Saturday 28 September 2013

Montenegro - a small country with a big heart

The train journey from Belgrade to Bar in Montenegro was scheduled to take ten and a half hours. It took a little more than twelve hours which included passing through some stunning mountainous countryside, seeing agricultural workers bringing down plums from their trees and much stopping and starting in a very smokey, non-smoking (!) train. Luckily I had bought fruit and other snacks the day before in Belgrade as the restaurant carriage only offered drinks. From leaving the train it was a short twenty minutes James Bond style, death defying drive along mountain top roads to the ancient seaside town of Budva.

View of part of Budva's old city from the city walls
Most of Budva's 18,000 inhabitants live in the new part of town but the real attraction is the Stari Grad, or old town which is full of narrow alleys, red tiled roofs, small eateries and historical churches. The churches cluster together in and adjacent to Trg (square) Izmedu Crkava. The churches of St. Troijka, built in 1804 and St. Sava which dates from the 14th century both feature beautiful frescos and other art work but don't take pictures or you will be given a severe telling-off! I especially like this part of the city with its view of the sea from the square, its almost tropical greenery and the ruins of the Santa Marija in Punta church which dates from the year 840. One of the other highlights is a walk around the city walls which affords great views out to sea, some intimate views of the old city, especially its private gardens and roof tops. You can also see St. Nikola Island a short distance out to sea which can be accessed by boat or, I am told, by crossing a sandbank which appears at low tide. Stick with the boat I think.

The old city also has a gallery of modern art which had a temporary exhibition of sculpture when I visited and a small flea market selling an assortment of old postcards, tourist "stuff", a few antiques and various bits and pieces. Its worth a browse and I picked up a couple of 1930's postcards at one of the stalls.

Square in Budva's Stari Grad with ruins of the Santa Marija in Punta church.
One of the great things about visiting a relatively small country is that it is possible to visit several places fairly easily. Whilst in Budva, I was able to arrange for a driver to take me to Cetinje, the old capital of Montenegro, a distance of 30 kilometres and then on to the stunning Lake Skadar stopping at a couple of interesting places along the way. Hotels can usually arrange or recommend a good driver and will agree a price with you in advance.

Cetinje's main attraction is its monastery that dates from the 15th century when the city was founded by one Ivan Crnojevic who based himself on this high plateau when retreating from Ottoman invaders. The Turks managed to destroy the monastery three times only for it to be rebuilt on each occasion. On the day I visited some areas were off limits because of visiting dignitaries but I was able to admire the two small chapels to the right of the main entrance which are filled with Eastern Orthodox style icons. One of the chapels is said to house the right hand of John the Baptist and a piece of the crucifixion cross. Please note, modest dress is a must if you wish to visit here. An art nouveau style statue of Crnojevic stands guard on the city, just a short walk from the monastery.

Cetinje is also home to the National Historical Museum and Art Gallery. The museum consists of a series of adjoining rooms on the upper floor of the building exhibiting portraits of important moments and individuals in Montenegrin history as well as costumes, insignia, weapons and other items. The gallery is housed on the ground floor and was staging a temporary exhibition of a contemporary Montenegrin artist when I visited. Its permanenet collection includes icons, works by artists from across the former Yugoslavia, Montenegrin fine art and works by foreign artists including Renoir, Picasso, Chagall and Dali. Not bad for a gallery in a town of less than 20,000 people! In the space adjacent to the museum there is a huge relief map of Montenegro constructed by Austro-Hungarian invaders during the First World War. Also worth a look is the reconstructed Cipur-Crnojevi church a few hundred metres from the museum which stands on the ruins of the original structure.

Ivan Crnojevic statue, Cetinje

Reconstructed Cipur-Crnojevi church, Cetinje
From Cetinje it was on to the Lake, but with a very short stop at Rijeka Crnojevica on the way. Just 10 kilometres away from Cetinje and accessed by a winding asphalt lane coming down from the surrounding high ground, this little village is famous for its 15th century triple arched bridge across the river that shares its name. Once important as a crossroads of caravans and water routes, Rijeka Crnojevica now earns its keep primarily from tourists who come to see the bridge and to eat at the Stari Most restaurant owned by former football star Nikola Jovavonic. There are also a couple of other places to eat. The village is generally in need of repair and investment but one or two pretty houses remain and there is clear potential for future (sensitive please) development here. Incidentally, the place takes its name from the aforementioned Ivan Crnojevic who spent time here in the late 15th century.

