Every year, when my birthday comes around, I like to take a trip to a new country. Or to a new part of a previously explored country. Since starting this blog I’ve spent birthdays exploring Budapest, Eger, Keszthely, and Pécs (Hungary), in Arequipa (Peru), as part of a long-term trip around South America, visiting Thessaloniki, Athens, Meteora, and Hydra (Greece), and touring around Bucharest and Transylvania (Romania).
This year, I decided to spend my birthday (well, actually it was a week or so before my birthday but that’s irrelevant really) in Montenegro. My parents visited around eight years ago (they made it to China before me as well, and would probably have explored a lot more of the world, had travel been as easy and affordable when they were young) and had waxed lyrical about the country and its people.
However it’s only recently that budget airlines have introduced flights between the UK and Montenegro. Ryanair were the first, in the summer of 2013, when they announced their seasonal summer service from London Stansted to Podgorica, and Easyjet followed in March 2016, with a service from Manchester to Tivat. A Gatwick departure was added just months later.
So, although Montenegro had been on my travel hit list ever since my parents’ visit, it’s only been logistically and financially possible for me to fly there since March 2016 – just over a year ago. And it’s only in the last year that I’ve really read much about the country on travel blogs – primarily Just A Pack and Migrating Miss.
Even now, a large number of people still have no idea where Montenegro actually is. When friends and colleagues asked where I was going on holiday, my response was quite often met with a puzzled look, or immediately followed by the question,
Even I admit to having no clue which countries it bordered, apart from Croatia. In case you’re wondering, the others are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania.
Formerly occupied by Nazi Germany and the Kingdom of Italy, and being part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and subsequently Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, Montenegro (meaning “black mountain”) finally gained its independence on 21 May 2016.
Its most popular resorts of Kotor and Budva are located in the southwest of the country on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. However irregular and unreliable transport links to the rest of the country (with the exception of the capital, Podgorica) mean that large parts of Montenegro remain largely unexplored by foreign tourists.
If we wanted to visit the lesser-visited parts of inland Montenegro, we’d either need to base ourselves in Kotor or Budva and take organised tours, or hire a car.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know how much I love road trips.
With a little bit of persuasion, Stu agreed to agree to drive (I haven’t driven regularly since I passed my test when I was 17), so long as I managed the itinerary and navigation.
We had just seven days (we arrived on a Wednesday and left on a Wednesday) to explore as much of the country as we could without the experience feeling so rushed that it removed our enjoyment of the places we were visiting..
Fortunately Montenegro is a compact little country (13,812 square kilometres) so its very possible to cover a large chunk of it, even when you’re short on time.
So if you’re wondering just how much you can see in a week, here is our 7-day road trip itinerary for Montenegro.
Days 1-3 – Kotor
Having done a little bit of ‘research’ (on this occasion ‘research’ can be translated as having seen a photo online of Kotor’s bay, viewed from its fortress), I decided that our base for the first few days (before picking up the car) would be Kotor. It’s also only 7.6 kilometres from Tivat airport.
Kotor is located in a secluded corner of Kotor Bay, the deepest natural fjord-like bay in the Mediterranean Sea. Its Old Town was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1979, and this has meant that development has been restricted here ever since.
Lonely Planet quite accurately describes Kotor as “living history in a spectacular bay.” It’s a city that manages to pull out all the stops: it’s got everything you’d expect from a city – historic sights, delicious food, and vast array of nightlife options (so long as nightlife options involve dining out and drinking late) – but with the feel of a quaint little town that’s surrounded by the kind of mountains you’d expect to find in a remote rural location.
If you only do one thing in Kotor, it must be the 1200-metre climb up to St. John’s Fortress, via the old fortifications. There are 1350 steps altogether (locals believe it to be nearer 1500; I didn’t count!), but because you’ll be stopping to take photos every few minutes, it doesn’t feel like too much of an arduous activity.
There are two entry points up on to the walls, either near the North Gate or behind Trg. od Salate, that carry an admission fee of €3. That’s not really much, so I didn’t mind paying. However if you’re really on a tight budget, or fancy taking an alternative route up to the fortress that won’t see you passing hoards of other tourists doing the same, then follow the ancient caravan trail, Ladder of Cattaro. There is no admission fee to take this trail, and it re-joins the track up to the fortress part the way up the mountain.
The trail starts to the right of the bridge after you exit the Old Town by Trg. od Drva and cross the river Škurda. It zig-zags its way up the mountain, passing a couple of little cafes with incredible views of the bay, and an ancient stone church. Just behind the church is where you’ll find the path back towards the fortress, where a short climb and scramble will take you through a window in the fortifications.
