Walking in Montenegro with the folk who devise the routes for walking holidays...
Montenegro's poster boy island of Sveti Stefan, now the upmarket Aman Resort
I opened the expensively heavy curtains of my suite, barely resisting the urge to sing ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ – and gazed out over the most perfect Mediterranean view. A smile-shaped beach. A giant yacht resting at anchor in the bay. And, rising to the right, a picture-book jumble of red roofs. If the Adriatic Coast is a beauty, this stretch was 24-carat supermodel-sensational.
Croatia? Not quite. Slovenia? You’re getting colder. Yet trust me when I tell you that you’ve seen those russet tiles in scores of brochure snaps and poster shoots over the years. This is Montenegro, and if that piece of information leaves you non-plussed, well, that’s the point – I wanted a holiday that would take me far from the madding-ding crowds. This tiny coastal country stands on the cusp of becoming a major Mediterranean player, as popular with tourists as its big-name neighbours; for the moment, though, it’s largely unknown. And it’s possible to have significant chunks of the place to yourself.
Nowhere is its cusp status clearer than here at Sveti Stefan. A miniature outcrop attached by causeway to the rest of the coast, the islet slumbered away 500-odd years as a fishermen’s village, barnacled with cottages like something from a child’s storybook – until the post-war years of Hollywood stars and voyaging royalty, when the Communist rulers of Yugoslavia reinvented it as a resort for celebs on the Med. Holiday here in the ’60s and ’70s and you’d have heard the footsteps of Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Princess Margaret echo in the cobbled lanes – interspersed with the Vesuvian arguments of the Burtons, Richard and Elizabeth. This summer – after a scouring renovation by Singapore-based luxury hotel company Aman Resorts – it’s ready to cast more glitter over Montenegro when it opens at the end of May, those cottages painstakingly reworked into 50 suites of sumptuous-but-muted Aman-appeal.
The private beach for guests of the Villa Milocer at the Aman Sveti Stefan. photo My Bathroom Wall
On the beach there was just me, a lifeguard and a crisp-shirted chap to ferry out cold drinks I got a taste of what it will be like (and took in its beauty from a distance) as I breakfasted at Villa Milocer, on the shores overlooking Sveti Stefan. Built in the ’30s as a holiday home for Yugoslavia’s Karadordevic royals, the villa was later swiped by Communist president Tito as his summer pad. A couple of years ago, Aman Resorts restored it as a bite-size preview of Sveti Stefan, out in the bay. As I quaffed egg-white omelette and guava juice, shaded by Milocer's vine-covered terrace, insects whirring in the early morning heat, I concluded that Montenegro is perfection. But it’s the kind of perfection that costs – the villa's 12 suites will knock you back upwards of £600 a night each – yet it’s so quiet in these parts that a feeling of exclusivity isn’t exclusive to those who are paying for it.
What you do get for your money is a sandy beach, 100% olive trees, and something that Sveti Stefan’s suites will never deliver:a Flickr’s-eye view of the island itself. Breakfast over, I strolled to the adjacent Queen’s Beach (‘for guests only’). There was just me, a lifeguard and a crisp-shirted chap to ferry out cold drinks from a little cabin. It’s rare to find such a pristine slice of peaceful paradise in the modern Med – and who knows how long it will last in Montenegro? This diminutive country, home to just two-thirds of a million people, is beginning to appear on the world’s radar, even if many of us couldn't place it on a map. Madonna has visited, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones have been house-hunting, and a Monte Carlo-style marina is taking shape.
And beyond Villa Milocer and Sveti Stefan? I was keen to explore – but not in the Madonna-worthy black Mercedes S Class that the villa uses for airport transfers, and which would clearly mark me out as a tourist among the beaches and wilderness. On offer at the car rental company was a dented Chevrolet Spark with three hubcaps missing. Gingerly I signed along the dotted line.
Cruise ships call into the fjord-like inlet at Kotor
I wound down the windows, slipped on sunglasses and fumbled for the radio. There wasn’t one, but who cares? Remote, romantic expanses were mine from the first bend. Wide and cliff-hugging, the coastal road took me north, swooping into the town of Budva, which – dare I say it – already felt a tad commercialised, with bobbing yacht masts and a thronging walled Old Town, rather like a mini Dubrovnik. Soon I was happily back on my own, my next port of call Kotor, just a few kilometres from the Croatian border, but a world away from that country’s manicured honey pots. Lying at the end of southern Europe’s largest fjord, the town delivered glimpses of international invasion – a London-registered super yacht at the quay side dominated the Mediaeval city walls – but the cliffs flanking the town soared hundreds of metres skywards, rendering everything man-made fragile and fleeting.
Switchback road winding up from Kotor to the mountains, and the Gulf of Kotor. Photos My Bathroom Wall
It was quiet, but I wanted utter peace. In search of more isolation, I pointed the Chevy inland. A squiggle on the map traced four hairpin bends, which turned out to be 27, and as the tyres squealed on the bends, I realised how the hubcaps had gone missing. At the last curve I looked down: beyond the fjord and Kotor town, shimmering far off in the hazy Adriatic, was an armada of mega-yachts. This was Porto Montenegro. I’d read about it in glossy magazines. Touted by its billionaire backer as the ‘Monaco of the Adriatic’, the site is in fact a former Yugoslav naval base. Gazing at it now you see a swanky near-future. Transformations are ushering in a 600-berth marina, upmarket holiday homes and – for the benefit of the Michael Douglas/Madonna crowd – a shiny, pricey new hotel.
