Montenegro was the next stop on our shoulder-season trip through the Balkans. After the tourist craziness that was present in much of Croatia, we looked forward to Montenegro. We hoped it would be a bit calmer, a bit less crowded, a little cheaper, and hopefully at least as good weather. For a week and a half we traveled along the Adriatic Coast, but also spent time in the mountainous region in the northern part of the country.
We loved Montenegro, but would be remiss if we didn’t mention one negative: the litter. There was an amazing amount of garbage everywhere: beaches, streets, old towns, mountain paths, everywhere. Hopefully, as the country tries to bring in more tourist money, this situation can be improved.
Kotor – The Jewel of Montenegro
We’ll start with the one place in Montenegro most people have probably heard of. Whether you’re looking for a beautiful old town with hilltop fortress, surrounded by mountains, or just looking for somewhere to park your superyacht, Kotor is for you.
Unfortunately for us, we pretty much got rained out. But even so, this whole area is stunning. Kotor itself has a walled old town that is fun to wander around. Typically, the old town is filled with patios, restaurants, souvenir shops, and bars. If we’d had good weather, or really anything but torrential downpours, we would have climbed the 1300 steps to the fortress for views down the fjord.
Along the coast of the fjord are several other small towns that share the spectacular scenery but lack the daily deluge of cruise ship passengers. Perast makes a good stop with its scenic islands in the Bay.
The town of Tivat, located in the next bay, is home to a huge modern development, Porto Montenegro, which was the brain child of fellow Canadian Peter Munk. He built a “town within a town” catering to a huge marina, where the focus is on moorings for super yachts. We totally get that…it must be frustrating to spend $100mm+ on a new yacht, then find there are so few marinas big enough to dock it. Well, now there is! Porto Montenegro is open to the public so anyone can walk around the glossy port (it seriously reminded us of a Sandals resort, which is probably not what Mr. Munk was going for) and ogle at the super yachts like we did.
Ulcinj – Great Seaside Location
The majority of travelers to Montenegro who travel beyond Kotor, typically head down the coast to Budva. Budva is a tacky beach resort town, kind of like Albufeira in Portugal [see our article on the Algarve Coast] but with a cute (but tiny) old town. It might be worth spending an afternoon here, like we did, but nothing more.
We continued on to Ulcinj, another hour and a half further down the coast, close to the Albanian border. We chose Ulcinj as our base for 4 nights for a few reasons – it seemed like it had a cool local vibe and was less touristy and tacky than Budva, nice sea-view accommodations were cheap, and it’s close to the Albanian border (we wanted to do a day trip).
In season, there are plenty of beach-side bars and restaurants for the local tourists. In early October, we were there in off-season (a lot of stores, bars, and restaurants were shut down), but it was still warm enough to swim. Prices are noticeably lower than the rest of the country (we paid €16 per night for a private studio apartment in the old town with ensuite and basic kitchenette, and a million dollar view).
Some of the highlights from our stay in Ulcinj were swimming at Mala Plaza (small beach), doing a good one-hour hike from Mala Plaza to Velika Plaza (long beach), visiting the Solana salt flats-bird reserve (sadly we didn’t see any flamingos but it was still cool), doing tastings and lunch at a small family-run winery, doing a day trip to Albania, sitting on our balcony and watching the sunset, and enjoying the best seafood on our trip at Taphana restaurant in Old Town.
The majority of locals are Albanian so the town has a different feel to it than the rest of Montenegro and you’ll see plenty of mosques, including the Sailor’s Mosque right by the main city beach. It must be interesting hearing the call to prayer when you’re lying on the beach amongst hundreds of people wearing bikinis and speedos! If we’d come a couple of weeks earlier, we think Ulcinj would have a lively vibe and be even more fun, but even in early October we really enjoyed it. This was a great place to relax for a few days. It helped that we had summer weather while we were there with lots of sunshine and daily temps around 25-26C.
