22 February 2021
Marking Montenegro on the map
Guess what the population of Montenegro is? 628k. 628k!!! That’s tiny. In fact, there are only 7 European countries with a smaller population, and that includes the mini countries/states of Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Vatican City. But, what it lacks in population, it more than makes up in character.
It’s a compact country that’s 18 times smaller than the UK. Montenegro literally translates to ‘black mountain’ referencing how Mount Lovcen looks when covered in dense forests. It’s one of the Balkan countries and is nestled in between five others: Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina to the northwest, Serbia to the northeast, and Kosovo and Albania to the southeast. The capital and largest city, Podgorica, is located 20km from the coast in the southeastern corner.
Montenegro is a proper hidden gem of the Balkan region. Neighbouring Croatia may get 10 times the number of visitors per year, but Montenegro has just as much to offer, if not more. Just don’t tell too many people about Montenegro, okay? It’s relaxed and uncrowded vibe is part of the appeal.
What makes Montenegro, Montenegro?
1. Nature, nature, nature all around
If you asked the rest of the Balkans who’s the prettiest, they would begrudgingly say Montenegro. It has everything: 100 plus beaches stretched over a 300km coastline, 48 peaks over 2,000m tall, 18 glacial lakes, forests, canyons, fjords and National Parks at every turn. Montenegro is one of Earth’s true treasures.
In fact, their constitution even declares Montenegro as an “environmental power” and calls for its protection. You won’t find any climate change deniers here.
We’re going on a road trip through its natural beauty further on, so buckle up.
2. A fierce independence
The culture of Montenegro is as diverse as its history and geographical position would suggest. The first people to settle in the region were the Illyrians who arrived during the late Iron Age. Over the next 3,000 years, the Greeks, Romans, Duklja, Ottomans and Venetians all occupied Montenegro at one point, each leaving their imprints on the culture.
But, one constant throughout was the Montenegrins’ displeasure with foreign rule. And they rebelled at every opportunity. Including in recent history. In 1996, during the breakup of Yugoslavia, Montenegro's government led by Milo Dukanovic cut ties with Serbia. They came up with their own economic policy and soon after, adopted the Euro despite Montenegro not being a part of the EU (they were the first country to do so). Side note: They’re currently being ratified for entry into the EU with a possible approval by 2025.
A few years later, in 2003, Montenegro and Serbia reached an agreement for continued cooperation, which saw the country transform into a more decentralised state union called Serbia and Montenegro. But, in 2006, the Montenegrins had had enough. 55.5% voted for independence and Montenegro became its own sovereign state.
But, all this toing and froing does have its problems. Montenegrins usually come from mixed families, which might include Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks. Each with differing views on who was right and who was wrong during the breakup of Yugoslavia and the eventual split from Serbia. It’s best to avoid the conversation, but sometimes this isn’t possible when it comes to asking what language people speak. Montenegrin was identified as a separate language from Serbian in 2017 and they added two letters to their alphabet to differentiate it. But, it’s basically the same and some debate if they are different at all. With a few locals still saying they speak Serbian and others feeling highly offended at being called Serbian, it’s a tricky subject to navigate when in Montenegro.
3. The amazing people of the Black Mountain
They may fall into opposing camps regarding Montenegro’s recent history, but one thing is for certain, the people of the Black Mountain are pretty special. Here’s why:
Their independence: Nations don’t come much tougher than little Montenegro. From fighting off invading Islamic armies to splitting from Serbia, they’re fiercely proud of their country and its continued freedom.
Their hospitality: At first they may come across a little rude and reserved, but this is simply in contrast to traditional British politeness. This is a country where ‘enough’ simply does not exist. Where every last drop of rakija will be drunk from the bottle and everything will be done to ensure a great time for their guests. Montenegrins are seriously generous. Not only to their guests, but also to family, which means everything to them.
Their rich cultural heritage: Historically, the people lived in mountain huts called ‘katuns’ during the summer so their animals could graze on grasses high up in the mountain. In the winter, they moved down to villages at the bottom of the mountains. This katun lifestyle still exists in parts of the country and is a symbol of traditional farming. Montinegrins also embody two charming philosophies. The first is samo polako which means ‘take it easy’ or ‘just slow down’. The second is sve može or ‘everything is possible’. Both are deeply ingrained within the culture and makes the people both relaxing and inspiring to be around.
Their sense of humour: Dry, self-deprecating and morbid. Stables of UK humour, but also of the Montenegrins. Nothing is off limits and all situations call for a dry joke or two. If the quip can sum up life in a melancholy manner at the same time, even better. And no one does self-deprecation quite like Montenegro. The surrounding Balkan countries have taken samo polako to represent someone being lazy and preferring to stay in bed as opposed to work. Being the self-deprecating people they are, the Motenegrins took this stereotype and turned it into a world championship. Seriously.
