How to plan an epic road trip through Montenegro, the jewel of the Balkans

Montenegro — literally, ‘black mountain’ — is in fact a place of thick green forests, ice-blue lakes and white-capped peaks. A journey through the Balkan beauty reveals the wealth of stories and sights packed into one of Europe’s smallest countries.

boat on Lake Biograd

Photograph by Jordan Banks
By Sarah Barrell
photographs by Jordan Banks
Published 8 Jan 2023, 09:00 GMT

You will not encounter the Murlan if clouds have gathered in the sky. He chooses only fair weather to strike. And you won’t feel his breath on your neck until he’s upon you. Of the 15 different winds said to bluster over Lake Skadar, the Murlan is the one you need to watch out for. The Danik, a gentle spring-summer easterly, blows only in daylight hours; the night-time Noćnik exhales across the lakeshore from various directions, blessing vineyards and wheat fields with fertility — or so local legends go. The fearsome Murlan, however, rises into the sunshine over Lake Skadar and sends sudden, seismic waves that claim boats for the deep. “And it almost always comes in the afternoon,” says my guide Sara Jovićević. “We’d better hurry.

It’s mid-morning as our little boat pushes out through head-high reeds. Ahead, Skadar is almost without a ripple. Confident of Murlan-free conditions, captain Ivan Georgijev has laid out a picnic of priganice (fried, yeasted dough balls) made by his mum. They’re served with local honey, feta-like prljo cheese and brown-burgundy olives plucked from the shores of the lake around Murici village. 

Like many boat companies working Skadar’s island-studded shores, Ivan’s is family affair, one of the first catering to the wildlife watchers whose numbers blossomed after the lake’s declaration as a national park in 1983. Skadar is home to over half of Europe’s bird species, a vital wintering ground for migrators. It’s also the nesting site for the threatened Dalmatian pelican whose three-metre wingspan is one the largest of any bird on Earth.

We spot one of these rare birds, giant wings a-shuffle, bobbing about in the shadow of an Ottoman fortress. Other than the medieval monasteries crowning several of Skadar’s islets, it’s a rare sign of human intervention. “Skadar really is our natural treasure,” says Sara as we glide through floating meadows of white-flowering waterlilies. The largest of Montenegro’s five national parks, Skadar’s biodiversity includes some 800 species of algae and 48 species of fish, 18 of which are found here alone. 

“Nature tourism has boomed in the last 10 years,” says Sara. “But my family have worked here for decades. My father could see the lake’s potential for eco-tourism. He was one of the founders of Montenegro as an ‘ecological state’.” She explains this to me: following the breakup of Yugoslavia, in 1991 Montenegro declared itself the world’s first country committed to nature preservation, a promise ratified in its new constitution.

Left: Top:

A woman sells honey, jam, wine and fruit brandy on the road to Durmitor National Park.

 

Right: Bottom:

Old Bar Fortress as seen from Hotel Stara Čaršija.

photographs by Jordan Banks

Seen from the craggy mountains above the shore, Skadar’s expanse is a startling stretch of turquoise that stretches into Albania, where it becomes known as Shkodra. Up here, I find the fortress of Besac, an Ottoman lookout lately functioning as a stylish restaurant of the same name, whose regional history museum only adds to its cool cultural clout. I eat smoked carp and fresh trout from the lake served on plates painted by local sculptor  Shimmpo, as well as bleak, an endemic sardine-like fish. The latter thrives in Skadar’s freshwater springs: thought of in these parts as the all-seeing and ancient ‘eyes’ of the lake. 

Mythology looms large in Besac’s museum, one creation story crediting Skadar’s waters to a lachrymose fairy who God blinded on account of her vanity. Her anguished tears formed a lake whose beauty so astounded the deity that he restored her sight and gave her the limpid-blue eyes she’d longed for. 

This makeover tale is somewhat confounded by Skadar’s long-time nickname of ‘big mud’, drawn from the more scientific explanation that the largest lake in the Balkans was once a murky pond, transfigured over the years through trough-shifting storms.

