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Montenegro & Serbia

12 November 2012 16,705 views One Comment

Ten days of bumbling around the coast of Monetenegro and then popping in land for a mini-break finisher to Serbia. It was a quiet, easy, sometimes sunny, sometimes stunning, always charming coupla weeks.

Herceg Novi

On the north side of the Bay of Kotor and very close to the Croatian border, Herceg Novi is a delightful little town that is popular with local tourists. Croats and Serbs take their holidays in August so, now, it was dead here. Anything remotely touristy was closed: the swimming pool (sad face), kayak rental (sad face with sticky outy lip), sun lounger hire (notbothered face). Fortunately the bar-restaurant-cafes were still open (yummy face) and the WiFi was still working (typing face).

This part of the Bay is close to the ocean and surrounded by the hills for which the country is so named. The weather changed frequently, and mostly without warning, just sweeping over the hills, and the water was quick to change too. There were some beautiful crisp Cape Town looking days of clear skies & crystal water, and there were some overcast, drizzly, slightly chilly days that would have impressed Glasgow.

There is a promenade that runs all around the bay, connecting the main town and then smaller townettes, which makes for very relaxed wanderings (can’t get lost) and wonderful people watching. From the promenade you either you’re your way up through the streets or take the short cut steps that connect the roads. One of the loveliest places in Herceg Novi is the Gradska Kafana bar-restaurant-café that has a big sun-drenched or rain-filled terrace. From up here you have a wonderful view taking in the small harbour, the bay entrance to the open sea, the opposite hills and all the dynamic weather along the way. There’s also a big square in the main town which is really sociable: lots of nice bar-restaurant-cafes, a fully loaded fresh market and some very Med churches.

I was staying at the Apart Hotel Kukoljac, a 20-ish minute walk from the town which meant I got to know the promenade quite well with all its cacti, blustering palms and sea-sprayed bright flowers. I had a room facing the Bay and a balcony that made me feel like I was in a boat on the Bay, it was heaven.
Days slipped by in a little blur of yoga, reading, writing, drinking coffee, walking, swimming, eating pizza, wishing I could go kayaking, swimming a bit more, drinking red wine and hanging out on cobble stoned squares, I felt like the luckiest girl ever.
Montenegro hadn’t made an amazing impression on me when I arrived. The city was full of lots of concrete, hard taxi bargains, tuff looking dudes in tracksuits, and it was dark by 7pm – but in Herceg Novi I settled down and enjoyed the scruffiness, the almost-grim service and the unpredictable weather. I had a wonderful week.

flavours

Even if your geography isn’t up to much you’ll know you’re closeish to Italy when you eat in Montenegro. They may be neighbours-across-the-water but the flavours have travelled. Just popping into an unextraordinary bar-restaurant-cafe still delivered excellent pizza, salad, warm breads, various omelettes, and great great coffee. Ok, so they’re not extravagant dishes, but I wanted/ needed to switch out loads of things and never met with a problem. I’d like to see the Italians knock out as many cheeseless pizzas with as few questions.. :)

Bay of Kotor

Kotor is just one of the many towns on the very idyllic Bay of Kotor. The drive around the Bay is stunning, the road, follows the shoreline, and the bus service is frequent, little buses so you trundle around feeling like you’re on a school trip. Apparently Lord Byron described Kotor Bay as ‘the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea’, the man knew a fair bit about nature and power and powerful nature, so it’s a strong compliment and y’know what I think he got it right. The water is incredibly glassy, perfectly reflecting the surrounding hills in their sharp, grey dramatic form. Although its an ocean bay the water here comes from said mountains so it’s fresh and cold. When I swam it wasn’t salty at all, and it was face freezingly cold.

Kotor, Stari Grad

You don’t know that Kotor The Town is there unless you walk behind the walls and enter the gates and then, triple double boom there’s an entire stone town, it’s amazing. I appreciate you have to do this with Dubrovnik and other, similar, walled towns but this is the first I’ve seen that is hidden from view until you’re inside. There are tiny streets, with very shiny, very smooth cobbles, al fresco bar-restaurant-cafes, street cats, churches and stylish shops squashed into little stone buildings. The atmosphere around Kotor is very chilled, like, you can’t see the external world so you might as well relax, have a coffee and pretend it’s not there. On occasions the streets started to swim with camera-clad tourists which is confusing (there aren’t enough hotels for them all) until you realise a cruise ship is in the harbour.
Around Kotor I only had good food – spot on pizzas, delicious coffees, steaming breads, fresh tomatoes, crispy beers. And I was reading Shantaram. What a book. Within the first chapter it stormed to #1 of my favourites, I loved it. And I can remember where I was sitting around Kotor when I read certain parts. That’s a compliment to the literature and the surroundings.
We stayed in the Old Town Kotor Hostel. One of the friendliest hostels I’ve ever stayed in and which wins the award for being exactly-like-the-photos-on-the-website, a rare situation.

