Adventures in Montenegro

I spent a month total with the Bay of Kotor as my base, broken up by a week-long jaunt to Sarajevo because I got too close to resist. I picked a perfect spot, the small town of Bijela. It has enough tourists from its handful of hotels to not feel like an alien, but not enough to crowd you out, and isn't a primary destination by any means. There are plenty of nice spots to swim, and it's well connected to the rest of the country. Typical of the whole bay, it's surrounded by moody mountains, sometimes shrouded in clouds, other times reflecting the sunset back at you like a mirror.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Montenegro is the somewhat hectic nature of the buses. It's a tiny country, and you can get anywhere in less than 3 hours, but it usually involves standing at the side of the road to flag down long distance coaches run by a plethora of private companies and hoping they stop. busticket4.me has an approximation of most timetables, but the buses don't necessarily have scheduled stops everywhere so some maths is involved to work out when it's going to pass where you want to catch it from. I found it helpful to memorize the bus companies that were going to where I wanted at a particular time, because there are many private or chartered tour buses too which will not stop for randoms, and you can't necessarily tell these from the long distance coaches from a distance. They also don't always have all of the destinations listed in the front window, so don't necessarily refrain from waving one down just because you can't see your town written. Especially in the Bay of Kotor, or anywhere along the coast, there's only one main road, so if your destination is on it, you can persuade a bus driver to stop there. The only exception being that some buses going down the coast skip the bulk of the Bay and take the ferry across to Lepetane, so don't try to get one of those to Risan or Perast. The way they usually work is you board and take a seat (checking with the driver he's going your way) and then someone comes to take your money and provide a handwritten ticket once the bus is moving again.

A regular local Blue Line bus north goes to Herceg Novi for 1eur in about 20 minutes, which has an old town with forts and a harbour with boat trips and a main bus station with international connections. It's also easy to get to Mt Orjen for hiking from here, though I didn't do that.

I took a 3.5 hour boat trip from there (for 20eur, once they'd gathered a few other people to join) to see sights along the Lustica Peninsula; Mamula island (abandoned prison, soon-to-be hotel), the torpedo tunnels, the Blue Cave, Zelanija beach and Fort Arza. I also spent an afternoon walking around the bay via Igalo and back.

A 30 minute walk (or a 5 minute bus) in the opposite direction from Bijela took me to Kamenari, a very small town whose main feature is the ferry across the bay to Lepetane. The ferry is free for foot passengers, and €4.50 for a regular car. It runs continuously, all day and night, departing as soon as it's full, and the next one begins loading at once, taking about 15 minutes. You don't need a ticket if you're on foot, just wander on and watch out for the vehicles boarding at the same time.

Lepetane is another very small town, but with lots of holiday apartments. From here there's a local Blue Line bus to Tivat for €0.70, about 15 minutes. It's not an unpleasant hour walk to Tivat too, though the road in most places is just designed for cars. Not that there's a whole lot of traffic. Following the coast around in the opposite direction from Tivat is also nice, with plenty of places to stop off and swim. At the peak of this particular peninsula is a picturesque church, and a view towards Our Lady of the Rocks at Perast.

Tivat is super fancy, full of superyachts and shiny hotels and brand new fancy apartment blocks. The area of Porto Montenegro is surreal; a pedestrian zone of designer shops and hotel restaurants with €10 smoothies. On either side of Porto Montenegro is a bit more normal, but not especially nice; it's mostly beach bars with thumping music and lots of holidaymakers, though you can find some more quiet places to swim if you try hard enough. I didn't go much into the town center, but it starts to feel more normal the more inland you go. There's a place that supposedly has real pita, Bosnian-style, but when I went to check it out they didn't have any krompirusa left.

There are various trails from Lepetane and Tivat or in between that will lead you through the Vrmac mountain range and to Kotor. This is a half-day hike, or a full day with plenty of opportunities for detours if you have the energy. I started at Lepetane, and the trail is more or less marked, though not particularly well maintained, and I lost it a few times. There are a few more or less unoccupied small villages or single houses on the way; nowhere to stop for water or supplies. A long stretch of the trail overlooks Tivat. I didn't try to get to any of the peaks because the weather was either too hot to function, or a sudden torrential downpour. Fortunately the extended thunderstorm occurred while I was on a particularly straight and wide trail, not when I'd been clambering through undergrowth. Fort Vrmac itself is underwhelming. It isn't especially old and looks more like an abandoned factory. From there there's a seemingly endless switchback down to the water, just around the bay from Kotor, and then a 30 minute walk to the old town. The view from the trail down is beautiful.

Kotor itself presents a great starting point for plenty of great hiking opportunities as well, and it has a nice car-free old town to wander around, plus the whole bay for swimming and boat trips. There are an abundance of museums in the old town, none of which I visited. Given that I stayed around the corner for almost five weeks, it's kind of shocking how little time I spent in Kotor. By the time I'd hiked there from Lepetane, it was sunset and time for dinner and a bus back to Bijela. My other visit was an afternoon, on my way out of the country. I did find time to climb the Ladder of Kotor, a switchback up the side of the mountain behind old town, and to return via the Fortress.