As quickly as the vision materialised, it vanished. One tunnel, three bends and the sea was out of sight, as Montenegro-beyond beckoned me back into a pretty, pine-scented Adriatic past: forests of evergreen, shady cypress trees and, suddenly, the entrance to the mountaintop mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic-Njegoš. I parked the car and walked the last bit through needles of sunlight, to a soundtrack of my own scrunching feet.
The mountin top tomb of local big man Petar II. Photos My Bathroom Wall
European summit: the view from Petar II's tomb (Ivan Blazhev) Almost seven foot tall, Petar II Petrovic-Njegoš made a big impact on Montenegrin history. Polymath, prince-bishop, poet and sharp-shooter, he had a great party piece – asking guests to lob a lemon into the air, which he then blasted to bits. His solemn, sculptured tomb is fittingly OTT, glinting with gold leaf and black marble, and set loftily atop the country’s second-highest mountain. At 1,660m, it is huff-puffingly challenging to reach – many of its 461 steps (I counted!) have been tunnelled through solid rock. Once I’d made it, I drank in the views over the almost-treeless mountainscape, savoured the solitude and contemplated. This man was a singular Montenegrin, a very big fish in a very small pond.
There’s more to discover about him 12km on, in the mountain stronghold of Cetinje. It is home to Biljarda, Njegoš’s former palace-home, which translates as Billiard House and rolls out 25 rooms without losing its rustic appeal. The curious name alludes to the billiard table he ordered to be carted up here – and in the upstairs front room you can find the eponymous item. One careful owner, excellent condition.
You’ll love little Cetinje if the Duchy of Grand Fenwick means anything to you. It was the name of a fictional alpine mini-state featured in comic novels by Leonard Wibberley. The tiny nation was pitched into ludicrous situations whereby it became a power-broker between the world’s great nations – most famously in the 1959 film The Mouse that Roared, starring Peter Sellers, in which they come to own a bomb that can destroy the planet.
Lord Byron thought this ‘the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea' Untouched by modernity, Cetinje has a similar filmic, fairytale appeal. Its population is barely 20,000 yet, between 1878 and 1918, it was Montenegro’s capital. It is a town that invites you to wander – past fading facades and along tree-lined avenues, all steeped in an ambience of sublime tranquillity.
Before the country was swallowed up by Yugoslavia, the great powers wooed it with emissaries and embassies.
The latter are still here – almost a dozen of them, cute and comical, pinpointed by helpful maps in the town centre.
The French example is a rather grand fin-de-siècle affair (now part of the national library), the British (these days the University of Montenegro’s music department) is a lovely pink-coloured building with a tarnished coat of arms above the door, and the Bulgarian is a modest restaurant.
The former embassies in Citenje; clockwise from top left, Ottoman, Italian, British, Russian, Bulgarian and French
I walked and walked and – a very happy hiker in this leafy corner of the Adriatic, keen to find the quiet heart of the place – continued to walk, through forest glades into the pretty town of Rijeka Crnojevica, where a splendid old stone bridge stepped delicately over the little river Crnojevic in three loopy spans.
It was impossible to stroll by the The Stari Most cafe/restaurant and not stop – even if the young waiter with the sculpted physique and impressive height wore a bored expression that suggested the Communists had never left. The outdoor tables and delightful view of the bridge implored me to stay awhile, as did the excellent food: a plate of local cheese and ham, then fish soup, made from lake-caught carp out of nearby Lake Scutari.
Laid back Rijeka Crnojevica, a gateway to boat trips on Lake Skadar. Photos My Bathroom Wall
I could have idled for hours in this bucolic throwback, but I’d arranged for a boat to return me to the spot where I had parked the car. The said vessel arrived at the appointed time, and down the river I drifted, to the gentle thrum of the old tub’s diesel as it followed a channel of water through a lake of giant lilies. With a mountainous backdrop and cormorants flick-diving in the foreground, it felt as if the 20th century had yet to arrive, let alone the 21st.
A boat trip on Lake Skadar, before an impromptu swim. Photos My Bathroom Wall
Suddenly a large hand grasped my shoulder, shocking me back to the present, and the old boatman wheezed, ‘You want swim?’
I had no bathing trunks – I was wearing khaki shorts – but I jumped at the chance and, my man having tied up at a landing stage, I leapt in. Lulled by the lunch, I bobbed about in waters that were deliciously cool and reviving, savouring a Montenegro that might not exist in a couple of years. The poet (and celebrated swimmer) Lord Byron called this part of the world ‘the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea’ – and, for the moment at least, it very well might be. But go now, before boatmen stop offering unscheduled swims just because it’s a beautiful day.
I travelled as a guest of HF Holidays. Other tour operators to try include UK-based Headwater Holidays, Authentic Adventures, and the The Natural Adventure Company. For more information see Visit Montenegro