Montenegro: Kotor

Admit it: before we mentioned it, you knew absolutely nothing about the country of Montenegro. Maybe never even heard of it.

If you have, I’m impressed by how worldly you are. But if you haven’t, don’t sweat it. Because unless you’re in high school, then Montenegro is younger than you are, only becoming an independent state in 2006—an event that almost certainly did not make the evening news. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, this tiny, rugged country on the Adriatic between Croatia and Albania is about twice the size of Santa Barbara County, and even more sparsely populated with just 620,000 people.

But what else did we know about it? Not much. Of all the European countries on our itinerary, Montenegro was the biggest question mark. Were we completely naive to show up there with a seven-year-old and a rental car and drive around the countryside? Was it safe? We had no idea what to expect. But I had seen photos of the Bay of Kotor, a stunning mountain-ringed harbor where small, upscale European cruise ships sometimes call. And I figured if it was good enough for them…

Well, I’m glad to report that we not only survived three weeks circumnavigating Montenegro…we loved it. It was one of our favorite parts of our trip. I hate to invoke the cliché “undiscovered gem”, but that’s what it is: a diamond in the rough. From sunbaked beaches to craggy mountains, boasting Europe’s largest lake and deepest canyon, this tiny country is bursting at the seams with natural beauty. And the people we met there were wonderful. Turns out the only thing unsafe about it was driving on sketchy mountain roads with no guardrails! Looking through the almost one thousand photos I took, I get nostalgic for our experiences there, which seem somehow more special than our time in, say, Rome or Barcelona. So hang on tight while I try to cram the many highlights of our stay into three blog posts!

But first, some more background on Montenegro. While the country is new, the place is very, very old. When our human ancestors migrated into Europe, they came through this region, and there is evidence of human occupation nearby in Bulgaria dating to 1.5 million years ago. Montenegro itself has a cave (which we considered visiting) with stone artifacts that are 180,000 years old. Much more recently, Montenegro’s location midway between Rome and Greece, squarely on the border between the Catholic and the Byzantine worlds, and on the frontier between medieval Europe and the Ottoman Empire, ensured that it has a rich and lively history.

There’s a reason why this was the frontier for so many kingdoms and empires. Montenegro (Crna Gora in Montenegrin), whose name means “black mountain”, is legendary for its impenetrable topography and its fierce and obstinate warlike tribes, who did not submit easily to foreign domination. Even when they were controlled by the Venetians or the Ottomans or some other foreign power, Montenegrins in their mountain outposts enjoyed a significant amount of autonomy. Later, during WWII, the first armed resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe erupted in Montenegro. (According to some historians, and corroborated by one of our Montenegrin hosts, who sent us to the tiny village where it started.)

Best I can tell, the earliest version of Montenegro appeared around 1515, and its first constitution was proclaimed in 1855. Like the rest of the Balkans, Montenegro was subsumed into (what would become) Yugoslavia in 1918, and emerged from its ashes as the only Yugoslav state still federated with Serbia, with whom it has always shared close ties. But after the disastrous Bosnian war, Montenegro started charting its own course. In 2006, it broke with Serbia to become one of the world’s youngest countries…even though it’s been around for centuries. However, many Montenegrins disagreed with the split and still consider themselves Serbian, like being both Texan and American. Five years after independence, 45% of the population identified as Montenegrin and 29% as Serbian. Even more recently, Montenegro proclaimed its own language (almost indistinguishable from Serbian), though they can’t seem to figure out whether to write it in the Cyrillic or Latin alphabet; we saw both used on street signs. In other words, Montenegro is still trying to figure itself out.

Too small to print its own money, it first adopted the Deutsche Mark as its currency, then the Euro…even though it’s not part of the EU. But joining that bloc is Montenegro’s goal, following the lead of Slovenia and Croatia. Unfortunately, that’s probably a long way off for this poor and underdeveloped country that is still learning how to govern itself. It’s not that Montenegro is backward; its Human Development Index (HDI) score is “very high”, and it has a literacy rate of 99% (making it more literate than Greece, Portugal, Singapore, or Vietnam). But Montenegro’s young government is riddled with corruption, saddled with debt, and has been dominated by one man for decades (who may have pushed the country to independence just to make himself more powerful). There’s much work to be done here before Europeans consider Montenegrins their equals, and agree to both help subsidize their country’s development and allow them to move freely into the Eurozone.

