Tours from Dubrovnik are difficult to find in winter, so I was happy to book a Saturday trip to Montenegro with GetYourGuide, a company that operates tours throughout Europe. It was a full non-stop day led by a local company, Amico Tours. I’m considering Montenegro or Sarajevo as my next stop and day trips will help me decide.
We began the tour at 7 am and returned to Dubrovnik 11 hours later. Our group of five included a Chinese mother and daughter from Shanghai on a two-month trip, a young couple from Santiago Chile, and me. Our Bosnian guide / driver shared fascinating Montenegrin history and folktales with us. As usual the vast amount of information was a bit overwhelming – at least for me.
Winter Weather Croatia and Montenegro
I’m learning about weather in the Balkans and had rescheduled once because of rain. Winter rain patterns come fast and furious and often clear up quickly, but not always. When rain is in the forecast it doesn’t necessarily mean all day – so for a winter day trip, rain or shine is OK. We had heavy morning rain and a few rays of sunshine in the afternoon. It wasn’t a great day for photography. Even with a raincoat and umbrella, I got a little wet.
Konavle Valley and Bay of Kotor
Our southeast route to Montenegro passed through the small town of Cavtat, birthplace of Croatian painter Vlaho Bukovac, and then Konavle Valley on the way to the Bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska). The gorgeous valley is sometimes called the Gulf of Croatia. It’s known for granaries, canals, and abundant “waterfalls and watermills” generated from the Ljuta, Kopacica, and Konavocica Rivers.
Over the years, Romans, Venetians, Spanish, French, Ottomans, and pirates all attacked or occupied Montenegro. The small country gained independence in 2006. Today there’s a strong Russian influence, and in recent years wealthy Russian investors have changed the face of Montenegro.
On the way to Kotor we passed through several Montenegrin villages – Herceg Novi, Bijela (white in Croatian), Verige, Risan, and Perast. Although Montenegro just started the process of becoming part of the EU, it already uses Euros as its currency and will not accept Croatian Kuna (HRK).
Perast is a quiet Montenegrin village and a UNESCO World heritage site. We stopped for coffee, and even with rain and poor visibility marveled at the bay and its two tiny islands. One is home to Our Lady of the Rocks (Gospa od Škrpjela) Church and the other Saint George Benedictine Monastery. During the summer, you can take a boat to the island and visit the church. The island with a monastery is closed.
Our Lady of the Rocks is on a man-made island. “The island’s folklore begins on July 22, 1452 when two sailors returning to Perast from a difficult voyage discovered an icon of the Madonna and Child resting on a rock in a shallow part of the Bay. They considered their find a miracle and vowed to build a church on the spot. The sailors dropped stones around the spot where the icon was found, slowly creating an islet and then building a small chapel.”
Over the years, dropping stones in the water around the church became a tradition for sailors. The ritual had two purposes – strengthening the tiny island’s foundation and “asking the Virgin Mother to bring them safely home”. Today the tradition is part of “one of Europe’s oldest sailing regattas, the Fašinada.
“During the Fašinada, at sunset on July 22 countless local boats decorated with garlands sail out into the Bay to drop a stone around the island and Our Lady of the Rocks Church.”
The church contains 68 paintings by Tripo Kokolja, a 17th-century baroque artist from Perast. There are also paintings by Italian artists, and an icon (circa 1452) of Our Lady of the Rocks, by Venetian painter Lovro Dobričević.
“The church has a collection of silver votive tablets and a tapestry embroidered by Jacinta Kunić-Mijović, the wife of a seaman. It took her 25 years to finish the tapestry she made while waiting for her husband to come back from a long journey at sea. She used golden and silver fibers. What makes the tapestry so famous is that she embroidered her own hair in it.” The folktale goes that the hair woven changed from dark to gray as she grew older.
Unlike Our Lady of the Rocks, Perast’s Saint George is a natural island. It contains Saint George Benedictine Monastery from the 12th century and an old graveyard for Montenegrin nobility from Perast and the Bay of Kotor.
Verige and Risan
Verige (chains in Croatian) is named for chains that were placed throughout the bay to sink enemy ships. Steep, inaccessible cliffs helped protect Risan from invasion, but didn’t prevent pirate attacks. Konavle Cliffs are part of the Orjen mountain range in the sub Adriatic Dinarides. Risan has a famous Roman Villa with mosaics dating from the 2nd and early 3rd century AD.
“The Cliffs of Konavle sprawl along the coast from Cavtat to Molunat.
For about 12.5 miles, the steep inaccessible cliffs fall vertically into the Adriatic Sea.”
Kotor is one of the “prettiest towns in Montenegro”, known for its ancient fortified city walls, Venetian-inspired architecture, and maritime history. It’s located “deep down the Boka Kotorska Bay” and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are many interesting churches in Kotor, especially the Cathedral of Sveti Tripun “mentioned for the first time in IX century” and a strong symbol of the city. The Cathedral is the seat of the Catholic Bishopric of Kotor which covers the entire gulf.
