Selected departures from April to October 2019
There aren't many countries in Europe that could still be classed as a hidden gem, but Montenegro has been largely overlooked and underestimated. However, this tiny Balkan beauty – incredibly diverse for a country smaller than Wales – is beginning to attract visitors, so now is the perfect time to catch it. There's no doubt you'll be warmly welcomed, as Montenegro is enthusiastically throwing open its arms, keen to show off its awe-inspiring mountainous landscape and the spoils of a fierce struggle through history to achieve independence.
While Montenegro today proudly stands apart from its Balkan neighbours, its turbulent past, including 50 years under Communist rule, has delayed its development – it's almost as if someone pressed pause a few decades back and time stood still. This certainly adds to the country's unspoilt charm, and even its most-visited destination, beachfront Budva, has yet to succumb under the tourism limelight. The roads can be a challenge to navigate, which is why a guided tour with an experienced driver is recommended.
Despite its name, which literally means ‘black mountain’, the scale of Montenegro's jutting terrain is still astonishing. The mountains aren’t shy of the coast, and the peaks of the rocky Lovćen range provide the backdrop to our stay. With the sparkling sea on one side and limestone mountains looming on the other, our base in Budva couldn't be more dramatic. An enthralling journey into Lovćen National Park brings us to Njeguši, a tiny traditional village where you'll experience a clash of the Alpine and Mediterranean climates that are created by Montenegro's unusual geography.
From Njeguši we travel to Cetinje, Montenegro's old royal capital, which sits on the opposite edge of the national park. As the official capital of Montenegro from its declaration of independence in 1878 until 1946, Cetinje has been an important cultural and historical centre since its founding in 1482. The entire city is a treasure trove of Montenegrin history, proudly showcasing the former Palace of King Nikola, the 19th-century 'Blue Palace', and Montenegro's impressive National Museum complex. And yet a lack of overdevelopment means that Cetinje still manages to retain a pleasant, local town feel.
While Mother Nature has no doubt blessed Montenegro with a fascinating topography of tremendous mountains, thick forests and lush valleys dotted with olive groves – all splashed by the occasional sparkling lake, there have been tumultuous times, too. Multiple earthquakes have left their mark, from the lean of the clock tower on Kotor's main square to the ruined city of Stari Bar.
Our Balkan adventure also takes us over the Albanian border to visit the multi-cultural city of Shkodër. Together with trips to the mountain-backed Bay of Kotor and the incredible cliffside Ostrog Monastery, a boat ride across tranquil Lake Skadar and free time to explore the Budva coastline, this tour embraces Montenegro in all its mountainous, mesmerising glory.
Arrive at the airport for your flight to Dubrovnik, where we transfer by coach to the four-star Hotel Budva, which is 5 minutes from the city beach and 10 minutes from the atmospheric Old Town.
This morning is spent getting acquainted with Montenegro's most popular coastal town, which makes up part of the beautiful Budva Riviera. Enclosed on three sides by lush, tree-covered mountains, Budva follows a gentle coastal curve to a charming harbour, where gleaming white fishing boats, sailboats and yachts line the walkways and jetties. Just beside the harbour sits the medieval old town, which stands out from the shoreline like the jewel in Budva's coastal crown. We'll explore within the Venetian old town walls with a local guide, finding our way through the narrow streets to the seaside citadel, where the crumbling fortress walls drop dramatically into the Adriatic.
Early afternoon we head inland to the Šipčanik wine cellar which, hidden underneath a vast vineyard at a depth of 30 metres, is one of the most unusual wine cellars in the world. What was once a secret underground aircraft hangar operated by the Yugoslav People's Army is now a cavernous wine cellar, with rows of neatly stacked wooden vats storing around two million litres of wine. A tour around the vineyard and a tasting in the curious cellar complete the afternoon.
Today brings an epic journey through some of the truly spectacular scenery for which Montenegro is famous. From the coast we travel through the mountains into Lovćen National Park, where we discover Njeguši on the slopes of Mount Lovćen. This cluster of old stone houses was the home village of the Petrović-Njegoš dynasty, the family that ruled Montenegro from 1696 to 1916, and the residents warmly welcome visitors with roadside stalls laden with colourful handicrafts, mountain honey and some of the country's best ‘pršut’ ham and Njeguši cheese.
