Marvelous Montenegro

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Day three of my long weekend and it was time for a quick trip to Montenegro – country number three for the weekend.   WTF?? I know right, but it was just so close I could not resist and so glad I did – what a stunner. I only wish I had much longer … I seriously need to consider a new career (again) where I can be a digital nomad and work on the road!

And so, to another early start and another morning of joining the rabble at the gate waiting for the buses – this time to travel the short distance to the Montenegro border and beyond … 

It was a much bigger bus this day with very reclining seats (which were great for napping 👍🏻) and yet again, another bus with Latin music 🤔.  Annoyingly this tour was a dual language tour so the guide had to say everything in two languages which got very tedious very fast!  I made a mental note to look out for this when booking trips in the future.

Some early rain cleared up as we headed towards Montenegro, but it took almost 1.5 hours to travel the only 20km to the border!   We had no idea what the bus was doing but it had a couple of pickups at random places and then went one way only to turn around in a tiny space a bus had no business turning around in 🤔. I think they forgot to pick someone up and we had to go back to the last pick up point – it then turned out that the passengers were late to the pickup point and then, they had not brought their passports so could not come anyway!  Another example of the downside of bus tours (there were a number of them on this trip unfortunately).

There were only 2 border crossing today but as with yesterday, the Croatia border checks were much more thorough and time consuming (with the border guard coming on the bus to collect passports), with cursory checks on the Montenegrin side.  As with BiH, the queues at the border in the height of the season can be hours long!

Between the two borders is a small area of ‘No man’s land’ were a few people live.  Given that they technically do not live in Croatia or Montenegro, they pay for electricity from Croatia and water to Montenegro.  I wonder what nationality they have???

It is all in the name, as from the minute we crossed the border the beautiful hilly landscape was covered with lush dark green forest –  Montenegro literally translates as ‘Black Mountain’.

Montenegro is one of smallest and youngest countries in the world, less than 14,000 Km2  in size and with a population of just over 620,000.  It borders Bosnia & Herzegovina to the northwest, Serbia and Kosovo to the east, Albania in the south and Croatia to the west, given this it shares a similar history to those countries around it.  With a legacy of years under Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman rule as well as years of de facto independence. 

After the Montenegrin-Ottoman War, Montenegro’s independence was recognised at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the country became a kingdom in 1905.  The Kingdom of Montenegro lasted only a few years as it became part of Yugoslavia after World War I and upon the breakup of Yugoslavia, it became part of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro (along with Serbia of course).  It finally gained full independence in June 2006.

Interesting, Montenegro’s President Milo Djukanovic, has been prime minister or president since 1991 when he was in his late 20’s and when the country was still in the Yugoslav Federation.  It is also expected that he will get re-elected in 2023 which means he would be close to overtaking Josip Broz Tito (leader of Yugoslavia) as the longest serving political leader in the region.

He was clever enough to break from his ally Slobodan Milosevic a few years before his political downfall in 2000 and now the country profits from relatively friendly relationships with all its neighbours, though some say it will take at least another generation or two before they truly forgive the Serbians for what went on during the war.

In my brief time in the country, it does not seem that the country suffered as much as it’s neighbours during the Civil War (certainly not in the area I was) and to be honest, the guide did not talk much about it. However, the country’s tourism suffered greatly during that period, but it has now built back up and the country has put much emphasis put on repairing and rebuilding infrastructure like roads and hotels.

Already part of the UN, NATO, the WTO and the Council of Europe, the process to join the EU has begun though they may not be granted full EU membership status until 2025!  A fun fact, Montenegro use Euros as their currency (despite not being in the EU), before which they used German Mark!

We were told that the weather here is more Mediterranean than Adriatic and the culture is more laid back, not a lot happens in a hurry 😂 – I should have taken that as a warning lol.

Our first stop was a beautiful shore side restaurant with amazing views over the fjord like shoreline.  I complained about big queues for the toilet yesterday but today was worse – not because there were big queues but because the stop was at a posh restaurant who insisted that you sit down, order coffee, drink coffee and then … and only then can you join the queue for the toilet – when we only have 15 minutes!! I managed to sneak into the loo queue and then missed the coffee I was desperate for as I had no time (and they did not do take away!).  Not really the kind of stop you need on a trip like this but I guess it was all there was. The view over the Adriatic Sea surrounded by mountains was spectacular 

Lord Byron was right when he said, “The Montenegrin coastline really is the most beautiful encounter between land and sea.”