But things have been far worse. Our hostess in Kotor, Radmila, reminisced about the bad old days in the nineties when things were far less stable, war was on the doorstep, and hyperinflation made your paycheck worth far less when you got it than when you earned it. She said she drank and partied her way through it, because what else was there to do? But scrappy Radmila is a good example of how the country is changing. Through tenacity and creativity, and without any apparent help, she’s become a respectable career woman, owner of a popular craft & souvenir shop in Kotor’s old city as well as some of a handful of the most handsome vacation rentals in town. She met us for coffee at an upscale café, dressed to the nines on a Saturday morning, about to go out on a boat with some friends for the afternoon. Not quite the peasant farmer we thought we might find here! Though we did see those too.

More so than a lot of other places we’ve been, Montenegro’s development is highly inconsistent. The coast, first built up by the Romans and controlled for centuries by Venice, is more sophisticated, exuding a shabby Mediterranean feel. Ancient towns like Kotor and Perast beckon tourists with their photogenic old stone architecture and historic charm, where centuries-old villas have been tastefully converted into small shops, restaurants, and hotels. Meanwhile, postcard-worthy beaches on the Adriatic lure in sun-worshippers from Europe and beyond, causing resort towns like Budva to build up quickly, if unevenly. Glossy new malls, modern high rises, and hip beach clubs sit alongside dreary Communist-era blocks, ruined and abandoned buildings, and trash-filled empty lots. Porto Montenegro is the chicest spot, almost a miniature Newport Beach, with a modern harbor designed to accommodate the biggest luxury yachts.

Just a few miles inland, where few tourists roam, things are completely different—what one of our hosts called the real Montenegro. As we threaded our way down narrow, often unpaved single-track roads through the hills, we passed through poor, crumbling villages that seemed virtually untouched by modernity, where donkeys, goats, and other livestock wandered freely on the road and an old woman lugged jugs down to the village well. (The village scenes from Borat could have easily been filmed here.) We understood that some of the smaller settlements in the hills don’t even have roads, only trails suitable for pack animals and people, such inaccessibility being an asset for the reclusive Monenegrins until fairly recently.

Higher up in the mountains, as we drove along the Tara River through Europe’s deepest canyon, things took on an almost Austrian feel, with verdant valleys, sharp mountains, thick forest, and…ski chalets? Up in Durmitor National Park, we discovered some of Europe’s cheapest ski resorts, where some lifts were open in summer to ferry hikers up to the peaks. Who knew Southeastern Europe had its own Alps?

Sadly, the only way to see it all is by car. Railways in Montenegro are almost nonexistent (except for the legendary Belgrade–Bar line which connects landlocked Serbia’s capital to Montenegro’s only industrial port). The country has chosen to invest in highways instead…to a rather unfortunate degree. North of the capital of Podgorica, we found ourselves on the most astounding freeway through the mountains, the M9. Sparkling new, this motorway does not follow the contours of the mountains; it goes right through them, an interminable series of bridges and tunnels. Like the Belgrade–Bar railway, it was designed to connect Montenegro to Serbia, ostensibly to boost trade, but of the planned 170 kilometers, just 40 have been completed, making it Montenegro’s “road to nowhere” and a huge corruption scandal. It was financed by a billion-dollar loan from the Chinese which the country is struggling to pay back. Sigh.

But other than that, we didn’t see a lot of overt signs of foreign investment. We never saw a Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, or any other US chain store. No international hotel brands either. Everything there seems to be built and innovated by creative Montenegrins like Radmila, who know that tourism is likely their surest path to prosperity. We were surprised how many spoke English, and were happy to do it (because the tourists can hardly be expected to know Montenegrin!). At least along the coast, we found lots of boutique hotels and upscale restaurants (though vegan options and craft cocktails have yet to catch on). Airbnb is taking off too.

Urban planning and infrastructure will take a while to catch up; for now, parking and sidewalks are almost nonexistent, even in the cities, and people park haphazardly anywhere they can, which makes both driving and walking rather interesting. Outside of the main tourist hubs, we were dismayed to see trash sometimes just dumped on the side of the road. But at least the power stayed on and our cell phones worked, even if Google Maps didn’t—we had to switch to a local map app to reliably find our way around.

