A Côte d’Azur buzz with a Balkan touch – is Montenegro the new Croatia?

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If Croatia looks like the new Italy, then could Montenegro, its smaller neighbor to the south, become the new Croatia? It’s hard to scroll through Instagram these days without spotting someone living their best life on the beaches of the Adriatic – but rather than enjoying the shores of Rimini or Puglia, it seems we’re heading just as much in Dubrovnik, Hvar and Split.

But what do the southernmost climates of the Dalmatian coast offer? This summer, I flew to Dubrovnik as a gateway to discover the unsung highlights of Montenegro.

After taking off from Cork, I arrive at my front door in Dubrovnik on the sultryest of July nights on the Adriatic. Considering my evening arrival, the so-called pearl of the Adriatic made an ideal base for the first night, especially for my friend Carolyn, who had never visited the city before.

I had visited the area ten years ago, but driving up the coast to the city limits, I was soon taken aback by the beauty of the area. Resort hamlets shimmer at dusk while out to sea, superyachts and galleons light up the waters.

There’s a French Riviera buzz with Balkan flair here, especially when Dubrovnik’s old town emerges on the promontory.

Rural scenes in Montenegro

On a budget and with only one night in town, we book a €60 Airbnb in the noble Kono district of Dubrovnik, which means great views and a short descent to the Old Town. This historic center itself is breathtaking, almost like a medieval Disneyland full of Love Island beauties and the next morning we enjoy a wonderful seaside brunch at Gradska Kavana Arsenal and a leisurely swim at the city beach before taking the Balkan equivalent of the Aircoach sud.

It’s the backpacker hub at the city bus stop, but we’re soon in the air-conditioned refuge of our coach and heading down the Adriatic. It’s only 40 km from Dubrovnik to the Montenegrin border, but with summer traffic and double drop-off at each country’s border post (you’re leaving the EU, after all), we still have a few hours to get passport stamp.

When I visited Montenegro ten years ago, I stayed in the country’s main Adriatic resort, Budva. For a slightly more unplugged experience, this time I opted for the historic town of Kotor, located in a bay on the mountainside, similar to the Norwegian fjords.

I visited many Airbnbs during my day, but getting to our base in Kotor Old Town via a moat bridge and the city’s epic south gates is surely the most epic. After roaming the legendary cobbled alleys of Kotor and walking past a few napping cats, we finally find our medieval apartment and solve the keypad entry as if we’ve just cracked the Da Vinci code.

Nightlife in the streets of Kotor
Nightlife in the streets of Kotor

The bolthole, with shuttered windows and exposed thick walls is a fairy tale base, especially with our terrace view overlooking the terracotta rooftops of Kotor. The town itself has almost the charm of Mykonos (without the foam parties) and that evening we enjoyed seafood risottos in one of the taverns in the town square, while jazz and local wine soothe our souls.

The next morning, we’re off on a Montenegrin road trip and after trawling Google for an affordable car, I find myself at the port sealing the €65 deal for a convertible Peugeot from a guy named Mario. The 200K on the meter probably explains the price, but it’s more of a source of comfort than concern as we wind down the Kotor Pass epic, Balkan CDS bought from the gas station trash giving us a proper soundtrack.

Traveling the breathtaking 30 hairpins of the serpentine road, we come to our first attraction, the Njegoš Mausoleum, where the literary great and national hero Petar II Petrović-Njegoš is buried. I had been inspired to see the site after watching a Montenegrin Eurovision video (not my typical source for travel advice), but it is up to the drama in reality; its setting overlooking the Dinaric Alps combines both natural and architectural wonder. Especially when a peregrine falcon passes in front of me at a speed that would make my Peugeot blush.

Mausoleum Montenegro
Mausoleum Montenegro

Then it was time to enjoy a well deserved lunch in the mountains of Montenegro and where better to dine than at the oldest restaurant in the country, Kod Pera na Bukovicu. The Roadside Tavern, which dots the roadside much like Moll’s Gap, was established in 1881 and serves its guests two simple specialties: locally smoked pršut, a Montenegrin prosciutto that’s a bit more biting than its Italian counterpart , and Njeguški cheese (similar to a more indulgent Manchego). Served on the terrace with olives, fresh bread and small cups of white wine, this is the most satisfying stop on any Montenegrin road trip.

After the relief of returning my convertible to Mario in one piece, the next morning we left our coastal passage and blazed trails for perhaps one of Europe’s least known and certainly least visited capitals, Podgorica. We arrive here after driving along the coast to Budva before ending up in the mountainous center of Montenegro.

Podgorica, roughly the size of Limerick, is a historic but low-key hub and with temperatures reaching 40° Celsius, few locals brave the alleys. We disembark at the bus and train station, booking our tickets to Serbia with an employee who could be a Rita of Coronation Street look-alike on the “hang out”.

Tom's Airbnb in Podgorica
Tom’s Airbnb in Podgorica

Podgorica is one of the cheapest capitals in Europe and €40 gets us a centrally located double room with a balcony overlooking the garden vines and the nearby mosque. In the city, there is an architectural mix of Orthodox churches, communist-era office buildings, and new-era street development that almost resembles an unplugged Rodeo Drive.

After a day of snacks on the bus, we have dinner at the traditional Montenegrin restaurant Pod Volat before heading to Bar Berlin where young locals sing Balkan classics to a live guitar playing crooner. We may have lyrical FOMO, but we toast to what has been an amazing few days in this culturally rich, beautiful and affordable part of Europe.

Montenegro hotspots

Stari Bar: The town of Bar, not far from the Albanian coast, may not be the most popular tourist spot, but its old town known as Stari Bar is an ancient urban marvel. Located on picturesque foothills 5 km from the new town, the medieval center is home to a monastery, best seen at sunset.

Perast: The Bay of Kotor is much more than its eponymous city. Just 5km north of the main center of the bay is the picture-postcard pretty village of Perast. It’s also a great option to base yourself and while you’re there, ogle the Church Islands across the bay.

Sveti Stefan: Perhaps one of the most beautiful places to swim in the Adriatic, Sveti Stefan is a breathtaking islet just south of Budva. The site is attached to the mainland by a tombolo and although it is now a private hotel complex, the tongue of land serves as a beach facing north and south for the most idyllic swimming.

Porto Montenegro: Check any Balkan in-flight magazine these days and you’ll find condo listings for the region’s newest real estate hotspot, Porto Montenegro. The resort is close to the Croatian border and is ideal for observing the bold and beautiful Balkan people. Book into new luxury hotels such as the Regent Porto Montenegro or maybe even invest in your own vacation getaway! Adriatic dream pad, anyone?

Biogradska Gora: For a small country, Montenegro is full of biodiversity, especially due to its smallest national park. Located in the north of the country, it contains some of the last virgin forests in Europe and one of the three tropical forests on the continent. It’s a 90-minute drive from Podgorica and with hiking and camping in a mountain hut, it’s a dream for more intrepid hikers.

Go for it

  • Aer Lingus flies to Dubrovnik all year round from Dublin and operates an extremely popular summer service from Cork which ends this month and returns next Easter. From Dubrovnik, several bus operators head south to Montenegro.
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