It might seem odd to call an entire country a hidden gem, but it feels appropriate to say that about Montenegro. Whenever I told someone where in Europe I was heading, I got the same reaction: “Huh, that’s different.”
And yeah, it was different. But in many ways, Montenegro is very similar to its more popular counterparts: With little bits of Croatia and Greece noted here and there (and hints of Soviet Russia, too) it’s still a place entirely its own.
Traveling to Montenegro didn’t exactly happen by choice; for me, it was an absolute necessity. J was sent there on business for two whole weeks (seriously, the longest we’ve been apart from one another since like, freshman year of college—the drama! the agony!) and it felt as if it would be forever until I’d see him again. But when I finally got to board that flight to the capital of Podgorica (via Vienna), travel time went surprisingly fast. I was there! I’d finally made it!
First up on the list…
To hang out in the hotel room for about 2.5 days. Womp womp. While J finished up with business, I got quite familiar with Montenegrin television, the Hilton Podgorica’s fabulous room service, and caught up on sleep. Which wasn’t really a bad thing: I was relaxed and well-rested when it came time to set out on our little adventure. And after a very brief stop in the historical capital of Cetinje (pictured above), we hit the mountain roads.
near death experience adventure is what the first day really turned out to offer. Renting a car to travel the mountains of Montenegro proved, well, interesting. The roads are very narrow, so you really put your trust in drivers coming from the opposite direction not to put the pedal to the metal—there is no room for both of you. Whomever has more room to pull over slightly, does, and then you’re on your merry way again.
Add to this lovely
horror experience of roads slushy with melting snow and a (albeit super cute) hatchback vehicle without proper traction—and did I mention mountainside barriers weren’t always guaranteed?—and you’ve got yourself quite the little thrill ride. A thrill ride in which I, the driver, was completely in control of. Sort of.
Moral of the story: If you’re not comfortable driving (I know everyone thinks they’re a good driver, but seriously if you have any doubt), hire someone to take you there, or go the highway route. If you’re up for a little adventure, cool! Do it. Once I felt safe enough to guarantee our survival, I was thrilled with the trip. Also, in the summertime with clear roads, you’ll have far less obstacles to worry about than we did. You will, however, have a lot more traffic.
The Bay of Kotor was such a welcome sight after traveling over the mountain: It was amazing, the transition before our eyes. One moment, snow, slush, and bare branches. The next, turquoise waters, lush greenery, and blue, blue skies. If we hadn’t driven it ourselves, I’d swear we’d been transported.
Check-in at the hotel was even better: It’s the dead of winter! No one’s here! You’ve been upgraded! (Hey, we’ll take it). We were led to a suite complete with separate bedroom, living room, and the pièce de résistance: the balcony. Patio? Veranda? Whatever it was, it was glorious.
Had it been a little warmer, I would have never wanted to leave. (Had it been a little warmer, we wouldn’t have gotten that room, so there’s also that).
The next day, after being treated to an in-suite breakfast—served al fresco!—we got behind the wheel for our first destination of the day. The town of Kotor is one that we very nearly stayed in, but (in retrospect, I’m so glad) we opted for Tivat, since we could find a hotel right on the water. The highlight of a visit to Kotor is its fortifications, complete with towers, castles, and truly incredible views. To gain those views requires a not-so-little hike, and, being in what I like to call my winter shape (read: lazy), it wasn’t exactly a breeze. But it wasn’t impossible, either, and the photos, I think, made it completely worth the hundreds (thousands?!) of steps we took to get there.
Once at the top, we followed the signs for smoked ham and cheese (and scotch!) to a tiny hillside house—and its resident, a man with binoculars, watching the activity down below. Who needs TV when you have a view like this (and the proper equipment to eavesdrop on tourists?). Jokes aside, this man was the prime example of the friendly hospitality we encountered our entire stay in the country.
We asked for two glasses of pomegranate juice, kicked back, and enjoyed the view (we also enjoyed the company of a number of super friendly cats). In the summertime, the juice is freshly squeezed from the abundance of fruits growing all around, and it’s made into syrup to preserve for the winter months. Our variation was from the syrup, diluted with water, and it was still wonderful. I can imagine how much better the summer version would be—and the view of the pomegranate trees bearing fruit to go with it.
After a brief walk through the ancient streets of Kotor—where there is a CAT MUSEUM, by the way—we were off to lunch in the nearby seaside haunt of Perast.
This is the place you see when Montenegro is listed as a “hidden gem” in travel publications (or at least, it’s the one I instantly recognized when a friend on Facebook posted an article about just that). With a looming mountain backdrop, white-washed buildings, and the bluest water, it was also the perfect scene to enjoy some lunch. I texted a photo of our lunch scene to my mom—”are you on a boat?” she asked—no, just really close to the water. Like, if I tip my chair, I’m in trouble.
Back at our home away from home, we basked in the glow of the sunset—again, thanking our luck that afforded us this incredible view.
The day that followed brought perhaps my favorite destination in the country: Budva. Though we spent only a short time there, it would have been the ideal location for a seaside picnic—the picture-perfect, old Hollywood kind, where I imagine I could figure out how to tie a scarf in my hair like Grace Kelly (I cannot). The ocean waves crashing against clusters of jagged rocks, the mountain backdrop (which, sure, we saw in every town), and the most fantastic weather of our stay gave it the highest score in my Montenegro town tally.
Budva’s Citadel, located within the old town and exhibiting remains of an old church, army barracks, and yet even more incredible views, was a quick but memorable visit. It cost a couple of euros each, but I think the entrance fee was worth it.
We wandered the beaches of Budva a bit longer, before we headed to our appointment—yes! we had an appointment!—a private tour of a private island looming in Budva’s background: Sveti Stefan.
Once a fortified village to defend against the Turks in the 15th century, Sveti Stefan is now, to put it quite simply, a 5-star resort. And when I say 5 stars, I mean they have earned every single one of those. If you can afford to stay here, you will be treated like a movie star (in fact, many movie stars did and still do come here—Sophia Loren was the name that caught my ear, instantly sprinkling the place yet another layer of glamour). The private tour took us through the alleyways of this tiny, private village, taking in the views and even getting to check out some of its luxurious accommodations (two had private pools) that I’m still dreaming about.
And so ends our adventure through the tiny towns of Montenegro. Would I recommend you do the same? Yes and no. Yes; the people are amazing, the sights are amazing, the prices are even better. You get many of the same benefits as you would in, say, Croatia, without the droves of tourists (though this is a vacation destination above all, so you won’t be avoiding crowds altogether by any means). No; not if you have a long list of other destinations to see first. In my opinion, you wouldn’t need to spend a ton of time to see the highlights here, and it’s not a place that I feel you can just set up camp in for an extended stay. But everyone prefers different elements to their vacations, so perhaps this is the place for you. All in all, I’m so happy and grateful to have done it, but I wouldn’t deem it as a repeat destination. Still, Montenegro gave us some serious moments of beauty (and some good eats—look for more on that, later). Another one for the Siminitz memory books.