One of my favorite things about visiting the Balkans is the ease with which one can hop from country to country. On my most recent trip to Croatia, I wanted to explore some of the regions that share its border. But with only a week to spare, there was no time to rent a car and spend days road-tripping around. No matter! There were plenty of tour companies at the rescue. I was able to spend a day visiting the likes of Mostar and Kotor… all from a home base of Dubrovnik! There’s nothing I love more than a good day trip, so if you’re heading to Croatia, consider adding another country to your itinerary… like picturesque Montenegro!
Montenegro earned its independence from Yugoslavia and became an independent country in 2006. It shares a border with Serbia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and of course, Croatia – which is what makes it such a great excursion from bases like Dubrovnik. The name ‘Montenegro’ literally translates to black mountain, owing to the rugged and stony hills that define the region. And of course the azure gem that sits in stark contrast to the obsidian peaks, not unlike of the great fjords of Norway, is the famous Bay of Kotor.
I could have easily spent a full week in Montenegro, relaxing in some little town on the coast. But the highlights of the Bay of Kotor can easily be seen in a day from Dubrovnik, whether by car or by tour. The road snakes around the bay, through villages and fortified Venetian cities that draw in tourists while managing to retain a relatively undiscovered atmosphere. Still, there’s no doubt that Montenegro will continue to rise in popularity. Just take a look for yourself.
The road heads south from Dubrovnik into Montenegro until it reaches the bay, passing through the villages of Igalo and Herceg Novi before winding along the water towards Perast. A quaint town, Perast sits far from the cruise ships that bring tourists into Kotor. It’s the kind of town one escapes to for a quiet week on the water. There isn’t a ton to see, save a few lovely churches and a stroll past the Venetian architecture, but the locals are affable and the views second to none.
The highlight of Perast actually sits out in the middle of the bay. There are two small islands here – a private one houses the Saint George Benedictine Monastery while the other is a unique artificial islet. Completely man made. Legend has it that a local seamen found the image of the Madonna and Child on a rock at sea in 1452. After every successful voyage, a new stone would be tossed in the same spot in the bay. Over time, these rocks formed an island, which today houses a church and museum. A ferry will taxi visitors to the island for a few euro.
Another twenty minutes down the road sits Kotor, the gem of Montenegro. This fortified city on the eponymous Adriatic bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see why. Pass through the walls into Stari Grad (the old town) and wander through the labyrinth of narrow marbled streets. Having been ruled by the Venetian empire for centuries, the architecture still reflects its influence. With such a small historic center, the best advice is to just wander from piazza to piazza. Visit the Cathedral of Sveti Tripun (Saint Tryphon), the Church of Sveti Luka (Saint Luke) or the Church of Sveti Nikola (Saint Nicholas). Sit at an outdoor cafe and indulge in some local seafood or homemade rakija. Visit the infamous cat museum or say hi to one of the may felines you’ll see wandering the city. Walk atop the stone walls.
Or the best of all? Climb the 1350 something steps up the mountain that towers over Kotor to the Castle of San Giovanni. On your descent, you’ll pass an old church and the remains of a fortress where the castle once stood. But most important is the view over the city and bay from the top.
From Kotor, continue south from the bay towards the coast until you come to another fortified city – Budva. The city is more sprawling than Kotor was – it can even feel quite modern. But find your way to the sea and you’ll discover the old town. Budva is actually well known for its nightlife. A sleepy resort town by day, the city is youthful and buzzing come night. Yachts fill the marina outside the city walls, and further down the coast is lined with sandy beaches and waterfront restaurants where you can eat with your toes in the sand. Inside the walls, the city is much like Kotor – meandering streets and archways lined with shops and cafes and bars.
Bay of Kotor
From Budva, it’s time to return back to Croatia. You can’t see everything in a day (but you damn well came close). The road is the same you came in on, but the bay is otherworldly as the sun begins to set. To cut time off your journey, there is a ferry that runs from Lepetane to Kamenari. It will drop you off not far from Herceg Novi, and then it’s on to the border and back to Dubrovnik. But before that, savor the fifteen minutes as you cross the bay. The breeze is fresh. The hills dance their way along the coastline for as far as the eye can see, and the water is so still it could be glass. Montenegro feels like a corner of the world that hasn’t quite been discovered yet, and you’ll feel lucky enough to see it for yourself.
Looking for another day trip from Dubrovnik? Check out my day trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina here!