I was sitting on a Croatian beach a few years ago, staring in amazement at the glorious Adriatic Sea, when my traveling companion said, "If you think this is beautiful, you should see Montenegro someday." That day finally arrived this summer, when my friend Leslie and I decided to celebrate her birthday with a trip to the small country north of Albania and south of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
If you haven't already heard, Montenegro is the latest hotspot in the former Yugoslavia. Second-home buyers and investors have been pouring money into the country since it declared independence from Serbia last year. High-end hotel company Amanresorts is even restoring the resort island of Sveti Stefan (see this issue's cover). But as we discovered on our journey along the coast, you don't need to spend a fortune to visit Montenegro.
Locals are certainly excited about the country's possibilities. "Could you help me market my business in America?" asks our taxi driver as he speeds along a narrow road toward Boka Kotorska, the T-shaped fjord between Monte-negro's coast and its interior. Our first stop is Kotor, a medieval town pressed against craggy mountains on the right arm of the Boka.
After spending the night at the Hotel Marija, a former palace with rooms that face the mountains, Leslie and I hike to the 14th-century Fortress of St. Ivan. Kotor's narrow streets have yet to catch the morning sun, so there's a slight chill in the air as we begin to scale the 1,350 stone steps to the top. On the hill, vibrant red poppies attract butterflies that flutter around our feet, and we can see the blue-green fjord stretching away from the city's labyrinth of alleys.
In Kotor, all roads lead either to the main Square of Weapons or to St. Tryphon Cathedral, which is adorned with cream-colored Korcula stone pillars. We stop for lunch at City Caffé Pizzeria near the church. (Montenegro's culinary mainstays are pizza, pasta, risotto, and grilled fish.) Then we pop into the Maritime Museum for a look at Kotor's seafaring past. The Boka Marine, a fraternity founded over 1,000 years ago, is responsible for much of the museum's collection of medieval maps, gleaming cutlasses, and Japanese ivory figurines.
The next morning is cool and gray. We pay less than $2 each and board a minibus for a day trip to Perast, 30 minutes down the fjord. The bus drops us off in a square lined with Venetian Gothic buildings, all in various stages of renovation. Perast's main attraction is Our Lady of the Rock, a jewel box of a church built on an island. Silver bas-relief squares cover the church's walls, and a museum displays antique compasses next to pietà tapestries.
That night, we have drinks at Cittadella, a café with views of Kotor. Reclining on white-cushioned chairs, we order a bottle of Vranac, a light red wine that reminds me of Beaujolais. As night falls, the city's walls are illuminated by spotlights, creating a chain of light up the mountain. Leslie notices that a new portico is being erected nearby. Things are literally being built before our eyes.
I don't realize just how quickly the country is being redeveloped until we head for the resort town of Budva. Bracing myself for a twisting bus ride over steep mountains, I'm surprised when we shoot through a newly constructed tunnel and within minutes enter Budva. A group of workmen is cutting into an ancient olive grove, revealing the gnarled roots of a tree. The next morning, the tree has disappeared, and a length of crimson earth runs along the road, like a slice of red velvet cake.
The village of Sveti Stefan, which overlooks the island of the same name, is just a few miles south of Budva. We check in to the Vila Drago, a six-room pensione, and gaze at the island's red-tiled roofs and cypress trees from our balcony. Like much of the Dalmatian Coast, Sveti Stefan and Budva were part of the Venetian Republic. The architectural similarities to Dubrovnik and Korcula are unmistakable.
We put on our bathing suits and walk to the red-sand beach. The water feels so good that we're not even tempted by a vendor's chocolate-covered fried dough balls. Clouds roll down the mountaintops, and we can hear claps of thunder as we lay in the sun.
The following morning, we take the Olimpia Express bus into Budva. After an earthquake destroyed much of the town in 1979, it was completely reconstructed and is now packed with restaurants and "ye olde" stores: Even the sex shop has a hand-carved wooden sign. Before catching the bus to Sveti Stefan, we have dinner at Jadranska Straza, a quiet spot known for its excellent squid-ink risotto and shrimp.
On our final night in Montenegro, there's a spectacular thunderstorm. From our balcony, we watch as the lightning splinters over the ocean and a yacht sails full-speed into the harbor. We head downstairs to Restaurant Drago. Our waiter serves us a pair of beautiful perch fillets. He heard that today is Leslie's birthday and wheels out a heart-shaped cake covered in sugar curlicues. As she blows out her candles, a family of sparrows chirps in the eaves above us, oblivious to the festivities below.
The country code will soon change from 381 to 382.