4. The road trippin
Hands down the best way to see Montenegro is by car. The country is only 250km from top to bottom, which means you can cover a lot of it in a short period of time. But, what makes road tripping so special here is the views. The roads snake up the sides of mountains and offer spectacular vistas of the surrounding natural beauty. Much of it, untouched by humans. All you can see for miles around is luscious green forests, emerald rivers and jagged mountains. So strap in. This is our favourite route through the country:
Day 1: Land at Tivat airport, pick up your hire car and drive to Kotor. Kotor is a fortified town on the Adriatic coast, in a bay near the limestone cliffs of Mount Lovcen. This will be your base for the first few days.
Day 2: Kotor itself has a beautiful medieval Old Town with several Romanesque churches and impressive city walls. Explore them on foot, but try to avoid the afternoons as it can get busy with the day trippers coming in by cruise ship. Finish the day with a hike up 1,355 steps to the fortress of San Giovanni for sunset.
Day 3: Today you’ll head out on a boat to Our Lady of the Rocks. Located on a manmade islet in the beautiful Bay of Kotor, this church is a sight to behold. Though its exact history isn’t well documented, local legend has it that somewhere between the 14th and the 17th centuries a shipwreck caused a group of local fishermen to find an icon of the Virgin Mary with Child perched on a sea rock. Taking it as divine intervention, the fishermen pledged that every time they returned from a successful voyage they would add a rock to the island. Thus a tiny islet gradually took form, and eventually a small church was built upon it. Accessible only by boat, the church is today one of Montenegro’s most whimsical and magical sights. It’s a must-see.
Day 4: Today, we hit the road. Leave Kotor and drive the coastal route to Lovcen National Park. The roads wind their way up to the top of Mount Lovcen. The views are breathtaking throughout with coast on one side and jagged mountains on the other. Continue on to your next base, Virpazar, taking stops at the Sveti Stefan and Pavlova Strana viewpoints on the way.
Days 5-6: Spend the next two days exploring Lake Skadar and its surroundings. The lake is an enormous 370km², yet perfectly calm and as reflective as a mirror, with the Accursed Mountains as a backdrop. It’s also a proper hidden gem, so you’ll pretty much have it to yourself apart from a few traditional fishing boats, lots of exotic birds and carpets of water lilies floating on the lake. Boat, kayak or swim! Do whatever you fancy, but we do recommend getting active here. Afterwards you can reward yourself with some carp from the lake and regional wine at one of the local eateries. We highly recommend Winery Masanovic, which has been run by the same family for over 800 years!
Days 7-9: Feeling refreshed and invigorated, we’re hitting the road again towards Durmitor National Park. Make sure to stop at The Monastery of Ostrog on the way. Carved into a rock on the face of a cliff, it is a sight to behold. From your base in Durmitor, explore the beauty of the park over the next couple of days. Go on plenty of panoramic drives, visit the Black Lake, and if you’re feeling adventurous, raft down the Tara River through the canyon and under the bridge. It’s the deepest canyon in all of Europe and the second deepest in the world, just behind a canyon you might have heard of: The Grand Canyon.
Day 10: Our Montenegrin road trip is sadly coming to an end. Circle back to Kotor and explore the charming village of Perast on the way. With a population of just 247, Perast is a tiny, idyllic village on the other side of the breathtaking Bay of Kotor. Or… if you have a few more days, hop over the border to Bosnia & Herzegovina to visit the famous Mostar Bridge and beautiful Bosnian countryside.
5. The varied cuisine
Full disclaimer: Visiting Montenegro as a veggie or vegan is possible, but isn’t the easiest thing. If you’re a flexitarian or a full-flung meat eater, you’ve come to the right place. Centuries of occupation, particularly by the Ottomans and Venetians have left their mark, but a Balkan tradition sits at the core of the cuisine. And they keep it local here. By default, most of the food is local, fresh and organic. There’s not a single McDonald’s, anyway.
The best way to understand Montenegrin cuisine is by region. And to be more specific, by the landscape which dictates its produce and traditions customs. So, here goes:
In the northern mountains, food is traditionally more stodgy, meaty and Serb-influenced, providing comfort and sustenance on those long winter nights. A traditional method of cooking is Ispod Saca, where meat and vegetables are roasted under a metal lid covered with hot coals, usually set in a hearth in the middle of the room for warmth. Brav u Mljeku is lamb slowly poached in milk with spices and potato. Japraci is a rich stew of beef with cabbage like raštan, rice and red peppers. The best honey (Med) is also produced in the mountains. And the higher up you go, the better the Kajmak, which is similar to a salty clotted cream. Montengrins slather it on bread, meat or potatoes, or just eat it straight. Hot, comfortable and/or packed with calories. That’s the mountain cuisine way.
