Montenegro… Up until 2006, I thought it was a deliciously bitter herbal digestif – one of those drinks you drink when you think you can’t drink any more. It helps you find your second stomach – the one that has room for three more glasses of red wine and a good deal of munchies. It is in fact an ‘Amaro‘, and disappointingly, does not come from Montenegro at all, but Bologna (or perhaps not disappointingly – it’s one of my favourite places in the world).
But the Montenegro I can actually drink up all day is the country. On the recent jaunt to Croatia, our entire shared house (13 of us – more on unlucky 13s later) hired a bus to take us over the border for a very touristy look-see.
Soon after, you hit the shores of the Bay of Kotor, a UNESCO listed site – a sweeping and twisted bay the shape of a uranium logo, with its mouth at Herzeg Novi, which apparently has beauty, but which was obscured to us by grotty apartment towers strung together by laundry. We didn’t stop here, instead progressing to the central heads just past Kamenari. Bizarrely, in the 36°C day, to compliment the view of ancient Perast and the islands of ‘Our lady of the rocks’ and St George, car-boot vendors offered us thick woolen coats and hats. Beautiful work, but just the thought of trying them on made me ill.
From here, the bus wound its way around the entire northern end of the lake, past bathers on shallow sandy shores and bobbing pontoons, skirting the pre-mentioned Perast and islands. I looked wistfully out the window here – taxi boats were taking tourists the the man-made lady of the rocks (R.K.C. Gospa od Škrpjel), built up stone by stone in the 1400s by faithful sailors who were saved by a vision of Mary at this spot in the most violent of winter storms.
Instead we stopped at Kotor – and no disappointment here. With its moated city walls, shaded tiny alleys, thousand year old churches and dramatic mountain backdrop. Lunch was a disappointment, but we were revived by kooky street art and excellent gelato. The beauty of Kotor continued even after we left the city, when the driver stopped at the ‘Montenegro Eye’, a position on the mountain behind Kotor, where the entire bay of Kotor can be seen, including the red rooftops and spires of the village itself (and the cruise-ships alongside dwarfing them)
Our guide took us into the mountains to try the famous ‘black wine’ (Vranec) of Montenegro, stopping at the town of Njegusi. This red/black wine is like rocket fuel with an atomic heart and should be avoided at all costs. The white was not much better, and the beer only just drinkable. I ordered a ‘Montenegro’, and the waiter stared at me blankly. I got a lemon soda and drank with the children. The regional ham however was very good – similar to prosciutto, if slightly less aged, and served with rustic bread and stinky sheeps’ milk cheese in slabs of salty goodness. They sold it off wooden carts in the street in vacuum packs with pretty jars of very good regional honey and more redundant woolens.
The road continued, twisting like a corkscrew that has been through the garbage disposal unit, and eventually the children started throwing up. Our stop in Cetinje was shortened because we had to spend half an hour on a narrow roadside hosing off the green and bespeckled ones and putting them in their bathers and covering the soiled bus seats with beach towels. So we waved at the leafy boulevards fringed in ornate embassies, said goodbye to the museum, and continued on…
On to the vista of St Stephens, also known as Sveti Stefan. This is the place we would have stayed the night if we were all millionaires and had no vomitous children. The island has been turned into a luxury and award winning resort by the Aman group, a group so ‘in’, they also have “amanjunkies”. But not for us. Next stop, Budva (bood-vah), slowing only to take photos at James Bond’s ‘Hotel Splendid‘ (Montenegro’s claim to fame in Casino Royale – forgetting the scandal that showed it was actually filmed in the Czech Republic)
We had saved the swimming town until last. This was supposed to be the highlight – “the centre of Montenegro’s tourism, and is well known for its sandy beaches“. Our guide dropped us just 100m walk from the entrance of the old town – 2500 years – not too shabby. Founded by Cadmus and refined by Venetians (for 400 years from 1420) – repeller of the Ottomans, yet conquored by the Austrian Empire, and faithfully restored after a tragic earthquake in 1979. The city is small and quite picturesque – the beach less so. The term “sandy” is as coarsely used as the pebbles themselves, and the water so densely populated it is developing its own population of litter-spawn and dead bats.
We retreated to the cool “MB Ice Bar” – just inside the ancient walls, with swinging chairs, spray-fans and a cocktail list as large as a summer issue of Cosmo. We drank indecently coloured concotions and the kids refueled with triple-layer chocolate mouse and trifle in long glasses, occasionally slipping back out to the beach for a cool shower.
On the way out, we saw the real beach – further around to the west. But no matter, we were pooped. The bus took the ferry shortcut over from Lepetane to Kamenari, and then we scooted back home to Zaton.
It was a big day for me, such a lazy tourist, but worth it – if for nothing more than the extra stamp in the passport. The tour is fairly common, and can be booked through the local tourist office. Ours was with Adriatica, and worked out at less than $60 per adult for the day, excluding food. We were able to tailor our own tour because we could take the whole mini-bus, but it is possible to join a larger tour for less.