Though not particularly gregarious, we found the Montenegrins to be kind, honest, hard-working, and family-oriented. I don’t recall anyone ever approaching us for a handout. Nor did we see any evidence of crime. Our host Ivan in Bijela (another self-made entrepreneur) told us he just leaves the keys in the ignition of his unlocked car, and that we could safely do the same.

For intrepid travelers looking for an authentic, colorful, off-the-beaten-path adventure, you really can’t do much better than Montenegro. We loved every minute of our three weeks there, from the ancient walls of Kotor, the Cancun-like beach resort of Budva, the rustic family farm and winery we stayed at in Virpazar, to the adorable log cabin high in Durmitor National Park. Where else can you get this sort of diversity of experiences in such a small place? And for so little money?

Just do me a favor and keep it our little secret, okay?

As we drove in from Croatia on a two-lane road, I wasn’t sure what to expect at the border. In the past, crossing between the two has probably been pretty casual; some folks probably even commuted across daily. But Croatia was to become a full-fledged member of the Eurozone in a few months, which meant that her borders would now be EU borders, something much more significant. But we found no militarized border crossing laced with razor wire; things still seemed pretty mellow for now, if a bit backed up. After we passed through the fairly modern, multi-lane Croatian facility, we drove down the hill to a separate, more rustic Montenegrin one, where we couldn’t even find a border agent on duty…perhaps he was having a smoke? Finally, a large, gruff man in a uniform appeared. He glanced at our passports and stamped them, and we were free to go.

As we turned a bend in the road, the arid Croatian landscape gave way to a densely forested green valley. And just beyond it, the sparkling Bay of Kotor (or Boka) spread out below us. There are probably few natural bays in the world so well protected as this one; it widens and narrows in such a way that it’s almost like three bays chained together, one after the other, each surrounded by successively taller mountains. It’s so unique that the entire bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Naturally, people have long understood the advantages of this place and lived along its shores for millennia. The Romans conquered and ruled the bay for centuries as part of their province of Dalmatia, creating two colonies in the most protected corners of the bay. Today, these are the towns of Risan and Kotor.

The bay remained an important harbor and trading hub through the Middle Ages, with Kotor (known then as Cattaro) evolving into a significant center of trade and culture that rivaled Ragusa (Dubrovnik). Over the centuries, various powers, including the Serbs, Hungarians, Bosnians, Venetians, and Ottomans, vied for control of the town and its strategic bay, though Kotor often managed to keep some level of independence. But in 1420, the threat from the Ottomans proved too great, and Kotor asked Venice for protection. The Venetians ruled the city for the next four centuries, building city walls, a fortress, palaces, and more, leaving a lasting imprint. (Quite literally: you’ll see Venice’s symbol, the winged lion, everywhere.) Kotor is nowhere near as grand and graceful as Venice, but what is grand and graceful about it is mostly due to the Venetians.

The ancient city of Kotor is no longer a formidable maritime and trading power; instead, it’s become the most powerful tourist attraction in the country. I guarantee: anybody you meet who’s been to Montenegro has been to Kotor, and chances are good it’s the only place they went. We were heading there too, but it was only our first stop. To get there, we had to circumnavigate the bay on a two-lane road that twists through the many towns and villages along the shore: Herceg Novi, Bijela, Perast, and more. Except for a quick stop for lunch, we skipped all of these, knowing that we would be coming back to explore them later.

As we got closer to Kotor, the mountains just kept getting taller and more dramatic, looming over us. This has been called Europe’s most southerly fjord (incorrectly, since it was carved by rivers rather than glaciers). For me, the gray rock walls were more reminiscent of Yosemite Valley. Except that instead of bold, polished faces of granite, these mountains consist of flakey, fractured limestone and dolomite. In this karst landscape, the soft rock is so riddled with cracks & fissures that no matter how much rain falls, it all quickly disappears into the rock, leaving the surface dry and almost desert-like. Which is bizarre, because it rains a lot here; the capital, Podgorica, is almost certainly the wettest city in Europe, though it doesn’t look it. I guess a lot of that water finds its way into this lovely blue, brackish bay.

