I had the pleasure of visiting Montenegro during a day trip from the Croatian city of Dubrovnik in August 2013. I had long been drooling over photos of the Bay of Kotor, so my Mum (who was travelling with me at the time) and I booked an excursion that would take us to the coastal highlights in a single day. We visited Kotor, Budva and took in a view of Sveti Stefan.
A little (recent) historical background:
Montenegro is a sovereign country of its own in the Balkan region of Europe. It declared independence fairly recently; previously Montenegro was tied to Serbia, a relationship that goes back some time. In recent memory, both Montenegro and Serbia were states in the former Republic of Yugoslavia which also contained present day Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH), Macedonia and Kosovo (whose independence is still not recognized by Serbia). Montenegro and Serbia fought on the same side in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s, famously attacking Croatia’s UNESCO protected and long demilitarized city of Dubrovnik together for 7 months in 1991. After the eventually recognized independence of Slovenia, Croatia, BiH and Macedonia, the remaining two nations of Montenegro and Serbia remained together. In 2003, this union, still called the Yugoslav federation, was renamed and replaced by the decentralized state union of Serbia and Montenegro. Three years later in 2006, a referendum was held for Montenegrin independence from Serbia and 55.5% of the 86.5% of the population of Montenegro who showed up at the polls voted in favor of separation. The threshold needed to validate the referendum, according to EU rules, was 55%, making the 0.5% difference (a mere 45,659 votes) very narrow. All the same, Montenegro officially declared independence on June 3rd, 2006 and Serbia did not object.
Today, Montenegro is a beautiful middle income country in it’s own right and an official candidate for both EU and NATO membership. Despite not being an EU member, the official currency in the country is the Euro. Likely because of it’s close ties to Serbia over time, Montenegro is one of the only countries (the other is Serbia) of the former Yugoslavia which often uses the Cyrillic alphabet, though this can be seen in Serb parts of Bosnia too. Latin text is also common, however.
In terms of tourism, the hot spots are largely along the coast. Budva is an old Greek settlement, but its current architecture reflects Venetian control due to Venice’s lengthy domination of much of the Adriatic coast. Interestingly, Budva appears to cater mainly to Russian tourists. Signs all over the town have Russian translations, and our tour guide explained that half the town’s properties are owned by Russian nationals. Locals say the official language in the area will be Russian in a mere few years, perhaps jokingly – perhaps not! Either way, the very Russian vibe of this Montenegrin tourist resort was strange for the western crowd we were on tour with. As a Canadian anyway, I’ve become quite used to experiencing a great deal of Americanization when I travel abroad. It’s the reason why it can be difficult to feel like you’re actually in a foreign country, no matter how far from home you get. That went out the window in Budva! Intriguing though that experience was, I was hoping to get a feel for a big Montenegrin city while in Montenegro. My first thought was along the lines of “How can you let another country take over? What about preserving your culture?” Then I realized Americanization is exactly the same thing, it just speaks the same language I do.
We had time for lunch in Budva, so I tried the local dish – I believe it was called a Njeguški steak. It was basically a pork steak stuffed with cheese and prosciutto. Not bad. The beer was even better – known as one of the best beers available in Yugoslavia’s heyday. It was boiling hot outside and I really enjoyed my Nikšićko pivo, though of course it went straight to my head.
The old town was decent, though small, but I think Croatia has infinitely better beaches than what I saw in Budva. I understand there are better ones around, however.
Sveti Stefan is a small pitstop while in the Budva area. It is a small islet just off the coast, previously unconnected but now attached to the mainland via narrow isthmus. The island used to be tourable, but the Montenegrin government recently rented the land to Singapore-based Aman Resorts on the condition that they build a luxury hotel, keep the island’s facade, and maintain expensive standards – the cheapest room is no less than €1000 a night.
Kotor was much more to my taste, and far closer to what I was expecting from Montenegro. Nestled on what has been referred to as the most beautiful bay in the world, Kotor is a true old Montenegrin town. Like the nearby Croatian city of Dubrovnik, Kotor is a UNESCO world heritage site, though in this case thanks to Kotor’s Venetian architecture. Kotor was ruled by Venice and for those who are interested in such things, Dubrovnik (Republic of Ragusa) was a major rival of Venice back in the day.
One of the most amazing things about Kotor and the bay it is nestled on is the water’s remarkable depth in the area. Cruise ships are able to come in and out of the gulf without incident. Indeed, referred to in the past as Europe’s southernmost fjord, the Bay is 60 m (196.85 ft) at it’s deepest point, with an average depth of 27.3 m (89.57 ft).
The main square of old town Kotor is known as the weapons square, where high quality weaponry was sold by merchants in the Middle Ages. The long balcony visible on Rector’s palace was not just for show – its length allowed the Rector to ensure the citizens in the market below were paying enough taxes.
In the Middle Ages, the town was quite small, and the citizenry had an interesting way of dealing with criminals. You can see just the tip of what they made use of in the above photo… three guesses? 😉 I’ll come back to it in a moment.
Kotor is littered with churches, like much of the Balkan region. Thanks to Venetian domination, this architectural feature is hardly surprising! Serious earthquakes have leveled more than one church in the area through the ages. The largest church, originally Roman Catholic, in old town Kotor (the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon) was consecrated on June 19, 1166, but was severely damaged after an earthquake in 1667. For financial reasons, it was not immediately reconstructed and as a result its two towers are not identical. It was subsequently damaged once again in 1979 when another serious earthquake totally devastated the Montenegrin coast. Fortunately, it appears to be in good shape nowadays and its architecture was a highlight of our tour through the old town. Another church is visible on the mountain right behind the great cathedral; this is called the Church of our Lady of Health. I didn’t quite catch the whole story behind it, but I believe it was used as some kind of quarantine site during the time of the plague, which devastated Kotor’s population in 1572.
Back to the grand story behind how to deal with criminals in Kotor during the Middle Ages! Instead of killing the criminals or subjecting them to torture, they were tied to the spear-like post beneath the town clock in the weapons square. The scheme was effective because everyone in town had to walk by this clock tower at least once a day, so by the end of 24 hours everyone knew that this person had done something wrong. After that, the criminal was inevitably an outcast – they had to leave town to survive. At that time in history, a simple, quick death might have been kinder!
I had a great experience in Montenegro and look forward to going back to explore further on my own sometime in the future. Kotor in particular begs for a few days, and the Bay is so breathtaking. I will surely be back! Hopefully the border won’t take two hours to get through this time (the Croatian side takes a long time). Until next time!