The most famous foodie place in Montenegro? The village of Njeguši. In fact, anything with ‘Njeguški’ in its name is going to be a true Montenegrin dish. Perched on the edge of Mount Lovcen, the village is famous for its Prosciutto. The climate and altitude combine to create the perfect conditions for making prosciutto here. Whole pig hind legs are packed in salt for three weeks, then hung to dry for three more weeks. The final touch is four months of smoking, during which the fire has to be constantly burning and tended to. The result is thinly sliced, melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto. Njeguski Steak is another famous Montenegrin dish from this village. It’s made of a veal or pork schnitzel filled with Njeguši prosciutto and cheese. The best ones come with a generous dollop of melting Kajmak.
Moving off Mount Lovcen to the Crnojevic River and the upper reaches of Lake Skadar, means trying one of the three main freshwater fish: Jegulja (eel), Ukljeva (bleak) and Krap (carp). All are delicious and often served with a mixture of Blitva (silverbeet), mushy boiled potato, olive oil and garlic.
Lots of grilled seafood, garlic, olive oil and Italian-style dishes. The food in coastal Montenegro is seriously tasty. Riblja Corba, a hearty, flavoursome fish soup and Lignje na Zaru, grilled squid coated in garlic and olive oil, are both a must-try. Nearly 400 years of Venetian rule has left a legacy of excellent risotto and pasta dishes. Crni Rižot, a black risotto that gets its rich colour and subtle flavour from squid ink and includes pieces of squid meat, is wonderful.
Liquid cuisine (everywhere)
Everyone drinks a lot here. In fact, it’s a national pride how well they can hold their drink, so don’t be surprised by a few disapproving looks if you’re visibly drunk in public. Their main tipple is Rakija, a fruit spirit popular in the Balkans. The alcohol content is normally 40%, but home-produced rakia can be much stronger (we warned you!). Montenegrin wine is also surprisingly good. The area surrounding Lake Skadar is wine country, with over 30 small wineries dotted around. On Šipcanik Mountain, there are also vineyards on the sites of old military airfields and wine cellars housed in old Yugoslavian aircraft hangars. Seeing as the local culture is never to leave a guest’s glass empty, you’ll do well on one of their wine tours. The Vranac and Kratosija grapes are indigenous and irresistibly good. With the endless topping up of tasty wine in an idyllic setting with stunning views all around, there’s plenty to raise a toast to in Montenegro.
When not drinking alcohol, charcoal coffee is somewhat of a specialty in Montenegro. Believed to have been brought to Kotor by sailors from centuries past, they would add chunks of charcoal to their coffee to remove the acidity. It’s an acquired taste!
Good to know
Card payments are not as widespread here as they are in Western Europe. So, bring some Euros in cash.
A lot of the apartments and hotels often come with a gorgeous view (in fact, insist on one), but you’ll need to walk up a lot of stairs to enjoy it. So, bring a good pair of shoes with you. These will also be useful for the cobblestone lanes, which are centuries old and tend to be slippery.
Most of the grocery stores close on Sunday, so if you plan to stay in an apartment and cook, make sure you’re stocked up.
Keep some room free in your luggage to bring back a bottle of Vranac. This black-skinned grape wine is native to mountainous Montenegro and is DELICIOUS. With flavours and aromas ranging from sour cherry, blackberry and blackcurrant to chocolate, mint and vanilla.
The locals can drive rough, but if you are a confident driver, you’ll be fine. In fact, exploring Montenegro by car is one of the best ways to do it.
There are lots of cats, everywhere. Kotor even has a cat museum with art dedicated to its feline population (and the proceeds go to taking care of the cats).
Finally, one sad side to Montenegro is its attitude to homosexuality. Despite being legal since 1977, there is a history of violent attacks and a general air of intolerance towards the LGBTQ community.
Montenegro: one of Earth’s true treasures
This small Balkan gem has to be on your bucket list. Megha, our marvellous Chief Trip Designer, has this to say about her trip to Montenegro:
“This was the most scenic road trip we’ve ever done! And it was a trip where we were constantly surprised by the locals. From our B&B hosts baking fresh bread for us to take when they found out we were leaving early next day, to getting our wine glasses refilled on countless occasions, the hospitality was another level. As was the family centric, relaxed attitude of the locals. We even visited a winery owned by a family for over 8 centuries. They only made 4,000 bottles a year - with half of them for sale and the other half for their own consumption! The wine was tasty and unique, the place cosy and the owner quirky. And that description holds for most of Montenegro.”
We also matched Tom and Hannah with Montenegro back in 2019. On their Journee trip, they explored the country by car with a short detour to Bosnia & Herzegovina on the way. They went rafting on Tara River, kayaked on Lake Skadar and wandered around the beautiful town of Kotor.
Montenegro: Charming people. Stunning nature. Mountains covered in trees. Reflective lakes. Golden beaches.. Comforting stews. Rakija, Vranac and wineries. Samo polako and a belly load of laughs. And now, hopefully, you.