The days were noticeably cooler now, with a morning mist hanging on the water as we sped around Kotor Bay on the local bus to Herceg-Novi (€3 one way) for the day. The narrow two-lane road hugged the coastline and in spots jutted out over the water to circumvent a sheer rock face. When the landscape widened enough, houses were built on every patch of useable land in small clusters or standing alone. At the farthest end of the bay we watched oyster farmers raft between their rows of buoys that marked the submerged delicacy growing in the depths below.
Further along the Lepetani – Kamenari Ferry (€4.50 per car, €1 for a bicycle, people free) offered a shorter and faster route that bypassed Kotor for travelers wanting to stay along the highway that hugged the Adriatic coast from Albania to Croatia.
Unlike Kotor and Budva, which were both built on flat coastal terrain, Herceg-Novi was built on a steep slope that runs many miles inland to the summit of Mount Orjen. The mountain, part of the coastal Dinaric Alps, is Montenegro’s tallest peak, which at 6210 ft is 500 ft taller than the more famous Mount Lovćen (5738 ft). The town existed as a small fishing village for several hundred years until its first defensive walls were raised in 1382, making it one of the youngest and most fought-over fortified cities along the Adriatic coast.
The old town is long and narrow, climbing up the hill from the water’s edge like an index finger poking out of the sea, making it a much harder city for the Omis pirates to attack. Let’s face it, Mediterranean diet or not, it’s much more difficult to properly sack, pillage and plunder a city when you are exhausted from running up steep flights of stairs. Though it wasn’t always the pirates that folks worried about.
The Turks built Kanli Tower on the highest point in the city after they defeated the Byzantines in 1482, only to be ousted by the Spanish for a brief stint of gentrification in 1538 when they quickly constructed Hispaniola Fortress higher up the mountain, to no avail; the keys of the city were returned to the Turks two years later. The Venetians had their turn also, strengthening walls and building towers that survived until the devastating 1979 earthquake. Its turbulent history also included the Austrian, Russian, French and Germans, all battling for beach chairs along the Herceg-Novi riviera. Fortunately, the communists didn’t see the need to impose their minimalistic architecture on such a beautiful swath of earth and left it alone. The people of the communist block were not as fortunate.
We were only an hour from Kotor when the bus pulled into the station above old town Herceg Novi, the last stop before the border with Croatia. Walking downhill, we came upon the daily market, Gradska Pijaca Herceg Novi, and took the opportunity to purchase the makings for a picnic lunch. Bread, cheese, figs and a huge pomegranate filled our knapsack. Old Town is of course surrounded by the apartment buildings of the new town, a pretty gentrification which has sprawled horizontally between the sea and the highway above town, hugging the hill for views of the bay.
The lane ended in Nikole Đurkovića Square in front of the ancient Sahat-Kul clock tower and gate, built by the Ottomans in 1667, that leads into the historic district. Once through the gate, the dark passage opened onto palm-treed Belavista Square lined with cafes and umbrella tables. St. Michael Archangel Church anchored its center. The style of this relatively modern church, built in 1911, is defined as Eclecticism, after its incorporation of architectural influences that reflected Herceg Novi’s diverse history. Byzantine, Gothic, Romanesque, Islamic and Serbian Orthodox inspirations all blend seamlessly together.
The old town was very quiet, and we had the narrow alleys and stairs to the Sea Fortress, the first fortification in Herceg Novi, practically to ourselves. At the old town’s southernmost point, the massive stone wall of the fortress protrudes several stories high from the sea, like the bow of a cruise ship. Its canons are quiet now, but during the summer tourist season it hosts citadel-top concerts and a film series from the spot where the guns once guarded the bay.
We chose not to walk down to the harbor, saving our strength instead for the longer one-mile walk to the Savina Monastery. The monks sure did know how to pick locations for inspiration. The first stones of one of three churches were laid in 1030, and the setting above Kotor Bay is glorious.
Being a Saturday, it was wedding day and we arrived just in time to watch a flag-waving crowd and brass band escort the bride and groom to their get-away car. Moments later another wedding party arrived to celebratory horns.
Next to the cathedral where the weddings were being held, the smallest and oldest church, Sveto Uspenje Bogorodice (St. Falling into Sleep of Holy Mother of God) has fascinating, ancient frescoes depicting the life of Christ. Stairs in the hillside led to a cemetery above the monastery with beautiful views.