There are ten churches in Kotor, and Orthodox Christians outnumber Catholics. Locals have “acknowledged the peaceful coexistence between the two religions”. Orthodox Christians attend or partake in Catholic celebrations and vice versa.
A hike up the city walls leads to St. John Fortress where a phenomenal view of the Bay of Kotor awaits! I was looking forward to the hike, but heavy rain and a slippery path made it too dangerous. We were fortunate to get some stunning views and photos later while continuing our journey along roads in the hills above Kotor.
We passed over roads full of sharp curves. The annual Lovcen International Hill-Climb Race takes place in the Montenegrin hills above Kotor. The race is named after Lovcen National Park in the Dinara Alps. It’s a dangerous race course. During the 2018 race a driver survived a crash that sent his car somersaulting through the air into a boulder.
The Dinaric Alps in the Balkans are named after the Dinara Mountain Range. They’re a popular adventure sport location for climbing, hiking, skiing, and sky diving. Most of the Adriatic islands belong to this mountain system, because the “western parts of the range were partly submerged by the seawater in earlier geo history”.
Our next stop was Budva, a popular tourist town known for its beautiful beaches and vibrant nightlife. It has over 30 beaches – sand, pebble, and rock. The sand in some areas is an extraordinary pink from the pinkish color of rocks in that area. In Budva there are endless possibilities for outdoor activities. Lovcen National Park, Lake Skadar National Park, and Durmitor National Park are popular destinations.
Budva’s famous nightclub Top Hill is known as one of the largest and best nightclubs in Europe. Open-air performances are 600 meters (2000 feet) above the sea with magnificent Adriatic views.
I walked Budva’s Old Town in the rain. It’s smaller than Dubrovnik or Kotor and described as “a Venetian maze of cobblestone streets, anchored by the 15th century citadel”. Except for a few shops, it was a ghost town.
You can’t help but notice that many palm trees in Budva, Kotor, and Dubrovnik look dreadful. Our guide said this is because palm moths and weevils are killing them and no one has discovered a remedy yet. It’s really sad to see.
There are many stray cats in Budva and Dubrovnik. Our guide explained they were brought to Montenegro and Dubrovnik during the plague to kill rats. Thousands of people died during the epidemic. To address the situation, Dubrovnik “issued a decree where anyone who lived abroad had to spend 40 days in quarantine at one of the nearby islands before entering the city”.
Sveti Stefan and Petar Petrovic Njegos Mausoleum
Two interesting places we didn’t visit on our tour are Sveti Stefan Island near Budva and the Petar Petrovic Njegos Mausoleum, the tomb of Montenegro’s greatest writer. I’d like to visit Petar Petrovic Njegos Mausoleum, but it’s in an isolated location and would require hiring a guide for a private tour – very expensive in winter.
Sveti Stefan is one of the “most famous and prestigious places in Montenegro”. It’s a tiny island off the Montenegrin coast near Budva. Once a fishing village it’s now a high-end five-star luxury resort. It’s connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge, with “stone houses tightly packed together on top of the rocks”. Guests can “stay in individual rooms or rent entire villas with private pools, terraces, and magnificent views of the sea”.
Petar Petrovic Njegos Mausoleum
Petar Petrovic Njegos, Prince-Bishop of Montenegro, is a Croatian ruler, poet, and philosopher. His magnificent mausoleum is situated at the top of the second-highest peak on Mount Lovćen, Jezerski Vrh (1657 m).
“To get there you climb 461 steps to the entrance where two granite giants guard the tomb of Montenegro’s greatest writer”.
The view from Petar Petrovic Njegos Mausoleum is breathtaking – “it’s the best panoramic view of Montenegro”.
Luxury Yachts and Resorts
Montenegro and Croatia have become very popular summer destinations for Europe’s rich. Rapid development in Montenegro is obvious from the unseemly mix of architecture in some areas. Apparently very wealthy Russians and Germans purchased land and built apartments and luxury resorts that are often out character with the city’s medieval architecture. This was especially noticeable (and disturbing) in Budva… Budva is known for government corruption. There are no building restrictions or codes but this may change.
Owners of luxury yachts often visit the area. I forget the details of a new port being built to accommodate the huge yachts. One super yacht, Eclipse, owned by German billionaire Roman Abramovich visits annually.
Back to Dubrovnik
At the end of the day we saved some time by taking the ferry from Lepetane to Kamenari to cross the Bay of Kotor heading back to Dubrovnik. Of course each way we had border crossings which in summer can require as long as 10 hours of waiting!!! Compared to border crossings in Africa and South America, they were tame.
This post is long, but there’s so much to learn about the area, including Adriatic culture, rivalry, Yugoslavia, and the Balkan wars. Glad I have more time to spend here!