But other than the setting, Kotor wasn’t very impressive at first sight. Drab, low-slung apartment blocks. A small two-story rectangle that was apparently the town shopping mall. A big vacant lot on the edge of the bay where a new hotel was going up. A single traffic light…which didn’t work. With a population of only 13,000, Kotor is not a large place. But after tracking down our hostess and settling into our apartment, we set out on foot to find out what all the fuss was about. We first discovered a shady and slightly shabby park where some enterprising young men had set up a generously-patched bouncy-house slide and some trampolines. (After all that driving, we were happy to pay them a Euro to let Griffin get his wiggles out for a few minutes.) Along the quay, some bored men & women stood at small kiosks selling tourist cruises on the bay. Rising up behind them, a luxury cruise ship (smaller than most, but still dwarfing everything around it) was parked in the only berth big enough for such a thing, which we found occupied by a different ship every day we were there.

Then we stumbled upon the main attraction, Kotor’s old city, with its imposing stone walls. Hemmed in by water on three sides and backing up to a steep mountain, with a clear view across the bay, the town is well positioned to defend itself from attacks by sea (if these hadn’t already been repulsed at the bay’s narrow straits). But what if invaders came over the mountain—as they so often did? Kotor’s solution was simple, if incredibly laborious: its city walls don’t stop at the mountain, but march right up it, almost vertically, twisting and turning like the Great Wall of China, some 900 feet to the peak, where they encircle a fortress that provides a lookout over the city, the bay, and the mountains. In total, these fortifications are almost 3 miles long, up to 50 feet thick, and well over 60 feet tall in some places. The wall and fortress are a bit hard to spot at first against the mountainside, having been built of the same material, but once you do pick them out, it’s an astounding sight that you can’t stop looking up at.

In front of the city’s main portal, the “Sea Gate”, which once opened onto the bay, land has been reclaimed to build a spacious public plaza, lined with palm trees, kiosks, and open-air cafés, which connects the cruise ship port to the town. Stepping through the narrow portal into the old city, things get considerably more compact. Surrounded by such formidable city walls, the town itself is surprisingly modest and quaint. Almost no building is over four stories tall, which means only a few church domes & steeples peek over the city wall. Everything, from the pavers to the walls, is constructed from a sand-colored stone, darkened in splotches by a patina that takes centuries to accumulate. Only the red terra cotta roofs and the doors and shutters, typically painted dark green, deviate from the black-and-tan color scheme. The hand-hewn stones are usually squarish, and the precision of the cuts and the geometry of the building generally reflect both its age and prestige. The older, more humble buildings have walls that are anything but straight or plumb and stones that are rough and irregular, held together and smoothed over with a generous amount of mortar—a construction style that seems peculiar to this region.

Narrow lanes, most too cramped for more than a few pedestrians or a mule, wind between the buildings and turn abruptly, before opening suddenly into small hidden squares, which are invariably lined with café tables and shops. Above the street level, most buildings seem residential, likely the more coveted “old city” apartments, many probably owned by foreigners or converted into vacation rentals. But towards the back of town, the buildings too started stepping up the mountains, streets turned into narrow pathways and precarious staircases, and evidence of real life began to appear: satellite dishes and air conditioning units bolted to walls, laundry hung to dry between buildings, potted plants sitting on doorsteps and hanging from windows…and the sound of TVs, radios, and conversations drifting out of windows.

It’s rare to find an entire town that, at least architecturally, seems to have been plucked from another time. Hard to believe a place like this actually exists and did not spring from the imagination of some designer for movie sets or theme parks. But this is a living city, and it’s a joy to wander the streets to see what you might discover. You needn’t worry about getting lost or ending up in a shady alley; at its widest point, from the River Gate to the Gurdić Gate, the whole thing takes only about 6 minutes to walk across. And the mountain looming above, you always know roughly what direction you’re headed. We loved that the whole thing is a pedestrian zone. Apparently, no motor vehicles are allowed, nor could get they fit through the gates anyway. The one exception is a miniature orange truck that tows a series of trash carts behind it like a little train, rolling through town once or twice a day to keep the streets clean & tidy. Everything else is transported into the old town by pedal power, including huge crates of bottled water and other beverages.

