Our next travel adventure brings us to a small country that is relatively unknown. Set on the edge of the Adriatic, Montenegro is a pristine spot to discover eastern European culture and hospitality.
My friend Andrew Villone has spent lots of time in Montenegro, visiting often with his tours or on vacation from his home in Slovenia. I wanted to introduce you to some destinations you may not be familiar with, so I invited Andrew to share a bit about one of his favorite spots.
I first visited Montenegro, or Crna Gora at it’s known by its citizens, on a day trip from Dubrovnik back in 2003. The first time I actually overnighted there was in 2006, the year it got its independence from its northern neighbor Serbia. Located in Southeastern Europe, it lies on the Adriatic Sea and borders many of its former Yugoslav neighbors plus Albania.
With a population around 650,000, Montenegro ranks as the 9th smallest by population in Europe and 10th smallest country by size. Nearly 20 times smaller than its neighbor across the Adriatic, Italy. The country’s name literally translates to black mountain. There couldn’t be a more apt description than that. Take away its 190 mile coastline, the largest lake in the Balkans and just enough flat space to squeeze in a capital city, some vineyards and an airport and the rest seemingly is mountain upon mountain. My Montenegrin guide likes to refer to it as the biggest small country in the world. The joke is that if you flattened down all the mountains out you would have a country as large as Russia.
But don’t let the size fool you. I once drove a mere 200km (125 miles) and spent nearly seven hours in the car! Confirming my suspicion on Wikipedia, Montenegro is one of the last countries in Europe that does not have any official motorways. But there’s never a boring drive here with its towering mountains, serpentine roads, highland pastures, clear-blue Adriatic waters, tiny islands hugging the coast and ancient monasteries. Not to mention that most local drivers appear to have graduated from some sort of Italy’s worst driving school.
FUN FACTS ABOUT MONTENEGRO
Brad Pitt’s first leading role was in Montenegro.
Before hitting the big time, a very young looking Brad Pitt got his first leading role in a Yugoslav production called The Dark Side of the Sun. Although shot in Kotor and other locations around Montenegro in the late 1980’s, the film was not completed and released until 1997 because of the civil war that broke out in the early 90’s.
Montenegro was at war with Japan for over a 100 Years!
In 1904 Russia and Japan went to war. Montenegro wanted to show allegence to their slavic brothers so they declared war on Japan. After joining Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918, Montenegro was not independent again until 2006, when they finally ended their ‘war’ and a peace treaty was officially signed.
Home to one of the first protected areas in the world
Of Montenegro’s 7 national parks, Biogradska Gora has been under state protection since 1878. This is only six years after Yellowstone was declared as the first national park in the world.
Training ground for some of the world’s finest navies
After a peaceful meet up with the Russian navy in the Baltic Sea, Peter The Great decided to send his admirals and captains down to Montenegro for maritime training in the Bay of Kotor. Many respected admirals and captain (like Matija Zmajević, see photo) in both the Venetian and Russian navy were from the town of Perast [where we are staying for 3 nights on Taste of Adriatic Tour].
Daniel Craig’s first Bond movie, Casino Royale, was set in Montenegro
Unfortunately, not a single scene was shot here as many exteriors in the film were filmed in the Czech Republic and Lake Como.
Home to the father-in-law of Europe
Nikola I Petrović-Njegoš was prince and eventually king of Montenegro for nearly 60 years. In that time he had 12 children, 9 of them daughters. Five of the daughters were married off to foreign princes and kings. The most notable were to a Grand Prince of the Romanovs in Russia and one to Victor Emmanuel III, Italy’s last king.
Won the war but lost Independence
While Italy was famous in the first part of the 20th century for ‘lost the battle, but won the war’, Montenegro’s fate was a bit more cruel. An independent country in 1914 at the outset of the First World War, Montenegro came in on the side of the Allies. When the war came to a close in 1918, it ending up losing its independence as it was swallowed up by the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later to become King of Yugoslavia and then just Yugoslavia).
Uses the Euro currency even thought its not in the EU
When Yugoslavia dissolved into just Serbia/Montenegro in the later 90’s, the official currency was the Dinar. But with such high inflation, Montenegro started to use the German Deutsche Mark as its currency. When Germany switched to the Euro in 2002, so did Montenegro. No euros are actually minted here nor is Montenegro very close to joining the EU. Carrying the euro sure makes it easy for visitors here.
When is a fjord not a fjord?
One of the country’s most icon and spectacular sights is the Bay of Kotor. Massive mountains come crashing down into the Adriatic Sea. This should be the southernmost fjords of Europe (heck, even Lonely Planet declard this so). But this bay was not created by glaciers. It was made by a submerged river valley connected to four bays. Proper fjord it is not. That’s not a bad thing! It’s doubtful that the fjords in Scandinavia are dotted with such beautiful Venetian towns and mussel farms.
Building an island, rock by rock
The extremely photogenic Our Lady of the Rocks island is in the middle of the Bay of Kotor. It’s actually an artificial island created by years and years of old boats and rocks piled on top of each other. Back on July 22 1452, two sailors found a painting of the Madonna and child floating near a rock in the water.
Considering this a miracle, the sailors pledged an oath to honour their find with a worthy sanctuary. Eventually, the island and then the church were built at this location. Now every 22nd of July the inhabitants of Perast commemorate the events of 1452 with the Fašinada, where participants in a string of boats all chained together bring rocks and stones to drop into the sea around the island.
All that fresh air, sunshine, inexpensive wine and tempting beaches can make most people a bit lazy. But Montenegrins aren’t just a bit lazy, they are really lazy or so the stereotype goes for them (their men most specifically). During Yugoslavian times, all the different republics had their own stereotypes. Eastern Europe is lot less PC than the U.S., thankfully, they take their stereotypes in stride. For sure the best jokes I’ve heard are the ones my guide in Montenegro will bust out, though probably not fitting for this blog. So instead, here is a wonderful postcard exposing their code of laziness. You can find it pretty much anywhere in Montenegro where there are tourists.
Black is the New Red
When is red wine not red wine? When it’s served in Montenegro. Let me explain. They have red wines here. In fact, most wines–certainly their best offerings, are red. But since the color is usually quite deep and opaque they prefer to use the word crna (meaning black) rather than crvena (meaning red). Vranac is the king of reds here and is something you can find throughout most of the Balkans. White wine drinkers looking for something different should try Krstač, the autochtonous (or non-international) varietal in Montenegro.
Andrew Villone is the owner of Savor the Experience Tours. He runs small group, boutique tours of Eastern Europe focusing on his favorite topic: food and wine.