Montenegro: the coast

At the birth of our planet, the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea must have happened at the coast of Montenegro. When the pearls of nature were sown, handfuls of them were cast on this soil.”

Lord Byron

There’s so much to tell about our adventures in Montenegro that I couldn’t possibly fit it all into one or even two posts. So I’m going to shoehorn it into three. I’ve already given you some background on the country and described our first four days in its most famous town, Kotor. For the rest, I’ve going to split it up not chronologically, but thematically into Montenegro’s coast vs. the interior. Because these parts of the country have such different personalities, and we had such different experiences in each.

If you’ve ever been to the Greek Islands, then you already have a fair idea of what Montenegro’s Adriatic coastline looks like: arid, rocky shores lapped by aquamarine waves. And if you’ve had the privilege of visiting the Mediterranean coast of France or Italy, then you can imagine its topography: mountains tumbling abruptly into the sea, roads cut precariously into the steep slopes, dropping down into sun-drenched coastal villages and cities. But whereas spots like Mykonos, Santorini, Nice, and Cinque Terre are legendary seaside hotspots, who the heck has heard of Herceg Novi, Perast, Budva, or Porto Montenegro? We certainly hadn’t. Montenegro’s coastal resort towns may not be as polished and postcard-perfect as some other more famous European destinations. But they’re also vastly cheaper, less crowded, and way less pretentious, yet still abound with sunshine, warm water, natural beauty, and historical charm. In other words, an ideal place to spend a relaxed, affordable seaside vacation. (And your gorgeous Instagram beach photos will both delight and stump your friends & family. Wait, you’re where?!)

Besides Kotor, here are the other coastal towns we visited, from west to east:

Herceg Novi: Coming down from Croatia, this was both the first and last town we visited, the western gateway to Montenegro. Sitting at the northern end of and enjoying commanding views over the Bay of Kotor, it’s also the first town that anybody coming by sea would encounter as they entered the bay, which explains the fortress that has existed here in some form or another since at least 1382. But for many years, the focus here has been more pleasure than war, and the fortress is now used as an open-air theater. Tito even had a sprawling villa built here (one of his 33 residences in Yugoslavia!). We stopped in Herceg Novi for lunch on our way in and were surprised to find a well-developed waterfront promenade, lined with beachwear shops, beach bars & restaurants, a saltwater swimming pool, and vendors hawking bay cruises, watercraft rentals, and plenty of other adventures. On our return trip, we explored the lovely walled old town and fortress—not nearly as impressive as Kotor’s, but plenty charming in their own right. Easily accessible from Dubrovnik airport, the town seems to be a popular spot for Europeans to vacation, though it was still delightfully uncrowded when we were there in August.

Panorama of St.Jeronim Square & the Bay of Kotor, Herceg Novi

Bijela: Just a few miles down the road is the tiny town of Bijela, where we spent our last few nights in Montenegro in a small but well-appointed apartment a couple minutes’ walk from the beach. Our host, an imposing man named Ivan who was much friendlier than he looked, lived in the attached house and managed a small hotel and restaurant on the waterfront. (He’s the one who told us we needn’t lock our car because the area was so safe.) There’s not much to do in Bijela except to play on the beach, dine on the beach, and drink on the beach, so that’s what we did. The highlight was splashing out for dinner (twice!) at a fancy restaurant where we enjoyed some of the best sushi and desserts in Montenegro (Amy & Griffin still talk about them) as well as panoramic sunset views over the Verige Strait, where the Bay of Kotor narrows to a mere kilometer. We also used Bijela as a home base to explore some of the other bayside towns, including…

Risan: I mentioned that after the Romans conquered the area, they built two colonies in the most protected corners of the bay. But one of these predates the Romans. Rhizon was the seat of the Illyrian Queen Teuta, who reigned from 231 to 227 BC, and it’s considered the oldest town in Montenegro, documented as early as the 4th century BC. Now called Risan, it’s a tiny, not particularly photogenic town that most people simply drive through on their way to Kotor. But if you take the time to stop, as we did, you’ll discover at least one interesting legacy of this once-powerful city: the ruins of a Roman villa with some well-preserved mosaics. The most interesting, in the master bedroom, depicts the winged god of sleep, Hypnos, reclining on pillows…surrounded by opium poppies!