After a short stop in Njeguši we continue to Cetinje, the old royal capital of Montenegro and the first official capital city after Montenegro's recognition as an independent country in 1878. What's interesting about Montenegro's intriguing 'second city' is that it retains a village feel, nestled within a green vale surrounded by rocky mountains, yet it boasts some of the country's most important sights. These include the pretty Blue Palace which, despite Cetinje passing the capital city baton to Podgorica in 1946, is still used as the President's main residence, and the Royal Palace of King Nikola, which served as the seat of the Montenegrin royal family between 1867 and 1926. Elegant mansions and tiny cottages sit side by side to illustrate this contrast between rustic and regal.
A tour of the russet-red Royal Palace of King Nikola – which is now a museum with the Crown Jewels of Montenegro as its showpiece – precedes free time in the city, which you could spend walking neat-as-a-pin Main Street lined with quaint pastel-coloured houses, admiring the stoic stone complex of St Peter's Monastery or visiting the four museums that form the National Museum of Montenegro.
This morning we head inland to the town that was perhaps never meant to be. Stari Bar or 'Old Bar' is a fortified town that now lies in overgrown ruins on the shrubby foothills of craggy Mount Rumija. It has a long history of invasions, including takeovers by the Venetians, Serbians and Ottomans, before being reclaimed by Montenegro in 1878. Alas, it was the land itself that put an end to this much fought-over town when the 1979 earthquake led to its abandonment by locals, who decided to establish a new port-city by the water – New Bar. A walk to the top of the crumbling hillside fortress will reward you with enchanting mountain and countryside views, although you might prefer to soak up the unique atmosphere over a coffee in one of the flower-draped cafes that line the cobblestoned climb.
After our short stop in Stari Bar, a scenic drive past the old farming villages that sit in the green and fertile low-lying countryside takes us over the Albanian border. Shkodër, our destination in Montenegro's equally evocative next-door neighbour, was founded in the 4th century by the Illyrians, making it one of the most ancient cities in the Balkans. As capital of the surrounding county, the centre of Roman Catholicism in Albania and the traditional heart of the Gheg cultural region, Shkodër is an important hub of history, religion and culture. You'll see fascinating mosques and churches alongside one another. The city's most impressive sights include St Stephen's cathedral – which, unbelievably, was used as a sports hall during Albania's Communist era – and the striking, domed and turreted Ebu Bekr mosque, which lies just behind the city's flower-adorned monument to Mother Teresa, perhaps the most well-loved Albanian. The ruined Rozafa fortress that overlooks Shkodër and its surrounding three rivers is also a prominent city landmark, although the legend of a female sacrifice being built into its stone walls adds a rather macabre perspective!
We make the short journey from Budva to the resplendent Bay of Kotor, which winds inland from the Adriatic, flanked by the limestone peaks of Mount Lovćen. The shores of this picture-perfect bay, which is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, are dotted with sleepy fishing villages and charming old towns, and Kotor makes an ideal first stop. This moated town is one of the many fortified coastal towns in Montenegro showing Roman influences, with Romanesque churches scattered around its medieval marble-pathed maze, including Kotor cathedral with its imposing twin towers. We can also see reminders of four centuries spent as part of the Venetian empire, including a Venetian fortification system – featuring stone-carved 'Lions of Venice' – to defend the city from the sea. Enclosed by four gates, which punctuate the ancient city walls as they climb steadily up the craggy mountainside, Kotor is impressively well-protected!
The bustling daily market adds a splash of vibrancy, with locals bartering over stalls stacked with pots of flowers, boxes of fruit and vegetables, honey, cheese and colourful buckets brimming with olives – the mingling aromas, rainbow of colours and hum of trade truly invigorate the senses.
A little way around the bay we come to impossibly idyllic Perast which, like Kotor, benefited architecturally from Venetian rule. Traditional old-stone buildings sneak up the leafy hillside from the water here, fronted by a well-preserved line-up of churches and palaces, with the spired tower of Saint Nikola's dominating the scene.
