Montenegro has featured in some prestigious literary circles: ‘Little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!’ Jay Gatsby sardonically exclaims in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Luckily, this small but significant municipality has cast off Fitzgerald’s literary sarcasm and emerged as a pristine and increasingly popular destination of choice for yachting enthusiasts.
Sandwiched between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Albania, Montenegro has had a tumultuous and complex past. It emerged in 2006 independent from Serbia, but the Yugoslav Wars were less than three decades prior and hadn’t been kind to the nation.
Beauty of a bygone past
Despite this turmoil, Montenegro has surfaced aesthetically unscathed. The Medieval and fortified city of Kotor is a Montenegro UNESCO World Heritage Site and is at the epicentre of the Montenegrin coastline. It’s the perfect example of Montenegro’s enduring, whimsical and indifferent beauty, wedged between brooding black mountains and the eerily tranquil bay, it is a deeply visceral place. In fact, Kotor is almost claustrophobic, hemmed in as it is by staunch walls which snake improbably up the surrounding slopes. Straddled by two massifs of the Dinaric Alps – the Orjen mountains to the west and the Lovćen mountains to the east – the best way to gain perspective of Kotor and appreciate its vast and imposing surroundings is by the water.
In fact, most great cities and towns are best seen by the sea, and you wouldn’t want to visit Kotor and not have access to a boat. The Bay of Kotor is the ideal location to moor your Sunseeker yacht and Sunseeker Adriatic is also based in the bay and can assist with any queries you might have.
A cruise around the Bay of Kotor will offer you more than a mere stunning vista of the Medieval town and its neighbouring vertiginous cliffs. Our Lady of the Rocks is an artificial islet in the centre of the bay and is often the first stop off for those traversing by boat.
Our Lady of the Rocks
The islet is instantly recognisable – it’s the commercial poster stamp for Montenegro. Eponymously named after the Catholic church that predominantly occupies the island (Gospa od Skrpjela in Montenegrin) it is a place (like most of Montenegro) shrouded in mystery and legend.
It doesn’t surprise me that the travel guide lapses into a fanciful story about how the islet was created and formed. Logic aside; locals believe it was created by two brothers returning from a ‘dangerous voyage’ in 1452. As they passed the 12th century monastery on the mainland they heard a cry from a rocky outpost in the middle of the bay. When they went to investigate, they discovered an icon of the Virgin Mary and Child. Taking the icon back to the mainland, various miracles were performed, which were accredited to the religious insignia. Such were the brothers’ amazement at the spiritual power of the icon, they decided to create a church (and an island – it is man-made) in the middle of the bay to commemorate their good fortune.
It is no wonder that tourists are growing ravenous for Montenegro; the languid lifestyle, limestone cliffs, quiet piazzas and crystal shoreline are difficult to resist
Taken out of context, such a story could seem implausible. But here, underneath the imposing Orjen mountains, a place shrouded in legend, mystery and let’s face it, stoicism, such a story is customary and habitual.
It is no wonder that tourists are growing ravenous for Montenegro; the languid lifestyle, limestone cliffs, quiet piazzas and crystal shoreline are difficult to resist. But, don’t think you are the first tourists to be welcomed to these shores. There have been some famous visitors in the past: yachts have been slinking in since the 1960s when Princess Margaret, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren were on deck sipping martinis and sunbathing topless.
Discovering the authentic Montenegro
But now, Montenegro is known not merely for its pristine, unblemished shoreline, rather we have grown interested in discovering the authentic Montenegro, which is essentially a heterogenous fusion of various cultures, lingos and faiths.
From Kotor, spiral your way down (by boat or car) to the old town of Budva. Here, you’ll notice the distinctly Venetian architectural and aesthetical influence (in fact, a lot of Montenegro was construction by the Venetians – Our Lady of the Rocks is a prime example). Budva is known for its 17 stunning beaches and lively nightlife and the town pulsates with an infectious and gregarious energy.
Sveti Stefan is a mere six miles east of Budva and is a must-see. It’s a seminal city for Montenegro, defined by a tombolo, a rare geographical feature made up of an island connected to the mainland by a sand spit. It’s always been a playground for the rich and famous (Kurt Douglas and Liz Taylor, to name a few), but the austere 60s glamour is a far cry from the island’s modest and provincial past.
Former ghost town
Located at the foot of the Lovcen mountain ridge, the fort on the island was built in 1442 (when it was first settled). Like much of coastal Montenegro, the fortified walls were a preventative to the continuous pirate attacks and raids from the Turkish. Fortunately, Sveti Stefan was the seat of the powerful Pastrovic clan, which prevented the relatively vulnerable Sveti Stefan from being taken over by bandits. Settlement on the island slowly diminished over the years and by the time of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) there were only thirty families left.
The island was taken over by Aman Hotels in 2007 and now it is exclusively for guests of the resort. The 80-acre estate is the ultimate in luxury vacation and stays, guests can even enjoy exclusive access to the Queen’s Beach on the mainland. For those in need of pampering and indulging the Aman is the ultimate in luxury stays.
The romantic and tragic poet, Lord Byron once called Montenegro’s Adriatic Coastline, “the most beautiful encounter between land and sea.” Considering that Lord Byron traversed some impressive ground in his day – two years travelling to Portugal, Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece and Turkey as a young man on his Grand Tour, and then departing again in 1816 for Italy, Switzerland and finally, Greece – it is a complement of no small feat.
We have (through necessity) long neglected Montenegro and its 295km coastline. However, it is starting to open up again and travellers are discovering its uniqueness, beauty, mystery and enigma.
Magic of Montenegro was published in Sunseeker Magazine, Issue 60