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Montenegro may be small—almost the same size as Connecticut—but what it lacks in size it makes up for in spectacular natural wonders, rich culture, and a fascinating history. That history began in antiquity and had everything to do with Montenegro’s ideal location. Situated on the border of eastern and western Europe—and in possession of a perfect port—Montenegro became the object of an international tug-of-war. Empires from the Ancient Roman to the Medieval Venetians left their marks; much later, the tiny country was under a 50-year Communist rule. After gaining its independence in 2006, Montenegro has evolved into a Mediterranean melting pot of cultures eager to welcome visitors to its small yet lovely doorstep.
Towering mountains, pristine beaches, and the staggeringly beautiful Bay of Kotor set the stage for Montenegro’s charming walled towns and friendly fishing villages. And beyond the coastline, adventurers can find hiking, kayaking, and friendly local communities all waiting to be explored.
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Find out why this area, the 33-mile jewel box of Montenegro, has been so coveted throughout the centuries.
Bay of Kotor
The 33-mile jewel box of Montenegro
by Philip McClusky, for Grand Circle
The Bay of Kotor’s allure has resulted in more than 2,000 years of a sort of imperial musical chairs: a steady stream of invading armies that take over and are eventually replaced by the next great conqueror. And if you visit, it’s easy to see why the area has been so coveted throughout the centuries.
Although generally referred to as Europe’s southernmost fjord, the bay is technically a submerged river canyon in what is today southwestern Montenegro. Ringed by mountains that are reflected in its placid waters, with idyllic, terra cotta-roofed villages dotting its coastline, it can seem as if every nook of the Bay of Kotor is a postcard scene waiting to be photographed. Add its pleasant climate and strategic location along the Adriatic and the region’s allure is undeniable. So it’s no surprise that a number of kingdoms sought to capture it through the years.
A prized parcel of land and sea
Although small—just a little more than 33 square miles—the bay is a treasure trove of historical significance and local lore. One of the most notable early leaders was Queen Teuta of the Illyrians, who ruled this region in the third century BC. Her reign was heavily dependent upon piracy and levies placed on those entering through Verige Strait, the narrow entrance to the bay. Only a quarter-mile across, this portal left approaching ships vulnerable to attack.
When incoming ships didn’t pay Queen Teuta, they were subject to an elaborate ship-wrecking system created to defend the strait. To this day, the bottom of the bay is strewn with unlucky vessels that ran afoul of Teuta. Later, chains were laced across the entrance to keep nautical aggressors out. In fact, the name of the strait—Verige—is derived from the Slavic word for “chain.”
Queen Teuta’s prosperity drew the attention of the budding Roman Empire, which eventually assumed power here after defeating the Illyrians. It is said the obstinate queen leaped to her death rather than submit to the vanquishers, adding to a legend that still survives in this part of the world today (a depiction of Teuta is on one of Albania’s coins).
The Romans ruled for centuries, establishing what would be the seat of the region and the namesake for the bay itself—Kotor.
"Bride of the Adriatic"
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city of Kotor seems frozen in time. The reputation of this walled city, sheltered by the fjord-like bay, grew over time, eventually coming to be known as the “Bride of the Adriatic.” In the Middle Ages, the schools of architecture and art here were well-respected, and the city became a center of commercial activity and wealth.
The past was prologue, of course, and the success of the city of Kotor once again attracted unwanted attention in the form of voracious empires. From the tenth century onward, the settlement was consecutively under Byzantine, Venetian, Hungarian, French, and Austrian control before becoming part of Yugoslavia. Due in part to the many visiting armies from around the region, there are several unique buildings in this fortified city—including the twelfth-century cathedral built in honor of Kotor’s patron saint, St. Tryphon. Kotor remains one of the best-preserved medieval outposts in the Adriatic, yet it wasn’t the bay’s only region to celebrate success over the years.
