To start 2019 Jon (my boyfriend) and I decided to go on a trip somewhere new. With most of Europe still quite cold we decided to go south, where the temperature was at least in double digits. For me this trip was my first venture into an unknown region that I had yet to travel to, the Balkans. Montenegro is the newest country that I have visited to date, as it only separated from Serbia and Montenegro in 2006.
Montenegro sits on the Adriatic Sea and is a beach goer’s paradise in the summer months. Unfortunately for Jon I’m not the biggest fan of lounging in the sun, so we weren’t going to wait.
The flight from London was unusual. It was filled with either locals or Brits that seemed like they were on a party weekend, but once we arrived in the capital the Brits all disappeared. In the majority of the areas we visited we were the only English speaking tourists around, which sometimes can be quite enriching.
Unfortunately, on day one Jon was still recovering from a fever so he decided to rest in the hotel whilst I went for a walk around the city.
Podgorica is the capital of Montenegro and it isn’t exactly the most tourist-orientated city I have been to. Nonetheless I wanted to see how the locals live and what the city had to offer. My first stop was to the south, where the old town lies. A lot of the structures around the city are quite run down, but with small projects here and there to restore and bring joy and colour to what was once the old Soviet style of building. With Yugoslavia being an old communist state, living quarters were generally grey concrete blocks that towered the skyline, with shops around the base.
The old town was exactly that, old. A lot of the homes were falling apart and roads were filled with potholes and roadworks, causing traffic chaos. In the old town you have the chance to see the clock tower and the Osmanagic Mosque, which is only small as Montenegro’s Muslim community is only 20% of the country’s already small population, and the largest Muslim area is found near the Albanian border.
I ventured into the residential area of Podgorica (to be honest a lot of the city is residential), across to the west of the Moraca river to the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.
The artwork along the walls and the roof of the cathedral gave a slight modern twist of the typical artwork you find in Orthodox churches across Europe, with the Cathedral only being completed in 2013 and containing modern influences. Nonetheless, the detail and extravagance of the interior decoration is beautiful – just stand and take it all in.
I made my way back east into the town centre, across the Millennium bridge (another fancy bridge that runs parallel to Moscow bridge), and I had finished sightseeing around the entire city.
There were a couple of small parks you could walk around, which we did the next day, but overall Podgorica is the smallest capital city I have seen to date, with literally the least amount of things to see. Luckily enough I knew this before going, and had other day trips planned for the rest of the trip.
One last thing on Podgorica is they have an exceptionally high number of pizzerias across the city. There are a couple of other places that do serve authentic cuisines such as the restaurant Pod Volat, however I feel the locals do love a bit of pizza as there was one on almost every street. So if you are one to being a fussy eater then you certainly won’t be spoilt for choice.
Our second day in Montenegro took Jon and I (luckily he’d largely recovered!) on a bus out to a town called Virpazar, which was our gateway into Lake Skadar.
I was relieved to get off the cramped bus and explore Virpazar, however, the town was empty. There were a couple of locals, fixing boats and wandering around, but apart from them we seemed to be the only travellers there (I guess it was very off-season).
With everything closed a part from a restaurant on a boat and a little stall selling rocks, clothes and food we decided to press on, to hike part of the lake and take in the sights of the area.
In hindsight, if you want to hike I would suggest visiting Lake Skadar from another point of entry such as Rijeka Crnojevica, or go to Virpazar in peak season when tourist information centres are open to give some advice. I say this as the route we took within Virpazar was more road than hiking path. Nonetheless, we walked down the road towards our first stop. Besac Castle is a tiny castle on the top of a ridge that has some great views of Lake Skadar. It has an entrance fee, which I assume is enforced during peak season, however for us we were the only tourists within the area so no one was asking for payment. The interior of the castle was closed, so we only got a glimpse of the exterior.
Unfortunately, we didn’t go much further as Jon still wasn’t 100%, so we made our way back to Virpazar where we actually saw a bus with 40+ Chinese tourists, who got off and started the same walk we had just finished. We decided to rest up and enjoy a peaceful late lunch on a restaurant boat on a river off Lake Skadar.
One thing about my time in Montenegro so far. I believe it is important to try and travel to unique, small and unknown countries and support their travel industry and help boost their economy. However, the natural beauty of Montenegro often didn’t seem to be well cared for, and the environment hasn’t been respected in many places. Lake Skadar is beautiful, but somewhat spoilt by the mountains of trash that are almost everywhere you look. This is of course off-putting to travellers.
Our final full day in Montenegro took us to Kotor – and also brought a drastic drop in temperature! To get to Kotor, you must go up and then down the mountain ranges to the western coastline on the Adriatic Sea. Although missing the relative warmth of central Montenegro we began to roam the city of Kotor. We coincidently walked through a small market where locals were buying and selling fresh groceries. I really like these kind of finds in my travels as it allows one to experience local daily life, and it shows that no matter where you live in the world we are all the same in how we live our lives.
We continued our walk around the bay until we reached the old town Sea Gate. The old town is completely fortified behind a wall with bastions right by the waterfront, which was within the Bay of Kotor, which was a bay, within a bay! The square of arms is the first sight you see as you walk through the Sea Gate, and there are restaurants everywhere with views of the Town Clock Tower. They were all empty!
I can only imagine how packed this square and all the small streets within the town must be heaving in the heat of summer, as I assume the majority of tourists come to this coastline in Montenegro.
We explored the narrow streets and came across the churches of St Nicholas and St Luke. Then, Jon and I decided to climb up the 1,350 steps to the highest point in Kotor old town, topped by Castel St. John, an Illyrian fort. I love a good climb and a good viewpoint. The trek was windy and lots of the stones and steps were loose – I bet tourists fall in their dozens daily down small sections.
We got to the half-way point, known as the Church of our Lady of Remedy, which already had some amazing views of the Bay and the surrounding small towns.
We ventured on, Jon pushing through even though he was still recovering. We came across a few different outposts and ledges were we would rest or look around.
We made it! The Castel St. John Illyrian fort. The views were magnificent. Through everything that we had experienced that hadn’t quite lived up to what could have been in Montenegro thus far, this view made up for it and then some. We just sat at the top overlooking everything, and as the only ones up there it was spectacular and peaceful. This is why I love travelling in off-peak seasons, you get the entire experience to yourself and don’t have to struggle to see anything.
We made our way down – much easier than the climb up – and ventured to the Pjaca od salute where we had a late lunch with views of St. Triphon’s Cathedral.
As the day began to come to a close we decided to go for a walk around a section of the bay and enjoy the calm of the water coming in and out of the sand and stones, taking photos of various angles of the bay and its surroundings before hopping on a bus back to Podgorica before heading home the next day.
One thing I learnt from this trip is to always try and travel with no expectations of a place. Not everywhere in the world is perfect and may not be for you. But never write a place off because when you do, there is always going to be something special that makes that trip memorable, and it’s thanks to Kotor that I changed my mind about Montenegro. I certainly want to return one day to explore new areas like the north and other parts of the coastline.
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