Sunday, 26 July 2015

Let me introduce you to beautiful Montenegro

When I was talking about my travel plans across the Balkans, I would get concerned looks when mentioning Bosnia, and  puzzled ones when I said I would also visit Montenegro. The thing is that nobody seemed to know much about this tiny country that separated from Serbia only a few years ago.
In Italy the country is known because we once had a queen that came from Montenegro, which has always sounded to me as an unusual place to look for the future king's wife. Naturally beautiful, wild in the interior as you would expect, but with sandy beaches and historical walled towns on the coast, Montenegro is a jewel that many tourists still haven't discovered. It's also convenient because, even though it's not part of the European Union, it has adopted the Euro. Moreover, it's cheaper than Croatia, and travelling is fairly easy, thanks to good roads and transportation network.

A landscape in Montenegro

While Croatia is mostly Catholic, the majority of Montenegrins are Orthodox. As a result, towns have churches of different confessions, often side by side. While I'm not a fan of big cathedrals, I'm a sucker for cute little churches. The sense of identity is both interesting and complicated here: while feeling an obvious tie with the Serbians, history sets the Montenegrins apart from them. The name of the country for instance, comes from the Venetian "monte negro" and it means "black mountain".

A church in Budva
After driving south from Dubrovnik by public bus for about 3 hours (145 kunas, 19,30 €) and after a somehow slow passport check at the border, I arrived at the spectacular Bay of Kotor, which is the most famous and touristic part of the country. It resembles a fjord, with steep mountains plunging into a narrow bay, but is geologically speaking a drowned river canyon, instead of an inlet created by glacial erosion. The bus slowly follows the coast, letting you see how the bay unfolds, passing by historical little towns with stone churches, pebble beaches and small harbours.

A view of the bay of Kotor

I found people particularly friendly and warm in Montenegro, treating tourists like guests to honour or even like new friends, which is always nice. You can consider this tiny country as a sort of connection point between the sometimes serious Slavic people and the more cheerful Southern Europeans. Most people visit Kotor, but I also went to Perast, Budva and Sveti Stefan. Contrary to what many people think, there are tourists in Montenegro and the country is definitely on the Balkan backpacking route, with hostels, Wi-Fi in every restaurant and bar, and in general good infrastructures. People have been invariably kind, redirecting me to the correct bus stop for instance, or giving me advice on what to do or what to eat.

A beach near Sveti Stefan
Coming straight from Dubrovnik I did see a couple abandoned buildings or Communist-era monsters built to boost tourism in the area, especially near Budva, but overall I didn't have the impression of a war-ravaged or poor country, at least on the coast. What I found is a pleasant and welcoming country that I would like to explore more in the future.
Visiting Montenegro, and the reactions I saw when I was talking about it made me think of how much we trust traditional media and recommendations when choosing where to travel, instead of researching on our own. Almost everybody that I met in Montenegro was travelling alone through the Balkans, as opposed to the families and groups of flash packers that I encountered in Croatia. For this I found it a more relaxed place, without the all the must-do/must-see lists that I find annoying about Croatia. Don't get me wrong, I loved both countries, but Montenegro holds a special place in my heart.
The island of Sveti Dorde, near Perast
It was both a familiar and unfamiliar country to visit, with links to Venice but also undeniably tied to the Balkan mosaic of identities. In the next post I will write about Kotor,  the destination Montenegro is mostly famous for.
Have you been to Montenegro? 

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