Magical Montenegro

When travelling I always enjoy visiting countries, which are out of the way or relatively unknown. Such is the case of Montenegro, a small nation located on the Adriatic Sea, across from Italy.

Although cruise ships frequent the country, they seldom offer visitors an opportunity to travel inland and explore this mountainous nation. The Bay of Kotor is one of the most scenic areas in the region and offers sailing, swimming and various other water related activities. Many pass the time picnicking on the shores of the tranquil water.

Rich in history, modern Montenegro’s origin dates back to the ninth century, but the area was first settled in 1,000 BCE. The landscape is dotted with medieval villages, where life has changed little in the past centuries. The name of the country means Black Mountain, which is evident by the giant summits of the Durmitor Peaks.

For the more adventurous travellers a climb to the top of Mount Lovćen is well worth the trek. I was hesitant at first, but am glad I did it. After a steep ride, then up a series of steps, through a tunnel, out to a walkway, and along a path, you arrive at the Mausoleum of Peter II, arguably the most well-known of Montenegro’s rulers. His love of literature spread far and wide, and today he is still revered as the country’s most influential poet.

Closer to the ground, along the shores of the Bay of Kotor, lies the quaint village of Perast. Albeit quite small, Perast is a wonderful area to hire a sailboat and cruise the peaceful waters of the Bay. The medieval architecture dots the road along the water, and the tall church steeple of St. Nicholas Cathedral, towers above the other buildings.

One of the more popular sights in Perast is actually not in the town itself, but a short distance from the shore. Nestled amid several trees lies the Benedictine Monastery of St. George, constructed in the 12th century, on a small Island. Visitors can take a short boat cruise to explore the well preserved architectural and historical sight. The island is also home to a graveyard for the old nobility from Perast.

Probably the most notable city in Montenegro, certainly from a tourist perspective, is the seaside town of Kotor. The picturesque city, with a population of 13,500, has a port, frequented by cruise ships. Kotor is surrounded by fortifications, and sits on what many call Europe’s southernmost fiord. In actual fact, the body of water is a submerged canyon or ria. Strolling through the cobblestone streets, lined with medieval buildings of this 5th century town, makes a visit to Kotor a very enjoyable experience.

Surrounding Kotor is an historical, fortification system, which consists of towers, gates, bastions and a castle. All date back to the 9th century, with additions added in the fourteen hundreds. The fortifications can be visited on foot, as a stone path has been constructed for visitors to explore the sight. There are numerous steps and turns and a small outpost, where water can be purchased, in what was once a church.

I stood on the outskirts of Kotor, staring up at the fortifications, when my guide asked me if I was interested in making the trek to the top. Having climbed Ayres Rock in Australia, the sand dunes in Namibia and Sigiriya Rock in Sri Lanka, I was ready for anything.

The climb to the Castle of St. John, at the top, is not really a climb as much as it is a huff- n-puff. What I was not prepared for was the 1,350 steps, as they are uneven, chiselled from stones and vary in sizes. The entire journey takes you over a km. in height and 4.5 km. in length. All these numbers amount to about 3 hours of painful exercise.

Another scenic stop along the way, is the coastal town of Budva. About the size of Port Perry, this area is known as the Montenegro Riviera, and is a destination for locals when they want to go on vacation. The town is fortified with a wall and, is extremely picturesque for visitors with a camera. A local monastery is well worth seeing, and for the more pilgrim-minded, you can visit the site of a sacred relic, the finger of John the Baptist.

Should you venture into the small chapel where the finger is kept, it is important to note that you have to kiss it; otherwise they will not let you in. I have kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland and a cod fish in Newfoundland, but it did not make this any easier, as I puckered up to experience this local tradition.

My last stop in Montenegro was the Island of St. Stephen. This is the site of a beautiful, old castle, which has recently been purchased, and is being converted into a hotel. Unfortunately it is closed to the public.

The beach however, is public and quite beautiful. It consists of fine sand and warm Adriatic currents. I wondered why there were only a few people soaking up the sunshine, and learned the only way one is allowed onto the beach is to rent a chair and an umbrella, at a cost of 75 euros ($105 CDN) for the day… or any part thereof.

The Adriatic coast is perfect for any type of vacation, and if you want to avoid the crowds of Dubrovnik and Croatia, travel along the coast a bit to experience the uniqueness of magical Montenegro.

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