Several of Montenegro’s grape varieties aren’t found anywhere else in the world, and many families still make wine in rudimentary cellars. But viticulture is far from rustic in the case of Plantaže, Montenegro’s biggest wine producer. The road from Skadar to Montengro’s capital, Podgorica, alone is flanked by some 11.5 million Plantaže vines spread across 2,300 hectares, making this tiny country proud owner of the continent’s largest single-complex vineyard. It takes a full 10 minutes to drive from the gates of Šipčanik, Plantaže’s HQ just outside Podgorica, along a repurposed military runway to its ‘cellar’: a 356m-long tunnel inside a bunker once home to a secret Yugoslavian-era aircraft hangar. Spiralling some 30 metres underground, the tunnel takes in tasting rooms where I try garnet-red wines under cathedral-scale ceilings that once accommodated fighter planes. A 1999 NATO bombing saw the hangar abandoned, revamped years later by Plantaže as a place to store its multi-award-winning wines: vintages with a top note of Bond villain lair.

Left: Top:

Shucking oysters fresh from the Bay of Kotor.

 

Right: Bottom:

Pomegranates ready to be juiced at a street stall in Bar.

photographs by Jordan Banks

Into the north

Ivan ‘the terrible’ is searching for orchids. “Just wild garlic here,” he shrugs. “Or ‘bear’s garlic’, as we also call it. The bears eat it in spring to clear toxins built up during hibernation.” The mild-mannered botanist guide, nicknamed ironically after the tempestuous Russian Tsar, looks wistfully around Biogradska Gora National Park. “We have over 160 orchid species, but you need to come in early June. It’s a carpet of wildflowers then.” Montenegro’s smallest national park is a powerhouse of biodiversity, from the tiniest orchid to towering ash, beech and elm — trees that long ago celebrated their tri-centennial and crown the canopy of what is one of Europe’s last remaining primeval forests. 

Strung between a trio of 7,000ft mountains in Montenegro’s north, Biogradska Gora is one of those places where your eye searches upwards for the horizon and it’s always a neck stretch further than you think. I follow Ivan along trails dwarfed by forested peaks, clouds strewn in their foothills and the snow-capped summits engaged in an apparent bid to escape the earth’s atmosphere. 

We’re circling Biograd, one of the park’s glacial lakes, exploring its marshy fringes on decked pathways curtained with sweetfern. “You can chew that for energy. It’s mountain fuel,” says Ivan. “Imagine hiking up there,” he points to precipice heavy with spring snow, “and bringing all you’d need to survive for the summer — including a herd of cows.” 

Above us lie pastures where farmers will soon set up katuns, wooden tent-like huts where they’ll live near their livestock during the summer grazing season, visited by the occasional overnighting hiker. “There’s no electricity and you wash out of a trough, but you sleep like a baby,” says Ivan. “Unless you mistake one of the cows huffing around your hut at three in the morning for a bear,” he grins sheepishly. “It happens.” 

Left: Top:

Đurđevića Tara Bridge over the Tara River, an iconic engineering project completed in 1940.

Right: Bottom:

Park ranger at Biogradska Gora National Park.

photographs by Jordan Banks

This is wild country, where mountain trails run forever northwards encountering little but livestock and, if you’re lucky, brown bears along with wolves, lynxes and wildcats, all of which call the park home. “Hike north to the Via Dinarica and you can trek right across the Balkans,” says Ivan. The 1,240-mile mega trail began life here in Montenegro in 2010, completed seven years later taking in eight Balkan countries. 

Montenegro’s north is terrain best explored on foot. Or, in some places, by car along wilderness roads called Panoramic Roads. These are no Sunday drives. Some 50 miles east of Biogradska Gora, a route called Durmitor Ring encircles the mightymassif from which it takes its name. 

Here, 50 peaks reach 6,500 feet, rising to 8,278 feet at Bobotov Kuk, Montenegro’s highest mountain. Impassable for half the year, the road climbs through narrow winding canyons that I find still banked with freshly fallen snow. Burrowing into a succession of deep mountain tunnels carved through rough, unsealed rock, I’m accompanied by bats flitting in front of my windscreen. It feels like going spelunking in a car. 

Casa Di Pino is an unexpectedly urbane find in Durmitor’s shadow, with an infrared sauna, a library of locally foraged herbal teas and electric rental bikes. The eco-hotel in the small town of Žabljak has rooms crafted from local pine, with energy efficient insulation and a ground-source heat pump. “We started building during lockdown so we’re still catching up,” says manager Danica Baranin. “But we aim for complete sustainability, with roof photocells to generate power.” 