It didn’t help that when the mandated time to leave came (and we were all warned not to be late) the guide and driver were still sitting drinking their coffee and smoking their cigarettes – I guess she had already warned us when she said nothing moves quickly in Montenegro 🤔 lol.

It was from here we had our first view of Our Lady of the Rocks, one of the small islands off the coast.  The island is manmade, and according to legend it was created over the centuries (dating back to the 1400’s) by local sea men laying a rock in the bay after each successful voyage after finding the icon of Madonna and Child on the rock in the sea.   As well as rocks, the island has been built up by the sinking of old ships loaded with rocks.

They continue the tradition even today, every year on July 22nd the locals meet at sunset to throw rocks into the sea around the island.  A tiny Orthodox church was original built on the site, but this was replaced by a Catholic chapel in 1630 when the Venetians took over the area.

Apparently they say, if you don’t visit the Our Lady of the Rocks, you have not visited Montenegro, so we caught a small boat from the restaurant out to the island in what was very changeable weather – one minute it was sunny and hot, then it clouded over and was cool, then it would rain, then it would repeat that cycle all over again.

The church was later renovated in 1772 and now houses a museum – I did not go in as there was a long queue and I preferred just to wander around the small island and admire the views of the bay.  But, apparently, the museum houses a number of famous painting by Perast (I must admit I am not familiar with his work) and also a tapestry embroidered by Jacinta Kunić-Mijović from Perast.  It took her 25 years to create whilst waiting for her love to return and she eventually became blind.  She used gold and silver fibres but what makes it more famous, she also used pieces of her own hair! Sorry I do not have a photo of the hair tapestry for you to admire!

Our small boat then took us to a town on the other side of the bay where we got back on the bus and headed around the beautiful coastline to our next destination – the old walled city of Kotor, situated in the Bay of Kotor (also referred to as ‘Boka’ or the Bay).

Kotor is a very small city, with a population of only 13,500.  The small walled city was built during the Venetian period and sits in what is sometimes called Europe’s southernmost fjord, despite it not actually being a fjord, but a submerged river canyon, surrounded by limestone cliffs!

Another UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best-preserved medieval cities, the number of tourists coming is increasing rapidly, most coming on cruise ships.  In the short time I was there, I saw two cruise ships – one out, one straight back in!  Thankfully our timing was perfect, as the first cruise ship passengers had just got back on as we entered the old city, and the second cruise ship passengers had not disembarked before we were finished.  With such a tiny city it would not take much for it to be far too crowded for any kind of enjoyment and the cruise ships dwarf the old city walls.

There has actually been a fortified town on this site since the early Middle Ages and has changed hands many times over the centuries (as with the other countries around it).  Romans are considered to be the founders of the city sometime between 168BC and 476 AD) upon the break-up of the Roman Empire, fell under the reign of Byzantium until 1185.

It was the most important trading port in the Kingdom of Serbia/Serbian Empire until the city was taken by the Kingdom of Hungary in 1371 and then the Republic of Venice and then Kingdom of Hungary and then the Republic of Venice etc etc … until 1384 lol.  Next up was the Kingdom of Bosnia for 7 years and in fact the king of Bosnia minted his coins in Kotor.

In 1391 Kotor became fully independent but in 1420, wary of the dangers from the approaching Ottoman Empire the people of Kotor voluntarily gave management of the town to Republic for Venice for protection, under which finally they almost had some stability for over 350 years (except for a couple of times when they were besieged and ruled by the Ottomans). 

The almost 400 years under Venetian rule has given the city the typical Venetian architecture some of which dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries though many of the builings are newer than that as much of the city was nearly destroyed by earthquakes in 1563 and again in 1667 (to mention just 2 of many earthquakes). 

Unfortunately the ‘pass the parcel’ of ownership did not stop there as Kotor was given to the Habsburg Monarchy in the Treaty of Camp Formio in 1797 (but oddly was run by Russians for a year) and then it was assigned to the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy in the Treaty of Pressbury in 1806).  Next up Kotor was captured by the British Navy in 1810 forcing the French garrison finally surrender in 1814, but never fear, it was then restored to the Habsburg Monarchy by the Congress of Vienna.

