Saddle Mountain, Montenegro

Saddle Mountain ©2020 Nick Van Loy

It’s September 2021, and people are finally able to travel freely again. Since Covid-19 and the several lockdowns started, everyone was looking forward to freedom again. To me, the ultimate freedom is traveling. Of course, I didn’t want to put myself at risk and chose a destination closer to home for my first real trip again.

One of the main reasons why I chose Montenegro as my next destination, is because it’s still undiscovered for most people. Which doesn’t come much as a surprise given the fact that Montenegro has only been independent since 2006. The other reasons are the rugged mountains, breathtaking nature, and the medieval cities along the Adriatic coastline.

Montenegro, not the most well-known place in Europe

Montenegro isn’t that well-known yet, but I have a feeling that might change soon. As a small country, it has something to offer for everyone. There’s a 295 km coastline, giving Montenegro the name of The Pearl of the Adriatic. The dreamlike beaches and spectacular bays gave me the feeling I was somewhere in the tropics, especially with all the turquoise sea colours. Besides beaches, Montenegro consists mostly of mountains. There’s even a saying that says that if they flattened Montenegro, it would be the largest country in the world. These mountains are the perfect background for an outdoor wilderness photo. The positive thing about it still being an insider’s tip is that I was still able to experience the whole outdoor adventure mostly undisturbed, even by car.

For a small country, Montenegro has several national parks they can be proud of, five to be exact. Some of which I will go into further detail below.

Kolasin, a wish come true

My road trip started over long and winding roads through the Montenegrin mountains. Some parts reminded me of the road trip I took in Ireland a few years back, the Wild Atlantic Highway. Due to unforeseen circumstances, if Covid is still unforeseen, our flight to Tivat got cancelled. The only way we could continue our trip was to fly to Dubrovnik, rent a car, and drive towards the border, which was only a two-hour drive.

I admit it felt good to be back on the road again. Driving over new, foreign roads has a certain allure to it, especially when they take you to some of the most beautiful national parks I have ever seen. Montenegro doesn’t use speed cameras, as far as I know anyway, so be on the lookout for police that strategically stand behind one of the many curves.

I had planned a serious hike on my first real day in Montenegro. I found an article about the ‘Gate of Wishes’, located in the Mrtvice Canyon. This little gem of nature is hidden deep in a forested trail, transporting me to some otherworldly, magical place. The trail took me over ancient stone bridges where I could literally look into the abyss of a turquoise lake. The water was THAT clear. Normally, the trail would have taken me over an old wooden bridge as well, but since it was already falling apart a few years back, it finally succumbed to the forces of nature. It was then I had to make my choice: either go back, or find another way across. A small group of people were yelling at me from the other side, telling me it was okay to cross the river. So I guess I had found my other way across. The only thing they didn’t tell me was that the water was freezing, but with some perseverance, I made it across without any signs of frostbite.

When I finally made it to the ‘Gate of Wishes’, I looked for a small pebble and threw it right through the gate. Legend has it that if you throw a rock through it while making a wish, a fairy comes and grants it. But only if it was a wish with good intentions, otherwise there’s an accident bound to happen.

A tip: if you want to try your luck, make sure to take a small rock along the way, because the area around the gate has been plucked clean of rocks a long time ago.

Get lost in the mountains of Biogradska Gora

Biogradska Gora is one of the five national parks in Montenegro with a landscape that consists of mountain ranges, glacial lakes and temperate forests.

Most famous is the picturesque lake with crystal clear water. The view of the lake was incredible, even though some parts were completely dried up because of the hot summer. Which was also the reason why I didn’t rent a little boat to go on the lake. Although it did give me the opportunity to walk on parts that are normally submerged with glacial water.

The area of Biogradska Gora is also one of the last three large virgin rainforests in Europe. And even though I had no luck in finding some of its wildlife, I did enjoy the peace and quiet of an untouched, European rainforest.

Durmitor, Montenegro : more than just the Black Lake

Of all the national parks in Montenegro, Durmirtor is probably the most famous one. And Black Lake is to thank for that. This was the first place where I actually felt like the world was going back to normal. More crowds had found their way to this little pearl. I was lucky that a parking space just opened up near the entrance.