If you’re a keen hiker, you can continue up the mountain path to join the Coastal Mountain Traversal in Lovcen National Park, close to the village of Njeguši.
For other sights and activities in Kotor, make sure you check up my upcoming post about the city!
Day 4 – Pick up car from Tivat airport and travel to Žabljak via Perast
We arranged to collect the car at 10am, allowing us a little more of a leisurely start then we’d managed on the two previous days, and left Kotor promptly, heading north around the bay to the old town of Perast.
Despite only having one main street, Perast boasts 16 churches and 17 formerly grand palaces. I loved my leisurely wander along the harbour and my climb up to the top of the 55-metre bell tower of St. Nicholas’ Church, but don’t leave without catching a boat across to the iconic Our Lady of the Rock Island. A return fare will cost €5 and the boats leave (and return) every 10 minutes.
At Risan the road heads north away from the coast, heading towards Montenegro’s second largest city, and the producer of its national beer, Nikšicko Pivo – Niksic. Our original plan was to take a diversion here to Ostrog Monastery, but as we’d spent much longer in Perast than we’d intended to, we decided to visit Ostrog from Podgorica instead.
So we made a brief stop at Slansko Lake to admire the views and purchase a bottle of what we believed to be blackberry wine (we finally opened it in Budva to discover that it was most definitely blackberry, but most definitely not alcoholic) before continuing on through the Durmitor National Park to Žabljak.
Sitting at 1450 metres above sea level, Žabljak is one of the highest towns in the Balkans. It’s not very pretty but has a quaintly ramshackle appeal, and is the main gateway to any outdoor adventures – skiing, hiking, mountain-biking, rafting, zip-lining, and canyoning – in the Durmitor National Park.
We stayed at a luxury (by our standards) hotel on the outskirts of town, which offered beautiful views across the national park. From the on-site restaurant (which, incidentally served really reasonably priced food), we could see the chair lifts lying stationary up the mountainside; an odd – and rather eerie – sight without a blanket of snow beneath them. An amazing complimentary breakfast was included in the price of our room, as was up to 60-minutes in the sauna.
We would have ventured into the centre of Žabljak had the temperatures outside not dropped to around eight degrees when the clothes we’d packed were more suited to 28 degree temperatures.
Day 5 – Žabljak to Andrijevica via the Tara Canyon and the Black Lake
Unfortunately we weren’t blessed with the nicest weather on day 5; the low-lying cloud hung around all day and the odd rain shower prompted us to figure out how to use the windscreen wipers on our car. Part of what makes the Crno Jezero (Black Lake) so amazing is seeing the immense Bear (standing 2287 metres above sea level) reflected upon the lake’s still waters. However the lack of sunshine when we visited made that literally impossible.
So, after a quick wander around the shoreline, we continued on to the Tara Bridge, a 150-metre high concrete structure that spans the Tara River as it slices its way through the mountains at the northern edge of the Durmitor National Park, forming one of the world’s deepest canyons (did you know that the Colca Canyon in Peru is the world’s third deepest canyon? Deeper than its infinitely more famous counterpart in America).
If you have the money and the time, and you’re game for a bit of adrenalin-fueled fun, you can go rafting along the Tara River or zip-lining across it.
For the rest of the afternoon we followed the road alongside the Tara River, through tunnels carved into the mountains. Our next overnight stop was a few kilometres outside of Andrijevica, past the Biogradska Gora National Park, and on the way towards the Kosovo and Albanian borders.
The last 15 kilometres of our journey were along a very narrow, very poorly maintained road full of potholes. On the brief occasions that we caught glimpses of the surrounding scenery through the trees at either side of the road, all we could see were dense masses of forested hills, a low-lying mist lingering part the way up the incline.
This was as close to the middle of nowhere in Montenegro that we could possibly get.
Our home for the night was a wooden chalet at Eko Katun Štavna, and had the skies been clear the views from up here would’ve been absolutely incredible. Normally there should be mountains in the background of the shot below, however the mist had totally and utterly obscured them from our view.
Nonetheless, at the risk of sounding clichéd, the warmth and hospitality we received here more than made up for the appalling weather conditions. One of our hosts brought us some logs and kindling for the fire within minutes of our arrival, and whilst lighting a fire was not something I expected to be doing in Montenegro in the middle of summer, it was a very welcome gesture when we realised just how cold it was outside.
