Maybe it says more about the type of company I keep, but when I told friends I was going to Montenegro most said: “Where’s that?”

The marginally more clued-up said, “Look out for landmines”. So as I headed to the newly independent Balkan country, I was half expecting nasty little explosive surprises and other post-Communist clichés such as clapped-out Ladas and, more worrying still, mullets.

Montenegro is named after Black Mountain, its highest peak, and the country borders the Adriatic, Croatia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia. Indeed it was until recently called Serbia and Montenegro, and, before that, Yugoslavia.

In the latest Balkans conflict the nation fought alongside the Serbs, with whom they share a language. Yet the plucky country risked the wrath of its big brother recently by siding with Kosovo in their diplomatic fight for independence; an underdog sticking up for even more of an underdog. Landmines aside, I like Montenegro already.

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‘Monte’ has historic towns aplenty, beaches that I am constantly told are “more beautiful than Croatia’s”, national parks chocka with dashing peaks, as well as bears and wolves (no really), plunging canyons, glacial lakes, ruined fortresses and a Mediterranean climate. All that, in a country just two-thirds the size of (to use the standard international tape measure) Wales, and with less than 700,000 people. Sounds pretty damn impressive on paper, but then so do many places.

I’m still pondering how best to detect and deactivate landmines (would I have to dress up like Lady Diana?) as I land in Dubrovnik, just over the border in Croatia. I pick up a hire car (it’s not a Lada) and drive south.

The habitat is dry, the sky is sunny and not long after crossing into Montenegro, the road starts hugging the Bay of Kotor. The dramatic Montenegrin coast is characterised by steep, rugged peaks, blotted grey and green, reaching straight out of the water and upwards to 1700 metres. Trademark terracotta roofs and whitewashed stone houses clash wonderfully with the sapphire waters of the Adriatic. I’m soon on the pretty ferry ride to the small coastal town of Tivat. Little islands, with curious monuments and churches, dot the water.

In Tivat I ask the hotel manager what’s best to do around here and he recommends a walk up into the mountains and down to Kotor. “Is there good scenery?” I ask.

“Yes …” he says, but he seems to be holding something back.

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I stroll leisurely up through the rocky green hills, sharing the path with goats, lizards, pretty wild flowers and the very occasional local. The magical views of Kotor catch me completely unawares and I plonk myself down on the path in awe. The town sits at the end of a vast fjord, like something from a Brothers Grimm fairytale. I carry on down to explore the Unesco-listed 9th-century walls and historical buildings, before slurping down a waterside beer. Rugged peaks tower on all sides and a small ruined castle sits a little way up the slopes above me.

I spend a day wandering around the Lustica Peninsula, famous locally for its olive oil production. There aren’t any obvious tourist attractions, but locals relax and holiday here and it’s wonderfully understated. Well, apart from the Speedos on the otherwise invitingly secluded Zanjice Beach.

The peninsula boasts sunny olive groves, gentle see-through seas, glorious sunshine and sensational views back into Kotor Bay and the mountains. I lunch at a beachside cafe, dip my toes in the crystal clear waters and end a thoroughly recuperating day with a cold beer in gorgeous little Rose, as the late afternoon sun dances on the water.

The next day I take a winding mountain road up past Kotor to visit Lovcen National Park and the Black Mountain. The country’s highest peak holds a special place in the heart of Montenegrins as, for much of its history, the mountain pretty much was the, then-much-smaller, nation while they resisted Ottoman rule.

On neighbouring Jezerski Vrh, I climb the 461 steps to see Njegos Mausoleum, the impressive tomb of Montenegro’s greatest hero, Petar Petrovic Njegos, a bishop, poet and ruler of the country. The views from here go on forever, as the land rises and falls like a choppy sea frozen in time. Lovcen has reams of hiking and biking trails. But I’m off down the dramatic coast.

 Budva looks like a mini Dubrovnik, a handsome historic town, jutting out into the Adriatic. It used to the country’s star attraction, but it’s overdeveloping fast and has a party town reputation now.  The road winds up and down the mountainsides, via the odd hairpin bend, with the sea on the other side, revealing secretive coves, teasing beaches and those trademark terracotta-topped villages.

Sveti Stefan, a tad further down the coast, is probably Montenegro’s most famous view and the undisputed star now. The 15th-century town looks like something from a James Bond film. It’s perched poetically on cliff-tops, on an island, reached by a narrow man-made isthmus. The town’s crisscrossed with narrow cobbled streets, church spires and tasteful luxury resorts, where the likes of Sofia Loren
have stayed.