Breakfast comes from the hotel’s farm: eggs, olives, dried fruits and crisp cucumber, along with homemade cheeses, smoked charcuterie and breads. Built by a local doctor now living overseas, the house became a hotel. “Rather than have it stand empty, the family wanted to give something back to their hometown,” says Danica. “There’s really nothing like this around.” 

Elsewhere, functional chalets comprise Žabljak’s hotel offering, catering to skiers in winter and hikers once the snows recede. Montenegro is currently investing multimillions of euros to expand and update the handful of small ski towns scattered across its north. It put €50m (£43.7m) alone into Kolasin 1600, which became the country’s first new resort in 30 years when it opened in 2019. There’s scope for the region’s existing hotels to be rebooted, too: a savvy developer is needed to reimagine rather than raze the clutch of angular 1970s megaliths, once winter playgrounds for the Tito-era politerati. Shiny ski resorts were requisite accessories in the notoriously lavish lifestyle of Josip Broz Tito, the communist revolutionary architect of Yugoslavia. 

I find traces of Tito deep in Durmitor National Park. Hidden among the 400-year-old pines encircling Black Lake (Crno Jezero) is a tiny cave where Tito headquartered for a week in 1943, planning a battle that would lead Allied countries to recognise him as the leader of the Yugoslav resistance. Just over a year later, Montenegro became part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a federation of Balkan states that lasted from the Second World War until 1992.

Today, nought but a rusty plaque marks the spot. I clamber back down to the shoreline through the black pines that lend the lake both its name and its blue-black hue. But the trees aren’t doing their job today. The water shines glacial turquoise in the sun, and I stop to drink from one of the little streams feeding the lake; icy rivulets tumbling down sheer canyon walls that will soon become thundering tumults of meltwater whose roar will echo across the park. But for now, all is silent save for the croak of warty frogs announcing the coming of summer. 

Aerial view of the Old Town of Budva, one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic coast.

Photograph by Jordan Banks

Coasting along

Down south where Montenegro meets the Adriatic, summer has already landed. 

Along with a plump squid and a fearsomely toothy barracuda. “Today’s catch,” beams Miško Rađenović. “I usually get up at 4am to dive for fish. I love to start the day in the water.” We’re on the terrace of Miško’s home, from where he runs Blue Mediterranean, a B&B with rental apartments. It overlooks a fittingly hued stretch of sea at Pržno, a former fishing village set around a gnarly promontory of rock thick with olive trees. Here, Miško and his family offer breakfasts and pre-bookable dinners of traditional Paštrovići coastal cuisine, rich in fresh fish, pasta made by his mother-in-law and a ricotta-like cheese curing in baskets hung around the terrace. This rather Mediterranean scene is augmented by chatter punctuated by distinctly Italian phrases. “On the coast, we use many Italian words,” says Miško. “The Venetians were here for centuries. Long ago now, but our grandmothers almost all speak a sort of Italian.” 

The snows and Slavic sounds of Montenegro’s north feel remote here in Pržno, but given that the country is some 18 times smaller than the UK, its extremes are well within day-tripping reach. If it wasn’t for wildly undulating terrain, you could cover its 150-mile diameter in a couple of hours. But with such show-stopping scenery, that’s hardly the point. My journey south had followed the Tara River canyon as it carves through jagged castles of overhanging rock. This is where zip-liners makes plunging leaps across deep-drop gorges and rafters ride ice-blue rapids that recall the high Himalayan rivers of Ladakh or Kashmir. 

But all routes from the mountains to coast, it seems, are equally as thrilling. I journey to the mansion-studded old capital of Cetinje, then to Lipa’s vast karst caves where passageways descend through dripping forests of stalactites, stalagmites and ghostly pillars. Above ground, the road continues with almost as much downwards determination: hairpin bends over a sheer-sided mountain conclude with a dramatic halt in the fjord-deep bay at Kotor, Montenegro’s UNESCO-treasure Venetian walled city. 

Katarina Bulatovic at the bar of family-run Lovački Dom Trebaljevo, a restaurant near Kolasin.

