Montenegro is Europe’s unsung summer destination. Rugged coastlines where mountainsides seem to sprout up from the sea against golden beaches and seaside towns built up from ancient stone. Slowly, this coastal Balkan country is becoming the “next Croatia”, but it’s still unspoiled by comparison. Dubrovnik is only a couple of hours drive from the Bay of Kotor, yet the two seem different.
I like to travel off-season. There are plenty of perks when it comes to skipping out
on the beach crowds – less-crowded spaces, lower prices – but there is a downside, and that’s the weather. Fortunately, I hate spending the day lying on a beach when I travel. Of course, this comes with the added risk of rain and more rain.
Driving over from Croatia to Montenegro, the rain pelted down on the car in a consistent, rhythmic beat against the rooftop. The clouds swelled above the mountains in a dramatic symphony of greys, ashen tones melting into off-whites like watercolor paint being mixed by a brush.
The moody sky only enhances the
mountains, covered with rugged shrubs and wind-beaten olive trees. The water in the Bay of Kotor lies like smooth glass, sometimes shivering under the raindrops.
As we draw into Perast, a village dotted with Venetian church towers and stone houses sits on the bay in contemplation. The chairs and tables dappled with puddles that stretch out on terraces along the bay are empty, and the view over to the two small islands unhindered. A small boat rocks in the jetty, normally taking people over to the domed green church at Our Lady of the Rocks.
With my umbrella propped open, instead I walk up and down the rain washed prominade besides the pines and orange trees to one side, looking out across the bay on the other to the Church and the stone monastery enclosed with cypress trees on the neighbouring island of St. George, known locally as Sveti Dorde. It’s a natural island home to a 12th century Benedictine monastery and the resting place for the town’s nobility.
The neighboring island is actually an artificial island, constructed upon rocks and shipwrecks. Inside, the church is cluttered with a collection and paintings dedicated to the Madonna. In the 17th century, the church was built after local fisherman found an icon of the Madonna and Child on the rocks in the 15th century. The church and the Lady of the Rocks is said to protect seamen.
Leaving Perast, the road winds on to Kotor, which rises up in Wagnerian drama shrouded in mist behind an old city wall. The stone streets shine like polished mirrors in the rain, but even that’s not enough to deter me from hiking up to the fortress crowning the town from the top of the hill.
The rain stops momentarily, and the view over the town and the bay looks like a
painting. The swirls of cloud topping the jagged peaks of the mountains, the subtle, tranquil blue of the bay and the pops of color from the terracotta rooftops and flowering heather bushes complete the scene.
But away from Kotor’s dramatic mountain landscape, even Budva with its sandy beaches carries some melancholic beauty. The beach still fights back the greys with a golden hue. Yet the fort, overlooking the sea and the island is empty, and the wind flaps the vivid red Montenegrin flag more vigorously, as the sea whips up a foam with each breaking wave.
Even though I am cold, kind of soaked and ready to go back to my favorite wine bar Dubrovnik I am grateful I get to see Montenegro with a different kind of poetic beauty, one wild, unhindered, and embracing the elements.
(To see what the area looks like in high season, check out our webzine story Biking Across Borders in the Balkans.)