Montenegro: a tiny European treasure on the Adriatic Sea

What one of the world’s youngest countries lacks in size, it makes up for in nature, legends and centuries-old architecture

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“Where exactly is Montenegro?” is the question I’ve been asked most since returning from the tiny Balkan nation, which is less than a 20-minute drive from Croatia’s Dubrovnik.

With Bosnia and Herzegovina to its west, Serbia to the north, and the rolling pastures of Albania to its south, Montenegro declared independence from Serbia in 2006, making it one of the world’s youngest countries.

And it’s a destination that is gearing up for its next chapter, after the last general election resulted in its controversial ruling party voted out after three decades in power.

“It’s hard to wake a sleeping horse,” says my driver Ratko, with a shrug, as we speed from Tivat Airport towards the newly opened One&Only Portonovi. “But we are rising up again.”

It's a believable narrative, given that One&Only Resorts has selected the tiny country as the location for its first property in Europe. The ultra-luxury One&Only Portonovi (from €835 / $987 per night) on Boka Bay offers Venetian-style architecture, stunning manicured gardens, a cutting-edge wellness centre and a restaurant from a Michelin-lauded chef. Interiors subtly remind guests where they are in the world with touches such as traditional Montenegrin-style central fireplaces in every room, and the national mimosa flower detailed on the sunshine-coloured wall hangings in the hallways.

Located in the Bay of Kotor, the resort overlooks a spot that’s been called Europe’s southernmost fjord. While this is factually incorrect, given that the bay wasn’t carved by glaciers, the comparison is valid, thanks to towering mountains and alpine-like cliffs that plummet down into a narrow inlet of the Adriatic Sea.

The easiest way to explore Boka, as the locals call it, is via its impossibly blue waters. And what better way to begin that journey than in the mahogany-clad, Bond-esque speedboat that belongs to the One&Only resort.

Our captain, Pietr, tells us we’re headed to the ancient city of Herceg Novi, a rather apt choice given that former 007 agent Pierce Brosnan shot some scenes for his 2014 movie November Man here.

Tour guide and Herceg Novi native Ivan Mitrovski joins us aboard the boat, and requests that we make a quick stop at the Blue Cave on the other side of the bay. This natural cavern is the largest in the Lustica Peninsula and is famous for the iridescent blue hues that reflect through the cave as light bounces off its sandy shoreline. It’s the perfect place for my first dip in Adriatic waters.

Montenegro's sunniest city

Dried and changed, we continue to Herceg Novi, docking our boat in the tiny marina just in front of the open-air national stadium for water polo, the country’s national sport. Herceg Novi lies on the coast between the towering slopes of Orjen and the entrance to the Bay of Kotor. After visiting the city, Yugoslavian novelist, poet and Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric wrote: “This city of eternal greenery, sun and stairs stays stuck between the sea and the hill as a place whose magic can be experienced more and more as a place with the soul.”

It’s certainly Montenegro’s sunniest city, averaging about 200 days of sunshine a year, and the stairs Andric mentions are everywhere because Herceg Novi is essentially split into two sections. The lower part of the city is home to the marina, pebble beaches and a long promenade, while the upper part, reached by countless flights of stairs, belongs to the Old Town, and is home to ancient churches, fortresses and stone buildings, many of which are constructed terrifyingly high along the cliff edge. One of the most famous landmarks is Forte Mare Mare, or Fortress of the Sea. Having been the city’s first line of defence since its creation in 1382, its worth a visit for both its storied history and its impeccable views of the water, mountains and city.

As we cut through a set of stairs running right by someone’s back garden, we pass an elderly woman who has her knee wrapped in what appears to be lettuce leaves. Mitrovski greets her cheerfully and she smiles, nodding her head.

“It’s cabbage,” he tells me. “It’s an old Montenegrin way of reducing inflammation, and she says it’s working.” Note to self: next time I’ve climbed too many stairs, I'll raid the salad drawer.

