There is a lake called Skadar in the tiny southern European state of Montenegro. Surrounded by the mesmerizing natural beauty of a national park, it provides a unique bird sanctuary, the largest of its kind in Europe. Embraced by beaches of silken sand, the lake offers fishing for sports lovers and gourmets alike: carp – so popular in the region – goes deliciously with the local wines, while visitors can also admire the history of the region in the form of ancient monasteries and medieval castles. This beautiful place seems to reflect in its pure waters the whole gamut of activities in that paradise of mountains and bays that is Montenegro.
With tourism imperative to the little country’s economy, Montenegro makes good use of its natural resources, principally by maintaining its national parks. There are four of them, including Skadar. The smallest, Biogradska Gora, is especially remarkable for its rich flora and fauna, boasting a pristine forest with trees over 500 years old, and spectacular slopes perfect for skiing. Visitors can also take advantage of the mountains and resorts in the north of the country, where one can not only ski but also participate in sledge racing and other winter sports.
Another park, Durmitor, contains the largest European canyon: second only in area to the Grand Canyon in Arizona and part of an ecological resort, it’s surrounded by cascading waterfalls and breathtaking natural features. The canyon is also the largest drinking-water reservoir in the country. Picturesque and scenic, Durmitor offers a chance to explore the natural world through the energetic sport of water-rafting – a truly Montenegrin experience in its own right.
One of Montenegro’s clearest rivers, the Tara – named “The Tear of Europe” for its transparent beauty – is a must for any adventure seeker. You can also spend entire days walking and taking photos: the beauty along the way is simply breathtaking. Mountain bikes and fishing tackle for available for hire. Or take a dip in the cool waters and spend an unforgettable night by the shore, while enjoying the Adriatic sunset. Visitors might also want to take a look at the nearby towns of Kotor and Budva, each of them a combination of beautiful shorelines and remarkable architecture – the resemblance to Venice is hardly surprising given the historical ties between the two countries.
The coastal zone – one of the three major tourist regions in Montenegro – attracts visitors for a number of reasons: firstly, the sun and the sea, with beaches stretching over 70 kilometers in length. Then there are, of course, the characteristic specialties of Mediterranean cuisine, and – last but not least – a face-to-face encounter with the history of this unique culture, captured in the silhouettes of local churches and the inviting warmth of sun-caressed cobblestones in the country’s old streets and enigmatic cul-de-sacs.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the town of Budva is one of the oldest urban settlements on the coast. Influenced by both Greek and Roman civilizations, the town was constructed at the cusp of their respective powers. In the Middle Ages, it came under the rule of Serbian nobles, followed by 300 years of Venetian rule, before spending much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries changing hands between Austria, France and Russia. It was here, as part of Yugoslavia, that many lives were sacrificed for the sake of liberty in the fight against fascism during World War II, and that tragic story can still be traced in the winding streets of the town.
“Every Allied government gave me a decoration – even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea …” F.Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The spirit of old Europe is evident too in Kotor, one of the best preserved medieval towns on the Mediterranean. The region is dominated by its numerous churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, and specifically by the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, a Romanesque cultural monument of immense value with its 14th century frescoes, stone ornaments and gold and silver reliefs. But there is more to Kotor than just that. It is also situated next to a soothing bay, surrounded by palms and pomegranates, part of a spectacular coastline. For this reason, a trip on the ferry is the best way of enjoying Kotor’s coastal landscape.
If what you are looking for is taking a break from the gray skies of other parts of Europe, then Ulcinj is the place to go. Located on the far south of the coast – this spot was listed in January 2010 by The New York Times among ‘The Top 31 Places to Go in 2010’. It’s sunny throughout almost the entire year and has the longest sand beaches on the Adriatic; as an ideal environment for beach-volleyball tournaments, it attracts many fans of the sport every April.
Ulcinj has a range of over fifty beaches, each appealing in its own way: for family entertainment, for those seeking solitude, even – for those who enjoy it – a spot of nudist bathing – the choice is yours. The most remarkable are the beaches of the so-called Bojana-Riviera, situated on the triangular island of Ada Bojana which, thanks to is wealth of natural heritage, is often regarded as a national park all by itself. It’s also the perfect spot to windsurf or go sailing (the latter, very popular in Montenegro). Many high-profile visitors, from authors and filmmakers to businessmen, frequent Ulcinj and its environs. But Ulcinj has one further trick up its sleeve. A love affair with the sea
If you wish to add a taste of Mediterranean cuisine to your south-Montenegrin experience, there’s no question that Ulcinj will be your destination of choice. It’s the center of the Montenegrins’ love-affair with all types of sea food. Fishing is popular on Ada Bojana – famous for its wooden bungalows from where local fishermen cast their lines and nets. You can accompany them on a barge, and, if you’re lucky, get a chance to see the so-called ‘calimeras’, ancient devices specially equipped for fishing, whose design has been jealously preserved to the present day.
Of course, there are also plenty of restaurants serving fish, shrimp, and crabs, accompanied by Mediterranean vegetables. ‘Fishing Night’, a local festival celebrated in the month of August, is the culmination of all these traditions – an evening of fish, wine, folklore and dancing.
Along with fresh fish, the other staple of the local Mediterranean cuisine is the olive. Valdanos, one of the beaches of Ulcinj, is, in fact, one big olive orchard. Bar, another southern town situated opposite Italian Bari across the Adriatic, is home to the ‘House of Olives’ museum – an extraordinary project still in progress. This town also hosts a remarkable event called “Meetings under the Old Olive Tree” which promotes culture and poetry readings. The event takes place in Mirovica, a place where 2,000-year-old olive trees still stand. The last day of the Meetings features the planting of a new olive tree – a symbol of peace and friendship for all our futures.
It is a gastronomic truism that olives go hand-in-hand with wine, and Montenegro has both in abundance and variety. A bottle of red Vranac would be a good choice, but also Krstac, a white kind of wine that also goes well with different types of cheese. One very popular cheese is Pivski Kajmak, a traditional Balkan type, especially creamy and thick, and the inimitable local aftertaste. Historically, any Montenegrin cheese used to get part of its peculiar aroma from the wooden container in which it was prepared. Nowadays, however, it’s less common to prepare cheese this way, and the famous wooden tub has become more of a souvenir.
The north of the country is proud to have the highest quality of grain in south-Eastern Europe, and milk plays an important role – curdled, boiled, stirred and slightly salted – it tastes wonderful together with another domestic specialty, the polenta-based “Kacamak”.
Montenegrin cuisine has been crucially influenced by the local geography, where new recipes emerged during different historical epochs. The long domination of the Venetian Republic, for instance, resulted in the adoption of Italian bread-making, while the Ottoman reign introduced such dishes as moussaka, kebab and some Turkish sweets like baklava and tulumba. Austro-Hungarian influence can be traced to the local goulash (thick broths are very popular in Montenegro), and continental Europe projected its tastes by promoting crepes, Viennese bread, and doughnuts which – along with authentic fruit dishes like dried figs with walnuts and honey – are among Montenegro’s most popular desserts.
This brief introduction cannot hope to do justice to Montenegro’s extraordinary synthesis of exotic landscapes, sea, sports, waterfalls, sun, olives and wines (not to mention the popular pomegranate syrup and Niksicko Pivo for those who appreciate good beer). It is a neat coincidence that Montenegro – whose name literally means ‘Black Mountain’ – is something of a dark horse in southern Europe; and ironic that this tiny country provides such a spectacular kaleidoscope of vibrant color and life.