Perast: Kotor’s charm isn’t evident until you get inside the city walls. The little town before it, Perast, has no such problem—its beauty is visible from all across the bay, which it presides over from a strategic position facing the Verige Strait. This centuries-old fishing village has no fortifications; there’s barely room for the town itself on the steep grade where the mountain enters the sea. You can walk its pretty little waterfront from end to end in ten minutes (as we did), where you’ll find a handful of open-air restaurants and boutique hotels, a couple of photogenic churches, a tiny maritime museum, and a small beach. Our favorite spot at the edge of town was the Pirates Beach Bar, where we lounged for quite a long time sipping cocktails, listening to electronica, basking in the sun, and splashing around in the warm water. Definitely the hippest spot in this relaxed little town.

The main attraction in Perast is catching a boat out to two islets just in front of the town. The first, Sveti Đorđe (St. George), or the Island of the Dead, is covered by a 12th-century Benedictine monastery, an old graveyard for the Perast nobility, and a grove of Italian cypress. The second, Gospa od Skrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks), is nothing more than a small church almost floating on the water. The local sailors and fishermen made this artificial island by dropping rocks and sinking ships here. According to legend (which varies depending upon who tells it), two fishermen brothers saw an unusual light on the reef near Perast, where they found an icon of Mary with Christ. They took it home, but by the next morning, it had disappeared, and they found it back on the reef. This kept happening, which the people of Perast took as a sign that a sanctuary dedicated to Mary should be built there, which they did. The current church, which you can tour for a few Euros, dates from 1722 and is filled with colorful religious paintings by local and Italian artists, as well as a tiny museum filled with old knickknacks from Perast’s past.

Tivat & Porto Montenegro: We thought we’d seen all the highlights of the Bay of Kotor when Ivan in Bijela insisted we head over to Porto Montenegro. It’s all the way on the other side of the bay, but there’s a cheap ferry across the Verige Strait (which, in retrospect, was probably prohibited by our rental car contract!), so we took a trip over there on our last day in Montenegro. After parking in a lumpy, unpaved public parking lot, we found our way through some space-time portal into the shockingly posh harbor, a sleek and perfectly-manicured public space that would have been right at home in the OC. We wandered through an upscale health food store and past several chic boutiques before plunking down at a luxe waterfront café for cappuccinos, fresh-squeezed OJ, and a chocolate-drizzled croissant, while we looked out over some of the fanciest yachts I’ve ever seen. And the further we walked down the quay, the fancier they got, culminating in the sleek, black-sailed Black Pearl, officially the second largest yacht in the world (which features a battery-powered electric propulsion system, a cinema, a garage, a helipad, and a 4,000-bottle wine cellar). It seems Porto Montenegro was purpose-built to welcome such ultra-luxury vessels and their uber-wealthy owners, but it actually used to be a base for the Yugoslav navy, as evidenced by a tiny museum and two naval submarines on display next to the harbor. But we were more intrigued by the port’s own installment of the legendary Buddha-Bar, a painfully hip lounge that opens onto a 64-meter infinity pool built out into the bay…yet cleverly walled off to keep things private. Being painfully hip ourselves, we would have liked to pop in, but it seemed to be closed at the time. (No matter…we got to visit the original Buddha-Bar in Paris a month later, which is just as hip but lacks a pool or bay.) Just behind the fancy harbor, the town of Tivat is a little shabbier and more down-to-Earth, feeling a bit like a Mexican resort town once you wander away from the beach. We were also intrigued to find the public harbor, with its hodge-podge of considerably more humble vessels, and a couple of public beaches, where the locals swim and sunbathe—quite a juxtaposition to the jaw-dropping displays of wealth just around the corner.