The next morning, the endless sunshine rises over the bay as we wake early for a drive east towards Porto Montenegro. This marina and village near Tivat has been at the heart of Montenegro’s development since 2009, and has garnered something of a name for itself as the Adriatic Monaco, hosting the Superyacht Rendezvous Montenegro and being home to the uber-popular Porto Montenegro Yacht Club.

Restaurants, galleries, wine bars and designer boutiques line the development's colourful Mediterranean-style streets and, at its centre sits the Regent Porto Montenegro hotel (from €240 per night), a five-star property that revels in its location with ship-inspired interiors and views over the marina.

Given the area’s seafaring history, it seems only right to take to the water again, so we head out to meet the team from Diving Centre Neptun. This family-run school has been in existence for more than 40 years and Boris, our dive instructor for the day, tells us that his dad used to be the master on the giant submarine on display at the Naval Heritage Collection Museum, located just behind our hotel.

Beneath the Adriatic waves

Coasting along, we ride almost as far as we can go before entering Croatian waters. A few minutes later and we're geared up and on our way down, sinking below the water under the shadow of the black mountain. There’s seagrass, lobsters, sea snails and abalone, and it’s obvious that while Montenegro might not rival destinations such as Egypt or the Maldives in terms of aquatic wildlife, there’s a whole other world waiting to be explored under these Adriatic waves.

Given that the country is still so young, its dive spots remain largely unexplored. But there's plenty to be seen and, according to the Neptun team, lots of wreck dives “with sunken patrol boats, torpedo boats steamships and sailing boats” along the coastline.

They say that when god made Montenegro, he had a hole in his bag of treasures and all the mountains, rivers, lake and trees fell out in this one spot

Having been below the water, it is time to explore more of the surface, and I am spoiled for choice as Boka is lined with countless ancient towns and villages, from Kotor’s charming Old Town to Risan, the oldest settlement in the area. I head for Perast, a small town teeming with old churches and with a formerly grand palazzi. My destination is the Perast Islands, which sit a few hundred metres offshore.

Made up of two small islets, the most famous is Gospa od Skrpjela, or Lady of the Rocks. This artificial island is steeped in local legend. The story goes that in the 15th century, some sailors found a picture of the Virgin Mary on a rock in the bay. From then on, after every successful voyage, the sailors would add more rocks to the same spot so that eventually an islet would jut out of the water and a church could be built on the top. They even bulked up the island’s mass by sinking enemy ships loaded with rocks below the surface.

Open to visitors, the church on the island now hosts weekly services and the adjacent museum has an impressive collection of 17th-century paintings and silver votives donated by seafarers around the world, who prayed to Our Lady of the Rocks in times of peril.

Opposite the church is Sveti Djordje, Perast’s smaller islet, which rises from a natural reef. Home to a Benedictine monastery and a large cemetery surrounded by cypress trees, it looks pretty but the locals believe otherwise and have nicknamed it the Island of the Dead.

Heading north: national parks and untouched lakes

A day later, it's time to leave the bay behind and explore what lies inland. Hiring a car, I drive north, navigating twisting, single-track roads and winding tunnels cut into steep mountain crevices as I edge towards Rudinice.

About three hours from the coast is Etno Selo Izlazak (from €50 per night). This family-run haven is one of several ethno villages found in rural parts of the country, each of which has been built to reflect the traditional way of Montenegrin living. Surrounded entirely by nature, Etno Selo Izlazak consists of a handful of wooden and stone Toblerone-shaped chalets. The silence here is pierced only occasionally by the ring of a cow bell or the bark of a dog from a nearby farm.

A timber frame terrace is where guests can enjoy dinner and drinks al fresco, or simply sit back and take in the view. And what a view it is: the piercing blue of Piva Lake lies directly beyond a canopy of spruce and fir trees and the peaks of Durmitor, Volujak and Ledenica rise in the distance.

About an hour north from here is the border between Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is also the access point for rafting on the Tara River, one of the country's most impressive waterways, which I tackle with the help of experts from Coridor X adventure centre.

