Have you heard of Montenegro?

At only 9 years since it’s independence from Serbia and the former Yougoslavia, but with known civilizations dating back to the 6th century, Montenegro is the (second) newest old country in Europe. This blend of old and new could be felt in the historic Old Town fortresses that now housed trendy hotels and restaurants. It could also be seen in the pop-up stands along the roads where locals sold their homemade olive oils and fruits to beach-goers from all over Europe. In spite of (or perhaps because of?) a long history of political and boarder changes, the people we meet seemed rather unfazed by the latest developments.

A church dating back to the 9th century in Kotor's Old Town.
A church dating back to the 9th century in Kotor’s Old Town.

Our decision to visit was initially spurred by Schengen visa regulations — since Montenegro has not yet joined the majority of Europe under Schengen it meant we could spend our time exploring the country without the anxiety of knowing our 90-day clock was counting down. It also checked an important box for me: visit a country that we didn’t know existed before we started out on our trip.

Montenegro as a whole is pretty tiny — the entire country is smaller than the state of Connecticut. However, in that compact space are warm-water beaches, massive mountains, the second deepest canyon in the world, and ancient fortified cities dating back to the 9th century. Needless to say, there would be more than enough to keep us busy! With a week to spend before hopping over the Agean to meet friends in Italy we settled on two locations: Kotor in the north and Ulcinj in the South.

Locals hanging out in the olive groves outside Ulcinj.
Locals hanging out in the olive groves outside Ulcinj.

Our first stop, Kotor, is set into a bay not far from the boarder to Croatia. The town itself was beautiful. Much less crowded than Croatia’s old towns, it was a great place to wander around admiring the old architecture and making friends with the local cats. We also happened to be in town for the biggest party of the year, an end-of-summer celebration complete with fireworks, a parade on the water out front, and parties lasting into the early hours.

Floats from the boat parade that kicked off an all-night end of summer celebration in Kotor.
Floats from the boat parade that kicked off an all-night end of summer celebration in Kotor.

Since we only had two nights in Kotor we opted to spend the evenings checking out the city and our one full day white-water rafting in Kotor’s famed Tara Canyon. We booked our rafting trip through our hostel and left with our driver early in the morning. In spite of it’s small size, the roads are still a bit rough and it would take a little over 3 hours to get from Kotor to the canyon, driving past small villages and through the mountainous in-land regions. As we approached the canyon we went through a tunnel network so extensive that it rivaled (and maybe even surpassed?) anywhere else we had visited. It rained most of the day somewhat obstructing our views of the canyon, but we were able to get some good shots on our way home.

Tara Canyon, after the clouds parted.
Tara Canyon, after the clouds parted.

From Kotor we took a bus down to Ulcinj, a beach-side city close to the boarder of Albania. Here, we spent four lazy days lounging on the beach and chatting with the other hostel guests over local beer in the evenings. By the time we left we were a little more tan and a lot more relaxed.

Kyle taking a quick shower in a waterfall along our rafting trip.
Kyle taking a quick shower in a waterfall along our rafting trip.

Getting There

Montenegro was a bit more challenging in this area than the other European countries we visited, due to it’s lack of budget airlines and rather limited train network. With the Balkan region undergoing so many boarder changes in the last few decades it seems to have made it difficult to establish inter-country rail lines. There’s a train into Serbia, but that’s it. Our driver in Kotor mentioned that there used to be a train to Bosnia, but it was demolished in favor of a more modern rail line that then stalled out with the war.

That said, it is possible to get here, and to do so without totally breaking the bank. Busses from Dubrovnik, Croatia are both frequent and cheap. And there’s an overnight ferry directly from Bar, Montenegro to Bari, Italy. We splurged on a private cabin with a window and ensuite for less than half the cost of plane tickets. Win!

Stay

We went hostels the whole way in Montenegro and couldn’t have been happier with our choice. After previous stays in London and Dublin we were ready to write off all European hostels under the category We’re Way Too Old For This. Thank you Montenegro for renewing our faith that good hostels do exist in Europe!

The first, Old Town Hostel in Kotor has two wings: dorms in the East Wing catering to young partiers, and the blissfully quiet west wing with comfortable private rooms where we stayed. They even had two common areas, one for parties and the other for lounging with a book.

The second, Pirate Hostel in Ulcinj was our hand-down favorite. The owners were amazing, going out of their way to host a (free) BBQ for all guests one night, and a chill happy hour for guests every evening. Plus, our private room was the cost of a single dorm bed in London. Even our bank account was onboard with this place.

Do / See

White Water Rafting. Once we arrived at Tara Canyon, we piled into a van with a guide and 6 others, driving down bumpy dirt roads (and maybe crossing the boarder into Bosnia?!) to get to the starting point. A quick 2-second instruction (“paddle forward”) and we were off!

Rafting in Montenegro.
Rafting in Montenegro.

The river was on the low side and the rapids smaller than I had imagined, but this being our first time maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. The water was crystal clear, allowing you to see each pebble on the bottom even when it was many meters deep. The downside? It was freezing cold! I seem to have a knack for trying extreme sports for the first time in equally extreme temperatures. Note to self: everything is more fun when you can feel your fingers and toes. Plan accordingly.

Trying to stay warm.
Trying to stay warm.

Beach Time. Ulcinj had a number of different beach options. While we originally planned to explore them all we got hooked on Valdanos and went back day after day for the calm waters and easy access to beach chairs. It’s a bit of a walk from Pirate Hostel, but the scenery is a welcome rural landscape — the road follows along through olive groves where sheep graze and locals sell their homemade olive oils.

Valdanos, an old pirate cove and our favorite beach spot.
Valdanos, an old pirate cove and our favorite beach spot.

Eat / Drink

Beach Bar, Ulcinj: I cannot say enough great things about this place. Recommended by our hostel the amazing location, cheap drinks, nice owner, and lack of crowds made it an instant favorite. Tucked down on the backside of old town right on the water it’s the perfect hidden spot to watch the sunset. They serve local Montenegran wines and beers. The beer I could take or leave (some claim it’s way bettter than it’s Serbian counterpart, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference). The wine though was a quick favorite, the white a great compliment to the warm summer weather. Perhaps Montenegro will be the next up and coming wine region of Eastern Europe?

The best spot to watch the sunset in Ulcinj.
The best spot to watch the sunset in Ulcinj.

Other food and drink spots were plentiful — the outskirts of Ulcinj near our hostel had decent budget-friendly meals and Old Town had a number of more upscale options with fresh seafood and stunning sea views.

Tips

Visit Montenegro! I promise it’s worth the effort of sorting through the limited info online. And when you go, make sure to avoid the main public beach in whatever town you visit and instead walk a little ways past. You’ll be rewarded with much cleaner waters and a fraction the number of people.

Water so clear we could see straight to the bottom from the road high above.
Water so clear we could see straight to the bottom from the road high above.

Current Location: Montepulciano, Italy

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