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Balkan beauty

With majestic mountains, breathtaking beaches and lush landscapes, Montenegro proves that good things come in small packages

Once shadowed by the more popularly known European tourist hotspots, Montenegro has gradually worked its way into the limelight. This tiny Balkan paradise covers only 300 kilometres of the continent, yet its marvels are mighty. Dramatic mountainside scenery outlines the country’s northern belt, while the southern coast stuns with dazzling beaches. And with locals who love to feed, it all comes together as a truly memorable escape.

We visited in early July, without much knowledge of what to expect as the country was only beginning to capture the world’s attention. And now its unique offering is bursting at the seems. Backpackers will be delighted with the numerous hiking opportunities available in the country’s Durmitor National Park; while beachgoers can soak up the Adriatic sun on some of the country’s best beaches. Keen to experience a mix of both adventure and leisure, our itinerary took us on a road trip around the country, starting from the sun-kissed port of Kotor and concluding with thrilling pursuits in the northern town of Zabljak.

Brooding mountains running along the Bay of Kotor give this town an almost laidback feel, but Kotor is anything but that. The bustling city streets by day and buzzing mood by night seem juxtaposed against the city’s medieval architecture. Eager to acquaint ourselves a little more with the local vibe, we made our way to the Old Town Square. A maze of museums, churches, art galleries, street food stalls, cafés, clubs and shops selling all manner of trinkets, it is here where you can feel the city’s pulse. It made for a truly eventful afternoon that we spent taking in the chaos and the calm.

A little further down the street from the Old Town Square lies one of the town’s biggest highlights – the Castle of San Giovanni, a 19th-century fortress that towers 1,200 metres above the city. Although it’s a rigorous walk up to the top (approximately 1,350 steps), we were accompanied by several other travellers on our journey, eager to capture a stunning shot with the Montenegrin flag perched at its highest point with panoramas of the entire city in the background. Although the ramparts appeared dilapidated in several places, the fortress itself was remarkably well preserved – it was almost like journeying back in time.

Dramatic mountains outline the north, while the southern coast stuns with dazzling beaches

We decided to reward our three-hour effort of hiking up the fortress with a lazy evening by the beach. Jazz Beach, located 20 minutes away from Kotor, is one of the largest sandy stretches in Montenegro and also incredibly popular, which, for us, meant that there was not a single empty spot in sight on the sand. Luckily, a hot dog vendor revealed that a hidden beach existed roughly 10 minutes away from where we were. A well-guarded secret among locals, there are no references to it online. But if you walk along the stretch of food stalls towards the east from Jazz Beach, you’ll know you’ve found the spot when you stumble upon a pebbly shore with deep blue waters in the backdrop.

Day two in Montenegro took us close to the southern tip of the country, where, in the tiny town of Stari Bar, a 2,000-year-old olive tree is still standing strong. The town itself doesn’t have much to offer aside from this living piece of heritage, but history buffs will love the medieval architecture with olden-style houses and cobbled streets.

From Stari Bar, the capital city of Podgorica can be easily accessed. It might not be as vibrant as Kotor, but it’s home to one of the country’s most stunning sights – The Niagara Falls. While the attraction might not resemble its namesake – the thundering cascades in Canada – it’s beautiful in its own right. During our visit on a Sunday afternoon, we saw families setting up a picnic by the stream, and taking breaks for a dip. Having not packed a picnic for ourselves, the nearby restaurant, also called Niagara, made for a wonderful lunchtime spot. With tables set along the river, we enjoyed our afternoon feeding the ducks that swam up close to the banks before dipping into the warm waters ourselves.

On our way back to Kotor, we took a slighter longer (albeit scenic) detour for a photo stop along Skadar Lake. The largest lake in Southern Europe, the views are best found up the winding road just before descending down to the lake, from where you can see the border of Albania. It gets eerily quiet after sunset and with no streetlights to guide you back down the mountainous road, it’s better to plan Lake Skadar as an early stop. The most adventurous of all, day three began with a heavy downpour in Monte- negro, but it did not dampen our plans. Having decided to move our base further north, we planned our day to make as many stops along the way to take in the country’s most prominent tourist attractions.

We started out towards Mount Lovcen, where the mausoleum of Petar II PetrovićNjegoš, an early 19th-century ruler of Montenegro, lies at its peak. We drove up to the highest point possible and from there, it was a 460-stair climb to the summit. While the imposing structure itself is a stunning architectural marvel built in black stone and marble, it’s the views from the top that are equally worth your attention.

