The Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale opens with James Bond supposedly in Montenegro (although this was in fact filmed in the Czech Republic in 2006). Not long before, just after the Kosovo war, Rory Stewart (remember him? – once a moderate leadership candidate in the UK’s Conservative Party) was Britain’s diplomatic representative in Montenegro and has been forced to deny ever since that he was a spy. However, Montenegro has now shed its spying-oriented image and become the next great thing in Mediterranean tourism – and yet, the people who are most keen to party and indeed to invest in Montenegro are the Russians…. Very suspicious. In fact, in June 2017 Oleg Smolenkov, an American agent inside the Kremlin, was removed by boat from Tivat, Montenegro, with his wife and children, when the CIA decided that President Trump was quite likely to accidentally betray him.
Montenegro’s president, Milo Djukanovic (or Đukanović), is now the longest-serving leader in Europe, having been in charge for over three decades, longer even than Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Naturally, when someone has run a country for so long, an awful lot of people who want to make money there are keen to pay for a bit of influence, and by now Montenegro is monstrously corrupt. Another interesting recent turn of events came in 2016 when a couple of Russian military intelligence officers were supposedly involved in a plot to replace Djukanovic, then prime minister, with a crony from the pro-Russian opposition (note that Djukanovic was initially pro-Russian, but has pivoted to bring his country to a pro-Western alignment) – this may well have been a set-up orchestrated by Djukanovic, giving him the impetus to get Montenegro into NATO the next year; the country is also now in the Schengen and Euro zones, and a candidate for EU accession.
Somehow Montenegro has managed to become a popular holiday destination for both Russians and Western Europeans – along the coast they are rapidly killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, but the mountains of the interior are wild, superb and still largely untouched.
A limited tour of the country
The capital, Podgorica, is small and largely modern, and not particularly interesting – as mentioned here, it rivals Prishtina and Skopje for ugliness. The high point was in fact arriving by train from the north of the country (having crossed by bus from Kosova), on the legendary Belgrade to Bar railway, widely regarded as one of the most dramatic in Europe – it was wet and foggy, but even so the cliffs falling away beneath us were pretty staggering. I went on by train to Bar, on the coast, on my way to Albania, but I can’t say it made a huge impression on me.
I and a gang of friends stayed for a week in Virpazar, at Villa Miela, a British-owned operation which puts on splendid activity holidays, with hiking, kayaking, wine-tasting and big meals. Wine-tasting in the nearby village of Limljani is great, especially by bike – we enjoyed the wines and snacks (€10) at Ilya Klisic’s winery, where you can also visit the church of Sveti Toma, on his property, which slid down the hill and turned 180° degrees after weeks of rain, about 130 years ago.
We also went to Kotor (‘the Montenegrin Dubrovnik’), which is pretty but crowded (even in mid-May – with three cruise ships in the bay) and over-priced. One often hears that the Montenegrin coast is being ruined by runaway development (there seem to be no planning laws at all), but for me the queues of cars along the coast and along the Kotor waterfront (even in mid-May) are worse. There’s nowhere to put a bypass, other than by drilling a very long tunnel through the mountains, so reducing the need to drive seems essential. You might think that bringing tourists in by ship might fill that need, but really it’s just adding to the problem. Tivat airport is very close, so one could just come in with a bike (and/or inflatable kayak) and pootle around the Boka (the Bay of Kotor) and have a very pleasant time without a car.
The usually reliable Wanderlust magazine is blithely promoting Kotor as an uncrowded alternative to Dubrovnik – although Dubrovnik is actually taking action to counter overtourism and Kotor clearly isn’t. (The linked article was written in October 2017, but was still popping up in their e-newsletter in May 2019.) Any fool knows it’s best to go to the Croatian islands, such as Hvar or Korcula, rather than to Dubrovnik or Kotor on the mainland.
From Kotor we drove up an amazing series of hairpins (with a few tricky places to stop and look out over the Boka) and over the coastal mountains to Cetinje, the former capital, which has most of Montenegro’s museums. Being away from the coast, it’s also massively cheaper than places such as Kotor – a beer costs €1.30 here or in Podgorica, and €3 in Kotor, a pizza can be had for €1.50 in Podgorica, or for €5 in Kotor. The National Museum is spread across half a dozen buildings, including two royal palaces (now the Museums of King Nikola and of Petar II Petrović Njegoš) and history, art and ethnographic sections. It was a bit of a flying visit, but the museums are well enough organised, if still a bit stuck in an old mindset. It remains a personal challenge to find a museum in Montenegro or Albania that doesn’t have a collection of weaponry, which shows that some national stereotypes really do hold true.