We navigated the Sarajevo city bus system early one morning and rode to the international bus station on the outskirts of town. A minibus pulled up shortly after, with a small sign on the dashboard reading PODGORICA, the name of Montenegro’s capital city.
By this point in our Balkan travels, we had gotten shamelessly aggressive with boarding buses, trains, and other vessels. As soon as the vehicle pulled in, Daniel and I were right outside the door ready to show our tickets. You could see the discomfort in the faces of everyone waiting to board.
“Hmm… there are about eight of us, but only about four empty seats on this bus. How is this going to work?”
We claimed the last two open seats as the irked bus driver checked more tickets and tried to explain that the last passengers on board would need to stand in the aisle. At least on an oversold bus (as opposed to an oversold flight), no one gets bumped.
The road deteriorated quickly once we got out of Sarajevo, eventually turning into a one-and-a-half-lane gravel highway, part of which seemed to have disappeared thousands of meters down the mountainside. Across the aisle from my seat was a friendly deaf Bosnian man, who mimed a few gestures to me that I interpreted as “It looks like this bus is about to slide off this cliff!”
Later in the ride, as I distracted myself with my smartphone, the man grabbed my attention again. He smiled widely, showing a mouth of about three teeth, and jokingly contrasted my effortless screen-swiping with the physical force it took to get his old Nokia phone to even register a button press. It was an amusing reminder that we western travelers must just seem to exude wealth, even when supposedly traveling simply.
Until a few months ago, the only reference to Montenegro I could recall came from my 10th grade English class:
“Then came the war, old sport…. I was promoted to be a major, and every Allied government gave me a decoration – even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!”
– Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby
Formerly the southern end of Yugoslavia, Montenegro was part of Serbia until 2006, when it peacefully declared independence. The referendum was approved by 55.5% of voters, just surpassing the 55% threshold. Judging by the number of SRB license plates we saw, it’s still a popular summer destination for Serbians today.
For a country I couldn’t have pinned on a map earlier this year, there’s a lot to see.
We had low expectations for the capital city of Podgorica, and for good reason. It’s a fine jumping-off point for other destinations in the country, but the city itself is sleepy, ugly, and lacking in attractions. Our kind Airbnb host welcomed us with a 30-minute tour of the city, but even he could only say so much. “Here’s where the Ottoman old town used to be,” he shared, pointing toward a row of petrol stations and Communist-era architectural atrocities. Uh, sure, if you really use your imagination.
In the city’s defense, there were one or two blocks of very active Saturday nightlife, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend traveling there just for that.
Thankfully, the capital is far from Montenegro’s main attraction. On our first day in the country, we took a 30-minute train to Skadar Lake National Park, home to the largest lake in the Balkans. We rented kayaks, spent the day paddling around the lake, and enjoyed a decadent seafood lunch with a water view.
Eager to see more of the country, we rented a car and drove out to the coast. The Bay of Kotor, Montenegro’s prime tourist destination, is home to two World Heritage Site towns, Kotor and Perast.
Like much of the Adriatic coastline, Kotor was ruled from Venice for nearly 300 years and played an important role in maritime trade. The Venetian architectural influence is apparent everywhere, and we enjoyed the town’s miniature-Dubrovnik vibe.
With our $100/day budget target, renting a car is a bit of a splurge, so when we do, we make an effort to pack in as much sightseeing as possible. In Montenegro, this included an evening adventure up to Lovćen National Park, where we climbed the impressive 461-step staircase to the mountain’s peak, home to the mausoleum of Montenegrin Prince-Bishop Petar II Petrović-Njegoš.
From the mountain’s peak, we could see almost everywhere we had traveled in Montenegro, from Lake Skadar to Podgorica to the coast. We could even see part of Albania, our next destination – and one of the most memorable.