We spent much of our time in Kotor exploring her streets and walking atop her walls, pausing for way too many photo ops. We also spent some time strolling along Kotor’s quiet waterfront, taking a dip in the warm water and soaking up the hot Adriatic sun. It was simultaneously like being in the mountains and being at the beach, except there are no waves and no seagulls. About our only complaint was the smog, much of it from the cruise ships, which tends to accumulate in this deep valley. Our recommendation: consider visiting Kotor in the spring or autumn, when temps are a bit more moderate, crowds are thinner, and cruise ships stop in less frequently.

Here are just a few of our most memorable experiences in this wonderful little town—which, it turns out, is a sister city of Santa Barbara!

Climbing the Ladder of Kotor: Of course, we couldn’t resist hiking up to the fortress, so we set out one morning with plenty of water and sunblock, hoping to beat the afternoon heat. Most people do the climb from the city itself, up the centuries-old cobblestone path the soldiers used, and the city has cleverly set up a booth at the bottom to try to charge a small fee for the privilege. But we knew that there was another way up, which was both free and arguably more scenic: a trail known as the Ladder of Kotor. Starting just outside the River Gate, it zigzags up the mountain outside the city walls, offering more impressive views over the bay at every switchback (there are apparently 72 of them!). Pomegranate and fig trees grow wild along the rocky path, just as they do everywhere in lowland Montenegro. And while we couldn’t find any ripe enough to eat, Amy was thrilled to see so many wild figs, an obsession that started when she planted a particularly productive one in our garden at home a few years back.

Halfway up the mountain, like an oasis in the desert, we found a modest house with a shady patio and a toilet where a local man serves fresh bread, cheese, beer, and other cold drinks (known locally and on Google Maps simply as “The Cheese Shop”). Amy was in heaven! The man, who apparently lives alone up here, doesn’t speak any English and seems to just make up the prices, writing a number on a piece of paper. But it’s a welcome rest stop and a bargain to anybody who’s hiked this far. I came prepared with my own tub of hummus. 😉

From there, the trail continues up the mountain and right over the top of it, eventually taking you to the historical capital of Cetinje many miles inland, which villagers have traversed for ages to buy and sell things in Kotor. Or you can cut off on a side trail through an abandoned village over to the fortress, climb up a sketchy wooden ladder, and clamber through a hole in the wall. This we and Griffin bravely did, even as some much older kids (and parents) balked at the task. Needless to say, the effort was worth it, and the 360° views from the top were priceless. The fortress was a bit of an open ruin with few guardrails and nobody in any official capacity supervising things. Who you gonna sue if you fall off? Having taken the trail less traveled, we were surprised to find quite a crowd up there, including some cruise ship passengers who looked rather winded, and a few enterprising Montenegrins selling them cold drinks out of coolers they had hauled up the mountain. Sadly, we also found some of the ruined buildings filled with mountains of trash, mostly plastic drink bottles. I guess the city’s little trash train doesn’t come up here. Sigh. Eventually, we made our way back down to the old city, this time down the “official” route, smugly passing the little ticket booth at the bottom.

The cats of Cattaro: Stray dogs are a fixture in a lot of poorer countries. Apparently not in Montenegro. Instead, we found cats…and a lot of them. We first noticed them in Cavtat, Croatia, where some friendly felines lounged on the quay. But in Kotor, cats of every shape, size, and color are everywhere. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them, roaming the streets, making little nests under bushes, and taking naps in any shady spot they can find. It became a game to see how many we could spot. The greatest concentration is in a spacious square in the old city called Trg od Drva, where locals put out food, water, and boxes for them to sleep in. Griffin and I melted at the sight of so many cats, particularly some kittens cuddled in a ball whose eyes weren’t even yet open. A few of the less skittish ones even let us pick them up. These cats are an unofficial mascot of Kotor—some say they saved the city, first from rats & snakes, and later from a devastating earthquake—and we found lots of cat souvenirs and even a small cat museum (which was pretty weird and underwhelming). Some tourism blogs happily chirp that the cats aren’t actually strays at all and are cared for by the community…but digging deeper, we learned that most are not spayed or neutered and many suffer from malnutrition and health problems, particularly an eye infection that can cause blindness if left untreated, which we saw first-hand. Luckily, some kind folks are trying to address this. (Cat lovers, feel free to donate!)

