You have visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome; looked up at the ceiling and witnessed the greatness of Michelangelo’s work. You have climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and gazed out over the rooftops. Perhaps you have visited Salzburg and listened to chamber music in the exact room where Mozart played at the age of six. In Munich, you have held a giant stein of beer, while singing along with the “Oom-pah” band during Oktoberfest. These destinations should be on everyone’s list of places to visit while in Europe. However, one of the advantages of living in Europe is to also visit the little known places. These gems provide experiences that will last in our memories forever. So where should you go to next?
It’s a short plane ride from Central Europe to the tiny country of Montenegro. Looking out the plane’s window, you will be immediately awed by the jagged peaks of the country’s interior. Montenegro, meaning Black Mountains, is one of Europe’s youngest countries; independence was achieved in just 2006. Basking in its independence, tourism is beginning to take off and how the country looks and feels today may not be the same in five to ten years. While the mountains are ruggedly beautiful, it is the country’s coastline along the Adriatic Sea that is one of the most spectacular sights in all of Europe. Here are three places that should be included in your Balkan itinerary.
From the capital, Podgorica, Budva is the closest resort town along the Adriatic coast. Budva buzzes with excitement during the busy summer season. Tourists flock to its beaches and participate in many summer festivals. With more than 18 sandy beaches, it is easy to find one that suits your interests. Vacationers also love the 270 plus days of sunshine each year. It is not surprising that Budva is Montenegro’s most visited city.
While a walk along the coast will provide you with ample opportunity for luxury yacht watching, do not forget that Budva, at 2,500 years old, is one of the oldest cities along the Adriatic. Finish your walk along the main city docks and within 10 meters you enter the gates of Old Town. The historical center is completely encircled. Within these walls, narrow streets hide boutique shops, quaint restaurants and historical sites. Just outside the walls, at the water’s edge, restaurants beckon you to sit, relax and enjoy a drink or meal while gazing out over the crystal blue waters of the Adriatic.
Nestled at the end of Boka Kotorska (Kotor Bay) lies Kotor. Surrounded by a majestic wall, Kotor is one of the best preserved medieval towns on the Adriatic. This quaint town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the ancient walled city is pressed between the Adriatic and the steep cliffs of the Lovćen Mountain. The Republic of Venice (yes, Italy) ruled this area from 1420-1797, and you can still feel its Venetian influences, from the emblem of St. Mark (Venice’s patron saint) adorning the city gate, to the town’s Venetian-style architecture.
Old Town Kotor is made for leisurely strolls down old, narrow and immaculately preserved stone streets. Stroll around a corner and you may find a quaint little square with several outdoor restaurants. In another square, you may come across an ancient church; the town has five. Don't miss the Cathedral of St. Tryphon — originally constructed in the 8th century, the present structure dates from 1166.
To understand Kotor’s prior strategic importance to the region, follow the path that stretches up the cliffs along the town’s city walls. The fortifications encircle the town, stretching more than four kilometers in length, and are 20 meters high and 15 meters wide. To reward you for your climb to the top are the fortress of St. Ivan and spectacular views of Kotor and the bay.
Unlike many tourist towns where increased tourism is making it difficult for locals to reside in the historical sections, Kotor is a living, working town. Nearly 3,000 residents live in the Old Town, and these people contribute greatly to its vibrancy. They live, shop, and dine in Kotor. It is not uncommon to hear the playful voices of children playing ball in the streets or see families together at a neighborhood restaurant.
A few miles away from Kotor is the tiny village of Perast. Like Kotor, Perast is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, with 16 Baroque palaces, 17 Catholic churches and two Orthodox churches. The Venetian influence continues in the architecture and extends to the churches on the islands close by. Perast has a vast sailing history; Peter the Great sent men here to learn navigations skills, and many of the stories and legends center around maritime activities. At its height, Perast had four active shipyards, a fleet of more than 100 ships and 1,600 residents. Today, you will encounter a sleepy little village that is worth a bit of exploring.
At the water’s edge, you will find local boats, which for a small fee will take you out to the island of Our Lady of the Rock. It has a fascinating history. In the 1400s, two sailors saw a rock jutting up through the water. Upon closer inspection, they found a picture of the Virgin Mary poised against the rock. They viewed this as very good luck and for 200 years, sailors coming to Perast dropped one rock for good luck in the same area. Residents also took part moving wrecks of old ships to the location. Within 200 years, an artificial island was formed. In 1630, the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rocks was constructed. Today, the tradition of throwing rocks into the sea continues. Each year on the evening of July 22, local residents take to the sea in boats and throw rocks into the sea near the island.
The beautiful, tiny chapel houses artifacts from the region, and the painting of the Virgin Mary found all of those years ago has been placed at the altar. On the walls are hundreds of silver plates left by sailors when they went off to sea so the Lady of the Rocks would protect them. In addition to the chapel, the small museum is well worth a visit to view a tapestry completed by a local woman. While she waited for her husband to return from his long journey at sea, she embroidered a beautiful tapestry of the Madonna and Child. What makes this piece more intriguing is that she used her own hair, which turned from golden to grey over the 25 years that it took for her to complete the work.
The natural beauty of Montenegro is unparalleled. Its people are eager to impress visitors, and the history is intriguing. It should definitely be on your bucket list.