It quickly became apparent that not only were we the only guests at Eko Katun Štavna who weren’t planning on doing any hiking, we were also the only guests who hadn’t accounted for just how low the temperatures can drop up here. As a result, I watched others wander around in hiking boots, fleeces, waterproof jackets and woolly hats, whilst I was sporting a pair of harem pants and flip flops – much to everyone’s amusement.
Every time I go away I promise myself I’ll research the destination more thoroughly, but as is always the case life gets in the way and I actually only ended up booking the car hire and the majority of our accommodation just a week before we flew.
We spent the evening cosying up in the reception/restaurant-bar/common area with the resident feline, sampling a spread of tasty local dishes, enjoying beer and complimentary homemade rakija shots, and planning our route for the following day.
Day 6 – Andrijevica to Cetinje via Ostrog Monastery and Rijeka Crnojevica
This was actually my favourite day of our entire road trip. Almost as soon as we had re-joined the major road network at Kolašin, the cloud lifted, the skies cleared and we were back in the summertime temperatures that I remembered from Kotor and Perast just days beforehand.
It was a lot further than we’d anticipated (isn’t it always?) to our first stop – Manastir Ostrog (Ostrog Monastery). However the scenery through the Morača Canyon was nothing short of spectacular, and the scenery on the backroad to the monastery via Spuž was utterly beautiful. Even though we were running late, we decided to make a stop at a fancy-looking restaurant overlooking the valley, in order to better appreciate the scenery we were driving through (and grab a quick coffee).
From there the narrow mountain road continued upwards, winding its way up towards the monastery. Although the guy at Green Motion had advised against driving up to the upper monastery, Stu decided he was up for the challenge. And actually the roads weren’t half as bad as we’d feared they would be. Narrow yes, and full of hairpin turns, but in good condition and with plenty of passing points for those occasions when you met a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction.
Ostrog Monastery sits 900 metres above the Zeta Valley, resting almost improbably in the vertical cliff face of Ostroška Greda in central Montenegro. The monastery was originally established in the 17th century, but was subsequently largely destroyed by a fire, so much of what you see today is only as old as its renovations, which happened sometime between 1923-1926. The building is dedicated to Saint Basil of Ostrog, and is the most popular place of pilgrimage in Montenegro.
From Ostrog we headed back towards Podgorica, bypassing the country’s capital city in favour of its old capital, Cetinje. But before arriving into Cetinje, we took a small diversion to get some food. Restaurant Stari Most has earned itself the title of one of Montenegro’s best restaurants, which is surprising considering how much it’s stuck out on a limb, in a tiny village part the way between Podgorica and Cetinje.
But the road to Rijeka Crnojevica is a little bit special, as it passes the northwestern end of Lake Skadar as it thins into the serpentine loops of the Rijeka Crnojevica (yes, the village has been named after the river that runs through it). It’s on the road that you’ll find one of the most photographed scenes in the whole of Montenegro. And the best thing was that we stumbled upon it completely by chance.
We arrived into Cetinje at just gone 7pm, to the realisation that our passports were not with us.
Flashback to a couple of evenings beforehand when we had given them to our hosts up near Andrijevica, as we checked into our wooden mountain chalet. We checked out the following morning and they weren’t handed back to us. And because most places we’ve checked into haven’t kept our passports any longer than the time it takes to copy them or jot down a few details from their main page, we didn’t think to ask for them back.
The first thought that entered my head was that we’d have to spend the entirety of the next day driving all the way back to Andrijevica – over 150 kilometres away – in order to collect them. However, after contacting the gentleman at Eko Katun Štavna, and then putting him on to our current hosts at our lovely apartment in Cetinje, we were informed that our passports would be delivered to us by bus the following day, and our current hosts would accompany us to the bus station in order to collect them.
Things like that really restore your faith in humanity. I’m not apportioning blame for the error – we forgot just as they did – but they quickly took action to ensure that our passports were returned to us as quickly as possible. All we had to do was hope that they did in fact turn up on the bus the next day.
Day 7 – Cetinje to Budva via Kotor Serpentine / Lovćen National Park and Lake Skadar
Considering the mishap with our passports, our itinerary for today didn’t actually have to deviate much from the original one we’d scheduled – aside from the fact that we’d have to return to Cetinje from Lake Skadar, rather than going straight to Budva.
We set off a little earlier than usual so that we could be back in Cetinje by 5pm – the earliest time the bus was scheduled to arrive. Heading west, we drove towards the Lovćen National Park, stopping off at Njegos Mausoleum on route to the Kotor Serpentine. Stupidly we’d left everything but our cameras in the car as we climbed the 461 steps up to the mausoleum, so we didn’t have any money with us to pay the €3 entrance fee. But to be completely honest, I was much happier marvelling at the 360 degree panoramas outside (the mausoleum sits at the top of Lovćen‘s highest peak, Jezerski Vrh) than I would have been looking at a tomb inside.