Back on the road, there is a panoramic viewing point allowing for exceptional views of Lake Skadar and offering an opportunity for the thirsty to have a tipple. A local "entrepreneur" has set up an open air bar selling his own wines and spirits and inviting visitors to tell him which country they come from. At the time of my visit he had received visits from 81countries and was keen to show me his hand written records of who came from where and when! The first visitor from a country receives a small bottle of home made plum spirits. I wasn't his first UK visitor, but he did give me some delicious fresh figs grown on his own land. A bit of a character you might say. I didn't get his name, so let me know if you have it!

House is Rijeka Crnojevica

Open air bar above Lake Skadar
Lake Skadar makes up 391 square kilometres of the 400 kilometres Skadar Lake National Park. It is surrounded by Montenegrin mountains on three sides and by Albania to the east. It is home to one of the largest lakes in Europe with 40 different kinds of fish and a major bird reserve. Two thirds of the lake belong to Montenegro and the remainder to Albania. On the day I visited, there was a slightly dark and cloudy sky which added to the other-worldly atmosphere. The darkness of the landscape illustrated perfectly how this country got its name - the black mountain. The area around the lake is extremely green and forested and it is easy to imagine earlier times when great armies crossed this land, people lived in tribal communities and there was even more wildlife here. 

I stopped for lunch in the town of Virpazar by the lake and arranged to go on the water for an hour or so. At high season there are a number of locals taking tourists out in boats of various sizes but I had the Lake almost to myself and felt very small on this huge and almost silent expanse. 

View of part of Lake Skadar
The final stop on my short tour of Montenegro was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kotor. The city sits at the very end of the Boka bay and beneath the towering Mount Lovcen. I know that its towering because on the first day I took all 1,440 steps to the citadel at the top for a stunning view of those red tiled roofs and the deeply blue bay. On the way up I visited the small but beautiful Chapel of our Lady of Salvation. Built in the 16th century by survivors of the plague its a good resting point on what can be a very demanding ascent. Remember to take water  with you, otherwise you may have to pay inflated prices from casual vendors on the way up. Relieved to make the top, I couldn't resist taking a picture of the Montenegrin flag flying over the city and the bay, as proof that I'd made it!

The old city itself, encased by 4.5 kilometres of walls (twice the size of those at Dubrovnik!), has a distinctly Mediterranean feel to it with strong Italian influences, narrow alleyways, washing hanging between buildings, wooden shutters and a church around every corner. When exploring the city it is hard to believe that in 1979 an enormous earthquake levelled huge parts of both Kotor and Budva, killing 94 people, injuring many and leaving over 80,000 homeless. Due to the amazing perserverance of local craftsmen both cities have been totally restored, piecing together fallen buildings bit by bit over the last few decades.  

The thing I liked best about Kotor was wandering the narrow alleyways, discovering yet another church from the 15th or 16th century, a small craft shop or tiny cafe or restaurant. St. Tryphon's Cathedral, a survivor of several earthquakes has both romanesque and baroque features as well as holding a number of religious artefacts in its small museum at the upper level. In the basement there are also remnants of Byzantine influenced frescos from the 14th century. 

Outside the city walls, there is a small produce market selling local fruits and vegetables including more of those fresh figs mentioned earlier. There are also some good cafes along the water front and the long promenade along the bay. Ice cream is available everywhere and I can confirm that its good. As in Budva, there are many Italian restaurants in Kotor, serving pretty much the same menus and of course, many fish restaurants. The Italian influence is also noticeable in the Kotor dialect which is peppered with Italian words - people greet each other with "ciao" in this city. There is a tourist information point just outside the walls where you can book a one hour walking tour of the city with one of the knowledgeable guides who will talk about the history and culture of Kotor.

Montenegro's flag flying over the city

Aerial view of the old city of Kotor 

Finally, no trip here would be complete without some time on the water. For 20 Euros I was able to take a boat trip from to Perast and to the tiny island of Our Lady of the Rock. Perast is a tiny town that hugs the bayside with its elegant balconied Bujovic Palace which houses a maritime museum, a string of cafes and restaurants and boats that will take you to the aforementioned island. The island itself  is manmade, initially from the hulls of scuttled hips reinforced by boatload after boatload of stones. The original chapel was dedicated in 1630 and then enlarged in 1725. The interior of the church has 68 paintings by local artist Tripo Kokolja (1661 - 1713), all of them biblical scenes. Even smaller than the island holding Our Lady of the Rock, is the natural reef just across the water, shrouded by cypress trees and home to the Benedictine Monastery of St. George.

Montenegro may be a small country but it is rich in unspoiled scenery with a great relaxed feel and very welcoming people. I might well be back!

Benedictine Monastery of St. George
You can see more pictures from Montenegro here.

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