Montenegro, the mini-state in Europe’s Balkan region, is a fast riser on the must-see lists of backpackers all over the world. The combination of an insanely beautiful coastline and the rugged wilderness that lurks behind it has gotten everyone’s attention it seems. But travelling around in Montenegro, especially if you’re backpacking and on a budget, still is a bit of an adventure.
The main reason is that besides the luxurious Bay of Kotor Montenegro isn’t that well developed yet. There’s plenty of hotels and campsites, sure. But most of them are past glory when former Yugoslavia was still a popular destination. So everyone’s building and renovating it seems. At least they were when we were roaming the country in 2014.
If you would go now, you’d probably notice it less. And you’d probably encounter not as much other tourists. That’s one of the reasons Montenegro is so interesting now, you’d get all the shiny new infrastructure without the hordes of tourists (yet). So I penned down our itinerary for those who want to explore Montenegro freely, backpacking from campsite to campsite, while it is still possible.
Luxury and a summery feeling in the Bay of Kotor
Montenegro is most famous for its Bay of Kotor. If you haven’t seen one of the stunning images of its panorama, then you’d certainly have heard of the luxurious yachts that lie in its harbour. When you touch ground in the small airport of Tivat, it’s just a brisk walk to the renovated apartments, waving palmtrees and gigantic, shiny boats.
We decided to keep the tourist trap that Tivat is in our rearview mirror as soon as possible and went searching for a budget friendly campsite and the real Bay of Kotor. Walking along the only motorway around the Bay of Kotor isn’t fun or safe. There’s no room for hikers or bikes and there’s lot’s of dangerous bends in the road. So we put down our backpacks at the first campsite we encountered in Lepetane, just a few hundred yards before the ferry station.
Autocamp Verige isn’t a bad campsite at all, you can pit your tent under a roof of grapevines and the sea is just a skip away. But the €10 per night and the very loud party just over the street was a bit under our expectations.
The next day we took the free ferry to Kamenari, a village at the other side of the bay, and went looking for this sweet restaurant we heard about. Konoba Catovica Mlini is supposedly one of the ’50 Hidden Gems of Europe’ and we couldn’t agree more! The fish is so fresh that it’s still wet behind the ears and you’re dining in a truly idyllic setting. Prices are affordable, but too bad it’s still a dangerous hike of 6km from Kamenari along the dreaded motorway.
The old Kotor and the ascent to Krstac
Giving in to ‘King Car’ we had no other option than boarding a bus to the old Kotor village. For a measly €2pp we could squeeze ourselves in between the other sardines and were dropped off again right in front of the local produce market of Kotor. What a treat!
We stuffed ourselves and our backpacks, but completely overlooked the fact we still had a fairly hard climb ahead. The Old Ladder of Kotor is a winding mountain path that leads up high looking over the Bay of Kotor with some truly stunning panoramic views. Some practical tips: forget the New Ladder of Kotor, that’s a boring motorway; and don’t get fooled by the entrance fee for climbing up to the Castle of San Giovanni, the true (and free) start of the Old Ladder is situated just left outside the ramparts of the old Kotor.
That day we must’ve had lead in our shoes or a donkey in our backpack, because the climb up to the (non-existing) village of Krstac wrecked us completely. Luckily our spirits were lifted by the excellent views over the bay, but also that came to an end when we started walking into the clouds. Clammy and exhausted we reached the top of the plateau and discovered Krstac was only a cheap mountain restaurant and some far away farmhouses.
According to our map we should’ve seen the Ivanova Korita campsite, but it was still some kilometers walking upwards. In our current condition we decided it would be best if we set up camp in the inviting meadow just on the side of the road. 😉
How we barely got to see NP Lovćen
The night got frightfully cold and we only had some flimsy sleeping bags with us. In part to save on weight in our backpacks, but also to outsmart the summer heat. Too bad we hadn’t thought of freezing nights high up in the mountains. Fool me once, never fool me twice!
So we woke up to stiff muscles that had to carry us all to way to Park Lovćen and the Ivanova Korita campsite. In the middle of the park, right on top of the Jezerski Vrh peak, you can find the mausoleum of Njegoš, the prince-bishop of Montenegro. That spot would yield the best panorama over the country and was high on our to-do list. But the weather decided otherwise.
After just 3km out we were trapped in a major thunderstorm that soaked us to the bone. Everywhere we looked were thick, grey clouds and the only thing on our minds was to find a place to shelter. But we couldn’t find none. So the only option we had left was to hitch-hike for the few cars that passed us by. Incredibly lucky for us a French-Bosnian couple stopped and picked us up!
They drove us, without asking, to the mausoleum, but it wasn’t any good. Up the mountain the rain was even heavier and lightning bolts rumbled right beside us. Back down, near the place they picked us up, they said goodby again and drove back to the safety of Kotor. Not wanting to sleep in this kind of weather, we completely ignored the signpost to Ivanova Korita and walked along in search of a warm bed.
Some 4km further down the road we found an overly expensive little hotel with just one room left. We couldn’t be bothered to remember its name, but did use their hairdryer to dry our clothes up to the point the electricity gave out. 😉
A delightful stroll to Cetinje
I think we were punished enough by the weather, because the next day there was a merry sun up in the sky just shining away. The hairdryer eventually did its job and with renewed courage we set out to walk all the way to Montenegro’s former capital, Cetinje.
