On May 21, 2006, the people of Montenegro flocked to the polls, casting their ballots in a referendum for independence. It was a dramatic proposition for this small Balkan region, whose people had spent much of the last century under the umbrella of Yugoslavia, before forming the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro in 2003. But by the slimmest of margins—2,300 votes out of more than 400,000 cast—Montenegrins surpassed the required 55 percent threshold and declared themselves an independent nation.
With each passing year, another writer, another adventurer, another travel publication catches on to this beautiful pocket of Eastern Europe. Thanks to a pristine Adriatic coastline, towering rocky mountains, and a little misleading publicity from James Bond in Casino Royale, it’s only a matter of time before the secret of Montenegro gets out—and the crowds start rushing in.
But for now, have a weekend very much to yourself on the banks of the Bay of Kotor, a breathtaking fjord that’s a short and scenic drive from the southwestern border with Croatia. Make your home base at the Hotel Villa Duomo, which offers lovely private apartments in the beautifully-preserved walled city of Kotor.
So if you find yourself driving through the mountains of Montenegro, here are some unforgettable ways to spend three days.
Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay
Less than 60 miles separate Kotor and Dubrovnik, making the Pearl of the Adriatic an ideal starting point for this Montenegrin road trip. Just don’t panic when you cross the border—the uninspired Yugoslav-era high rises of Herceg Novi aren’t symptomatic of what’s ahead.
Only after passing the Verige Strait will you have your first glimpse of the jaw-dropping inner Bay of Kotor, and an understanding of how the region has remained so lovely—and so protected—for centuries. From the Venetians to the ancient Illyrians, residents of the Bay of Kotor have used this narrow bottleneck to both monitor the ships that enter the bay and defend their settlements from hostile outsiders.
The Secret Garden
Take a short detour off the water’s edge to the village of Morinj, where an unforgettably atmospheric lunch awaits you at Konoba Ćatovića Mlini. Owned and operated by the same family for more than 200 years, this traditional Balkan restaurant specializes in fresh fish, meats, cheeses, and homemade wines—and a patio oasis on which to enjoy them (85338 Morinj, follow signs from town).
Say Hi To Your Brother Tito!
Back on the road, close your eyes as you pass the unfortunate communist architecture of the Hotel Teuta in Risan—and do your best not to linger in beautiful Perast, the quaint hillside village you’ll see again tomorrow. For now, your destination is the old city of Kotor, a tiny unspoiled gem nestled in the bay’s southeasternmost reaches.
With centuries of history that have seen the Illyrians, Romans, Serbs, Venetians, Austrians, and Yugoslavs as settlers, this fortified city is a joy to behold. Upon entering the central Sea Gate, look above you to read the words of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the controversial authoritarian leader who ruled Yugoslavia from 1953 until 1980—and whose death spurred its unraveling. A loose translation reads: “We do not need other people’s things, and we do not give our own.”
As you step inside the bustling Square of Arms, fold up your map and allow yourself to get lost in the maze of narrow alleys, picturesque squares, and inviting cafés. But whatever you do, make sure to find beautiful St. Luke’s Square and its 12th century Serbian Orthodox church, conveniently located next to the local favorite Scorpio Caffé.
Another Brick In The Wall
Carved into the mountainside high above Kotor, nearly three miles of stone walls have been protecting the city for centuries, most notably during a two-month Ottoman siege in 1657. Built between the ninth and 19th centuries, Kotor’s very own Great Wall is among the most elaborate fortification systems in Europe—and an unforgettable thrill to climb.
Eat a delicious breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Villa Duomo, pack a picnic for the afternoon, and enter the city walls near St. Mary’s Church. The initial steep climb will bring you to Our Lady of Health, a 15th century church that was believed to have healing powers in the wake of several plague epidemics. And if you think those views of the fjord are good, keep climbing to the Fortress of St. John, built on the remains of the ancient Illyrians’ fortifications. It’s a spectacular sight well worth the 1,350 steps.
Islands In The Stream, That Is What We Are
Spend a leisurely afternoon sunbathing on the banks of Perast, the Venetian Baroque fishing village opposite the mouth of the Verige Strait. From your perch, gaze out over the water to the bay’s two islands, the tree-lined Island of St. George and the smaller, manmade Our Lady of the Rocks. Legend has it that after two 15th century fishermen discovered an icon of the Madonna and Child in the water near St. George, men at sea would drop a stone into the bay after each successful voyage—eventually forming the new island. Today, the island’s Roman Catholic church is a popular site for weddings—as well as bridal bouquets left as offerings.
The Two Towers
Back in Kotor, grab an outdoor table at La Pasteria, known for its delectable Italian pastas and its prime location across the square from the Cathedral of St. Tryphon. This Roman Catholic cathedral was consecrated in 1166, although a great earthquake in 1667 seriously damaged the structure. Due to insufficient reconstruction funds, the two towers of this Romanesque cathedral are markedly different from one another.
Gonna Make You Sveti
Spend your last day in Montenegro soaking up the sun near Sveti Stefan, the luxe resort peninsula that became a playground for the rich and famous in the 1960s and 1970s. Patronized by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, Sveti Stefan has the look of a mini-Dubrovnik, but it also boasts the fine pebble beaches that Croatia’s rocky coast often lacks. And even if you’re not in the market for a staggeringly expensive room at this five-star Aman Resort, nothing says you can’t enjoy the nearby public beaches, a mere 20 miles from Kotor.
The Giving Tree
After a long day in the sun, bring the evening—and the weekend—to a close on the forested patio of City Restaurant. Perched on a ledge overlooking the Cathedral of St. Tryphon, this secluded patio is a wonderful place to enjoy fresh seafood, pastas, and pizzas. So relax with a bottle of wine (or two), and raise a glass to another long weekend to remember.
TITLE: The Bay of Kotor, from Perast | FRIDAY: St. Luke’s Square; the maze of alleys in Kotor; the Square of Arms | SATURDAY: The beginning of the city wall climb; Kotor, from the city walls; the Bay of Kotor, from Our Lady of Health; the Fortress of St. John; the Fortress of St. John; Perast.