I want to spend more time there, but the road is calling. Back inland, the historical capital, Cetinje, has more whitewashed walls and terracotta roofs, it’s handsome and peaceful and worth a lazy wander. A tortoise ambles casually through the parking lot as I arrive. I’m in the mood for a long lazy lunch and I’ve had the perfect tip-off.

After driving through rugged limestone craggy hills, I stop to snap some special views of a river in Lake Skadar National Park. It’s wearing a coat of water lilies and looks a bit like it was stolen from Vietnam, as it winds towards two small pointy mountains the locals cheekily nickname Sofia Loren. The epic Lake Skadar is just visible in the distance.

I park up in the irresistibly charming village of Rijeka Crnojevica. There’s a cute little stone bridge, mirrored in the water, a rowing boat passing lazily by and a couple of al fresco, waterside restaurants. It’s really beautiful in the soporific sunshine and I stay all afternoon.

Montenegrins won’t win any safe driving contests, but otherwise the roads are a treat. It’s stunning roadtrip country. I cut through the dramatic Moraca Canyon, more narrow gorges, along cliff-hugging roads and through pitch-black tunnels, with dramatic drops down to crystal-clear glacial rivers (I can see the stones on its bed from at least 10 metres up on road) and towering peaks above, with green foliage spilling down on top of me. I stop regularly, both in lay-bys to try and photograph the views, and to visit historic monasteries.

When I get to Unesco-listed Durmitor National Park, the landscape has changed markedly. It’s colder and there’s snow on the moody mountaintops, chalets in the fields and glacial lakes abound. Durmitor must be one of the least spoilt places left in Europe. The first scene-stealer in the atmospheric 39,000-hectare park is the mesmerising Black Lake. Watched over by mountains and skirted by fir trees, Communist partisans had a base near here in the Second World War.

Tara Canyon is a close second. The monumental, spellbinding cleft in the landscape is the deepest canyon in Europe and only 200m shallower than America’s Grand Canyon. You can go white-water rafting and bungee jumping here. The region doubles as skifields in winter, and offers some excellent hiking year-round.

I didn’t see any bears or wolves in Durmitor, though they are there, or any land mines in Montenegro.

Even if some Montenegrins fought with the Serbs (so perhaps don’t go on about how you love Croatia too much) in the most recent Balkans conflict, there was no fighting in the country itself, so there are no landmines lying in wait.

In fact, the country is so safe women still hitchhike.

As well as being safe, it has natural beauty and history in abundance. I had found a condensed Croatia – cheaper, smaller, with most of the same attractions, if not more, only without the crowds.

There’s also not a Lada in sight. In fact most cars are new, and I’m constantly told there’s no need to lock them. And the locals’ haircuts aren’t so bad really.

Talking of the locals, everyone smokes. And in the northern mountain regions they eat doughnuts for breakfast. What’s not to like about that?

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Hiking in Montenegra

Montenegro is just being discovered as an excellent hiking holiday destination. It offers at least two very different walking opportunities – the coast and the mountains – within a few hours’ drive.

Unesco-listed Durmitor National Park, in the north, has 48 peaks over that reach more than 2000 metres, as well as waterfalls, tinkling mountain streams, mirror-like glacial lakes and a wide network of tracks. It’s a great chance for walkers to get up close to real mountains that might otherwise require technical expertise and equipment. The park has bears and wolves, but they’re almost never seen and local guides can be hired.

The coast offers a drier, often sunny option, with inviting towns and villages, beaches and ruins. There’s also Lovcen National Park if you want to get up high.

Companies such as Vista Trails ( can book accommodation, provide good walking maps – which are surprisingly hard to come by otherwise – local information, guides and transport your luggage on, with the option of single centre or multi-location trips.

Essential information

When to go: Montenegro’s peak tourist season is in July and August. Avoid the crowds but still enjoy some sunshine by heading there in May, June or September.
Currency: Euro. 1 GBP = 1.14 EUR.
Language: Montenegrin.
Accommodation: A dorm bed at Montenegro Hostel Kotor (book through costs from £12pppn. A dorm bed at Montenegro Hostel Budva costs from £1013pppn, while a private room at Hippo Hostel in Budva costs from £13.81pppn. Book through
Get more info:
Getting there: Fly to Tivat airport for the Montenegro coast or Podgorica airport, 11km from the capital. Return flights to Podgorica cost from £181 return with Austrian Airlines ( Alternatively, fly to Dubrovnik or Split in Croatia then take a bus to Kotor or Budva.

– Alex Vivas