Mike MacEacheran | Montenegro’s secret coast, Etihad Airways
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Montenegro’s secret coast, Etihad Airways

The first time I was introduced to Montenegro I was sitting in a university library, weakly brushing up for my second year English exams.

I was reading a poem by Lord Byron, a writer professors’ had regularly mentioned in the same breath as Mary Shelley, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, the collection of English writers who, by compulsion and collusion rather than by design, created the romantic literary movement. Byron’s words painted a picture of the most beautiful, heavenly escape. It was something a stuffy lecture hall could never bring to life. I wasn’t familiar with Byron’s poetry, but something I read in that library, surrounded by dusty leather-bound books, would stay with me, lingering at the back of my brain. “At the birth of the planet the most beautiful encounter between land and sea must have been on the Montenegrin coast,” he wrote.

And so it is, some 15 years later, that I find myself introduced to the country for a second time. I’m staring down from an almighty height at the top of the Fortress of St Ivan, absorbing the length and breadth of the coast in all its sunlit glory. Beneath me are the Bay of Kotor and its sister inlets, nicknamed the southern fjords for their magical, ethereal quality that you’d be more accustomed to finding in Norway. Byron’s words, somehow still so crisp and fresh from years of unlearning everything I’d ever learned pop into my head as if to say: “Told you it was beautiful didn’t I? What took you so long?”

This is one of a handful of reasons why I’ve come to explore a coastline that was once perhaps the most celebrated in Europe. Between the 1950s and 1970s, Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and Kirk Douglas used to holiday on this pocket of the Adriatic coast, bedding down in Sveti Stefan, a summer playground for their yachts and Riva motorboats. They came looking for an alternative to St Tropez and Capri, leaving just as bronzed, but arguably more relaxed. It was their secret, or at least one they hoped to keep.

But following the third Balkan War in the 1990s and the break-up of Yugoslavia, Montenegro effectively vanished off the tourist map. Croatia, with its longer, more intricate coastline, struck the first blow, opening up its airports to a new generation of wide-eyed travellers yet to discover the delights of the islands of Hvar and beyond, the harbour cities of Dubrovnik and Split, and the Roman-era amphitheatres and Venetian churches of Pula to the north in Istria. Montenegro’s annexation from Serbia, prompted the Serbs to muscle in and lay claim to having the greatest party city in Europe. If you hadn’t heard, the word was that you should head to Belgrade, not Berlin or Barcelona.

In the background to all this, Montenegro, always the submissive regional partner, kept things modest and refined: villages were given a spring clean, grassroots farm-to-plate cooking came back to the fore and those splendid beaches were left with more than enough space for the locals to roll out their towels on. The irony now, of course, is that many of those same airports in Croatia and Serbia act as the entry point for visitors to travel south to visit their more fashionable neighbour.

The base for my tour is Kotor on the country’s western reaches, a one-hour drive from the country’s main airport in Podgorica. It’s plumped at the end of Kotor Bay, a leviathan of finger-like sea lochs and butterfly-shaped natural harbours that stretch out from between cliffs and cragged peaks crowned with crumbling fortresses and monasteries. Each as striking as the next, they connect a series of villages and inaccessible valleys that travellers would once have doggedly committed to settle in.

This goes some way to explain the locals’ allegiance to boats and the flow of traffic on the inky-blue water. From dawn to dusk, fishing trawlers, ferries and speedboats navigate the waterways, shuttling back and forth from gorgeous little villages like Djenovici, Baosic and Perast that fringe the bay. Adjacent to the latter is a speck of a pebble-lined island that floats in the middle of the inlet, and home to a single resident: the beautiful monastery of St. George. If you Google a picture of Montenegro, it’s more than likely this will top the search list.

Between the swathes of cypress forest and orange groves, I pick my way back down the trail of 1,350 rock-hewn steps from the Fortress of St Ivan to explore Kotor’s old Venetian-era piazzas, a clutter less, pedestrianised fortification that can be crossed from one end to the other in five minutes. Before lunch I’ve explored the tidy Church of Our Lady of Health, Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, Square of Arms and the sturdy defence walls – the lack of mandatory sights giving more time to wander aimlessly and give myself to the only real mandatory activity: eating gelato. Of Kotor’s many charms, some are sublime (the seafood risottos served up at the al fresco cafes, the cut-rate thimbles of wine and walnut brandy, the view from the city wall at dusk), while some are ridiculous (it’s nearly impossible to greet a local in passing without telling them your life story).

That night, I book a table at Luna Rossa, one of a dozen traditional konobas (taverns) that squish next to each other in the old town. Like everything, the service is unhurried and unfussy, yet immensely pleasurable; simple lake fish with all the trimmings – the chef limbering out of the kitchen with the uncooked one-pounder to prove how fresh it really is. Later, wandering back to my hotel through the hushed streets and spotless squares, clasped wooden shutters signalling that the party has long since gone to bed, the bay is silent and still and the epic sky sparkles. Even after nightfall, Montenegro tends towards tidiness.

Just like Kotor, the entire country is laid out with ease. A short bus-trip the next morning takes me to Budva, now a splendid model of all I really want from a European break. It has an old town crammed with “look-at-me” alleyways, taverns and boutiques, but one that’s so small that it’s impossible to get lost. Beyond the fortress and Venetian-style church (as I soon learn, every Adriatic town worth its salt has one), Budva gives way to a number of pebble-beach coves and a series of modern resorts and apartment blocks etched onto the hillside, from where predominantly Russian tourists congregate in casinos and pools .

Like the Greeks, Romans and Venetians before me, I choose instead to stay longer in the old town and wind my way to the Fortress Citadela, a medieval castle and the most monumental piece of architecture within the town walls. Inside, it contains one of the most valuable collections of books and maps in the Balkans, but with the sun burning bright I’m instead drawn outside to the spacious terrace on the eastern tower.

Here I end the afternoon, with my legs dangling over the city walls, with a stunning view of the open emerald sea and Sveti Nikola Island, a popular afternoon excursion, a quick boat-hop away. With no more than pelicans and gulls for company, I eat a simple lunch of bread and njegusi, the region’s famous smoked ham, which can be seen waxed and knotted, hanging above smoky fires in konobas and in the mountain villages. It’s just one of many discoveries to add to the favourites list.

We tend to think of Montenegro as a place to visit yesterday – but, really, that’s far from the case. And for me this is just the beginning of a love affair. Next up is Lake Skadar, the biggest lake in the Balkans and the Alpine-like resorts to the north in  Durmitor National Park. Next time, if I win the lottery, I’ll drop in to the implausibly pretty Sveti Stefan, now rejuvenated as an exclusive six-star Amman hotel, and where tennis champion Novak Djokovic married his childhood sweetheart in July.

If Lord Byron were still around and in need of inspiration for his next work of romantic poetry, I’m pretty sure I could guess where he’d take his next holiday.