Just beware the drivers! In this part of the country, most of the locals have Albanian heritage and maybe the disregard for driving laws runs in their blood. The only place we saw worse drivers was in Albania itself (see our post here).
Durmitor National Park – Mountains, Who Knew?
For some hiking, and to get some perspective on Montenegro away from the coastal towns, we headed inland to Durmitor National Park in the north of the country. Our goal was to visit in shoulder-season, but it seems we visited about a week or so too late. By early October, the temperatures had dropped down markedly and rain (and even snow!) had moved in. How did we zoom straight to winter when we had just swum in the sea in Ulcinj two days before?
Zabljak, on the edge of the park, was a great base. The town itself doesn’t really have anything to offer. There are a few restaurants, a grocery store etc., but prices are high and most seemed to be closed for the season. Our accommodation, City Centre Apartments, however, was fantastic with a chalet feel and incredibly friendly staff.
The first full day poured with rain the entire day. We did explore as far as the Durdevica Tara Bridge in the famous Tara River Canyon, about a 30 minute drive from Zabljak. The canyon has a much larger vertical depth than the Grand Canyon in the US. We took some pictures through the rain, and even with the low hanging cloud cover, the area was beautiful.
Our one nice day – and by “nice” we mean cold and overcast, but at least not raining – we hiked the Black Lake trail, a 5-minute drive from Zabljak. It’s a pretty straightforward trail around two small lakes, but in beautiful scenery. There are plenty of side trails leading off, so we added an out-and-back hike to the nearby ski centre mistakenly thinking if anywhere had an open café, it would be there (it resembled a ghost town).
As the sun poked out of the clouds slightly, we followed the hike up with a short drive to the Mt. Curevac look-out over the Tara River Canyon. The views were spectacular – this is a must-do! All in all, we think Durmitor is definitely worth a visit when in Montenegro, but we’d recommend coming before October/winter!
Wineries – Gotta Love the Vranac
Most people are surprised that there are so many wineries throughout the Balkans since it’s rare to come across any Montenegrin wine (or Croatian, Bosnian, Macedonian, or Serbian wine for that matter) in North America.
Visiting wineries isn’t quite as straight forward there as it is in North America either. You can’t just stop by, taste a couple wines, buy a bottle, and head to the next one. Many are private and not open to the public. Many that are open to the public require reservations. And in our experience, when you call to make a reservation, many tell you they’re too busy. It’s an interesting take on capitalism.
It’s too bad because some of the wine is really, really good. The primary indigenous grape in Montenegro is Vranac. Vranac wine is dark purple, with hints of cinnamon, chocolate, flowers, black fruits, blah blah blah…. Christine, who, when it comes to red wine, tends to only like aged Bordeaux, liked it, so that says something. It’s good. It’s not expensive. What more do you need? If we ever see a 2011 Plantaze Vranac (2011 was apparently the best year for wine in the Balkans in several decades), we will happily shell out the money for a bottle.
The first winery we visited was Milovic, a 20 minute drive from Ulcinj. This is a relatively small winery, who also produce their own olive oil and grow mandarins. They were happy for us to stop by on short notice, and even served us lunch as part of the tasting. However, the lunch cost €30 each including 3 wine samples. And if you want to buy a bottle to take home, it starts at €12. Considering that in this part of the world you can get a better meal for a lot less money, and better wine for that matter (see below), it’s hard to recommend Milovic. Oh, and they don’t take credit cards and are nowhere near an ATM, so bring cash.
A few days later, as we drove from Ulcinj to Durmitor, we stopped by the winery, Plantaze, just outside of the country’s capital city, Podgorica. State-owned, Plantaze has the largest single-site vineyard in Europe at over 2300 hectares and 11.5 million vines. They put together a tasting for us on a day’s notice which was fantastic.