sport

The swimming in Kotor Bay was marvellous. Cold but delightful. The water was clear, there weren’t many currents, people were willing to help looking after me stuff, the fresh water was a joy. I did wish I had someone else with me because sometimes I got nervous and unsure of myself, not much of a surprise when I was the only person I saw in the water in seven days… And open water swimming is tricky when you don’t have a ‘destination’ as such and don’t know the shoreline to help create a route. Moan moan, it was lovely, I just wish I’d had the balls to swim more.
My quest for swimming took me out of Kotor Stari Grad around the bay to a really nice area clustered with bay-front bar-restaurant-cafes with people doing Sunday papers, coffees, kids type things, it was very Manly and civislised.

Not content with being the Only Wetsuit in the Village I was also the Only Runner in the Village. Thought I’d go for a little spring around the bay and honestly stopped traffic, oh dear. Anyway, it was a smashing way to see more of this lovely place. I followed the road around, right by the water with the rustic, Med shops and houses on the other side. It was a clear, gorgeous day and the whole run was wicked. When I got to Tivat it all got a bit Redhill so I turned back, enjoyed the opposing view, then stopped to dangle my Vibram-ed feet in the water and wait for the bus.

Budvar

Essentially the coast of Montenegro is town after town scooped around the little bays. They all seemed to have their ‘old’ town, their pretty front, their working centre, you’d just prefer one from the other depending on your own taste. Budvar didn’t get a very good shot with us – we arrived in the dark, our hotel was distinctly average, and it pelted rain non stop. So it’s impressive that given all that we thought it was quite nice. The walled part of the town – out on a little peninsula – was super cute and had even more street kittens than usual and the beach promenade was impressive, I think this would be a ‘must do’ in the summer months.
And previous to this, my first sight of Budvar was en route to Herceg Novi as I came through the hills from Podgorica on the bus at dusk. The sun was setting massive, pulsing and richly orange, with Budvar was silhouetted in greys.

Sveti Stefan

We hadn’t intended to visit Sveti Stefan but on the bus journey from Budvar the coast looked so beautiful, the day was so nice and our itinerary was so fluid we decided to pop in. Sveti Stefan proper is in fact a little island, now entirely owned by a hotel company and marketed as a resort location. It’s connected to the main land by a walkway isthmus and the settlement on the land side is now also known as Sveti Stefan. The island resort was closed for the season and it looked a bit spooky; shutters over all the windows like some medieval prison, or something (!) Also, the beaches were a bit average. In short we thought we’d totally wasted our time, until we walked along the beach and found the Villa Miločer. The terrace has a full frontal view of the ocean, the sun loungers were comfy and the service was muy pronto so we stuck around for coffee, then lunch, then wine. This was the best food we had in Montenegro, but it wasn’t surprising given the quality of the hotel. Lisa had posh burger and Jenga fries, then rich brownie with pistachios and glazed bananas. I had seafood risotto – in fact the best I’ve had ever – with salad, and then an immense lemon meringue. We were in heaven.

Petrovac

This town was little and pleasant. At one end of the bay were some proper fishing boats and proper fishing people on the harbour wall. There was a large hotel at the other end of the bay but it was closed for the winter. In fact all the hotels were closed for winter, all the hotels and hostels and apartments. We were popping into bar-restaurant-cafes to ask about accommodation and people were just laughing at us. Many of them were the same people that we later (after finally finding a room and celebrating with a beer by the clear, fish frenzied water) drank grappa with until the very small hours. Petrovac was little and stormy, but it was a whole lotta fun.
And the next day the storm clouds were just like our heads. The different colours, weights and shapes of clouds were pounding across the horizon, changing the light across the town and through the hills, and occasionally illuminating rainfall in the distance. We sat in a leather booth in a small bar-restaurant-cafe, looking out across the bay, watching the lightning strikes through the rain slashed windows.

Bar

Bar is bigger and more industrial than the other coastal towns we’d seen. It means business. There’s a big port & ferry terminal, and the train line starts here to go through the country, to Serbia and beyond. Due to the fact that it’s less picturesque than other places, and because it’s well connected, it is really tempting to hop out of Bar on a bus to somewhere else but, in fact, there are worse places to kill a day waiting for your travel connection. We found heaps of waterfront bar-restaurant-cafes to hang in, and had a decent walk around the (very scruffy) beach.

The sleeper train from Bar to Belgrade was pretty good. I was too dark to see much but the ride was relaxing and fun, excepting the 2 and 3am wake up calls for passport control. Ta.