Walking around the Black Lake made me think of Montana, how I always pictured it would look like. Photos don’t even do this place justice, you just have to see it with your own eyes.

Since I still had some time to spare that day, I decided to drive to Tara River Canyon, the largest and deepest canyon in Europe. To get the best viewpoint, I had to walk a small, rocky road up the mountain. Not to forget, I drove off-road for a bit because my GPS sent me over, what looked like, a non-existing road.

But the view on Tara Canyon was breathtaking, and totally worth the effort. Being able to smell the pine trees around me in all seclusion had something magical. It wasn’t as magical as Blyde Canyon in South Africa, but it definitely ends up in the top three canyons I have seen so far.

I had a car at my disposal, which gave me the opportunity to drive the Durmitor Ring. If you don’t have a car, I highly recommend renting one, even if it’s just for the day. I left early in the morning and for a brief moment I had the feeling I was all alone in those mountains. I get why it’s so alluring to be one with nature. Every cliff I came across, I stopped the car and stood on the edge, looking down. Nothing around me but the wind and the sound of birds. Again, I felt how mighty nature can be, and how insignificant mankind really is.

TIP: There are some small coffee shops in the mountains. Make sure to stop at one to get your daily caffeine and enjoy the breathtaking views around you.

What to do in Kotor, a fortified coastal town?

I started my first day in Kotor with a little boat trip. Luckily, I came in the off-season, so there weren’t any cruise ships blocking my view. But my first stop on the tour was still very crowded. After all, it was the perfect day for a boat trip. My first stop was Lady of the Rocks, an artificial island with a little church off the coast of Perast. I had seen the island on my drive to Kolasin on my first day in Montenegro. Back then, I was already excited to go on the lake. Next, my tour guide Neno, took us to an old Soviet-era submarine tunnel, which was quite amazing to go through in a little speedboat. We passed Mamula Island, a fortified island with gruesome stories from both World Wars, before ending up at our final destination: the Blue Grotto. There, I had about fifteen minutes to swim in crystal blue water inside a cave. It got its name because of the sun rays that come through the small cave cracks.

Even though my physical condition isn’t what it used to be, I enjoyed every minute of it. Even when I thought I wasn’t going to make it back to the boat.

Back on shore, it was time to discover Old Town. It was already starting to get dark outside, which would make the perfect setting for strolling through an old, medieval town. Come nightfall, the town’s real inhabitants come out and roam the marble laneways. If you’re a cat lover like me, you don’t want to leave this place ever again.

Of course I wanted to visit the fortress on top as well, especially for the view on Kotor Bay, but I didn’t think I would be able to walk the 1350 steps to get there, not in this heat. I came back to Old Town every single night I was in Kotor because it was so alluring. One time I returned there during the day and it’s safe to admit I prefer to walk through the medieval maze come dusk.

What if Kotor isn’t enough?

There are several day trips you can take when residing in Kotor. For one, I went to the Ostrog Monastery, which was carved inside a mountain. I’m not really the religious kind of guy, but I did enjoy the view up there. Even if it meant I still had to climb several stairs to get there.

I also drove to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. It was way more crowded there than in the previous towns, and I have to say I didn’t really enjoy my time there. On my way there, I also tried to see the Montenegrin version of Niagara Falls, but due to the summer heat, the river was completely dried up.

A tip: there are several little stalls along the way where you can try (and buy) homemade honey. Too bad I came here only with my carry-on luggage, so I wasn’t able to buy some, because it was some of the best honey I ever tasted.

Is there more than sandy beaches and nightlife in Budva, Montenegro?

Unless you really like to spend most of your time on the beach, make Budva a day trip from Kotor. I only used Budva as my home base for my last couple of days in Montenegro. In my opinion, there’s not much to see there except for the sandy beaches. It’s true it also has an Old Town, which is nice to walk through (especially on the town walls when it’s starting to turn dark outside), but Kotor’s Old Town has my preference. And not only because of the hundreds of cats that roam the streets. If you get tired of the crowded beaches, you can do the same as me and take a boat taxi to St. Nikola Island, also known as Hawaii. But only go there if you like to lay on a beach and do nothing. For me, I thought it was possible to explore the island, like the forest higher up. But since most of the island was privatized, that wasn’t possible. And that’s why I only spent one hour in Hawaii.