This time no climbing, but a pleasant stroll downhill and a feeling of freedom as light as a breeze as we walked past flowery meadows and rugged mountaintops.
Cetinje itself wasn’t really much, a bit bleak and gloomy. So we immediately went in search of the train station, we luckily found thanks to the help of a taciturn little boy on his BMX. We barely had time to thank him, because we instantly boarded the bus (€3,5pp) to the current capital of Montenegro, Podgorica.
Most beautiful train ride of Europa: Bar – Belgrado
After some crazy hairpin bends we arrived in the smouldering Podgorica and longed for the cool mountains again. The mountain of ice cream at the stations eathouse was just small comfort. Luckily we could catch our train soon enough and were looking forward to the majestic views that lay ahead. The part we were travelling (Podgorica – Mojkovac: €2pp) was one of the most beautiful parts and thus we were glued to the windows.
But if you’ve got some spare days in your itinerary you should definitely make a detour to NP Skadarsko Jezero to visit the famous Skadar Lake. Some amazing sights and unique hikes will be your part. We’re still beating ourselves up for letting that opportunity go by!
At that time we couldn’t care less. All the valleys and mountains that passed us by took up all our attention. Nature’s grand! And minute by minute we were growing more anxious to actually walk around the primeval forest of NP Biogradska Gora ourselves.
When we arrived at Mojkovac station there were some taxi’s waiting to take us to Biogradska Gora (€8) 10km up the road. We briefly considered walking all the way, but our experience in Kotor Bay made us wiser. The roads in Montenegro are dangerous for backpackers everywhere.
The primeval forest of Biogradska Gora
The park welcomes you by way of the magnificent Biogradska Jezero (jezero = lake) surrounded by centuries old trees. For €7 the woman in the official park lodge waved us somewhere between the trees to pitch our tent. Campfires are permitted and the toilets have scorpions. Now, that’s our kind of place! 🙂
You can make some amazing hikes in the forests of Biogradska Gora, all the way up to the mountaintops. Too bad we couldn’t enjoy any of it, as we were tied to the relative safety of the lake area because of the weather. But you shouldn’t sulk in that situation, even just around the lake nature is breathtaking! Just take the tour around the lake to be amazed by swamps and extraordinary vistas over the lake. And the grey weather gave me this photo opportunity as well. 😉
Near the lake you can find a small restaurant that serves fresh trout for just €5. Delicious!
Durmitor National Park here we come!
If it wasn’t entirely clear that our itinerary through Montenegro is a concatenation of (almost) every national park, we’re telling you now. 🙂 The Durmitor National Park was the last one on our list and we had high hopes. After getting wet again in Biogradska Gora we were hoping on some better weather and actually hike up some mountains!
First we had to haggle with our taxi driver over the price to take us to Žabljak, in the center of Durmitor, some 70km further West. Actually we hoped to save some money by finding a bus or to hitchhike, but we had no such luck. We had to shell out €20 to take a seat in his charming (read: unwashed) cab. A brief stop at Đurđevića Tara Bridge gave us some good photo opportunities and two extra passengers. Too bad it didn’t make our price go down (the space on the backseat did though).
The best trick up our driver’s sleeve still had to come. He secretly made a deal with a local campsite owner in Žabljak to drop us off as paying customers. Campsite Razvrsje welcomed us for €6 per night with some syrupy Bosnian coffee and a shot of Rakija, the local liquor. When no-one was watching I gave my glass to my partner, two sips already made me feel woozy. After his drink the taxi driver took off with a €5 reward. Ah well, the campsite wasn’t half bad!
From this campsite we made some superb hikes in Durmitor park, to Crno Jezero and even further up in the mountains.
On one of the days in Durmitor my partner decided to take part in canyoning in the Nevidio Canyon. Too bad he couldn’t make any pictures of his own, but he says it’s a must-do for thrill seekers alike! He counted 4 big jumps, an underwater part and a bunch of technical descents. I wouldn’t know, because I choose to relax at the Black Lake (Crno Jezero). If you’re looking for adventure in Durmitor you just have to walk down the main road in Žabljak to find numerous small and large outdoor organisations.
Bye bye Montenegro and hello Bosnia
After some 4 days of hiking fun and adventure in Durmitor it was time for the next leg of our journey. Instead of returning to Kotor or Podgorica we opted to travel to Bosnia. Early in the morning we got on the bus to Nikšić where we transferred to the bus in the direction of Sarajevo.
Looking back upon our trip through Montenegro I was most surprised by the rugged nature still to be found in Europe. Just that and nothing else makes Montenegro a worthwhile destination. Travelling around goes just fine as well. Public transport, though sparse, is cheap and enough to get around. Just around Mojkovac you have to rely on taxi’s, but even then it isn’t big money out of your pocket.
When backpacking and camping you have all the freedom in the world. No reservations necessary, ample space to place your tent and democratic prices. Just don’t forget a warm enough sleeping bag, because even in summer the nights are cold.
If I could mention drawback it’s the language. Only the younger people (in larger cities) speak some English, but in rural areas you only have sign language to speak to each other. Don’t let that scare you though, we did just fine and everyone is very helpful!
So, is Montenegro the number one travel destination of 2016? You betcha! I’d even say more, don’t wait to book your tickets! With the rapid developments in Montenegro it’s just a matter of time before the peaceful backcountry is tailor-made to tourists. Right now you can still enjoy one of the last pieces of true wilderness in Europe.