I’m sitting at a table overlooking an incredibly picturesque bay, but instead of admiring the view, I’m poring over a map. “Hang on,” I say. “Is this where we’ve just been?” “No,” my guide, Vlatko, says, pointing. “This is where we were.” “And we started here?” I ask. “No, here.”
Despite spending hours hiking it, just thinking about Montenegro’s curvaceous coastline leaves me feeling cartographically challenged. The Bay of Kotor — recognised by UNESCO for its natural and cultural significance — is a collection of fjord-like gulfs, with such a tenuous connection to the open sea that in places they feel more like lakes. Fingers of mainland stretch out across the water, topped with hills and sprinkled with traditional villages and newly constructed summerhouses.
I’d started out in Kotor town, driving up a steep, winding road originally built by the Austro-Hungarian army. Many of the paths I walk during the weekend were also constructed by the military, and are slowly being reclaimed by hikers. When I pull myself out of the car, I spot a man wearing army fatigues just a few feet away, crouching in the doorway of a tumbledown building, gun in hand. “You’ve come into a war zone,” Vlatko says with a chuckle.
It’s just a game of paintball, but the irony of bumping into a ‘soldier’ up in the Montenegrin hills isn’t lost on me. This tiny country has been annexed and occupied by countless invading forces over the years, from the Ottomans to Mussolini’s Italian army. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, it was part of neighbouring Serbia, before regaining independence in 2006.
We walk over the uneven terrain to Vrmac Fortress, one of many forts the Austro-Hungarians erected around these parts to defend themselves against the Ottomans — there are around 30 still standing, to varying degrees. At Vrmac, weeds and moss peep through cracks in the grey stone, and what looks like it was once a moat is also now overgrown.
From here, Vlatko and his fellow guide, Mio, lead the way through the forest to an opening in the trees. It’s only now I realise quite how high up we are, looking out across the bay towards the red roofs of old Kotor; the dark mountains looming behind the town like a pantomime villain.
Twists and turns
We head to the hamlet of Gornji Stoliv, where Vlatko leaves Mio and me to hike down while he drives to the end of the trail. The settlement has been abandoned for decades, ever since the lack of a road — and impracticality of building one — started seeing residents migrate to nearby towns and Donji Stoliv, a fishing village at the bottom of the hill (gornji translates as ‘upper’; donji, ‘lower’).
Mio tells me some of the houses’ original owners still visit regularly to tend their properties — and it’s easy to tell which. While some still have tidy stone walls and neat green shutters, others are crumbling at the foundations and overgrown with vines. As I weave between chestnut trees — their fruit still encased in spiky cocoons — Mio points out the different plants around us, including tiny blue flowers that make a nice tea, and an autumn crocus that’s “deadly poisonous”.
At Donji Stoliv, Vlatko’s waiting to take us back to Kotor. We wind around the bay, pulling up outside the city walls, where the market’s in full swing, stalls stacked with local produce — vats of olives sit alongside piles of fresh fruit and veg, fish and sausages — while neighbouring traders sell colourful scarves and trinkets. Beyond the arched city gate is a square; its umbrella-covered cafe tables flanked by neat, sandy-coloured buildings. Kotor was under Venetian control for the best part of four centuries, up until 1797, and that influence is still visible in the city’s architecture and layout — a maze of alleyways, small squares and churches. But it’s not a place that wears its scars on its sleeve; despite being damaged by numerous earthquakes over the centuries — most recently in 1979 — it’s been painstakingly restored and, for the most part, looks pristine. Only the city walls, which snake around the Old Town and up the mountain, show signs of wear, with their crumbling fortresses and haphazard staircases.
Although it only takes a few minutes to walk from one end of the Old Town to the other, it takes me several attempts to get the right combination of twists and turns back to my hotel. The sun’s setting, and while some locals are finishing up for the day, others are just getting started — a workman stands back to admire a trellis he’s just put up and a group of children run home for dinner, while at the bar next door, the party’s just getting started.
The next day, I rise early to meet Vlatko and Mio and drive over to the next ‘finger’ of coastline — Lustica Peninsula. We hop out at Gosici and start the steep uphill climb along a rough path lined with tall grass and scrubby bushes.
“Last year this path didn’t even exist — it was overgrown, so a group of men from my town got together and cleared it,” Mio tells me.
