Montenegro offers snowcapped, greenish black mountains, ornate Venetian villas, quaint fishing villages and the Adriatic Sea, which sparkles a deep blue sapphire.
The Boka Kotorska, or Bay of Kotor, is a shallow, narrow, axe-shaped bay with one serpentine road winding around it. The bay’s waterfalls thunder and gush.
The UNESCO-listed bay is surrounded by an almost excessive amount of natural beauty. It also boasts well-preserved medieval fortifications, an Ottoman Turk mosque, an abbey named after a famed dragon slayer and an artificial island devoted to the Virgin Mary.
On the bay, the unassuming village of Perast was once a thriving and prosperous naval city, as evidenced by gorgeous Baroque villas which belonged to affluent merchants and sea captains. During the 18th century when Perast was in its heyday, a fleet of more than 100 ships was based here, protected by nine turrets that also defended the city and its 1600 residents.
To get a sense of that scale, pay one euro and climb the 180-foot bell tower of Saint Nikola Church. The well-worn stairs and tight spaces open up to a grand view of the bay, great for taking panoramic photos.
The most popular destination near Perast actually lies in the bay in the form of two small islets, the abbey of Sveti Ðorđe (Saint George) and Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks). The exact date the Benedectine abbey of St. George was built is still being disputed – fragments suggest structures much older than the ninth century one that sits there today. It remains a working abbey.
Our Lady of the Rocks is a man-made island. According to legend, two brothers found a rock with the icon of Mary and Jesus as a newborn. One of the brothers was always sick, but miraculously improved, and they both made an oath to place a rock in the bay after every voyage. Local sailors were said to throw rocks onto the location until the island was built. The famed rock is still behind the altar today. Every July, local seafarers take their boats out to toss rocks near the islet and continue the brothers’ vow.
South of Perast, the town of Kotor announces itself with dark granite fortified walls, turrets and switchback walls and paths that stretch into the surrounding mountains. It looks a bit ominous until you walk in through the sea gate.
Often referred to as the “mini-Dubrovnik,” the ancient walled city is a breathtaking and intimate place that lies neatly wedged between towering mountains in the southeast corner of the bay.
It’s a labyrinth of zig-zagging, narrow cobblestone streets filled with 13,000 residents and seemingly just as many proudly waving Montenegrin flags.
From the main square, hang left and head towards Saint Nicholas Church, the ornate Russian Orthodox Church. As the old cobblestone streets snake back and forth, passing open-air cafes and konoba, or taverns, you will eventually find a “gate” of sorts, where you pay 3 euros to be allowed entry to the old city walls.
The best view of the city is found by hiking the ancient walls. The prize lies at the end of the 90-minute journey up the steep, winding walls – an awe-inspiring view of the sea of red clay roofs, the cerulean bay of Kotor and majestic greenish-grey mountains lining the horizon. The terrain on the walls is rocky and uneven, so comfortable walking shoes are highly recommended. During the summer months, in peak season, the temperatures range from the 80 to 100 degrees. Bring water unless you feel inclined to personally rejuvenate the economy by patronizing young Montenegrin entrepreneurs who brought their own coolers filled with cold beer and water.
For those who are slightly more adventurous, the Ladder of Kotor is a hiking trail that follows a historic trade route. Along the way, small vendors and restaurants sell locally produced goat cheese, honey and Montenegrin Vodka called rakija. As there are many tourists walking the walls of Kotor, this may be your option if you want to escape the crowds.This hike takes around four or five hours round trip.
Be warned: many restaurants in the bay are extremely seasonal, and the ones that are open during non-peak season are often tourist traps, where you can find an unending menu of pizzas and sandwiches. However, other options exist. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Montenegrins are invested in sustainable aquaculture. The Bay of Kotor’s main fish farming products are seabream, Mediterranean mussels and European flat oysters.The industry is still rather small so they sell their products domestically to local restaurants, hotels, and open-air markets. Skoljke Boke is a tiny pontoon boat/restaurant on the bay, and a fine example of local fishermen who are devoted to sustainability and freshness. It is recommended to call and make a reservation; otherwise, the restaurant remains closed for the day.
The owner and his wife will serve you their own homemade rakija, served in an unmarked bottle as you wait for your oysters. The mussels are usually served in a delightful buzzarra broth.
Skoljke Boke not only serves sustainable oysters and mussels but also farms them. Once you’ve ordered, the owner goes to one of the multiple small pulley systems with plastic baskets full of oysters at the end of the small dock that are full of oysters, and he pulls up your meal. Oh, and the wine fridge? That’s in the bay too.
Dessert is usually a variety of seasonal fruits, such as persimmons, tangerines or kumquats. This one-of-a-kind experience costs around 30 euros.
Yes, you may know the name “Montenegro” for other reasons. Mention of travel in the former Yugoslavia can make people think of the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s and the heartbreaking images that came from that time. Yugoslavia’s breakup created war and new countries; in addition to Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were all born amid conflict.
But the past’s well-known troubles do not define Montenegro’s present, and as travels around the pristine Bay of Kotor attest, this country presents unique pleasures to those willing to seek them out.