Perast is renowned for its man-made island, crowned by Our Lady of the Rocks, an attractive blue-domed church. The legend goes that the island was built by local sailors who, after finding an icon of Madonna painted on a rock, threw rocks into the lake after every successful voyage, eventually building the church to give thanks to Madonna for their protection. If you reach through a hole behind the altar, you can touch what's said to be the original rock! There's plenty to see inside the church and museum – all donated by grateful locals – including a collection of paintings by Perast-born Tripo Kokolja, a 17th-century Baroque artist, and a dazzling tapestry embroidered by Jacinta Kunić-Mijović, who is said to have woven her own hair through the gold and silver threads! We follow a boat trip to Our Lady of the Rocks with a scenic drive around the beautiful bay, then a ferry brings us back across the water at the narrowest point of the bay for our return to Budva.
You have the entire day to explore Budva at your leisure. Perhaps visit the peaceful Podmaine Monastery, a medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery which nestles in the foothills of Budva. Or wander between the old town churches, including the 9th-century Church of Santa Maria in Punta, said to be one of the oldest in Montenegro; Saint Ivan's whose bell tower can be seen soaring over the red roofs; and the orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity with its distinctive pink and honey-coloured stonework.
A stroll along the beach takes you to the elegant bronze ballerina who has become an icon of the city. In the heart of the old town, you can immerse yourself in the Montenegrin café-culture, with cafes, bars and restaurants spilling out onto the narrow medieval streets. It's impossible to go wrong with a catch-of-the-day lunch, washed down by a cool Nikšićko beer or a glass of the local wine.
This morning we drive the mountain road to the miraculous Ostrog Monastery. Set into a sheer elevation of the Ostroška Greda rock, some 900 metres above the verdant Zeta Valley, the Ostrog Monastery gleams like a pearl in the craggy cliff face. It's so impossibly positioned that it's difficult to imagine how a team of 17th-century builders could achieve such a feat – in fact, how it came to be remains a mystery.
Prepare yourself for a riot of colour inside, with frescoes and mosaics telling tales of religion from the walls, ceilings and columns. You can also join the pilgrims in paying your respects to Saint Basil of Ostrog, whose bones are carefully kept in the monastery's shrine.
From the divine to the delightful, we now depart for Lake Skadar, the vast body of water that bridges Montenegro and Albania. After time for lunch at a lakeside village, we board a boat for a relaxing cruise. If you're lucky you may spot a passing pod of pelicans or some of the other 260 species of bird that call this beautifully clean freshwater lake home. With a glass of traditional fiery grappa in hand, we end our tour of magnificent Montenegro, surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of Lake Skadar National Park, where tree-covered karst mountains are reflected in the tranquil glassy waters.
Transfer to the airport for your return flight.
The price of this holiday is per person based on two people sharing a twin room. Single rooms are subject to availability at the relevant supplement. The price includes return flights, seven nights’ accommodation with breakfast and four dinners, all local taxes and transfers, all tours as mentioned, entrance to the palace of King Nikola Petrovico, the old fortress in Stari Bar, a boat trip and entrance to Our Lady of the Rocks church, a boat trip on Lake Skadar, the Sipcanik wine cellar, and the services of a Riviera Travel tour manager.
UK passport holders do not need a visa for this holiday. However please be aware that holders of other passports may require visas for entry into Croatia, Montenegro and Albania. We advise you to check with the relevant embassy prior to booking.
UK passport holders must ensure passports have been issued within the last 10 years, are undamaged and valid for 3 months after the planned date of departure from Montenegro.
We want to ensure you make the correct choice before you book your holiday with us. If you have any concerns regarding the suitability of the holiday due to reduced mobility we would encourage you to call us to discuss these concerns. General information on mobility in connection with our tours can be found here.
All transfer times listed here are approximate, and dependent on traffic. If you have a question regarding transfer times please don't hesitate to contact us.
|Airport||Hotel location||Transfer time|
|Dubrovnik Airport||Budva||2 hrs 30 mins*|
*depending on the border crossing
Whilst the travelling schedule shall pose no problems for people of any age in normal physical health, we would point out that in visiting a number of historical sites, paths may be uneven and uphill and we often enjoy walking tours of the main sights. Therefore, this holiday may not be suitable for clients of greatly impaired mobility.