Magnificent Montenegro

Tiny and teeming with things to do, this former Yugoslav republic offers quirk and charm and seaside pleasures
May 5, 2019 Updated: May 5, 2019

KOTOR, Montenegro—For a while, I wasn’t sure we would make it.

Burly and jovial and smiling, Mico grasped my hand in a hearty handshake at the airport and then, my bags loaded in the back, him behind the wheel of a minivan with me in the passenger seat, we were winding through the Mediterranean mountains, with Mico telling me tales of his home country. Soon, we were descending toward the sea, and that’s when we started to swerve.

Because Mico wanted to show me pictures, too.

One hand on the wheel, another on his battered, off-brand phone, he scrolls through photos, first finding some of his friends (dressed as clowns, for some reason) attending various events. And then, later, pictures of national parks, including one of the tomb and statue of the nation’s greatest hero, Petar II Petrovic Njegos, which sits high at the summit of Lovcen, the country’s second-highest mountain, at the end of a 461-step walkway.

“It weighs 27 tons!” he declares as we veer toward the edge of the little highway, and a cliff, and the waves of the Adriatic, undulating below. Righting our course, we descend farther, and I ask him a few questions about what I can explore in this tiny little country. “Oh, you can do that,” he says, adding, somewhat inscrutably, “you can do it anytime, anywhere.”

Located right next door to popular vacation destination Croatia, and just across a narrow spot of the Adriatic from southern Italy, I’m in Montenegro. With a population of a little more than 600,000, this small nation was part of the former Yugoslavia, only gaining full independence in 2006 when they voted by referendum to sever political ties with Serbia.

Home to a couple of cruise ports, the country is becoming a magnet for travelers looking for something new and different, and I’m here to explore its wonders, from mountains to cobblestones and harbors.

village kotor bay montenegro
Looking over to the Bay of Kotor. (Tim Johnson)
Bay of Kotor Boat
A boat cruises past Perast in the Bay of Kotor. (Tim Johnson)

Mico got me to Kotor, safe and sound. We skirt the sea on that Sunday evening, the locals milking the last bit of joy out of a sunny weekend, with sunbathers in bikinis getting their last rays and beach volleyball players, hovering near ragged nets, making their last bumps and spikes. Mico honks at the pretty girls, and waves at people he knows along the way. As we pass the growing resort town of Herceg Novi, he points out the vacation home of former Yugoslav leader, the late Tito, a mansion near the water, crowded by olive trees.

Old Town Kotor

We wind back toward mountains and soon I’m on my own, rattling my suitcase through the cobblestone streets of Kotor’s old town, a place cut off from cars. Once part of the ancient Roman province of Dalmatia and dating back to the 5th century B.C., this small town, tucked away deep in a little gulf and surrounded by steep-sided mountains, is now a cruise port, and welcomes visitors to tour its UNESCO World Heritage Site fortifications, built during four centuries of Venetian rule.

Fortifications in Kotor Bay Montenegro
Kotor’s old fortifications. (Ovchinnikova Irina/Shutterstock)

Staying in an old home in the heart of the old town, it’s the perfect place for me to wander, and the next day I stroll through hidden squares and down back lanes, and pass its picture-perfect town clock, atop a tower and surrounded by happy diners, tucking into lunch. I tarry to listen to a small orchestra, practicing nearby, chairs and easels set up right there in the street. And then, I visit the Cats Museum.

Feline Attraction

Paying the 1 euro entry fee, I ask the friendly woman behind the counter if they have any live cats.

“No—just ours!” she says, laughing and gesturing to a black feline lounging back behind the counter. And then I ask the obvious—why does the town have a cat museum?

“No reason, I don’t know!” she says, unoffended and happy, adding, without further explanation, “The owner is from Italy!” She adds that they get a lot of visitors from the cruise ships, and everyone, like me, asks if they have live cats.

“For us, it would be a catastrophe, people bringing their cats here all the time—we would have 500 cats!”

cats museum in kotor bay montenegro
The Cats Museum. (Tim Johnson)

I browse among the offerings—galleries with paintings of cats doing people things, like playing soccer, as well as stamps and coins and medals from around the world featuring felines—before heading for the shore and boarding a little boat for a two-and-a-half-hour tour around the Bay of Kotor.

The guide explains that it is sometimes called the southernmost fjord in Europe and was once known as the “Bay of Chains” because locals would string chain across it to prevent pirates from coming there to pillage.

Built Stone by Stone

The highlight of the little trip is a stop on a tiny islet which, according to legend, was built, stone by stone, by seamen laying rocks here after a successful and safe oceangoing voyage. It’s home to Our Lady of the Rocks, ornate and gothic and filled with candles and baroque artwork; I take a few moments inside before blinking back into the sunlight.

our lady of the rocks church in montenegro
The Our Lady of the Rocks church. (freeskyline/Shutterstock)

Finally, I head to the beach. Climbing into a taxi, I make the half-hour trip down to Budva, where I settle into the four-star, all-inclusive Iberostar Bellevue, one of three hotels and resorts the Spanish brand has built in Montenegro—two of them brand new. I lounge by the pool, and on the sand, enjoying the warm waters of the Adriatic.

And then the old town calls again, this time Budva, one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic coast, still ringed by medieval fortifications. I stroll through a town touched by the Illyrians and the Romans and the Venetians, eventually climbing to the top of its citadel, buttressing Budva from the sea with 525 feet of walls.

The wind blowing, the sun fading, the town is at my feet. To one side, the Adriatic, and to the other, the mountains. So much left to explore—and I will return, and see more, maybe with Mico, anytime, anywhere.

When You Go

Iberostar offers three hotels and resorts in Montenegro, in Budva (Bellevue) as well as an all-inclusive, four-star resort in Herceg Novi, at the mouth of the Bay of Kotor, as well as the Iberostar Grand Perast, a newly renovated heritage hotel directly on the water, just across from the Our Lady of the Rocks.

Iberostar Grand Perast Montenegro
Royal Palace Suite at the Iberostar Grand Perast. (Courtesy of Iberostar)

While both Podgorica, the country’s capital, and Tivat, just down the road from Kotor, have international airports, many fly to Dubrovnik, in Croatia, which sits just across the western border. Carriers including Lufthansa, Turkish, British Airways, SAS, and others land there.

Resort Iberostar Herceg Novi
Iberostar Herceg Novi. (Courtesy of Iberostar)

For more information about Montenegro, see Montenegro.Travel/en

Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.