Like everybody else, we are also itching to travel but can’t! The next best thing is to relive memories of past travel and there I am writing a blog about Montenegro – the tiny country in the Balkans. Like with other countries – Montenegro also raised a lot of eyebrows and the typical “Where do you find such places” question from family and friends!
Last year’s Europe trip was a long affair – to attend graduation ceremony in Madrid and then a give and take between TW (The Wife) and me on places to visit. We ended up with a long list – Portugal, Spain, Monaco, Switzerland, Croatia and Montenegro – well spent 15 days!
I have been attracted to a lot of countries for their past and Montenegro was no different. The country was part of Yugoslavia until recently – supported Serbia in Bosnian war in the 1990s. A referendum in 2006 led to a new nation being carved out.
Montenegro got its name from “Black Mountain” or Monte Negro from Venetian times. The country is not part of European Union and yet Euro is its official currency. Puzzling! A little research showed that European Union and especially Germany has been opposing this use of currency but has had little impact on Montenegro. And why just Germany? Montenegro has a history of using German currency, when it severed ties with Serbia in 1996 – Montenegro adopted the German Deutsche Mark as its currency! Montenegro is as complex as it can get. It is not part of European Union but is part of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
Back to the day of travel – our choice of Dubrovnik gave us access to two additional countries – Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Our choice of season meant we were in middle of a heat wave and was becoming difficult to stay outdoors. Eventually we had to drop one and we stuck to Montenegro. A day tour from Dubrovnik is popular and covers Perast, Kotor and Budva with the later two being UNESCO world heritage sites. While the tours 12+ hours, this is the best way to tick another country and see some very beautiful places.
Five minutes to the departure time we walked from our hotel to the designated spot for our bus and into the sea of humans – all waiting to go to Montenegro. Various online resources had mentioned that it may take hours to cross the border, especially in this season and coming from India – we were confident that for Europeans three is a crowd, we know better. Wasn’t the case when we saw the numbers waiting to board the bus!
The tour confirmation tickets neither had the name of the guide nor the bus number – all it had was name of the tour operator. As busses started appearing on the horizon, none of them had the tour operator name displayed prominently and that meant the same scene for each bus which stopped. Bus stops, door opens and the sea of humanity throngs to the door to ask the driver about the tour. Few lucky get in and the others start waiting for the next bus.
The game soon became more complex with busses coming on both sides of the road. That’s when TW (The Wife) decided to cross the road and check busses on the other side.
Our hotel had packed us a dry sandwich, fruit, juice and water. The bus had not turned up and we kept thinking that we could have had a better breakfast at the hotel. Another bus stopped – and before the usual drill could begin, an enthusiastic lady jumped out and started calling out our names! All passengers in her list ticked… WoHoo she shouted – one of the many WoHoo’s we would hear during the day.
A few more stops and we were on our way to Montenegro, enjoying the scenic Croatian coast on the right. The guide kept on giving us information from the word GO. Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, the Bosnian war, Dubrovnik, Game of Thrones…. It was unending!
Soon we were at the much dreaded border crossing. Long lines of buses and car and the border crossing check-post visible few hundred meters away. Soon uniformed personnel boarded the bus and asked for passports and went away and then started the long wait. The feeling of having your passports taken away is eerie. Passports back and stamped out of Croatia, we entered Montenegro or the disputed area as the guide called it. One country provides water, another provides electricity and both claim the territory!
There was a small break at one of the malls for a quick snack and the last of toilet stops till we reached Perast because the toilet in the bus was not functional. Back in the bus, it was a long journey to Perast – first stop for the day.
The country is heavily dependent on tourism with more number of tourists visiting the country than its population each year. Podgorica its capital is also the largest city and was one named Titograd in honor of Marshal Tito. The capital city is just the administrative capital while all the action is down south.