Perast is nestled in the bay between Bijela and Kotor, a tiny picturesque old stone town wedged up the side of the mountain, and ram-packed with tourists. I spent an afternoon there, which included a swim and some hours napping in the sun, so that's plenty of time to see everything I think. It's famous for the Our Lady of the Rocks church on a small island which you can take a boat out too, but it's not that exciting, and also looks nice from a distance. Spending €1 to climb the church bell tower is much more worthwhile.

I spent a day hiking across the Lustica Peninsula, from Krasic, to Rose. This is the bit of land that sticks out in front of Herceg Novi, and home to some wild beaches and attractions like the Blue Cave and torpedo tunnels, and lots and lots of forts. The trail I followed didn't reach any of the peaks for epic views, but there are many small towns along the way to break up the wilderness.

Next stop around the coast is Budva, a pretty big town and serious tourist destination. Even though it is packed and crazy during the summer, I didn't find it too obnoxious. Maybe I'm biased because the only vegan restaurant in Montenegro is there, conveniently located between the bus station and the beach. The area between the main beach and the main road is pretty nice, with lots of open green spaces, and footpaths. The beach is crowded with restaurants and deckchairs, but around to the north - after the pretty nice Old Town - are the Mogren beaches, reached by a neat path etched around the cliff faces. They're still busy, but have more shade, and more north and some rock clambering still are quieter areas to swim, or jump off rocks.

To the south is Sveti Stefan; about a 2.5 hour walk or a 15 minute bus €2 from the main street. On the way are more small beaches which become increasingly exclusive ("Use of beach set mandatory. Beach set €120" was the peak) and extremely fancy hotels (€1500 - €6000 / night type things). You can't get onto the Sveti Stefan island - the whole thing is a resort hotel - but there's a bit of beach tucked away next to it available for the plebs.

Bar is unusual because it's old town is in ruins instead of packed full of restaurants and souvenir shops. The main part of the town is centered around the port with international ferry lines; I didn't linger there. There are nice beaches a little north at Susanj. The old town is up the mountain a bit, and a narrow restaurant-filled street leads up to it. The whole thing is a museum with a €4 entry, and it's super cool. It's actually massive, with loads to see, creepy cellars to sneak in, towers and walls to climb, and views into the valley on the other side. I spent at least two hours there I think, and that was only because it kicked out at 8pm.

The last big town on the coast is Ulcinj. I didn't dig the vibe, it was very touristy and obnoxious. The old town is half-done, with some in ruins and some restaurants. The sea didn't seem particularly clean. I ventured all the way to Long Beach at the south too but the whole strip was covered in beach restaurants and deckchairs as far as the eye could see. I swam at a smaller beach to the north, after a scramble down an under-construction path, which was fine for a while but then there was definitely boat fuel in the water.

Moving inland, Niksic is the second largest city in Montenegro. It's a nice easy to navigate semicircle shape, and has churches and a big palace, and a pleasant town square, but I'm not sure what else. It was on the way to Ostrog Monastery, which is squashed into the side of a high cliff in a valley, with many winding mountain roads and amazing views required to get there. It's free to enter, and there were quite a lot of people by about 10, but not so many as to crowd us out completely. Inside, you can see mosaics and paintings made directly onto the rock face itself as part of the inner walls of some rooms and corridors in the monastery. It's actually a working Monastery, so most of it is not open to the public.

The capital of Montenegro is Podgorica, but there doesn't seem to be a lot going on there. It was okay to stop for lunch and check out some parks. There's a big hill that I would probably have climbed if it was less insanely hot. Maybe it's just a good place to get away from tourists.

Skadar Lake is in the south of Montenegro, crossing the border to Albania. It is beautiful, an enormous national park conservation area, with many small villages along its coast. The main place to stop is Vipazar, which is a tiny cute town entirely populated by people trying to sell you a boat ride. The standard rate seems to be (in June at least) €25/hour for two people. Totally worth it to see the amazing diversity of flora and fauna around the lake. Having a car (or hitchhiking - but we didn't see much other traffic) is the only way to get along the road that heads towards Albania along the lake. The views along it are spectacular. Stayed the night in Donji Murici and woke up for sunrise by the lake side, to continue the drive in daylight the next day. The road almost reaches the border, with a viewpoint across the mountain range that points into Albania, then sharply turns back towards the coast.

Overall I think I seriously lucked out with Bijela as my base, though if (when) I come again I'll look for options in Kamenari and Lepetane too I think. Somewhere not so close to a busy road, and maybe close enough to the sea to hear the waves.

Don't forget to read about everything I ate, and all photos are here.

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