Looking inland, a series of hills rise up from the sea in layers — islands in the foreground, and behind them another peninsula and the mountains of the mainland cutting across the sky in crinkly, green waves. Before long we’re in woodland, the spindly, but densely packed, trees arching across the path as we crunch over fallen twigs.
“We’re going to grandma’s house,” Mio says. I chuckle, thinking this is some kind of Red Riding Hood joke. But it’s not. He and Vlatko are taking me to meet Baba (grandmother) Cvijeta — a local lady living in Babunci, a village that, like Gornji Stoliv, is mostly uninhabited; she’s one of just a handful of residents left.
Her neat porch is shielded on one side by a line of washing, while along the wall of the house hang wooden, mesh-covered racks, stacked with thick wheels of cheese. Cvijeta, a smiling woman with a short shock of white hair, welcomes us into the kitchen, where she serves up hot, mud-thick coffee and glasses of syrupy-sweet red liquid — cordial made from drenjina, a local fruit resembling a cranberry. “It’s very healthy,” she says, with Vlatko interpreting.
For decades, Cvijeta’s been rearing cows and producing her own cheese, which she sells at the market in Herceg Novi — a town just across the bay. “Everybody who buys my cheese once comes again,” she tells me, proudly. One man liked it so much, apparently, he ordered 30kg for his wedding.
Persuaded, I ask to buy some, and Cvijeta takes down a cheese the size of a dinner plate from the rack. Although it can be eaten ‘young’ — when it’s soft, white and wobbling — I go for the aged, dried stuff. Sour and deliciously savoury, after one taste I wish I’d bought more.
On the rocks
Back across the bay, just eight miles from Kotor, lies the town of Perast. It’s even smaller in size, but also postcard-pretty, with the same distinctive red-roofed buildings. However, what I’ve come to see is out on the water. Our Lady of the Rocks is a tiny artificial island, built on the spot where, according to local legend, a fisherman discovered an image of the Virgin Mary floating in the bay in 1452. The icon apparently performed miracles, so the locals decided to erect a church in celebration; sailors dropped rocks and even sank enemy ships to create the island, on which a church was eventually built in 1630.
I hop on the little boat that transports tourists over to the island from Perast, and within a few minutes I’m standing in front of the quaint church; its powder-blue domed roof matching the sky above.
Inside is a collection of thousands of gold and silver ‘plates’ — flattened and embossed rectangles donated by sailors who’ve been saved at sea after praying to the Lady of the Rocks. But the main attraction is all together more unusual: a tapestry woven by a local woman, Jacinta Kunic-Mijovic, over the course of 25 years while she was waiting for her sweetheart to return from a voyage. Among the bright gold and silver threads woven into the image of the Virgin Mary and child are darker sections, where Jacinta incorporated her own hair.
I never do find out whether her lover made it home, but as the boat takes me back to the beautiful mainland, I find myself hoping so.
Did you know? Montenegro once attracted Hollywood’s most glamorous stars, including Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
Must try: Locally produced wine — particularly Vranac red — is rich and flavourful, and sold almost exclusively in Montenegro
Montenegro Airlines operates seasonal flights from Gatwick to Tivat. British Airways, EasyJet, Jet2, Monarch and Thomson fly from various UK airports to Dubrovnik, Croatia, around an hour’s drive from Kotor. montenegroairlines.com ba.com easyjet.com jet2.com monarch.co.uk thomsonfly.com
Average flight time: 2h40m.
Hiring a car is a good option with rental companies based at Tivat, Podgorica and Dubrovnik airports. If you’re picking your vehicle up from the latter, check you’re allowed to take it across the border. A good bus network connects Montenegro’s main cities. There’s no real train service, apart from a line from Bar to the Serbian border, and one between Tuzi and Nikšica. For short distances, taxis are reasonably priced. zcg-prevoz.me
When to go
The main tourist season is between May and October, and direct flights from the UK also only tend to operate during this period. Summer in Montenegro can be very hot, with temperatures regularly above 30C, while in winter, the Bay of Kotor is one of the wettest places in Europe.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.20.
International dial code: 00 382.
Time difference: GMT +1.
Our Lady of the Rocks. gospa-od-skrpjela.me
How to do it
Explore Montenegro offers three nights in Kotor from £369 per person, including room-only accommodation at Kotor Wine Rooms, flights from Gatwick with Montenegro Airlines and transfers. montenegroholidays.com
Published in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)