A Week in Montenegro
Less than 40minutes drive from Dubrovnik, all of a sudden we were in a customs queue for the Montenegro boarder... a place that we realised we actually knew very little about. So a quick one-sentence history lesson: Formally the Roman province of Dalmatia in the 9th century, before falling under the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to 19th centuries, and then part of Yugoslavia from 1918 right up until as recently as 2006 when following a referendum it became independent (thanks Wiki).
Whilst queuing for the border, Brigid's phone then receives a message from some English campers we had met earlier, who said that after almost two hours queuing they weren't allowed in because they didn't have the right insurance paperwork... needless to say this put us in a bit of a panic. Luckily we had all the right documents and after only 1.5hours (P.S. Gary doesn't have air-conditioning), we made it through to our 9th country of the trip!
We then proceeded directly to Tivat where we would drop our mates Tom & Lulu off at a house they were pet sitting for. Rather than take the suggested route with car ferry (and deal with the logistics), we drove the scenic +30minute route around the Bay of Kotor, popping into Kotor for a quick swim on the way. We were pleasantly surprised by the excellent condition of the roads. This made the drive relatively relaxing, as we took in the amazing view around us - that which looks like a lake - with towering mountains directly surrounding what appears to be all sides of the water.
We then parked up in Tivat - the cute little town that would be our base for various excursions around Montenegro.
Tivat & Porto Montenegro
The first thing we had to do upon arrival is visit the Tourist Organisation of Tivat to handover our passports, declare where we were staying and pay €1 per day for a permit we had to carry around our entire time we were in the country. Quite a process. Apparently most of the campgrounds are meant to do this for you, but are quite slack, so it's worth while doing it yourself. Next we began our usual process of wandering through the town to get our bearings, whilst also grabbing some groceries and cash out. Funnily enough we learnt that while Montenegro is not in the Euro, it does use Euro € as it's only currency. So that heavily simplified our time here (as well as no bank fees for Euro card ATM withdrawals). Most of the places we went also accepted VISA & Mastercard, and we started to notice Tivat itself was actually quite modern.
The modernity became immediately obvious when Tom & Lulu took us for a walk through the giant Porto Montenegro they had explored the day before. This was another fine example where foreign money was clearly pouring in. An extremely modern development, with several hundred million dollars (if not billions) worth of superyachts, nestled among flash hotels and high street fashion shops. We later found out Brigid's cousin actually worked on the insanely flash and insanely expensive Regent Porto Montenegro which is slotted right in the middle.
The history behind the port is fascinating given it's well protected location in the unique Bay of Kotor. The port itself was once home to an Yugoslavian Naval Base, which initially built and maintained several war ships before becoming the main maintenance location for Yuoslavian submarines. If you head to the north end of the port you can't miss the Maritime Museum, as there's a giant P 821 Hero submarine right out front. It's well worth a visit as it's only €5 to explore inside the sub (which is basically in original condition and absolutely fascinating) as well as the museum itself which contains some really cool navy gear. P.S. The orange suit below was what they used to release you out through the torpedo tube if there was an undersea evacuation... imagine that!!
In terms of where to eat the port area is a mecca - from cheap and cheerful right through to five-star. As well tuned travelers we knew to avoid all the tourist trap restaurants along the waterfront, and instead throughout our week here found these little gems:
Konoba Bacchus - Excellent 'cheap and cheerful' local meals. Traditional Ćevapi (€4.) here was awesome (grilled minced meat usually served with pita bread, rice or chips).
Black Sheep - Simple but delicious pub-style meals (burgers, etc), and really cheap beer! Not far off the waterfront either, so we went here twice.
Kafeterija Porto - actually good coffee, fruit smoothies and even black croissants! Rather expensive but given these types of places are super hard to find in some countries, well worth it.
Big Ben - a little further north form the port, but well worth the wander. Excellent fresh grilled fish and roasted potatoes for about €10.
There are also quite a few small beaches scattered along the town, which were great to refresh given the insane heat and to watch the sunset at the end of a long day exploring. Albeit these beaches were nothing compared to Croatia or Portugal. Overall we probably spent more time in this port area than we normally would - but it was quite unique, so if you are heading through Montengro, then pop in.
Whilst Bidi was initially not impressed by even being awake before 9am, we arrived in Kotor around 8.30am after the short 20minute drive from Tivat (depending on traffic, which can be insane given the one-road bottle-neck in and out of Tivat). The early start was critical in order to avoid the tourists and the heat (35°C) for our hike up to Kotor Fortress.
Lulu had read online that you can avoid the €7 entry fee by walking up the old town road route, which starts at the back east corner of the city near the canal. This worked a treat, and even with the constant muttering from Bidi about the incline, we made it to the old town and literally climbed through a hole in the fortress wall. Just like that we were in. Following a few more stairs (Bidi was very happy about this...), we made it to the top and a simply stunning view of the bay, Kotor town and the surrounding mountains.
