My friend thinks I am mad. I have been to Montenegro. Often. She, however, does not do Eastern Europe. Especially not that bit, which, during the 1990s, was at the mercy of Slobodan Milosevic and his henchmen.
She was a rookie with the Reuters news agency back then. She took photographs of the Balkans conflict, which she relayed back to London. The images are still Xeroxed into her memory.
The war carved the Balkans into slices along the Dalmatian coast. Montenegro, separated now from Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia, is a tiny country: its borders extend a mere 619km; the length of its coastline is less than 300km.
And yet this “Jewel of the Adriatic” boasts mountains that soar (Bobotov Kuk, in the Durmitor range, stands at 2,522 metres), lakes that spill (Lake Skadar spans 370 square kilometres) and deep gorges, like the Tara River Canyon, that plunge for more than a kilometre. Clinging to tradition while aspiring to join the European Union, Montenegro is a heady mix of past and present.
We arrive in Kotor (from Cilipi Airport, 70km away, in Dubrovnik, Croatia) and take a taxi to race along the ribbon roads that wind a sometimes terrifying way around the Boka Kotorska (Bay of Kotor), hugging the precipitous mountains that slip into the sea. The bay is a fjord that runs inland from the Adriatic coast for 28km, looking on a map something like the head of a hammerhead shark.
The walled city of Kotor, a Unesco World Heritage Site, stands on the eastern side of the “cephalofoil”, at the southern tip. It is in the shadow of the hulking Mount Lovcen, which rises with perpendicular splendour, as if reaching for air.
We settle into an apartment in a 400-year-old villa in the seaside village of Muo, the walls of Kotor facing us across the water. Much of the architecture here is Venetian-influenced, with thick, honey-coloured stone walls, dusty-rose roof tiles and shuttered windows. And from our sleepy base we explore the boka on foot, on bike, by bus; the Blueline runs between Herceg Novi, near the border with Croatia, and Tivat, at the end of the bay, before the muddled, meandering fjord straightens itself out along the Adriatic Coast.
On a clear day, you can see Italy from any point along the southern Montenegrin coastline.
Not only does the picturesque village of Perast host a jumble of pretty seafront houses and small palaces, its skyline is punctuated by church spires, and offshore, as if floating on the waters that mirror this architectural tableau, are two tiny islands, one of which is man-made.
In 1452, two fishermen rowed into the bay with a boatful of rocks. Their mission, legend has it, was to create a chapel in which sailors could be blessed. But first they had to build an island to put the chapel on. An ambitious plan: it took 200 years for the community to complete Our Lady of the Rocks.
Anybody who can afford to buy in Perast – as actors Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas have, reportedly – will enjoy Montenegro’s trademark view, featured on the cover of many a guidebook.
We can’t afford to buy a house here, but we can afford lunch – tuna salad doused in olive oil, eaten at waterside restaurant Konoba Skolji – and a visit to the maritime museum, with its portraits of gloomy Serbs and stunning views across the water.
And we can afford a ride to Our Lady of the Rocks on one of the boats that chug to that and the other tiny island, upon which stands the cypress-shaded Benedictine Monastery of St George, the burial place of generations of sea captains.
Kotor’s labyrinthine streets are a place to lose oneself in, literally and metaphorically. No cars are allowed within the walled city; generations of feet have polished the limestone slabs that pave the narrow alleys running past an eclectic jumble of shops and restaurants.
We sit in the centre, in sunshine, drinking cappuccino – and later beer – while listening to the strains of piano emanating from the town’s music academy.
A 4km city wall staggers up the mountain behind Kotor, passes through the occasional chapel, and then plunges back down. It’s almost invisible by day, camouflaged against the rock on which it sits, but come nightfall, it is lit up and hangs on the mountain like a string of illuminated beads.
To the romantic, its outline brings to mind a love heart lying on its side, to others a lion’s head or a shark with its mouth wide open. Look closely and you can even see its teeth.
We cycle north, towards the pretty village of Prcanj (pronounced Pr-chen), where rascally poet Lord Byron enjoyed a tryst with a local girl. The narrow coast road follows the bay, enabling us to abandon our bikes roadside and take a quick dip whenever we feel the need to cool down.
Montenegrins have a saying, “God used six days to make the Earth and the seventh to make the Bay of Kotor” – and it feels blasphemous to tear ourselves away to explore the interior.
In the early hours on another day, we find ourselves bumping up through beautiful Durmitor National Park in a ropy old Land Rover with our guide for the day, Dimitri. Its landscape shaped by glaciers, threaded by streams and pooled by lakes an extraordinary blue, Durmitor bristles with mountains, almost 50 of them, and we watch the sun rise over peaks swirling with mist.
Thousands of plants thrive in this alpine Mediterranean environment, including many rare species. “Bears live here,” offers Dimitri, as do wolves and wildcats.
After the coldest of picnic breakfasts, we drop through Zabljak, the pretty little town that serves as the tourist centre of Durmitor and its ski base in the winter, and wind our way down an escarpment to the Tara River.
At the end of summer, the Tara is low and sluggish. It will take us eight hours to paddle the 80km back to the camp we left before dawn.
Nicknamed the Colorado of the Old Continent, the park is rich in flora and fauna. Peregrine falcons soar and call over dense forest, silver-scaled fish flit through the cold water – the endangered Danube Salmon thrives here – as dragonflies dance on the surface. Apart from the sound of our exertions and birdsong, it is silent. The canyon sides rise vertically to 1,300 metres; the water is as clear as gin.
Two days later, and we’re kayaking on Lake Skadar. It was easier to navigate a raft through the churning throat of a canyon than to propel something that looks like a banana 20km across a lake on a hot, still day. But it is a magnificent way in which to observe the silence, the space, the birds.
Lake Skadar National Park covers 400 square kilometres; the lake (two-thirds in Montenegro, the rest in Albania) appropriates 391 square kilometres of that, and is a bird sanctuary.
We paddle to the village of Rijeka Crnojevica and, having had a dip in the village spring – which is polar compared with the warm lake – we feast on fish and jugs of beer, and then sleep all the way as we’re driven back to Muo.
Later, having returned once again from Montenegro, I show my friend some holiday photos. “Montenegro,” she gasps. “Gosh, it’s changed.”
Getting there: Tivat airport is located less than 8km from Kotor. Aeroflot flies from Hong Kong to Tivat with a stopover in Moscow.