Would you rather be swimming in the sea, or skiing in snow? Although I prefer the swimming option, Montenegro is a country small enough, and geographically varied enough, to offer both – in the same day!
A few years ago I was up in Zabljak, a ski resort close to the Durmitor national park, in the north of the country. Just hours later, I’d left all the snow behind, and was basking in the sunshine of the Bay of Kotor region, on the Adriatic.
One of my top ten experiences in life is floating on my back in the clean, clear waters of the Boka Kotorska (Bay of Kotor), gazing up at the mountains all around. Even in summer, there can be snow on the top of the highest peaks behind Kotor. At 1748 metres, Lovcen is the most massive mountain in the Lovcen national park – and is reached by the astonishing road up from Kotor with 32 hairpin bends!
Driving up is not for the faint-hearted. Although the views at every bend are amazing, you need to concentrate firmly on the road (and other road-users, which can range from juggernauts to goats)! Fortunately, there are lots of passing places, and stopping points. By the time I’d reached the national park entrance, I had spent just as long driving as taking photos. As you climb upwards, the many bays of the Boka area reveal themselves to you, with the mountain ranges soaring between them. You can see way out to sea, and watch the tiny planes coming in to land at Tivat airport.
Each of the four national parks has its own distinctive character. Lovcen is a vast alpine pasture, and is famous for its smoked meat and cheese, named after the Njegusi village not far from the awesome Njegos Mausoleum. If, after 32 hairpin bends, you can face driving upwards for another hour or so, the Mausoleum is an intriguing monument to the poet-prince Petar 11 Petrovic Njegos (1813-1851). The two caryatids at the entrance to his tomb give it a rather Egyptian feel, but the view from the summit is superb whatever the season. I went in Autumn, and drove up through miles of golden beech trees – only to find the monument swathed in fog! Even then, there were several visitors, including a small boy who I bumped into again the following day – at Dubrovnik airport. Small world indeed.
My favourite national park is Biogradska Gora, beyond Kolasin. Montenegro’s oldest park (it has been legally protected since 1878), it consists mainly of primeval forest, with five beautiful glacial lakes, known as mountain eyes. But close behind it in my affections is Lake Skadar, a birdwatcher’s paradise. This vast wetland area, stretching into Albania, is best accessed from Virparzar, where you can take a boat trip and afterwards, have a meal at the Pelikan hotel, where the owners will insist you accept a posy of wild herbs. If you’re really lucky, they will take you up into the attic and show you round their collection of artefacts and hats!
You don’t have to limit yourself to the national parks though for the most amazing flora and fauna. Spring is a particularly good time to visit. Everywhere you go there are wild flowers in abundance along the verges. The air is clear, the temperature is high without being overly hot, and the Venetian houses and palaces along the waterfront are a photographer’s dream.
Perhaps the most overriding advantage of going to Montenegro out of the high season is that flights are cheaper. British Airways and Croatia Airlines fly most days to Dubrovnik in Croatia, and Montenegro Airlines flies direct to Tivat from London Gatwick. For summer flights, take a look at Thomson, Monarch and Easy Jet. Apparently, flights to Dubrovnik are 40% cheaper than last year. Don’t delay, book today!