The route back was relatively flat and took us through a pretty neighborhood filled with flowering shrubs to a smaller gateway into the old town, nearer the stairs to the Kanli Kula Fortress or Bloody Tower.
Built by the Turks in the 1500s, it was also believed “that the door to the castle opens only one way – to leave it alive was impossible.” Even with walls sixty feet wide in some places, the fortress was damaged in the 1979 earthquake that ravaged Montenegro. During reconstruction, its courtyard was converted into an amphitheater with 1,000 seats for concerts and theater productions; perhaps the music soothes the restless souls of the ghosts still wandering the dungeon. Name and reputation aside, the views from the fortress walls were beautiful.
Walk a little, café, walk a little more. Today a long climb back to the bus station awaited us after that last sip of espresso.
With the assistance of our host, we rented a car and planned a four-day road trip heading up into the mountains before ending along the Adriatic coast, then returning to Kotor. A great distance wasn’t covered, but the variety of scenery was amazing and the driving challenging in places.
Since our first cars as kids, Donna and I have been stick-shift/manual transmission aficionados, with fond memories of the rust bucket Fiats we both drove. We’ve also driven regular sedans up and down rutted, rock strewn dirt roads normally traversed by 4×4 SUVs while being told “you won’t make it in that.”
“Where are you heading to?” “Lovcen National Park will be our first stop.” “Be careful the roads are narrow and there are twenty-one switchback curves on the way. You might want to consider the longer route, it’s more relaxing,” the rental agent cautioned as he assessed our age and abilities. “We understand the views are dramatic along the way,” I responded as he handed over the keys while Donna playfully poked at me for them. Of course, I stalled the car backing out of the parking space, much to the attendant’s secret delight, I think. With a zoom zoom in mind and the windows down, we waved our thank you, only to stall again as we drove away. Hey, it was a high clutch! Some days just start that way.
Whether it’s from the bell tower in Perast or from the top of St. John’s Fortress, it’s impossible to escape glorious views of Kotor Bay once you gain any elevation. Only minutes from old town our route along Montenegro P1, also called the Kotor Serpentine Road, did not disappoint. The question was, how many times would we stop to take photos? Fortunately, there were few other cars on the road that day and we were able to pull over at the switchbacks that had room to park. Harrowing though was encountering large construction trucks and buses barreling downhill towards us, which often required pulling over as far as we could on the already narrow one lane road or reversing downhill to a wider section of paving. To say that guardrails were lacking in many places is an understatement. For centuries, the only overland route into Kotor was the old caravan trail which dates to Roman times. It wasn’t until the 1880s, when Montenegro was part of the Austrian Empire, that an easier wagon route between the seaport of Kotor and mountainous towns of Njeguši and Cetinje was carved from the mountainside. Paved now, that old wagon track was essentially the same route we drove. Eventually we came to a stop behind a local bus which was offloading hikers at Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana which is the starting point for hiking the old caravan trail downhill into Kotor.
Warrior, poet, Prince-Bishop and ruler of Montenegro from 1830 to 1851, Petar II Petrovic Njegos captured the essence of Serbian culture and life in several epic poems that put Serbian folk tales and history to verse. “What Shakespeare is to England, Njegos is to Montenegro,” gives a clue to his influence on Serbian culture. In his will he requested Montenegrins bury him in the church on the summit of Mount Lovcen, from which “all the lands of Montenegro can be seen.” On his last days the people lovingly carried him from Kotor to Cetinje, the old capital, along the ancient caravan trail that climbed from Kotor. Interestingly, this act of devotion didn’t seem to be enough, and, perhaps insecure of his legacy, he threatened to curse and haunt them if his last wish was not fulfilled. Ascending the steep stairs to his mausoleum atop the mountain, we understood why he was so insistent in his demand. The 360-degree panoramic view was in so many ways breathtaking. A warm day bayside in Kotor can be extremely chilly on the peak of Mount Lovcen with its 5738 ft elevation, so layer up accordingly. Descending the stairs, we stopped at the appropriately named Lookout Restaurant, which offered delicious local cuisine, very reasonably priced.
Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro, would be our destination at the end of the day, but before heading that way we detoured over to Lake Skadar National Park. Specifically, to see the beautiful horseshoe bend of Rijeka Crnojevića, the river of Crnojevića, from the Pavlova Strana Viewpoint which from Mount Lovcen is accessed by turning onto a dirt road off the M2.3. (Why the decimal point, really? There’s no 2.1 or 2.9 road that I can see on the map, but I digress.) This was a narrow track that had us wondering if we made the right decision. Our logic seriously questioned again when we reached a stalemate with an oncoming car traveling uphill. The road was so tight I was hesitant to reverse, fearing scraping the car paint and the other driver refused to budge. Somehow the locals know if you are not from around those parts! I blinked first and cautiously backed up until the road was barely wide enough for two cars to squeeze by. Continuing to descend toward the lake, several of the switchback curves were so tight they required 3 point turns to maneuver around the corner. Our persistence though was eventually rewarded with a great view of the river.
Relieved to hit a larger paved road, we continued towards the small village of Crnojevića. The weather was brilliant, and we spontaneously decided to opt for a short boat tour along the river. It was mid-week and near the end of the season, and we were pleased that we had the boat all to ourselves.
It was a relaxing reprieve, silently traveling upon the water, passing under old stone bridges and watching the birds and swans along the water’s edge. Next to the boat launch, Restaurant Mostina offered shaded outdoor dining and a beautiful view of the river. We lingered as long as time allowed, wanting to reach Podgorica well before dark. Fortunately, it was only forty minutes away.
We arrived late in the afternoon and followed our GPS directions into the city and were totally surprised when our route turned into a pedestrian only boulevard after 5 PM, with families pushing strollers down the center of the avenue and waving frantically to make us aware of our mistake. Without difficulty we quickly corrected our error. Having the freedom to roam is wonderful with a rental car, the only drawback really is parking. And finding an affordable, convenient hotel in a city with free parking is a challenge. The three-star, business class Hotel Kerber fit the bill, though finding the parking lot required that the receptionist walk us out the back door and point to the parking entrance under a building on the block behind the hotel.
Exploring the city early the next morning, we walked over the Morača River via the Milenium Bridge, one of the city’s most prominent landmarks. Its futuristic cable-stayed bridge design is so strikingly different from the architecture in the rest of the country.
In the park across the river we found the statue of Vladimir Vysotsky, a beloved Russian poet and songwriter whose verses were deemed subversive by communist authorities and barred from publication. The Bob Dylan of Montenegro, he gained fame by distributing illegal homemade recordings of his songs and performing in clubs across the communist block during the Cold War. Montenegrins loved his music and he loved them. “I regret in this life that I don′t have two roots, and I can′t name Montenegro as my second homeland.” – Vladimir Vysotsky.
The big draw for us to Podgorica was Саборни храм Христовог Васкрсења, the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ for us non-Serbian speakers. It’s an inspiring new Serbian Orthodox church that was consecrated on October 7th, 2013, the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milanin 313 AD, which was an agreement between the Western Roman Emperor Constantine I and the Byzantine Emperor Licinius that decriminalized Christian worship.
Every interior surface of basilica is covered with brilliant Orthodox iconography on gold backgrounds or has controversial murals that reflect history. The one depicting Tito, Marx, and Engels burning in hell is poignant commentary on communism’s oppression and anti-religion stance that affected millions in eastern Europe. There are other contemporary political frescoes interwoven throughout the traditional iconography that are difficult to spot, but that’s part of the thrill of discovery.
To this day, the artist has chosen to remain anonymous. The architect, Dr. Predrag Ristic, is credited with building 100 orthodox churches, and took inspiration for the exterior of the church from the medieval design of the Cathedral of St. Tryphon in Kotor, with its prominent arched entry way and twin towers.
Our destination lunch spot for the day was Restoran Nijagara, located only a short distance before the Vodopad Nijagara waterfall on the Cemi River. The waterfall was beautiful and easily accessible from the shaded, riverside dining on the restaurant’s deck. Ducks floated lazily by while children playfully splashed in the crystal-clear water.
