When we made our plans to go to Croatia and Slovenia we saw a chance to do a Montenegro road trip before joining the tour group.
We may never know why Mitt Romney was in Montenegro but he was and we tailed him for a brief while. Good thing we remembered how to drive a stick shift so we didn’t end up in the car with him…
At luggage claim in Dubrovnik Blonde stood beside the Mittster although he seemed to not register this fact. After we picked up our car and were on the highway we ended up behind a chauffeur driven Mercedes with Mitt and his wife in the back seat. We were behind them to the border crossing of Montenegro.
We can’t help but wonder (but not for long) if Mitt has written about being in front of us. But what more proof did we need that Montenegro may be making inroads into its desired reputation as a destination for luxury travelers?
Driving in Montenegro
We hadn’t done a European road trip in 3 years so we were looking forward to proving to ourselves that we could still function independently. Spoiler alert: We succeeded.
Before leaving we arranged our rental with Auto Europe and made sure the car could be driven from Croatia to Montenegro. Any time you plan to take a car from one country to another make sure it’s OK to do so. Also understand that you may incur extra costs for doing so which in our case were 37.5 euros (about $42 USD).
Another thing to do in advance is check to see if the country requires an International Driver’s License. They’re documents that you buy at AAA offices and that no one ever asks to see. We’ve read cautionary tales of people without them who got heavy fines when they were pulled over for some reason. So we resentfully got them. As per always with us, no one wanted to see the things.
Armed with an expensive and essentially useless map as well as pre-printed Google directions we set off for our hotel which we expected to be about a 2-hour drive (and it was). Our map and directions were useless as we never once saw a sign showing the route we were on. However, there’s only one road for all of the coastal destinations so we didn’t get lost. (We did follow the speed limit after seeing a cop with a radar gun right after we crossed the border and then one about another 20 minutes down the road.) We even managed to easily find and navigate the car ferry for a short crossing en route to Budva.
We based ourselves in Budva for our 4 nights in Montenegro. Budva has a small but charming walled Old Town that we enjoyed exploring during the day and where we got lost one night while trying unsuccessfully to find a particular restaurant.
Budva is on the coast so we hired a man with a boat to take us out to get a view from the water and so we could go for a swim. The color of the water looked fake but it was real and, once we got used to it, a nice temperature.
We got glimpses of beaches we were planning to drive to the next day and saw a free-standing crane bungee jump that, fortunately, we never saw anyone using. (Staying out of a hospital in Montenegro seemed to us to be a good goal.)
Budva seems to be relatively undiscovered by Americans but firmly on the radar map for Russian tourists. One of Budva’s big tourism draws (not for us) is its many open-air discos. After a night trying to sleep wearing noise-cancelling headphones we had to surrender our room with a view for a quieter location.
If you’re seeking a quiet coastal getaway don’t stay on the main strip in Budva; consider one of several resorts on the edge of town. Several of the resorts are very expensive in keeping with the goal of luring luxury travelers so be sure you read reviews and price compare before booking a place.
On the second day of our Montenegro road trip we decided to go to the public beach at Sveti Steffan. The road to get there challenged our driving skills. On the way in you drive along a steep cliff that doesn’t have any guard rails. On the way out you have to hug a steep drop-off to a ditch with no shoulder on the road or room for error.
Like most beaches on the Adriatic coast, the one at Sveti Steffan was all pebbles. We brought water shoes to guard our tootsies and were impressed to see hardier visitors laying right down on the rocks to sunbathe or read. Yikes!
The water was lovely and the beach wasn’t crowded as we were there the week after the main tourist season had ended. Although it’s a public beach you have to pay to park and to rent a chair and umbrella.
After we were dry and had lunch at the lovely Olive Garden restaurant near the beach we explored part of the coastal walkway. The walkway reminded us a great deal of the Costa Brava region of Spain – its landscape, views and the nature walks all felt welcomingly familiar.
When we were planning our Montenegro road trip we looked up the top places to see and there was wide agreement on Lake Skadar so we dutifully headed there. From Budva it was about an hour’s drive to Virpazar where you can arrange for a boat trip on the lake.
The lake is the largest in the Balkan peninsula and forms the natural border with Albania. It’s a karst lake which refers to the types of rocks (limestone, gypsum and dolomite) and the underwater caves and sinkholes they create. Skadar Lake has lily pads and reeds and the water is a deep shimmering blue.
In Montenegro the lake is a “managed nature reserve” which means it’s environmentally protected by the government.
We took brief and chilly dips in the lake because after all it contained clean water and we were there!
We also enjoyed – after some initial skepticism – a regional treat, Priganice, of small balls of fried dough dipped in honey and chased down by some regional cheese. It was a good thing we had the lake there to rinse our fingers afterward.
Kotor was on the way back to Dubrovnik and we are never ones to pass up ancient seaside cities that are UNESCO World Heritage sites so we paid it a visit. This fortified medieval city was charming with its crisscrossed streets, Romanesque cathedrals from the 13th century and remnants of its history as a town for sailors and merchants.
Always a sucker for a view from above Blonde paid 3 euros to nearly break her ankle on the pathway above Kotor. The path is very rocky and really isn’t so much a path as somewhere you can see other people have walked. It does afford nice views and we hear that you don’t have to walk the whole way to the top of the hill to enjoy the views.
We also checked out Our Lady of the Rocks in Kotor Bay across from the town of Perast. Legend (although we have our suspicions) has it that the island was built rock by rock by sailors. In 1452 sailors are rumored to have seen an image of the Virgin Mary and the Christ-child here. After every successful voyage they would lay a rock in this spot so a church could be built on top of the rocks. This tradition continued down through the centuries and eventually this is how the islet was formed (they sure were tidy rock depositors).
The church itself was built in the early 1700s. It is not an active church today but couples can get married in it if they plan far in advance, pay a lot of money and really want to keep their guest lists small.
When the road ended (so to speak)
We enjoyed our brief road trip in Montenegro and the flexibility it gave us to see what we wanted when we wanted. The driving wasn’t for the distracted but it wasn’t difficult. If you decide to go don’t stress too much about maps as you won’t ever find the route numbers anyway and there is usually only one road from one place to another.
The beautiful Adriatic coast and the Mediterranean climate combine to make Montenegro a tempting, safe and reasonably low-priced destination (unless you’re going the luxury travel route).
We’re happy we made the effort to go and even happier that we and the car emerged no worse for the wear.
Disclosure: Auto Europe provided us with a stick shift Ford Fiesta in Montenegro. If they’d given us a BMW we swear we would have still said the same things about our Montenegro road trip.