The winding road with mountains on one side and the bay of kotor on the other got us to Perast. There is an artificial island which as per a legend was created by rocks and sinking old and seized ships. The main attraction is the Church of Our Lady on the Rocks. We were in two minds – to go or not to go. There were enough articles online about how the EUR 5 per person ride is loot! We finally decided against going there because of the over marketing –“If you don’t go to Perast church, you have not seen Montenegro” We have been to enough countries to take this head on!
Instead we roamed around the coast of the bay, stocking up some water, buying the mandatory fridge magnet and strolling around watching people who were making most of the sunny weather – which we thought was too harsh, coming from India!
Except us, the entire bus went to the island and was back with mixed emotions. We did not miss anything, two of us nodded and got into the bus. Next Stop – follow the bay, all the way to Kotor.
Cruise ships and harsher sun welcomed us as we got down from the bus. Kotor is a UNESCO world heritage site. The old town was restored after suffering severe damage in 1979. Kotor was ruled by Romans, Venetians and Austrians. It was so hot that the guide suggested we not climb the 1350 steps of the Kotor City walls! With a population of little over 10,000, Kotor is labyrinth! The Bay of Kotor in the Adriatic sea is one of the most indented parts of Adriatic and an impressive landscape – which you can enjoy if you are not in the middle of a heat wave!
Local rules are strict – we had a new guide just for Kotor who took us through the alleys where we visited Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, Serbian Orthodox church and spent a lot of time finding a good meal and a fridge magnet. We ate at Mamma Mia – a bakery which had some fresh bagels, sandwiches, croissants, fruits and more. While Montenegro is affordable, Kotor shops could give good competition to Paris when it came to souvenirs.
Climbing the steps was out of question and we headed out of the old town to find a shade to wait for the group. A casual look around and we realized that tourists like us who came from countries which is blessed with abundance of sun in their life were looking for a shade while most Europeans were excited to be in the sun – in what was officially termed a heat wave!
WoHoo – we are done with Kotor, the guide exclaimed! She asked us to form an orderly line and follow her a few steps to the bus. The steps became leaps and leaps became meters and it was over a kilometer or two by the time we boarded the bus.
Next Stop – Budva! WoHoo – the guide was the only enthusiastic person left in the bus after the tiring tour of Kotor under the shining sun! The shortest hop of the day was from Kotor to scenic Budva. A few minutes before entering Budva, the landscape changed completely. It looked like the town is in middle of a construction boom!
Soon, we got down and got instructions on where to go, what to eat and more. Budva is a Russian favorite and every board had Russian more prominently than any other language. The famed of beach was actually a small strip of sand but there was a large marina with fishing tours and general sightseeing tours available.
A quick tour later we settled ourselves in one of the Café’s named Café Mozart to eat Moscow Cake and coffee. While the cake was passable, not as famed as how the guide described, the coffee was much needed after a draining day. As we made our way back to the bus, observing the sea and fortification of Budva, we casually checked the watch, it was 11 hours since we had left and the journey back was four hours or more depending on the rush at the border crossing.
The return journey avoids Perast and the bus travels via Ferry from where one gets a nice view of the mountains and also the island at Perast. A good chance to sneak out of the bus on the boat. We drove past Tivat airport – the busiest in Montenegro as it is the gateway to Kotor and Budva. The tails at the airport were all Russian airlines!
Almost everyone was asleep when another WoHoo and the loudest one woke us up. We were at the border and we were the only vehicle – a phenomenon which was not reported anywhere online! But then as luck would have it, there was a shift change in progress and we still had to wait for the uniformed officers to come in, take our passports and get it stamped again. The sunset was around 2200 hours and it was an experience to see the sun set into the Adriatic. By 2330 we were dropped back to the place we boarded the bus, over 16 hours and the last WoHoo later we stepped out of the bus, wondering how the driver and the guide can do this day in and day out!
Next challenge was dinner – Dubrovnik is a lively place with places open for a long time and we had a quick dinner on the way back to hotel to crash in bed.
Montenegro isn’t mainstream, but it isn’t under the radar either. The forts are a testament of how strategic this area was since ancient times. While the country is known for its welcoming climate, please avoid going there in the middle of a heat wave!