River rafting on the Tara

This turquoise blue strip of crystal-clear water slices through the northern edge of Durmitor National Park, one of five in the country. It’s Unesco-protected and home to Europe's largest canyon. Winding through the mountains for more than 150 kilometres, the Tara is also a lot colder than the water at Piva Lake, as I discover when I go flying overboard.

Gasping at the shock of the cold water as it rushes over my head, I freeze for a few moments, before remembering that I need to catch the raft, which is picking up pace ahead.

Laughing heartily, the guide hauls me back into the boat. “It’s refreshing, right?” he says, with a smile.

Shivering but safe, I rejoin the paddling effort as we navigate through the category three rapids. When the rushing water stills, I drink in the towering tree-lined vistas above. An animal call echoes down from the steep cliffs overhead and the guide tells me that the forests are home to bears, wolves, wild boar, deer and more.

Untouched and thriving with life, the landscape here is very different from what I saw on the coast, but equally beautiful. Watching me take in the scenery, one of the local men on board says: “You know that they say when god made Montenegro, he had a hole in his bag of treasures and all the mountains, rivers, lake and trees fell out in this one spot.”

The final stop on my Montenegro itinerary is Podgorica, the capital. I stay at the Hilton Podgorica Crna Gora (from €88 per night). Right in the heart of the city, it is within walking distance of the city centre and its parks, embassies and a newly pedestrianised area that is lined with shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. Podgorica is a good place to base yourself if you want to visit Plantaze, the largest vineyard in Europe. It’s also less than a 45-minute drive from here to Skadar Lake, one of the country’s most popular destinations.

A lake of fairy tears

No matter which side you approach Skadar from you’ll be greeted by a huge green stretch of water dotted with white cones of karst covered in thick scrubs – dramatic and entirely captivating. I head out on the lake in a cun, a traditional wooden boat that has been used for centuries as the main means of transport on Skadar.

Departing from Virpazar harbour, I meander through the dark water along a reed-fringed channel, until the vast lake unfurls. Lake Skadar is the largest lake in the Balkans and is home to more than 260 wetland birds and more than 40 species of fish.

The boatman points to the nesting sites of pelicans, cormorants and terns as we sail through a forest of floating water lilies. At one point, the guide scoops his hands in the water and pulls up one of the plants, which, with a few snaps and knots, he turns into a necklace.

“If a fisherman came home empty-handed, at least he had a gift for his wife,” he explains as he hands me the necklace.

“Let me tell you another secret about Skadar,” interjects the boatman, ushering us closer.

“Once upon a time there was a fairy whose greatest wish was to have blue eyes, instead of the dark green eyes she was born with,” he begins.

“The fairy prayed and prayed for blue eyes, but no matter how much she desired it, her eyes stayed the same colour. After many years, she lost hope, and sunk into a great sadness crying endless tears, which dropped and rolled down the mountains; collecting in a puddle to form the lake we’re on today.”

I'm curious as to why he's told us such a sad story with a grin on his face, but I soon find out.

“Of course, there’s more. You see, when god looked at Skadar Lake and saw how beautiful it was and how the fairy had created it, he decided to give her the blue eyes she wanted. And now, until today, anyone from this area with blonde hair and blue eyes is believed to be of fairy descent.”

I smile at the fable, and take a closer look at the man's eyes – a bright piercing blue.

Getting there and Covid-19 information

Flydubai is the only UAE airline offering direct flights to Montenegro, with services operating seasonally from June to September to Tivat.

The flight time is just under six hours and economy fares start from Dh2,265 ($616). Alternative options are via a stop in Istanbul, or to fly to Croatia and drive across the border into Montenegro, which is 20 minutes from Dubrovnik.

During the global pandemic, Montenegro is welcoming tourists, vaccinated or unvaccinated. Travellers need either a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of travelling or a proof of vaccination. Children under 18 are exempt.

Tourists may need to show proof of vaccination to enter theatres, cinemas, museums and galleries.

Updated: September 16, 2021, 11:00 AM