The tasting was in their large, beautiful cellar, which was formerly a bunker for air force aircraft. We first tasted their indigenous white wine, Krstac, which has a really unique taste. We followed it up with a tasting of several vintages and qualities of their Vranac red wine (their top selling variety). The winery staff were incredibly nice and provided us with homemade bread and local cheese to go with the wine. They were the best wines we’d had in ages! And the bottles only cost €3-5, although they obviously had higher end options. Due to the size of their vineyard, they also grow a lot of more traditional grapes (cabernet, chardonnay, merlot, pinot blanc, etc.) and make some interesting blends as well as a sparkling, a late harvest dessert wine, and more recently some brandies. Interestingly, the company exports roughly 40% of its wine with its biggest buyers being Serbia, Russia, and China. Apparently they have recently begun to sell to Canada and the U.S. so who knows, maybe one day we’ll find a bottle at our local LCBO. In the meantime, we would highly recommend a visit to the Plantaze winery for anyone visiting Montenegro.
Montenegro was most things we hoped. It’s a beautiful, mountainous country with a long coastline, and was definitely cheaper and calmer than Croatia. We imagine this is what Croatia was like 10 years ago while it was still a niche destination. Montenegro has beach towns on the Adriatic, good wine, great hiking – sounds like our ideal destination. Unfortunately, we probably arrived a week or two too late. If we were to visit again, it would be earlier in September or maybe in June, when the temperatures would be a few degrees warmer and the restaurants/attractions a little more open.
Practical Information For Visiting Montenegro
- Montenegro does have pubic buses, and some limited train service, but we rented a car. Exploring the country without your own vehicle would be frustrating to near-impossible. We picked up our car from Guma X in Mostar and returned it in Sarajevo, but took it across the border to Montenegro and Albania. One of the best experiences we’ve had with a rental car company in years, although they’re local to Bosnia but do arrange international drop-offs/pick-ups.
- Distances mean nothing. Highways are really two-lane, twisty roads. We were lucky to ever drive as fast as 80km/hr. We probably averaged 45-50km/hr, so a 200km trip, which would take less than 2hrs on Canadian highways, would take 4-5 hrs in Montenegro. Plan accordingly.
- Speed limits changed often, were surprisingly low, and were enforced by a surprisingly high presence of traffic cops.
- Despite the number of traffic cops we saw, drivers in Montenegro are crazy. The number of times we saw drivers pull out to pass across a solid centre line, approaching a blind corner – we’re amazed we didn’t see any accidents. The bad drivers seemed to get worse as you got closer to the Albania border. In Albania they were bat-shit crazy. This really hit home with all the graves and memorials we saw along the highways.
- Unlike Croatia, none of the highways have tolls. Granted, there are also no divided highways.
- In Kotor we stayed at Apartments Cetkovic, which is a 5 minute walk to Old Town, well equipped, and has a patio with a great view of the bay. We highly recommend it. Kotor, in general, is about as expensive as you’ll find in Montenegro.
- We stayed at Apartments Deborah in Ulcinj. The apartment cost €16 per night, was newly renovated, in the centre of Old Town with a million dollar view, but there were many negatives so this is one of the few places we’ve stayed on this trip that we would not recommend.
- In Zabljak, City Centre Apartments was amazing. The price was only €23 per night, it has a ski-chalet feel, and the owners are incredibly friendly. They even have a small restaurant where they serve breakfast and dinner at very affordable prices. The dinner is great as long as you like pork.
- English is not as widely spoken as in Croatia, but, with a couple of exceptions, we could usually make ourselves understood.
- Montenegro is one of those annoying countries where you need to register pay-as-you-go SIM cards. That means you can’t buy a SIM card at any kiosk (well, you can, but they won’t work). You have to go to a telecom store and do all the paperwork there. We recommend T-Mobile. It just shouldn’t be this much of a pain for tourists.
- Everything is in Euros. Prices are generally less expensive than Croatia, but typically more in Kotor and the mountain towns, and much less as you travel further south to the less-touristy regions.