Photograph by Jordan Banks

Pushing onwards, I discover a string of Albanian-settled villages descending from Skadar’s lake country to the cliffside town of Stari Bar. Illyrian, Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Slavic, Venetian and Ottoman cultures have called Bar home: a hilly snapshot of Montenegrin history. Topped by a medieval fortress, the Roman-founded citadel rakes so sharply down the cliff that my hotel has five floors, each somehow at street level. At Hotel Stara Čaršija, I enjoy traditional Turkic hospitality — family dining in a dry restaurant, where tables heave with skillets of grilled lamb, peppers and smoky flatbreads. I take tea back in my room, served on a little rug as call to prayer rings around the rooftops. 

Montenegro’s glitziest hotel addresses, just 40 miles north along the coast, could not provide a sharper contrast. Here, in Luštica Bay the following night, I find myself dining on sushi in a gated resort replete with Russian yachts in a private marina owned by The Chedi hotel. “It never really slowed down here,” says Tamara Jovićević, The Chedi’s immaculately linen-clad sales executive when I ask how pandemic travel restrictions affected business. “I guess our clientele doesn’t have to rely on scheduled airlines.” 

The private jet demographic has been largely responsible for the rise of Montenegro’s ritzier resorts over the past decade, and the market shows no sign of slowing. “Another six big luxury hotels will open on the bay within the year,” says Tamara, as lightning illuminates Luštica’s long arc of tree-lined shore: an early arrival of summer’s humid storms.

The clouds have cleared the following morning, and Tivat is shining bright on the headland across the bay. Rounding the cove to this former naval base that has been transformed into yet another of Montenegro’s Monte Carlo-challenging marinas, I’m almost blinded by its arsenal of shiny superyachts shooting laser glints of sun off the water. Ignoring the glare, I turn sharply inland and then up, up and up, zigzagging 1,000 feet along a cliff-snaking road to the hamlet of Gornja Lastva, where the blaze of the coast calms into the green of olive groves and grape trellises. The small settlement of 19th-century stone houses was once home to 500 residents and seven olive mills. “Gradually, people moved down to the shore for work. There are only a few households left,” says Dejana Stijepčević. “But we’re reclaiming the village.” Dejana is renovating her grandfather’s house to be a rental for travellers, and she guides visitors around the one remaining mill and houses restored as cultural centres by Napredak, Gornja Lastva’s NGO-led heritage association. 

I try hand-pressed pomegranate juice harvested from newly revived groves, the fruit chosen as the village’s emblem as symbol of collective strength: ‘a plenitude of seeds protected within a tough and resistant skin’. I find this poetic mission statement in a Napredak pamphlet pinned to a noticeboard in the town square, where volunteer restorers can sign up to NGO-led courses in the specifics of local stone architecture. With its EU application made a decade ago, Montenegro still hopes to be granted membership and, with that, funding for infrastructure and arts. But, in the yawning interim, NGOs have claimed heritage projects like Gornja Lastva.

At a neighbouring house I have coffee made ‘Turkish’ style on a museum-piece stove that surely dates to the 1920s. “We have so much here,” laughs Dejana. “Furniture, photographs, war medals from after Yugoslavia and long before... they all tell the story of Montenegro. It’s a story we want to preserve.”  

Lipa Cave, one of the largest cave monuments in the country.

Photograph by Jordan Banks

Essentials
 

Getting there and around
Ryanair flies from Stansted to Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica. Average flight time: 3h. Alternatively, fly to Bari in Italy, where Jadrolinija operates ferries across the Adriatic to Bar. 

Average journey time: 11h

When to go 
With dramatically contrasting elevations, altitude as much as season impacts climate. July-August gets busy on the coast with 26C-32C temperatures. November-April is the north’s ski season with heavy snow when temperatures can dip well into the minus figures; hikers should explore the national parks outside these times. 

Where to stay
Hotel Casa di Pino. Doubles from €70 (£60), B&B. 
Cue Hotel Podgorica. Doubles from €120 (£105), B&B. 
Blue Mediterranean. Studio sleeping two from €50 (£44), room only.
Hotel Stara Čaršija. Doubles from €70 (£61), B&B. 
The Chedi. Doubles from €170 (£148), B&B. 

How to do it
Wild Frontiers offers the eight-day Walking in Montenegro tour, taking in Kotor, Lake Skadar and four of Montenegro’s five national parks, 
for £1,725 per person based on two sharing, including accommodation, guide and driver. Excluding flights. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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