Budva: You could easily forget that there’s more to Montenegro than the Bay of Kotor, but it’s also got a whole stretch of coast along the Adriatic which exudes an even more chill vibe. After our stay in Kotor, we headed to the splashy resort town of Budva, where we stayed for three nights. It reminded me a bit of Puerto Vallarta, but with fewer red tile roofs and palm trees. Situated on a large bay that boasts 17 beaches (an anomaly along the Adriatic’s rocky coast) and drenched in sunshine, it’s almost certainly Montenegro’s top spot for hedonistic beach vacations. As we drove in, I was horrified to see large posters advertising an electronic music festival on the beach that had just wrapped up the day we arrived, attracting over 40,000 people. (And Anfisa Letyago was there? How did I not know about this sooner?!) We had to settle for a considerably more downtempo sojourn on the beach. Arriving on the last Sunday in August, it seemed the whole summer season was drawing to a close. That first afternoon, we found a small sort of carnival by the beach, where Griffin bumped around in a bouncy house and got strapped into some dodgy bungee-jumping/trampoline contraption that sent him popping 15 or 20 feet in the air. (He loved it.) The next morning, that place was all closed up. The crowds had thinned. But if summer was over, somebody had forgotten to switch off the balmy weather and the warm water, which Amy especially was happy to revel in. Mostly in front of the Torch Beach Club, where she and Griffin rented beach chairs for a couple of days, listening to their DJs, splashing in the sea, munching on bar snacks, and playing far too many rounds of Uno. (While I mostly stayed in our apartment and tried to catch up on this blog.) We also explored the town, which is in a weird state of transition. We found brand-new highrises and glossy new malls…alongside prime real estate containing trash-strewn empty lots and an old flea market. The streets were reasonably nice and new, but sidewalks and parking had somehow been forgotten. At the end of the beachside promenade, we found Budva’s quaint old town (Stari Budva), very much like Kotor’s but even more compact. Here we wandered the alleys, walked the old city walls, watched a wedding wrap up, and dined at a minuscule vegetarian restaurant with surprisingly good cocktails and painfully slow service…even for Montenegro!

Sveti Stefan: Just around the bay from Budva is one of Montenegro’s most Instagrammable spots: Sveti Stefan. This tiny island, just offshore and accessible by a narrow strip of sand, was once a village of 400 residents. In 1934, a villa was built here for the Queen of Serbia. But by the 1950s, the island was nearly deserted, and the Yugoslav government relocated the 20 last inhabitants to the mainland and converted it into a luxury hotel, frequented by famous guests such as Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, and Kirk Douglas. Still retaining the look of an old Montenegrin village, it was taken over and refurbished by a private hotel company in 2007. But we found it all boarded up, apparently due to a dispute with the Montenegrin government about allowing public access to the beaches around the exclusive resort. Their loss. We spent the morning playing on one of those beaches and admiring the pretty, deserted island.

Petrovac: Just a few miles down the coast, we found a little beach town that we liked even better than Budva: Petrovac. (Not to be confused with nearly a dozen other Petrovacs in former Yugoslavia. Oh, those funny Slavic placenames!) Tucked around a small bay up against the mountains, this village of 1,400 people offers a surprisingly pleasant beach and well-developed waterfront, where we spent the afternoon. It even has its own tiny little castle out on the point, which we climbed up for better views of two tiny little islands just outside the bay, one crowned by the tiny, adorable St. Nedjelja Church. Once again, we were forced to revise our list of the best spots in Montenegro for a low-cost, low-key beach vacation!

Bar & Stari Bar: After Petrovac, we turned inland for a farm stay in rural Virpazar. But we made one last day trip from there out to the coast, dropping into the sprawling city of Bar, Montenegro’s only industrial port and one of the country’s largest cities…with a whopping 42,000 people. Here, for the first time, we found American-sized retail stores, like a giant grocery “hypermarket” (the first place with some respectable vegan options). But fascinating as that was, we were here for something else: the old town of Stari Bar (which simply means “old Bar”). Located on a hill above the new city, but still below the mountains, this ancient walled town and its 16th-century aqueduct collapsed in a devastating earthquake in 1979. With no water, the city was abandoned. The ruins, now covered with vines and fig trees, have become a tourist attraction. But just outside the old walls, along the steep ramp that leads to the main gate, people and businesses are returning, and we had lunch in one of these, a small konoba (a tavern or restaurant) which seemed to have more cats than people. As for the ruins…I’m not gonna lie, after all we’ve seen in Europe, these certainly were not the most impressive. But the views from atop the old walls were pretty epic. Here, we met another couple from California, slightly younger than us, who had been traveling through the Balkans for several months. They highly recommended Bosnia, where they had spent the most time, gushing about how wonderful the people were…and how cheap it was, even compared to Montenegro. But that wasn’t on our itinerary this trip…perhaps next time!

If you haven’t seen enough, you can always see more of our photos in our photostream!

Next up: inland Montenegro.