We planned on being along the Adriatic coast for sunset, but still had plenty of time for a stop in the lakeside village of Virpazar, which is a popular point for boat tours of Skadar Lake National Park. The small town had a wonderful ambience with umbrellaed restaurants, streets full of people, colorful boats tied up along its quay. A dramatic memorial to the liberation partisans of WWII anchored the waterfront, with Besac Castle rising above it in the distance. The castle is a short distance from town and has splendid views of Lake Skadar.
We continued along the lake road towards the small historic village of Godinje with its ancient, cojoined stone houses set on the mountainside. The village is unique because each home has an underground passage connecting it to its neighbors. This was developed to defend the village from Ottoman raiders. The tunneling system was so extensive that townspeople could go from one end of the village to the other without being seen by their enemy. There are many small vineyards in this region, featuring wines vinted from the native-to-Montenegro Vranac grape varietal. Some wineries offer tastings along with food. Reservations are highly recommended, especially on the weekends. Unfortunately, we did not have time to linger longer, but we did purchase homemade grape brandy from a woman selling it from a small roadside stand in front of her home.
The views of the Adriatic coastline as we drove north along the E80 were incredible, though there weren’t nearly enough pullover spots for photographs.
We arrived at the Hotel Adrovic in Sveti Stefan with plenty of time to get settled before watching the sunset, with classic Aperol spritzes from their rooftop restaurant.
We put a lot of research into selecting this hotel, primarily for its view of Peninsula Sveti Stefan and it did not disappoint. We enjoyed an incredible ocean view room with a balcony, including breakfast and free parking, for a very reasonable $80.00 per night. Later that night a lively wedding party danced to Montenegrin hits in the restaurant’s banquet room until the early hours of morning.
Budva was an easy twenty-minute drive the next morning. The walled town is one of the oldest cities on the Adriatic coast, dating to the 5th century BC with Illyrian tribes settling the area and later colonization by the Greeks as an important trading port. Its history mirrors Kotor’s with conquest by the Roman empire in the 2nd century BC, followed by the Byzantines, Venetians, Ottoman and Austrian empires all ruling for various lengths of time. And let’s not forget the French, Germans and Russians who settled in for short stays.
The historic, walled old town is much smaller that Kotor, but still fascinating. The town’s fortified walls sit right on the edge of the Adriatic with the tall walls of the citadel rising directly from the sea. The views over church spires of the old town and the coastline were beautiful. It’s from this vantage point that we decided to check out the colorful umbrellas of Mogren Beach across the water. There are actually two pebbled beaches set under towering cliffs separated by a protruding cliff face. Connecting them is a rough tunnel through the rock called the “Door in Stone.”
It was an easy walk along the ocean edge on a paved path with railings, past the Ballet Dancer Statue set on a rock in the water. There is some debate about whether the female figure, sculpted by Gradimir Aleksich, is a dancer or gymnast as she is not clothed, leading some to have nicknamed the bronze statue, “The Girl Who Lost the Swimsuit.” Idealistically he based his graceful creation on the legend of a local young woman who danced on the rocks every day waiting for her fiancé, a sailor, to return from the sea. Years passed, yet she continued to hope for his return, and she danced every day until her death. For the people of Budva the statue represents love, loyalty and fidelity, attributes that have served Montenegrins well through their turbulent history.
Back at our hotel, the sparkling blue waters of the beach below us called. This part of Montenegro’s coast is very steep, but stairs from the hotel weaved down to the ocean far below. Walking down would have been easy. Returning – forget it! The parking lot by the beach was outrageously expensive for a short visit, so we opted to park like the locals, which took some creativity, and found a spot under a heavily laden olive tree. It was the last weekend in October, and the water was still warm enough to swim in.
The tall mountains along the coastline here cast a long shadow over the water at sunrise. We sat quietly on the balcony with the morning’s first cup of coffee and watched the sunlight slowly reveal the red roofs, then warm stone colors of what was once a 15th century island fortress – Sveti Stefan. The small, private islet today is an upscale resort that is connected to the mainland by a small peninsular. It’s an exclusive and dramatic setting, but we had the better view.
On the beach, workers were digging the umbrella anchors out of the sand as others rowed into the ocean to retrieve the string buoys that defined the swimming area. Offshore the crew of a sailboat was pulling anchor in preperation to set sail. It was officially the end of the summer season and time for us to be moving on. We got our swim in just in time.