Technological advancements may have removed much of the intrigue and discovery from backpacking, but Montenegro remains a European destination that offers a little more bang for your buck (if you are willing to work for it). There is gold here, for those adventurous enough to seek it out.
There was a time when backpacking was an audacious step into a world of self discovery and experience. Times have changed, but there is still plenty to love about traipsing the globe with nothing but a rucksack and a head of hope for company. Montenegro is a nod to the glorious past of backpacking.
The backpacker scene
Montenegro is made for backpacking. One of the smallest countries in Europe, the former Yugoslav republic packs an idyllic coast and monumental mountains into its 13,812 square kilometres, along with plenty of alluring little towns and villages. It remains somewhat off the radar for most backpackers hitting the trails in Europe, but it is only a matter of time before that changes.
The seaside understandably gets most of the backpacker traffic. Kotor and Budva have more than announced themselves as major players on the traditional Balkan routes, with Herceg Novi not far behind. A surprisingly small amount of vagabonds head inland towards the mountains, but those that do are in for a treat.
Making the most of it
Eat local, drink local, think local
In almost every former Yugoslav republic, there is an unspoken rule that you should eat where the police eat. Montenegro is a small country but an immensely varied one gastronomically speaking, and the boys in blue will more than likely be chowing down on some tasty local fare.
A little language goes a long way
Don’t speak any Montenegrin? Nothing to worry about, provided you understand a little Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Herzegovinian or Šumadijan. All jokes aside, learning a little bit of the local lingo will make a big difference once you get to Montenegro. You don’t need to become fluent in a language spoken by less people than the population of Southampton, but picking up the basics and the odd choice phrase will open plenty of doors in this magnificent country.
Montenegro isn’t Serbia
Yes, it is true that Serbia and Montenegro are very closely allied in terms of culture and history, but don’t make the mistake of assuming the two nations are one and the same. Montenegro is an extremely proud nation of warriors, poets, inventors and revolutionaries, so be sure to avoid whitewashing the Montenegrins from their own history.
Montenegro is an incredibly safe country to visit. That safety can even be a little jarring for the first-time visitor, so don’t be surprised to see people walking around in a relaxed manner long after the sun has dipped below the horizon. The most likely cause of trouble in the country are the underdeveloped roads. Potholes are par for the course, and the mountainous nature of the country means that some of the roads follow some particularly treacherous routes. Road accidents are rare, but it might not feel like it when you are bolting around in the hills.
The Balkans have long been considered a great place for people to travel alone and Montenegro is no different in that regard. The conviviality of the local people means conversation is almost inevitable. The importance of tourism to the Montenegrin economy also assures that law and order are on the side of the visitor more often than not, so don’t be afraid to ask for assistance if needed.
Food and accommodation
Those expecting the usual Balkan barrage of grilled meats and massive salads will be in for a shock. Montenegro certainly has its fair share of ćevapi and pljeskavica, but the historical influence of Venice means there is just as much Mediterranean fare available. Montenegrin food is very much a mixture of all the best from the countries that surround it.
Since declaring independence in 2006, Montenegro has been committed to reinventing itself as a top quality tourist destination. This is subsequently reflected in the accommodation options. The country has no shortage of luxury hotels and budget hostels with everything in between, including these impressive coastal resorts.
You don’t need to be a wily veteran of Balkan backpacking to know that people in this part of the world love to talk. Visitors to Montenegro won’t find themselves lacking in conversation when it comes to the locals, but be sure to avoid any potentially emotional topics like the Yugoslav wars, Serbia and Kosovo. Pretty much anything political, in short.
Montenegro is an easy place to meet people. Simply rock up at a bar and strike up a conversation with whoever is around, and you’ll soon be struggling to get a word in edgeways.
Money, money, money
Montenegro is one of the few countries that has never had an official currency of its own. The Yugoslav dinar was in operation for most of the 20th century, followed by the Deutschmark and subsequently the Euro today. The European Union isn’t exactly overjoyed by Montenegro’s use of its currency (since it isn’t a member of the EU), but has done little to curb it since it was introduced.
As of September 2018, the exchange rate was €0.85 to 1 US Dollar.
Credit cards are increasingly accepted throughout the country, but cash remains king in Montenegro. ATMs can be found in all major towns, although do try to avoid paying for small items with large bills — unless you are okay with receiving dirty looks and poor service.
A meal: US$5 to US$35 (depending on location and meal choice)
A beer: US$1.70 to US$3.50
One night at a backpacker hostel: US$13 to US$24 (depending on time of year)
Cheap mode of transport for inner city travel: US$1 (almost everywhere is walkable)
One hygiene/medical essential at a local shop/pharmacy: US$2.50 to US$12
One affordable experience (e.g. boat tour of the Bay of Kotor): US$25
Where to go
Bay of Kotor
The undoubted jewel in Montenegro’s particularly shiny crown. The Bay of Kotor is everything a coastal destination should be and more. A short strip of dreamlike seaside towns with breathtaking natural beauty to back them up. Island monasteries are as common as ruined churches and modern squares, and the whole offer is brought together by an undeniably Mediterranean charm.
Durmitor National Park
Nature rules the roost in Durmitor National Park. A spellbinding collection of jagged mountains, emerald-blue rivers and dramatic canyons, this is Montenegro’s most photogenic area. It is also its adventure sports capital, and the opportunity to zip line across Europe’s deepest canyon might be too tempting for some to miss out on.
The largest lake in the entire Balkan region, Lake Skadar also happens to be one of its most varied when it comes to the beasts of the sky. This is Europe’s top bird habitat and it is easy to see why so many make it their home throughout the year. The lake itself is as romantic as it gets, and that is only exacerbated by the mountains, monasteries and more that surround it.
Budva and the Adriatic
When it comes to diversity, Montenegro’s southern Adriatic coast is difficult to beat. Budva brings the bombast of the Balkans, just a short drive from the idyllic beaches of Petrovac and Pržno. Stari Bar offers a glimpse into Montenegro’s past, while a glimpse is likely all most visitors to the five star resort that is Sveti Stefan will get. Ulcinj is the cherry on the cake, its majority Albanian population giving the city a truly unique charm.
Cetinje and Lovćen National Park
The Montenegro story begins at Mount Lovćen. It was this mountain that gave the nation its name, so it is only right that Montenegro’s greatest leader was laid to rest at one of its highest points. Nearby Cetinje was the old royal capital and isn’t afraid to remind visitors, with some of the country’s best museums sidling up to colourful streets and a delightfully serene atmosphere.
Bucket list experiences
Become the laziest person in Montenegro
The prevailing stereotype across the Balkans is that Montenegrins are lazy. Whether that is true or not is irrelevant, but the people of Montenegro have decided that they may as well have some fun with it along the way. A competition to crown the laziest person in Montenegro is held annually in the village of Brezna and the rules are simple — whoever can lay down the longest, wins. The 2018 joint-winners managed to do nothing for a whopping 49 hours.
Zip line across Europe’s deepest canyon
From one extreme to the other. Montenegro is home to Europe’s deepest canyon, and those who think driving across it might be a little too mundane are more than welcome to zip line their way from one side to the other instead. This is undoubtedly one of the most scenic zip lines on the planet.
Stay on an exclusive 15th century island
A night on Sveti Stefan will more than likely break the backpacker budget, but how many opportunities will you get to stay on an exclusive 15th century island villa? A short drive from Budva, Sveti Stefan is one of the most photographed attractions in Montenegro and for good reason.
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