Because we’d skipped breakfast in favour of getting on the road early, we were starving by the time we left the mausoleum. We’d planned to stop somewhere in the village of Njeguši – famous for making the country’s best pršut (smoke-dried ham) and sir (cheese) – but Njeguši seemed to be nothing more than a small collection of houses, so we continued on and were fortunate enough to stumble upon Žanjev Do just before we arrived at the start of the Kotor Serpentine. The restaurant overlooks Kotor Bay and serves the best local cheese and mushroom omelette EVER!
The Kotor Serpentine is a 17-kilometre stretch of road that joins Kotor with Mount Lovcen, 1749 metres above sea level. It contains 25 narrow hairpin turns, and offers incredible panoramas of Kotor Bay down below. It’s difficult to keep your eyes on the road, but you’ll need to; it’s barely wide enough for one car, and it’s a long way down if you make a mistake!!
That said, it was nothing compared to some of the roads we drove on in Peru.
We then drove on to Virpazar, on the northwestern edge of Lake Skadar. Lake Skadar is the Balkan’s largest lake, with a surface area that seasonally fluctuates between 370 square kilometres (140 sq mi) to 530 square kilometres (200 sq mi). It lies on the border of Albania and Montenegro, with approximately two thirds belonging to Montenegro, and has been protected as a national park since 1983.
We only had just over an hour in Virpazar, so we figured that the quickest and easiest way to see the lake was by boat. We’d booked ourselves on a boat trip within two minutes of arriving.
When we returned to Cetinje, we were told the bus (with our passports on it) wasn’t arriving until around 7pm, so we had a quick stroll around the centre of Cetinje (which is so incredibly small that it’s difficult to believe the city used to be the old capital) before going on a bit of a wild goose chase with our hosts to find the correct bus. Fortunately we were successful and, with my wallet €5 lighter, we had our passports safely back in our hands.
We thanked our hosts over and over again, and offered them money which they refused to take, before counting on to Budva for our final night of the road trip.
Day 8 – Budva to Tivat Airport
I wish I’d been able to see how Budva started life, because now the city has been ruined (in my opinion) by over-development. Hundreds of modern, unsightly apartment blocks rise up from the shore, and on the beaches you can’t see the sand for sun umbrellas. Budva has become something of a playground for the rich and famous, and the city has rapidly developed to accommodate that.
Its one saving grace however is its Old Town. Although nowhere near as charming as Kotor’s Old Town, its marble streets and Venetian walls rising from the clear waters below, do have a definite appeal. The citadela is worth a visit and the views of the Old City from the coastal path are some of the best in Budva.
Whilst there are a few other places in Montenegro that I’d have liked to have been able to build into our itinerary, and a few I wish I’d been able to spend longer in, I do feel that our week-long tour gave us a great introduction to the beautiful and diverse landscapes of this incredible country. Yes it did involve a lot of early starts (I was getting up at around the same time as I do for work every day back here in England), but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Practical info and costs
- We flew to Tivat airport from Manchester with Easyjet. We paid £111 return, booked 5 or 6 months in advance. However a week before we were due to fly, the same flights had gone down to as low as £78 (but we had seen them rise above £200 in the interim). We always use Skyscanner to find the cheapest flights (you can set up price alerts on certain routes so that you can book when prices are low); you can download the app here.
- It’s completely possible to secure a hotel room or apartment in Montenegro (even in Kotor and Budva) for under £40 per night. We splashed out on a little luxury in Žabljak (£79 per night including breakfast), but conversely our apartment in Cetinje only cost us just £17. We spent a total of £147 per person on accommodation for 7 nights.
- Car hire for 5 days with Green Motion cost us £150 with cashback via Top Cashback. However we did only book this a week beforehand, so you may be able to get a better deal by booking in advance. We also paid for the fully comprehensive insurance at £75.
- If you’re planning on driving in Montenegro, two things to bear in mind are that you’ll need to drive on the right hand side of the road (opposite side to us Brits), and that you must always drive with your lights on, regardless of the time of day or how dark it is.
- We booked all our accommodation through booking.com. Links to the places we stayed are in the article or alternatively you can browse the whole site using the search box below.
Have you visited Montenegro? If so, which were your favourite bits? and if not, tell me about your favourite road trip: where was it and what were the highlights?
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