From this point, we continued on our journey further north with one pitstop in the central town of Zeta. It is here that you will find one of the world’s most visited religious sites among Orthodox Christians. Resting almost miraculously in a cliff face 900 metres above the Zeta valley, the gleaming white Ostrog Monastery is a true Montenegrin symbol. Such is its legacy, it is said that even nonbelievers commonly “swear to Ostrog” when promising to do something.

Sectioned into two parts, the lower monastery has vivid frescoes which were created in the 17th century and from here, pilgrims can walk barefoot up the steep road to the upper monastery. After taking a few moments to admire the stunning murals, we chose to drive up the narrow winding path to the shrine on top. Although magnificent, its position at the edge of the cliff doesn’t give visitors the chance to grab a glorious shot from the front. But it’s a wonder to behold because its creation still remains a mystery as no one has been able to figure out how the structure was built. In fact, it gives the impression that it has grown out of the rock, which adds to its intrigue.

Finally, we set out on a stretch towards our new base in the sleepy town of Zabljak. Dotted with glittering glacial lakes, dizzying canyons and limestone peaks piercing the clouds at 2,000 metres, this sleepy town is one of Mother Nature’s true masterpieces. Its biggest highlight is Durmitor National Park, which sprawls out generously over the entire town and runs along the boundary of the Durmitor mountain range, where expert hikers flock to in search of adventurous pursuits.

For beginners like us, there were several smaller, well-marked trails in the national park, some traversing lower peaks, a few others boasting high chances of encounters with brown bears and wolves. But with no inclination whatsoever to make new furry friends (or potentially turn into their food), we decided to trek the easiest and most scenic route on our first day in this new town.

The main walking path in Durmitor National Park begins and ends at the entry point to the Black Lake (or Crno Jezero as it’s locally known). Being tucked away in the heart of a conifer forest gives this glacial lake its striking emerald colour. Spanning over three kilometres, the path took us a little less than two hours to complete. Park benches, placed at various points along the trail, offered momentary relief from navigating the undulating terrain while doubling up as vantage points to stop and admire the breathtaking landscape. We playfully indulged every impulse to pick up strewn pinecones, steered kayaks down the lake and also witnessed a local memorial service by the banks.

Dotted with glacial lakes, dizzying canyons and limestone peaks, Zabljak is nature’s masterpiece

Barring a handful of cosy cafés that serve up delicious local staples, the town almost comes to a standstill after sunset. But we were pleasantly surprised to discover that Zabljak is the country’s hub for adventure sports. Fitting, once you learn that it is home to Tara Canyon, which is Europe’s deepest canyon. Tara River, on the eastern edge of the National Park, pierces through the mountain to form this 1,300-metre-deep gorge. The stunning cascades of green running along the edges of the mountain are best viewed from the Tara Bridge that arches over the canyon. But for those who like taking in scenic sights with a side of thrills (much like my travel partner), zip-lining and rafting are two popular activities offered here.

Following three eventful days in the north, which filled our diaries with new hiking adventures, zip-lining expeditions and rafting excursions, we returned back to Kotor on our last day in the country. With one last evening on our itinerary, some well-deserved relaxation was on the cards, which we accomplished by checking into a plush beachside retreat in Porto Montenegro to wrap up our visit in style.

The details FLIGHTS Flydubai offers direct flights from Dubai to Tivat in Montenegro on Mondays and Fridays from June to September. Connecting flights are available all year round. ACCOMMODATION Tivat/Kotor: Regent Porto Montenegro Nestled on palm-fringed shores of the Adriatic coast, Regent Porto Montenegro is the ultimate luxury retreat in Porto Montenegro village and a playground for Europe’s socialites. Zabljak: Hotel Soa This five-star hotel on the edge of Durmitor National Park offers all the creature comforts of a luxury retreat in the heart of nature. DINING Nobu, Sveti Stefan: This stunning venue, offering a blend of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine, is renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s concept in partnership with Robert De Niro. Murano, Regent Porto Montenegro: The menu centres around fresh seafood, prepared with locally sourced and organic herbs, all offering a distinctive take on the regional Adriatic cuisine. TOP SIGHTS Fortress of San Giovanni in Kotor for sweeping panoramas over Kotor Stara Maslina to witness one of the oldest olive trees in the world Mount Lovcen for dramatic aerial views of the sweeping mountains Ostrog Monastery to view a 17th-century structure carved in the face of a cliff Durmitor National Park to get in sync with nature To plan your escape, please call 800-CONCIERGE


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