The farmers market: Our hostess, Radmila, directed us to the weekly farmers market that happens just outside the old city, where we found a surprising collection of local fruits and vegetables, preserved meats, olives and honey, homemade cheeses and liquors, and other local specialties. Figs and stonefruit were particularly abundant. We were amazed to discover how productive this seemingly arid land could be! The only thing I bought was a large bag of wild mushrooms. They took forever to clean, but once sautéed, they were delicious!

A submarine ride: To better appreciate the bay and all the lovely sights along its shores, we had been considering doing one of the many bay cruises offered at the waterfront. But there was only one Griffin was interested in: a submarine ride. Actually, it was just a small boat made to look like a submarine with a dark interior and lots of underwater windows, but he didn’t care. Amy and he finally did it together one afternoon and were surprised to get the thing all to themselves. I don’t think they saw much under the water, but Amy enjoyed luxuriating on the deck, fantasizing about buying a 300-year-old stone villa, and chatting with the gregarious 6½ ft skipper, who let Griffin drive the boat!

The waterfront & Aquarium Boka: On our last evening, we finally ventured away from the old city along the waterfront. Here we found a less crowded, more chill side of the town. A simple ocean-water pool that seemed to mostly be frequented by locals. Lots of casual outdoor seafood restaurants and bars, mostly empty. Some upscale waterfront villas and B&Bs. A group of local kids jumping off a lifeboat crane into the warm, clear water. And finally, at the very end, a small, nondescript, but surprisingly classy aquarium, apparently the only public one in the country, which focuses on marine life and conservation in Kotor Bay and the Adriatic. Since 95% of tourists probably never get this far out, we had no idea how it stayed in business. But whatever the ticket price was, it was a bargain for us to enjoy all the cool marine life, including a colorful seahorse that Amy swears was her lover in a former life, and the cool air conditioning on this hot summer afternoon. The Adriatic is host to a variety of colorful, unique sea species.

Shopping at the “mall”: After a few days on the hot Adriatic, I realized that what little summer wear I had just wasn’t cutting it. So I headed to the tiny shopping mall next to our apartment to stock up before we headed into the rural interior. While certainly not fancy, I was once surprised by how sophisticated the shops were in this supposedly poor, undeveloped country. With the A/C and pop music pumping, and streetwear and athletic shoes on offer similar to those at home, I could easily have been at a small town mall in the US. Except that it was challenging to find anything in a medium—but there were plenty of XXXL. Probably because Montenegrins are verifiably the tallest people in the world. It wasn’t particularly obvious in Kotor, which was packed with tourists, but it was in the public restrooms, where I sometimes struggled to reach the high-set urinals. Amy enjoyed pointing out the six-foot+ tall women. Ironically, in a country with such sizeable men, I struggled to find a bathing suit larger than a Speedo. I eventually did find a pair of bright red Speedo-brand trunks which are miles shorter than the boardshorts popular at home. My wife still makes fun when I wear them!

Driving the Kotor Serpentine: On our last morning, we packed up our SUV and headed for Montenegro’s Adriatic coast. We could have taken the direct route, through a tunnel underneath the mountain. But we decided to take the scenic route, on an exhilarating (Amy would say harrowing) roadway known as the Kotor Serpentine. Its name comes from the 15 or 16 hairpin turns it makes as it switchbacks up Mt. Lovćen, the peak that towers 5,738 feet above Kotor and is the “black mountain” that gave Montenegro its name. Like most roads in this country, the Serpentine is basically one lane and has no guardrails…at best, on the more treacherous sections, it offers a low stone wall with lots of gaps in it. At least one source said the road “is in dreadful condition and requires strong nerves to negotiate”. Hey, at least it’s paved! Amy screamed almost the whole way up, especially when some car or truck would come barreling around a corner toward us. I laughed and stopped repeatedly to take photos of the breathtaking view. But we lived to tell the tale!

The view from only halfway up the Kotor Serpentine

Next up: the coast of Montenegro!