The Republic of Montenegro is often ignored by Balkan travelers. And that’s a good thing. Because everyone else is welcomed by a quiet, little coastal state with the most beautiful sites: cobblestoned old towns, fjord-like bays and panoramas as from the picture book.
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After several stops in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania, our Balkan Road Trip #BalkanStattBalkonien (which means Balkans instead of balcony) in summer 2014 led us to a country that is smaller than Connecticut: picturesque Montenegro.
Picturesque because many streets have not been properly expanded to traffic after the wars in Yugoslavia in the 90’s and still look more like dust slopes than proper roads. Picturesque because on the way from Tirana in Albania towards the Montenegrin coast one drives through sparsely populated mountainous country and valleys, past ancient farms, rustic wine taverns and donkey ranches.
Picturesque also because on the said coast one can find one old town near the other, while the Adriatic clings to the rocky coastline of Montenegro like a lover, as if it never wanted to leave. And as if it would hope the tide would never drag it away again from the dreamy coastal strip of the tiny Balkan state.
The beautiful Port of Kotor in Montenegro.
The beauty of the Montenegrin coast unfolds in front of you like a picture book – and made it an easy decision to ignore the rest of the country and instead going from bay to bay, from mountain to mountain and old town to old town.
Our first stop was Budva, one of the oldest towns on the Adriatic, which originally stood on an island that is now connected to the mainland by a sandbar. The only 19,000 inhabitants get abundant growth summer after summer by backpackers, honeymooners and yacht owners alike.
Typical for Montenegro: a bay in Budva hidden between high cliffs and the Old Town wall.
If you wanted to be mean, you could call Budva the little sister of Dubrovnik. The undisputed pearl of the Adriatic is located just a few hundred miles to the north in Croatia.
The main reason for that comparison is that the old town of Budva exudes a similar romantic charm with its thick, old walls, hidden courtyards, the very affable, mostly family-run restaurants close to the photogenic city walls and the unbeatable view of this same; down to a bay that unfolds in front of the viewer like a giant photo mural. If I had such a large pair of scissors, I would be almost inclined to simply cut it out and take it back home to rather cold and grey Germany.
This is also Montenegro: the Caribbean colors of the Adriatic.
A typical day in Budva looks something like this: First you have breakfast in the quiet cafe around the corner, at 8, when the old town is still under sedation and you not hear anything but the sound of thick brooms on old stone, the hum of espresso coffee machines and the soft rustle of palm leaves above you.
Welcome to Montenegro: lingerie at old shutters and shells as souvenirs.
Two delicious cappuccinos, a croissant-like pastry and a little chat with the slightly entrepreneur-like, young café owner later, you let yourself drift through the cobbled streets of the old town. You joke with the owners of craft shops, catch some ice cream somewhere and stroll past the three-aisled church of St. John the Baptist from the 9th century and on to the medieval city walls of Budva.
Before you climb up to it, you have a look into the venerable Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity from 1806. There’s always enough time for a little bit of history, right?
Step by step to the medieval walled city of Budva in Montenegro.
And then suddenly it is right there: the wide view over the bay of Budva. While the ice cream melts away in your hand, you’re probably busy trying to capture this surreal view with all sorts of cameras that you are carrying. Finally, the panorama function of your smartphone makes total sense.
But wait! Are there other small bays on your right? You totally fall in love with this idea and make your way on the well-trodden paths of rocky coastline to the next quiet bay, where you enjoy the moment in a bar in the middle of the rock with a fresh draft Montenegrin shandy.
The main beach of Budva is always well filled, in contrast to the smaller bays.
Once you have finally wasted the afternoon by sitting in the sun at the beach just like the locals do, you stop for a bite to eat in the late afternoon in one of the many seafood restaurants at the harbor. And while you gobble up your seasonal and congenial prepared fish plate and a handful of greedy gulls is already circling above your table, somewhere on the boardwalk a bunch of buskers start to play some live music. Balkanbeats unplugged. Welcome to Montenegro!
Still not convinced? No problem. Every half an hour there are buses leaving north to the city of Kotor, the gateway to the steep coast of the Adriatic Sea. From the bus station it is just a short walk along the city wall that were built between the 14th and 17th century to the palm-fringed promenade, from where you enter the old town of Kotor via the impressive sea gate and on to the imposing St. Tryphon Cathedral.
While the even older town of Kotor might be at first glance similar to Budva in many aspects, the biggest difference is best visible from above. Namely from the mountain of St. Giovanni and the fortress Sveti Ivan, which is placed high above Kotor.
From here, you have a simply amazing view of the coastline. A nearly 30 km long, highly convoluted and fjord-like bay lined with high and steep hillsides, which is somewhat reminiscent of Norway – just in the Adriatic.
Surely by now it should be clear that Montenegro is something special. And that neither Kotor nor Budva have to be the little sister of anything or anyone, but rather exude their very own charm. And in doing so, they are both very convincing. It’s the way they are nestled in their idyllic coves. It’s the charming welcome they give you with their cobblestone old towns that you take them immediately to the heart. It’s the stunning panoramas that unfold before the eye of the beholder, that on my next trip to Montenegro, I will for sure bring a very large pair of scissors.
Planning a trip? Check out my favorite Montenegro travel guides:
I can highly recommend the Lonely Planet Montenegro, especially when traveling the Balkans as a backpacker, because they always have some really useful advice on hostels, best routes, busses, trains and so much more.
More Articles on Balkan Travel:
• 15 facts proving Bulgaria is more than just a place to get wasted
• Complete Guide to Dubrovnik – the Pearl of the Adriadic
• A Walk on the Walls of Dubrovnik
• Anekdotique 2014 Travel Retrospective Part 2
This post is also available in Deutsch.