So what if I don’t like the beach and still want to visit Budva?

If you don’t like the beach, there are several other things to do near Budva. I’ll list some of the things I did to spend my time there. If you really like museums, or want to learn more about the history of Montenegro, I recommend going to Cetinje, the formal royal capital. I admit there’s not much to see there except those museums, but they are worth visiting. I bought an entry ticket that gave access to five museums, all within walking distance of each other.

  • History & Art Museum, here I learned more about how Montenegro became the independent country it is today. In the art museum I came across the work of Vojislav Vojo Stunic. The reason why I was so drawn to his work was because he likes to portrait the world of freaks, madmen, dreamers, and lovers.
  • Njegos Museum, a building dedicated to the life of the poet and ruler Petar II Petrovic, also known as Njegos.
  • Ethnographic Museum, a place to look at traditional clothing from all over Montenegro’s history.
  • St. Nikola’s Museum, a palace with different rooms from an earlier time in Montenegrin history.

Most people like to visit Sveti Stefan, the most photographed islet in Montenegro. My advice? Don’t! Instead, just stop there for a brief moment to enjoy its beauty, but since it’s a 5-star resort, I doubt there will be much to see for me.

Another trip I took from Budva was a trip to the Mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic, located in the Lovcèn mountains, which is another national park. To get there, I had to drive on one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Although I didn’t get why it was called that. To me, it was nothing more than windy roads leading up the mountain. Maybe it’s because the Montenegrin people can’t take their turns properly, or maybe in winter when the snow kicks in. I was unfortunate this was the only day I had bad weather. The view on top of the Mausoleum is supposed to be breathtaking, but all I saw were raindrops and passing clouds. Keep in mind, it takes 461 steps to get to the viewpoint, but I hear it’s worth it.

The reason why I came to Montenegro in the first place

Montenegro mainly consists of mountains, and where there are mountains, there are caves. There is one official cave that people can visit, and that’s Lipa Cave. It’s a relatively new cave, since it hasn’t been open to the public before 2015. There are several tours you could take, but I took the basic tour since I’m a little claustrophobic. During that tour, I witnessed some beautiful rock formations, but unfortunately it only covered 600m of the 2,5 km. So I wondered whether I shouldn’t have taken the adventurous tour instead. It did sound appealing to my adventurous side, given the fact you would descend from a rope and explore more of the cave with gear on. It was sad to see that not everyone followed the Covid rules, but I didn’t let that ruin my trip inside Lipa Cave.

Like I mentioned earlier, Montenegro is a country famed for its beauty and it has five national parks. I already mentioned Biogradska, Durmitor, and Lovcèn. I only visited four out of five of those national parks, and the last one I went to was Lake Skadar, located between Montenegro and Albania. First, I drove to what became one of my favourite places in Montenegro, Pavlova Strana. Even though the best viewpoint is not the one at the abandoned hotel and parking, but on one of the windy roads leading up the mountain. The whole view reminded me of Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, which could perfectly be its little cousin. Only this one had more green surrounding it, giving off some sort of jungle vibe. Definitely a highlight of my trip, and one of the reasons why I came to Montenegro, to enjoy its untamed beauty of nature.

Next, I drove to Virpazar to take another boat trip on Lake Skadar. I was hoping to catch a few of the 600 pelicans that supposedly reside on the lake, but I didn’t see a single one. There wasn’t any explanation during the boat ride, so there was plenty of time to relax and enjoy the view.

My Conclusions

In general, it felt good to not be confined between the borders of my own little country and to travel abroad again. Montenegro was definitely a good choice, especially the north part where I was able to feel one with nature. The Montenegrin nature is breathtaking, definitely worth exploring more since it’s still undiscovered for most of us. But I have a feeling that might all change very soon.

Written by: Nick Van Loy

 Nick Van Loy picture Nick is a writer from a small town in Belgium who likes to combine these two passions: travel and writing. He has written two novels and is currently writing his third.

For more ITKT travel stories about Montenegro
For more ITKT travel stories about Asia