Marvellous Montenegro

With new flights putting Montenegro firmly on the radar for summer, Catherine Cooper discovers what you can see in just a few days


Kotor Bay (Photo: Unsplash)

Montenegro might be small but there isn’t much that this tiny country doesn’t offer; Unesco-protected historic towns, a beautiful coast with glorious beaches and clear-blue waters, five peaceful national parks, which are home to over 260 species of birds; plus a host of luxury hotels for starters. And with new low-cost flights starting from Birmingham to Tivat this month, there’s never been a better time to visit.

Just 31 miles long and ten miles wide (just over half the size of Wales), it’s easy to get around by bus, cheap taxis or, even better, by boat, to discover the country’s string of attractions.

Start with one of the most famous, the upmarket and peaceful Kotor Bay, just a half an hour’s drive (or boat ride if you want to arrive in style) from Tivat airport.

The bay itself is breathtaking, surrounded by soaring mountains somewhat reminiscent of the Italian Lakes, while the small 300-metre sea entrance means that the water is calm and its appearance lake-like. In the 1600s, inhabitants of the bay would stretch an iron chain across this small entrance to protect themselves from pirates.

These days, it’s easy to explore by boat. Our first stop was  Our Lady of the Rocks – a small island where, according to legend, an icon of the Madonna and Child was found by two fishermen in 1452, one of whom’s injured leg miraculously healed.

They vowed to build a church and over the next few years, other sailors would drop rocks here as they headed out to sea in the hope that they too would be protected. Old and seized ships loaded with rocks were also sunk to help create a larger island — it’s believed there are more than 100 underneath the water.

Within 32 years, they had created this larger island with a church on it, and an annual Fasinada festival is still held in July when stones are brought to the island in boats and thrown in the water.

Rebuilt by Venetians in 1630, the tiny church and museum now houses countless silver panels given as offerings by sailors who have returned from incidents at sea — often depicting the storm they survived, and several are adorned with arms or legs, presumably injured or lost.

The venue is a popular wedding venue,; instead of throwing their bouquets, brides leave flowers to dry around the altar instead.

After a quick stroll in the pretty and immaculately kept town of Perast on one side of the bay, with its 20 Baroque palaces and café terraces ideal for watching the boats go by, we headed for the walled Unesco-protected and car-free city of Kotor, one of the best-preserved medieval old towns on the Adriatic.

Inside the walls, the city is made up of a series of squares linked by narrow pathways, and lined with plenty of shops and cafés as well as churches and museums.

It’s a lovely place to simply wander and take in the history but highlights for me, brought to life by our knowledgeable guide Bruna, included the Kotor Clock Tower, which was built in 1602 and has been wound every day by hand by four generations of the same family for the past 200 years.

Right in front of this stands the alarming-looking Pillar of Shame, to which people were strapped as a punishment for misdemeanours during medieval times.

Back towards Tivat, flashy Porto Montenegro provided a complete contrast, as we stopped to ogle the superyachts, browse the designer shops and enjoy some freshly caught fish in one of the many upscale waterfront restaurants.

The former derelict port has been developed over the past 20 years to become a glitzy location packed with designer residences, smart restaurants and upmarket hotels attracting wealthy “yachties” from all over the world.

The next day mixed both the old and the new as we headed to Budva. Known for its 18 sandy beaches and nightlife, Budva has a pretty old town and remnants of its city walls, but these are somewhat overshadowed by a string of large hotel and apartment buildings that have sprung up within the last 20 years.

While it undeniably feels more resort-like and built up than Kotor — and has quite a reputation as a party town — it nonetheless retains some charm.

The views from the ramparts are wonderful, while the small city museum houses an impressive collection of preserved Roman artefacts dating back to 5BCE. Many were only found after the 1979 earthquake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter Scale, and left only eight of the 400 buildings in the old town undamaged.

Other highlights include one of the largest collections of Roman glass in the world, surprisingly modern-looking Roman jewellery and a barely damaged 2,500-year-old Illyrian helmet.

At the marina you can hire a boat to take you on a sightseeing tour of some of the prettiest bays, or stop at one of the quieter beaches on Sveti Nikola Island — known as Montenegro’s Hawaii, because of the clearness of the water that surrounds it and the fact it’s only accessible from the sea.

On the other side of the bay is the exclusive Sveti Stefan, once a fortified village that eventually evolved to become a more traditional village with a population of around 400 people, with its houses built right to the edge to maximise the land.

Now connected to the mainland via a walkway, it was renovated between 2007 and 2009 to become an exclusive resort, a favourite of celebrities thanks to the privacy it offers. However, the luxurious property has remained closed in recent years, apparently in part due to a disagreement between the town and the resort over privatisation of the beaches.

While the public can no longer enter the island, the three beautiful beaches adjacent to it are now public but still feel very exclusive, approached through paths shaded by luxuriant foliage and more great views over the water.

Luxury tourism in Montenegro is a fairly recent thing, with the country’s first five-star hotel opening only in 2006 – though today there are several. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Kotor Bay Resort, a hotel created by a local family, but taken on by Hyatt just under a year ago.

Set on the waterfront, you can opt to lie on a lounger and gaze out to the bay, enjoy one of the two huge outdoor pools, or try a treatment at the calming Spa Soul, which also features an indoor pool and a sauna with its own views of the water. There is also a second spa, which offers targeted health-related treatments, including packages to help alleviate long Covid.

Rooms are modern and comfortable, while the resort also includes apartments with semi-private pools and hot tubs. There are seven restaurants and bars to choose from, including a beach bar on the longest natural beach in the bay and the new “Hedonist” Rooftop opening this summer.

The main Lighthouse à la carte restaurant overlooks the water and serves plenty of local fish, although limited vegetarian options. Sea bass with the three tomato salad was one stand-out, accompanied by some reasonably priced cocktails.

If you want to get active, the hotel will lend you bikes (though the roads are narrow and busy so it’s not for the faint-hearted) and there are challenging hiking trails just outside the hotel, plus there’s the chance to take out paddleboards.

Not far away, the Kotor cable car will whisk you up to 1,350 metres where you can enjoy hiking in the Lovcen National Park.

Montenegro also has one of the youngest and smallest Jewish communities in the world — Judaism was officially registered as an official religion of the country in July 2011, the first synagogue opened in the capital, Podgorica, in 2017, with a second opening in Budva in 2023.

Numbers are still low, with only around 400 to 500 Jews out of a population just in excess of 600,000. But it’s a safe and welcoming destination, easy to explore and an interesting lower-cost alternative to neighbouring Croatia. Even before the launch of the new flight route, tourist numbers have been rising — so now’s the time to visit, before the crowds arrive.

​Getting There

​Flights to Tivat cost from around £120 on the new route from Birmingham with Jet2, which also flies from Stansted and Manchester.

Double rooms at the Hyatt Regency Kotor Bay Resort cost from around £85 B&B.

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