way out of the house! Turns out the slip, slop, slap and wrap message hasn’t quite arrived here yet!
It was a feeling that spilled through to the road rules as well, with driving quite the experience. I had definitely become accustomed to some crazy driving on the roads of Morocco and Turkey, where locals over took on blind corners, five cars at a time, before slipping back into gaps narrowly missing the on coming traffic. But with those experiences in Minivans and huge buses, it certainly became all the more terrifying when having our own car and being able to see very clearly out of the front windscreen what was going on. We learned pretty quickly that Montenegrins don’t really think much about good ‘gap selection’ and passing on blind corners up narrow winding mountainous roads is apparently just the norm. Pulling over and parking on the side of said narrow windy mountainous roads also seems quite a popular activity, as is parking just about anywhere one wants (footpaths outside of supermarkets are particularly popular). If I didn’t find it all quite so hilarious, I might’ve actually seriously feared for our lives!
Montenegro really was the most amazingly chilled out place to visit, where the locals were just so happy to help in whatever way they could. Even up to our last few hours in the country we were treated to the benefits of this casual laid back attitude. When we wanted to keep our hire car an extra half day, the guy running the local company told us to keep it for as long as we liked, at no extra cost. Dropping the car off in Bar, where we were booked to travel by ferry to Italy, we took the opportunity to head towards the border of Montenegro and Albania, stopping in a town called Ulcinj. Despite not actually crossing the border, it very much felt like we had. With a population of about ten thousand, Ulcinj is the centre of the Albanian community in Montenegro, as the majority of people there are Albanian and Islam is the major religion.
After exploring a little more of the area, we headed back to Bar, stopping at what remains of the Old Town. A fascinating absolutely beautiful place, its heritage includes Turkish baths, Roman aqueducts and a citadel with an origin dating back over a thousand years. It’s so integral and important to the country’s history that the Montenegrin government is currently pursuing a huge project to completely restore it into a living museum. Located on the outskirts of town, had we not been able to keep our car we probably wouldn’t have been able to make it to this ancient place, which ended up becoming one of the major highlights of our time in this beautiful country.
With the most perfect of sunsets to sail off into, we said goodbye to what really is an enchanting wee country. I’m so glad we decided to spend our time exploring this coastal gem, and the incredible culture and phenomenal scenery it has to offer.