Peeling back the layers in Montenegro

The secret may be out. For years, Montenegro flew under the radar for many international tourists. Neighbouring countries knew of its charms and would head to this small Balkan country in the summer. But for most travellers, nearby countries like Croatia or Greece gave them what they wanted from this part of Europe. Or so they thought.

The shoreline of the Bay of Kotor is dotted with small villages. Picture: Michael Turtle

The shoreline of the Bay of Kotor is dotted with small villages. Picture: Michael Turtle

All it takes is one glimpse of the Bay of Kotor, the crowning glory of Montenegro's coast, to realise there is something special here. It's almost 30 kilometres long and is surrounded by mountains with rocky cliffs at the top and green slopes down to the water. Along the shoreline are gorgeous medieval towns and fishing villages.

It's easy to spend a few days around the bay, taking boat trips to different parts or following the road along the coast to the different communities. The quaint town of Perast, for instance, has a beautiful Orthodox church and clock tower and offers an insight into local life.

But it's the town of Kotor itself that is the most popular. The 14th-century buildings and fortifications are testament to the wealth of the maritime industry that once passed through - just as the enormous cruise ships show the size of the tourism industry that passes through today. If you can, visit on a day when there's no ship in port and climb to the top of the fortress for incredible views.

The view across the Bay of Kotor from the Kotor fortifications. Picture: Michael Turtle

The view across the Bay of Kotor from the Kotor fortifications. Picture: Michael Turtle

Heading further down the coast, you'll soon realise why Montenegro is so popular for regional holidaymakers in the summer. The party city of Budva is heaving in the evenings with clubs and alfresco restaurants. It does have its own historical sights and cultural activities but, during the heat of the day, you'll find most people at the beach or in the sanctuary of shade.

For pure history, go a little bit further south to the old town of Stari Bar, in the hills above the modern city of Bar. The buildings here show the legacy of the different empires that once controlled it - Venetians, Serbians, Hungarians, Ottomans. In the end, though, it was an earthquake that left the biggest mark. After the natural disaster in 1979, Stari Bar was completely abandoned, leaving ruins that you can now climb through.

The ancient city of Stari Bar was abandoned after an earthquake in 1979. Picture: Michael Turtle

The ancient city of Stari Bar was abandoned after an earthquake in 1979. Picture: Michael Turtle

I like to think of Montenegro as a country of three layers. The first is the coast, which gets the most attention from tourists. The second is the inland plains. It's here where you'll find much of the history and traditional culture.

One of the most interesting sights is the Ostrog Monastery, which you'll see well before you reach it. The large white facade of the complex seems to glow in the middle of the brown cliff that it has been built within.

The Ostrog Monastery is built within the side of a cliff. Picture: Michael Turtle

The Ostrog Monastery is built within the side of a cliff. Picture: Michael Turtle

Constructed in the 1600s, the monastery is a popular pilgrimage site and you'll see why it is so impressive when you go inside the decorated cave churches.

It's also worth exploring Cetinje, the country's capital city until it was relocated with the formation of Yugoslavia in 1946. It only has a population of about 20,000 people now, and you can see the charm of the monuments and public buildings that seem to have been frozen in time since it lost its political status.

A small church is part of the heritage of the former capital of Cetinje. Picture: Michael Turtle

A small church is part of the heritage of the former capital of Cetinje. Picture: Michael Turtle

The new capital of Montenegro is in the city of Podgorica and it has grown since 1946 to a population of about 200,000 people. Unfortunately, it never quite grew into the vibrant cultural centre that you find in some of the other Balkan capitals.

I actually wrote quite a scathing article about Podgorica after I first visited a few years ago and I still get abusive messages about it from local residents. It's given me reason to rethink my opinion and perhaps I was too harsh. Local pride amounts to something and it is probably a pleasant place to live. However, for tourists, there is not much to justify putting it on your itinerary for more than a passing stop.

The reason you may be passing through Podgorica is to get to the third layer of Montenegro - the mountains. I think they are just as alluring as the sparkling coastline and are still a relatively undiscovered gem.

The highlight of Biogradska Gora National Park is Lake Biograd, where there are several accommodation options. Picture: Michael Turtle

The highlight of Biogradska Gora National Park is Lake Biograd, where there are several accommodation options. Picture: Michael Turtle

There are two amazing national parks here that offer incredible views and activities. Biogradska Gora National Park has one of the few remaining tracts of virgin forest in Europe, with trees at least 500 years old. You can walk among them on the many trails that go through the forest, up mountains, and along rivers. Ultimately many of them lead to the gorgeous Lake Biograd where you can camp with a 360-degree view of the slopes.

There's also Durmitor National Park, with snow-capped peaks and glacial lakes. It's been listed as a World Heritage Site because of its unique biodiversity and part of that is the enormous Tara River Canyon, the deepest in Europe, that cuts through the landscape. Using the town of Zabljak as a base, you can take different trails to discover the views from the highs of the mountains to the depths of the canyon.

The Tara River Canyon, within Durmitor National Park, is the deepest in Europe. Picture: Michael Turtle

The Tara River Canyon, within Durmitor National Park, is the deepest in Europe. Picture: Michael Turtle

Even with such diversity, Montenegro is a small country by European standards and it's easy to see all of these different layers on the one trip. From the Bay of Kotor to Durmitor National Park is just a 150km drive, for instance. Word may be getting out about the country's appeal but there's still time to beat the crowds to some of its best offerings.

  • Michael Turtle is a journalist who has been travelling the world full-time for eight years. To read more about his travel adventures, visit timetravelturtle.com
This story Peeling back the layers of a Balkan treasure first appeared on The Canberra Times.