In World War 1 Kotor was one of the main bases for the Austro-Hungarian navy and it was after the war in 1918 the city became part of Yugoslavia.

As with the whole region, they were exhausted by centuries of occupation but the biggest battles were still to come including the Nazi control of World War II (the date above the city gate is the date of liberation from the Nazis) and of course the Civil war.

The city also endured another major earthquake in 1979 where much of Kotor and other towns in the area was devastated.  The clock tower in the main square has been on a lean ever since.

As with Dubrovnik, there was a large number of cats roaming around the city (there is even a cat museum)!  Legend has it, that cats saved them from the plague as they killed the rats and mice that carried the plague carrying fleas.  For this reason, all the street cats are well looked after and well feed.

Kotor was yet another beautiful old city filled with cobblestones streets, old stone houses with colourful shutters and a large number of well maintained Catholic and Orthodox churches – however our guide told us that only two of the many churches are active today and despite 90% of the population are Orthodox (the majority of the rest are catholic), the catholic cathedral of St Tryphon’s is one of the cities main landmarks.  (The first church on that site was actually built in 807 with the current church initially built in 1166 – though not sure how much of that original building remains.)

It seems that the different religious get on well and in fact, one of the old Orthodox churches was originally Catholic, given to the Orthodox Christians when they did not have a place to worship.  The church has never been damaged by earthquakes and today stands as a symbol of unity.

To get a view of the beautiful ‘boka’ beyond the massive cruise ship that blocked most of the view, I decide to walk up the hill behind the old town for a beautiful view of the bay.  Whilst there I watched one cruise ship leave and another one very soon take its place … obviously another popular place on the cruise ships routes!

My final stop in Montenegro was Budva (or the Budva Riviera as it is know), a town much larger than Kotor with a population of around 60,000 and at 2,500 years old, it is the oldest settlement on the Adriatic Coast dating back to the 5th century BC at which time it was part of Greece! It is now well known in the region for its medieval walled city and famous (or maybe infamous) for its night clubs and sandy beaches (I did not really see it but there seemed to be a lot of abandoned bars and clubs lining the beach looking more like a faded fun fair) but I am sure on a warm summers day it is one of the most happening places this side of the Adriatic.  😂

Given it’s popularity, apparently a lot of local people are now accepting offers of lots of big money to sell their houses to wealthy Russians to use as holiday homes.

Again the walled city was built by the Venetians during their almost 400 years of rule, between 1420 and 1797, and again to protect themselves from those pesky Ottomans.   Much of the old town was devasted by the same 1979 earthquake that hit Kotor but almost all the buildings were restored to their original form and as with Kotor, the very small walled city is full of churches!  Around the tiny main square there are three – 2 catholic and one orthodox. 

Arriving in Budva, it was time for lunch where I had the biggest burger patty I have ever seen  (basically the same meal as in Bosnia but with the meat in the shape of a patty rather than a Sausages).  Just as I started to walk towards the old town the heavens opened!  Within minutes I was soaked, my poor umbrella had no chance.

I was left running around the narrow streets trying to find a recommended cafe for coffee and the famous Montenegro cake called Moscow cake!  Vanilla sponge with vanilla cream and fruit, it went down well despite being soaking wet.  I never really got a chance to dry out as I had to quickly run back to the bus, trying to dodge the worst of the puddles now filling the strees – buses are great fun when filled with 20 soggy people lol

The drive back was shorten by taking a car ferry across one of the bays between Lepetane to Kamenari, just a 5 minute journey on a small car ferries (fitting just  a couple of buses and a few cars) that would take 1 hour to drive.  The ferry just goes back and forth across the nay every 15 minutes or so, 24 hours a day and makes a huge difference to those driving the route.   The other great thing about the ferry is the beautiful views, many small villages clinging to the sides of the mountains as they flow down to the sea.

The weather finally seemed to clear up as we drove north towards the border and I was hoping to see some sort of sunset (if I could stay awake 😂) but sadly queues at the border (annoyingly today’s two borders took longer than the six borders we crossed to and from Bosnia) meant we missed the sunset by about 20 minutes (which is also about how long we had sat waiting in Budva for 2 of the group to return late) not that I am bitter or anything lol. 

Still another good day seeing another part of this beautiful world and learning more about the crazy history of the region.

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