Following exploring every square inch and several selfies, we made our way down what felt like a million stairs, which were flooded with tourists, towards the triangular-shaped old town of Kotor. It was then we realised how much easier the more gradual incline of the route we had taken was. Passing the entry gate with a smug look on our faces as we watched others pay to enter, we had suddenly arrived inside the old town. We definitely recommend our route, as it's both easier and free!
We all grabbed a coffee given the early start, and then proceeded to wander the cute little streets. Along the way we also grabbed what would be our first Burek, which is essentially mince (or cheese, or both) stuffed pastry, kind of like what we would call a sausage roll in New Zealand, albeit much more "mincey", longer and spiraled. It was simply amazing. The first of many we would consume in the Balkans. Following wandering a few more quirky streets, we had explored pretty much the entire old town as it's quite small, so we then headed out to chill out on the local beaches.
On the way back to Tivat we noticed people flashing their lights at us - which we then realised was because we didn't have our lights on. Police were also pulling people over. Luckily we had them on in time and tried to remember from then onwards. Another reminder that the strange idiosyncrasies in road rules between countries that are worth reading up on. As for now, we had still not had to talk to a single cop in over three months, so I guess we were doing something right!
Our Lady of the Rocks
Our next excursion would involve driving back along the coast past Kotor to Perast in order to grab a boat out to "Our Lady of the Rocks". Upon arrival local entrepreneurs pretended to direct us where to park. Ignoring them, we just parked down the road for free, and out of site of them (as we had heard these types of people can damage your car if you don't comply). Once parked up, we grabbed a quick coffee and swim at this cool little Pirate Bar and then proceeded to walk along the waterfront to negotiate a boat ride out to the island (we found an iconic looking local with a sailors hat and cigarette hanging out of his mouth, who charged €5 per person return).
Another quick history lesson. 'Our Lady of the Rocks' is an artificial island. The legend says that over centuries the island was created by local seamen following an ancient oath where upon each successful voyage, they threw a rock overboard in the bay. Over time the island emerged. A church was then built and in 1630 a Catholic one was built in it's place. The island was then widened by filling old ships with rocks and then sinking them right next to the island. What is also cool is that the original custom of rock throwing is still active today, and every year during sunset on July 22nd, the event called "fasinada" takes place, where local residents all throw rocks into the sea from their own boats. This of coarse continues to widen the surface area of the island (thanks Wiki).
There's not much to do on the island except explore the church, so following a few photos we headed in. Unfortunately for us a few large tourist boats arrived at the same time so the tiny church was absolutely PACKED. As we aren't massively into churches, we were more interested by the art and artifacts on exhibit in the small museum attached.
Following a quick ice cream we then boarded our boat back to the mainland, with a local guide re-lighting another ciggy as he powered us back to sure (see above). We then had a picnic on a random little spot next to the sea and among the rocks back near where Gary was parked. With a small thunderstorm beginning to roll in, we packed up and headed back to Tivat, ready for a night to relax after another day playing tourist.
Montenegro is fortunate to have a small strip of coastline, and given the beauty of the beaches in Croatia, we were pretty excited to explore as many of these as we could. However to be honest these were mostly "ok" at beast, and were completely overrun by tourists - probably the busiest beaches we have seen and the least "footage per square person" we experienced throughout Europe.
The first beach we pulled up to was Jaz Beach. It was probably our favourite in Montenegro given it's proximity to Tivat, having a bit more space, easy parking and cheap cheerful restaurants.
Next we moved Bečići beach, which was absolutely CROWDED. Being from New Zealand means we are used to having much more space, if not entire beaches to ourselves. This was quite the opposite and completely packed with sun beds, inflatable unicorns and children. Easily the least amount of room and most packed beach we have ever been on. Avoid it like the plague.
Lastly we arrived at Sveti Stefan Beach, which was probably the most beautiful area of the day, especially given the unique little island, monastery and fortified village, which date back from the 15th century. However unfortunately we couldn't visit any of it as you have to be staying at the hotel or have a reservation at the restaurant... seems the locals have sold out here...
Speaking of sold out, we then wandered along the coast and discovered another "private beach" which we weren't mean to swim in but sneakily jumped in anyway as it was absolutely stunning... if you are to do the same we recommend near the pin dropped here as it's the furthest from the security guards.
After our day exploring the beaches we headed back to Tivat to relax and plan our journey south. Later in the week we would head south towards Albania via the town Bar on the coast, which to be completely honest was a bit of a shithole with nothing really worth a mention. It's at this point we said goodbye to Tom & Lulu who caught a bus back to Tivat before heading off to Zigit in Budapest, Hungary for a week of craziness.
Before we knew it we were driving a crazy single lane road towards the most relaxed border crossing we have ever been through. After buying some figs from small stalls setup near the crossing, we were waved through without even showing our passports... we actually insisted they were reviewed and processed to ensure we didn't have any issues later. The process seems quite the opposite of the intensity of the Montenegro boarder... perhaps illustrating how far the respective countries have come, and how far each of them has to go...
And with that, we were in Albania! A country that would fully exceed our expectations... but more on that soon.
Bidi & Dan