Heaven IS a place on Earth and it’s called Montenegro. It is simply beautiful and not in the clichéd travel-brochure ways. It’s dramatic, with enormous, impossibly rough, rocky mountains that look unclimbable, even if their lower slopes are tree speckled. It’s green, with an abundance of pine and palm trees, and scrub and dense forest, but it’s also hot in that southern Mediterranean way….
Podgorica airport had ferocious-looking border security, who looked like extras from a well-cast 1990s-set film about a Balkin war. The car rental was a mini-saga all unto itself: Alamo had never heard of our booking or that of another couple who had also booked through the same third-party company (Atlas Choice, in case you’re interested. I don’t yet know who is at fault: Alamo or Atlas Choice, so am reluctant to point fingers, but to be on the safe side perhaps best not to book a rental car through either until I get to the bottom of it…). As Alamo simply didn’t have any cars there for us to rent – booking or no – various expensive phone calls to the UK help center ensued. Atlas Choice finally said go ahead and get a rental from someone else, and we will reimburse you and get Alamo to fund the difference. As the chap from the other couple affected said, “It sounds good, but I’ll be amazed if it ever happens…”
So, hello Budget car rental! And here I came across the first major difference between most European countries and Montenegro. They wanted payment upfront and in cash. Really?! Wow, OK… Well, I suppose it keeps things simple and, to be honest, I’m not keen on credit cards anyway, so it kind of suited me, but is unusual in this day and age, especially as there was no credit card info taken against damage or my running off with their vehicle. Was sort of trusting in a nice way.
Our blue car is a make we’ve never heard of: Dacia. Am sure some car geek out there knows if this is the Montenegrin version of, say, a Datsun or whether it’s simply made by a Balkin car firm, but personally? I’m not bothered. Is a cute, tinny little car that goes a treat.
And so on to the notorious Montenegrin roads. Can I just say: whatever you’ve read, the driving here is actually totally fine. Sure, if you’ve only driven in, say, rural Somerset or the back roads of Maine, you might find it challenging, but if you’ve ever driven in Paris, Rome, New York or London, trust me, you won’t notice much difference. What I think is, everybody is used to the style of driving in the country they live. When they go somewhere else and don’t understand the style there, they rail and cry, “What crazy, terrible driving!”, while the natives rail in their cars and think, “These foreigners! What crazy, terrible drivers!”
The challenge for me, though, was that I’d had maybe three hours sleep tops, had got up at 2.30am to catch the 6.30am flight from Stansted, and was in new territory. As anyone who reads this blog may have noticed, I never name anyone, but I will share that I am traveling with my son and his generation can’t read maps. Don’t believe me? OK, get in a car in a strange place with someone in their early 20s, pass them a map and ask them to navigate. Then we’ll talk.
Fortunately, there aren’t too many roads here. It’s a big, empty place with a population of roughly 600,000 give or take 30,000. That’s the whole country. Yep, and you know what? It’s bliss to be somewhere where you’re not jostled and crowded all the time. I guess I’m old enough to remember when the world wasn’t as packed as it is now, and this country reminds me how nice it was when you could actually find some space to be alone.
However! Those who are here are mostly along the coast, so when we hit it, bang, there was the rampant development, the sardine-tin packed beaches, the tourists in all its tic-tac glory. We carried on though and, after a few exceedingly dark, fumy tunnels (“Are my lights on? How come I can barely see?”), we came out into an astonishing bay. Huge, rugged, Mordor-like mountains rise up on all sides and in the middle teal-colored water. “Oh. My. Wow,” was all I could say. Along the rim of the water are mostly little stone-built houses, with the occasional newer development but, thankfully, nothing too hideous or eye-catching. It’s like popping out into another time and place altogether, and I held my breath that our apartment would live up to all this promise.
Don’t start throwing things at me, but it’s totally blissful. A terrace overlooking the bay, so that we can watch the boats come and go and, in the evenings, keep an eye on the dribble of traffic that passes below. We are near enough to the town of Kotor to see it across the water and be able to walk (20 minutes) or drive there (5 minutes) whenever we feel like a bit of ancient action – it’s a perfectly preserved, 9th-century fortified town with stone ramparts we will walk one evening. But we are nicely just far enough away from it to enjoy its beauty without having to know anything about its day-tripper hoards.
Yesterday, after a late start (cheese ‘mumlette’ for brekkers), we took Lonely Planet’s advice and headed to Plava Horizant, allegedly a contender for ‘best beach in Montenegro, but get there soon before it’s developed’. I can report back that it is indeed a lovely crescent of white sand bounded on both sides by pine forest and with handy concessions selling bottled water, beer and soft drinks; plus a restaurant serving pizza, French fries and food of that ilk, as well as providing decent toilets. Also? No music nor the now often-ubiquitous beach club. Cheers all round. Three euros to park all day made it a bargain as well and we stayed until 7.15pm, at which point it was still warm enough to swim, but I was ready to begin the evening activities: salad and tapas-style small plates on our terrace with plenty of the very drinkable local red, Vranac, until about 12.30, over which we talked and played cards and talked some more).
I fell asleep thinking how much I’ve missed my son (he moved out a couple of months ago) and how very lucky I was to be with him in quite possibly the nicest place I’ve ever been. OK, have just remembered a couple few other places that are also contenders for Nicest Place I’ve Ever Been, but trust me, it’s in the top five.
Montenegro, you’ve exceeded expectation.