Tucked discreetly along the Adriatic Coast in Southeast Europe is Montenegro. A hidden gem by all means, this small country has always been overshadowed by its more prominent neighbors Serbia and Croatia. After much rebuilding and foreign investments following the Yugoslav War, Montenegro is finally crawling its way back to its rightful place on the tourism map for what it is; a collage of color, beautiful scenery, friendly people, and most importantly a strong sense of charm that you’d expect from such a small country; just like a great unexpected twist in an otherwise mediocre movie.
After a relatively short flight away from Istanbul, I arrived in Podgorica, capital of Montenegro. The Turkish capital is the ideal transit point for those making their way to Montenegro from Indonesia or Asia in general.
It was January and technically winter, but the winter in Montenegro is mild and not freezing. Driving through the Montenegrin countryside to Sveti Stefan –as clichéd as it may sound– made me feel transported back to a time where not much technology (or capitalism for that matter) existed. The countryside is lined with small communes of semi-run down houses next to flooded lakes. Oh it’s worth mentioning that the people were awful at driving (not properly overtaking, not looking when turning, so on and so forth).
Formerly an island, Sveti Stefan is now adjoined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Once a thriving village, it was converted into a resort during Tito’s Yugoslav regime. Interestingly, the island was once hailed as a playground for the rich and famous in the 1960s-80s, with a distinguished guest list that includes Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sophia Loren to name a few. During the war and after Montenegro’s independence, the state of the resort declined until Aman Resorts won the bid to lease the island in an attempt to restore it to its former glory.
Flanked by brownish-pink pebbly beaches, the sight of Sveti Stefan was rather eerie to a degree because the resort was not operational yet when I visited. Devoid of many visitors in winter, it just adds a mystical yet serene feel to the surroundings. There were still locals strolling, walking their dogs, and one was even nice enough to strike up a conversation with us and shared stories; stories about what it was like during the war, how people around the area has coped, and of course their hopes. One thought kept coming back to me as I waltzed up and down the coast while waiting for the impending setting of the sun ‘this place is awesome’.
Further west of Sveti Stefan is the famed city of Budva. This unsuspectingly charming town is supposedly one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic Coast, some saying that it dates to 3,500 years ago. Nowadays some people call it the “Monte Carlo of Southeast Europe,” plainly due to the fact that a good portion of the city is owned by Russian conglomerates that often make Budva their summer retreat destination of choice. Lined with sandy beaches and littered with historic Venetian-inspired buildings and walls in its old town, Budva is sometimes compared to the more popular Dubrovnik in neighboring Croatia. Though Budva is rather off the map and not as touristy as Dubrovnik, which is a huge plus in my book.
And now here it is, the Bay of Kotor.
Arguably Montenegro’s prized possession, I’ve been dying to see this place with my own eyes ever since I started researching what Montenegro has to offer. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area around the bay has a rich history that dates back to more than 2000 years ago. Imagine if Lake Como, Norway’s Fjordland, and Venice had their DNA spliced together; you’d now have the Bay of Kotor. Honestly it was like stepping into a fairy tale world secluded and rather isolated from the rest of the world. Medieval towns and small villages line the shores of the bay, derelict fortifications decorate the mountainside above Kotor, and the calm, deep blue waters of the bay produces a stunning panoramic scenery.
The old city of Kotor itself is relatively small. I think you can walk around the city and see everything in a day. Lined with narrow cobbled streets, Venetian stone-based architecture, with small shops, cafes, and Eastern Orthodox churches, the energy inside the city was very relaxed and laid back. I figure if you’re looking for a quintessential medieval European holiday, but want to go somewhere that’ll raise more eyebrows than say Paris or Rome, Kotor is a fantastic option.
What’s written above has only touched the surface of the complete Montenegro experience. Outside of the Montenegrin mainstays Budva and Kotor, there’s still the old capital Cetinje, Skadar Lake National Park, and of course the other, much further hard-to-reach gem of Montenegro: the cool-sounding-Tolkienesque Durmitor National Park; yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site that features one of the deepest canyons in the world, top class mountain activities, and numerous glacial lakes.
For such a small country with a population that’s less than the whole population of Central Jakarta, Montenegro certainly packs a whole lot of punch no matter the season. As the case with most countries, an extended stay of more than a week is required to take in all the splendors. I will not offer excessive pontification on whether my whole trip was worth it or not. I would if I could, but I’m afraid that’ll lead to a something that is bordering dangerously close to a mini thesis that may or may not be used as a bedtime story for unruly infants. I’ll just leave this picture here, and say that it was one of the most stunning sunsets I’ve ever seen anywhere. That covers about 35% of my feelings towards Montenegro.
Photos and words by Hario Priambodho