Montenegro: The Perfect Trip

Kayakers traverse Lake Skadar, the Balkans’ largest lake, which lies on the border between Montenegro and Albania
Photographer: Julian Love

Journey across one of the most affordable pockets of Europe, through a country full of spectacular landscapes, adorable towns and beautiful monasteries

WORDS: OLIVER BERRY
PHOTOGRAPHS: JULIAN LOVE

BAY OF KOTOR
A gateway to the Adriatic for thousands of years, this majestic natural harbour is rich with history

It’s early evening in the honey-coloured town of Perast. Boats are chugging home to port, and fishermen are casting their lines into the water, chatting and joking as they compare their catches before dropping them into baskets at their feet. A breeze blows over the bay, but the water is as still as a mirror, its surface reflecting white clouds scudding across a china-blue sky. Twilight bathes the town’s narrow, shady streets, picking out rooftops in golden tones.

“This is the best time of day. It’s always so peaceful,” says Nevenka Šarcevic, as she watches the evening ferries ply the channel between Perast’s quayside and Our-Lady-of-the-Rocks, the island chapel where she works as a curator. Inside, the chapel’s little museum is filled with centuries of flotsam and jetsam. Along one wall, there’s a collection of Greek amphoras and Roman headstones; on another, medieval muskets sit beside barnacle-encrusted anchors and a rusty gramophone. “Kotor has been home to many cultures,” says Nevenka. “We have even found prehistoric artefacts like arrowheads and cave paintings.”

There’s a reason that Kotor – or Boka Kotorska, as the bay is known to locals – is so steeped in history. Accessed via a narrow channel leading from the Adriatic Sea, it’s been a port for more than 2,000 years. Cradled by steep, scrub-cloaked cliffs plunging into cobalt-blue waters, it’s often mistakenly called Europe’s southernmost fjord – but it’s actually a ria: an inlet formed by a flooded coastal valley.

Unsurprisingly, the bay’s sheltered topography and strategic location made it an object of desire for many rival empires. The Romans first claimed it, founding the city of Acruvium here in 168 BC. Other civilisations followed: Illyrians, Saracens, Bulgarians, Serbs, Ottomans, Habsburgs and Venetians; the latter overseeing the bay’s golden age between the 15th and 18th centuries. During the 400-year reign, communities of artists and stonemasons created a fabulous legacy of mansions, palaces, churches and civic buildings.

Thirteen kilometres south-east of Perast, the walled town of Kotor bears the clearest reminders of its Venetian past. Within its castellated ramparts and stout sea gates, a maze of alleyways snakes through the Stari Grad, or old town. Now hidden under cobbles, these winding lanes were originally canals, allowing residents to float right up to the doors of one of the elegant, balconied palazzi lining the backstreets.

Today, the town’s squares are occupied by cafés and restaurants, but many still bear names that hint at their medieval past: there are squares for flour, milk, butter and butchery, as well as a gossipers’ square, where housewives would have gathered to exchange news. High above, a battlement leads up the sheer hillside to St John’s Fortress, where a watchtower offers a wraparound panorama over the entire bay – and would once have provided a vital early-warning system against seaborne raids. These days, corsairs have been replaced by yachts and cruise ships, and Kotor’s residents fear a different threat: earthquakes have levelled the town several times during its history, most recently in 1979, and no one is sure when or where the next big one might strike.

Not that it seems to be playing too much on anyone’s mind tonight. As the sun sets behind Kotor’s town walls, the main thoroughfare of Trg od Oružja – Arms Square – fills with drinkers sipping cups of black coffee and glasses of vranac wine at one of the busy street-side cafés. An accordion player sets up beside the old clocktower, and cranks out wheezy melodies as dusk falls. Above the town, the parapets of St John’s Fortress turn amber in the evening light, and village lights flicker into life in the darkening hills.

Four more stops in Montenegro, with an intriguing monastery, dramatic national park, and more, only in the December 2016 issue of Lonely Planet Magazine India. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.