Podgorica

Podgorica is the capital and the city you fly in to (although I highly recommend the cheaper, quicker, highly commutable options of Dubrovnik or Belgrade instead). The airport-to-bus-station experience doesn’t give a great impression of Podgorica, or Montenegro for that matter. In my own words: lots of concrete, hard taxi bargains, tuff looking dudes in tracksuits, and dark by 7pm.
But if you go into the town there are some cute bar-restaurant-cafes with good al fresco action. We also went out of town to Stara Kuca, about a 15 minute taxi from the main town, it’s a traditional restaurant in a wooden chalet in a quiet suburban neighbourhood, it was totally different to anywhere else we’d been, and totally awesome. The gardens are pretty with brick walled ponds, the staff are thoroughly Serb, the wine was fresh & crisp, the food was spot on. We had borek for the first time in Montenegro, which is flaky pastry filled with spinach and salty cheese, we also had grilled vegetables, mixed salad with white soft cheese and steaming breads. It was delicious, but it wasn’t enough to stop us getting giggly on the equally delicious wine :)
And that’s it I’m afraid. Apart from a few squares and a bit of plain riverfront there’s not much to see in Podgorica. Those bar-restaurant-cafes must have done very well when all the England fans came over for the football match..

inland

The journeys in and out of Montenegro afforded some excellent views of the treats inland.
I arrived by propeller plane from Vienna which meant flying overland and circling over the Skadar Lake National Park. The lake was gorgeous; sapphire blue that looked like it was surrounded by marshes or swamps, and all dotted with flocks of white birds. I have never seen colours like this outdoors, the blue and greens were spectacular.
At this time of year the days are very short in Montenegro so I should have seen lots of sunrises. Oops. But sometimes once is enough. And at dawn on the train Belgrade-Podgorica we saw the sun rising through the mountains as we snaked beside ravines and rivers. It was a perfect travel experience, like being in a movie.

Belgrade

Arriving into Belgrade station at 7am on a misty autumn morning was like stepping into a black & white film. The city felt grey, it also felt like the first real city I’d seen since leaving Heathrow. It was cold, there was cold concrete everywhere, people stared at us and didn’t seem to smile at all, the traffic crawled, sounds seemed muted. I have never wanted a coffee so badly; I was scared I might get sucked in and stuck in the monochrome. Belgrade didn’t get too much more colourful, and it definitely didn’t get warmer, but it did get livelier and is now the #1 city I’d recommend for a stag do.

There’s proper city stuff to see: churches, main streets, bridges, statues, a big park, lots of shops, dodgy areas, universities. We strolled easily around all the main things to see, in fact we ticked off six of Belgrade’s seven ‘must-sees’ in half a day. The weather was cold but dry and with winter-y, watery sunlight. We spent a long while walking along the river, the Sava and then the Danube, there were a lot of people around but it was very peaceful. We also had a good walk around the fortress, which was interesting and more so because we were there during the long shadows of dusk and a lingering pinky sunset.

Like any city, Belgrade was available for quick hot eats, unimpressive overpriced options, international flavours, touristy ‘local’ dishes and high end fare. Our best flavours were a really good lunch near the National Theatre: tagliatelle with salmon, lemon & rocket for me, pork something for Lise, salad, rolls and white wine to share. And a fun dinner on Skadarlija, which reminded me of Grinzing in Vienna. The whole street is mega cobbles with beer taverns on either side and traditionally dressed musicians bobbing from one place to the next pranging their ancient woodwinds & strings. The thing to do is drink beer, which was fine by us, and we also had cabbage salad (so much better than it sounds), cheesey peppers (I decheesed mine), garlic mushrooms, fries, bread (as usual), and Lise had a stroganoff on the side as well, then wondered why she was full!

Our departure from Belgrade was also chilly & dark, but this time we had wine & borak on our side and we were ready for the border police :)

conclusions

I don’t remember ever spending so long in one country and doing so little sight seeing, I mean we didn’t actually go to see anything, we just hung out and consumed all their delicious stuff while reading books and talking rubbish. It was super relaxing and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Gallery

from my balcony in Herceg Novi



around the promenade



Herceg Novi harbour


towards the open sea

around town



the hills outside Kotor


sun setting on the hills

around the Bay of Kotor



from the bus


on the coastal path around Sveti Stefan


Villa Miločer

stormy Petrovac



Danube

the fortress in Belgrade



favourite holiday photo

One Comment »

  • lucyjjames » Blog Archive » Trieste said:

    […] corner from Venice. And also across the border from Slovenia. The scenery certainly took me back to Montenegro with its rocky, un-fussy waterfronts and rugged, silhouette-friendly hills. The town is wonderful […]

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