Known as the “Pearl of Venetian Baroque,” the town of Perast flourished under the rule of La Serenissimas—or the ancient Serene Republic of Venice. Perast was situated in a strategic location near the Verige Strait; to many, it now feels as though a piece of Venice simply broke away and was placed in the middle of the bay. Perast is home to a number of churches and shrines; one of the most famous is Our Lady of the Rocks, which is found on the spot where some fishermen claim to have seen the Virgin Mary. Local lore holds that the fishermen dropped a stone in the same spot every time they passed, eventually creating the island on which the church rests.
Although this section of Europe is traditionally Eastern Orthodox, reminders of non-Orthodox religions are plentiful here. The Venetians and Austrians left behind their Catholic churches, and the Ottomans have left an Islamic legacy. This mixture of faiths has become an institution, and religious tolerance has become a hallmark not only of Kotor, but of the whole country of Montenegro.
Europe’s newest country
After many centuries of suitors, the Bay of Kotor is now part of Europe’s most recently independent country: Montenegro. Originally one of the six republics that made up Yugoslavia, Montenegro remained tied to Serbia once the Soviet Bloc began to disintegrate. In 2006, the country’s independence from Serbia was put to a vote, and by a mere 2,300 votes, the citizens voted to become an independent state.
Though Montenegro is “new,” its ancient roots add to its compelling character. The Bay of Kotor is a big part of that profile. In fact, the bay has become the country’s most popular region—proving that even many centuries later, it can still draw a crowd.
The 33-mile jewelbox of Montenegro
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
Montenegro in December-February
The winter months see Montenegro blanketed in white, as snow falls heavily in the mountainous regions. There is less snow, and milder temperatures, along the Adriatic coast. While many tourist attractions shut down in the winter months, the Orthodox Christian holiday season makes this a unique time of year to visit.
Montenegro is a winter wonderland for skiers and other snow sports enthusiasts—90 percent of this small Balkan country is covered by mountainous terrain. As it is also one of the most overlooked ski areas in Europe, those who make the trip will be rewarded with uncrowded trails and affordable lift tickets.
Holidays & Events
- January 7: In accordance with the Julian calendar, Orthodox Christmas falls each year on or near January 7. Most Montenegrins celebrate the day with a Badnjak (Yule Log), public bonfires, and a traditional round bread known as cesnica. If you find a coin buried in the cesnica, local lore says you’ll be lucky for a year.
- January 14: The Orthodox New Year is ushered in on this day.
- Mid-February: Now in its 49th year, the annual Mimosa Festival draws crowds to the medieval town of Herceg Novi, when the mimosa trees begin to bloom, promising the arrival of spring.
For two weeks each February, Kotor gives itself over to Venetian splendor with masked balls, colorful parades, and costumed performances for its Winter Carnival, the last hurrah before the solemnity of the Lenten season.
Montenegro in March-May
The spring months are some of the best times to visit Montenegro. Warm, pleasant temperatures make for great exploring weather, and the shoulder season can offer good deals before the summer crowds arrive.
In May, white-water rafting season begins, as the snow melting in the mountains has subsided and the rivers are not too strong. Tara Canyon is perhaps the best place in the country to raft: Carving through the majestic Durmitor National Park, the canyon—and the river that runs through it—is the second deepest in the world, and affords unrestricted views of the park’s nature and wildlife.
Holidays & Events
- Mid-March: Camellia Day is a Kotor tradition that celebrates the camellia flowers blooming and the start of spring. The day’s biggest event is the Camellia Ball, in which a local woman is crowned the “Lady of Camellia.”
- April 8: Depending on the Julian calendar, Orthodox Easter could happen anytime between March and May, but in 2018 it falls in April.
Alpine meadows become a blaze of colors as wildflowers erupt into life.
Montenegro in June-August
Montenegro’s Adriatic coastline is bathed in near-constant sunshine during the summer months, luring locals and visitors alike to swim in the crystal-clear waters. Head inland to escape the crowds: Though it gets hotter, you’ll have the pristine nature all to yourself, and frequent thunderstorms in the mountains bring relief from humidity.
A variety of outdoor festivals also makes this a particularly fun time of year to visit.
Holidays & Events
- Late June: Now in its fourth year, the Southern Soul Festival brings an eclectic mix of musical acts to the white-sand beaches of Montenegro’s southern coast.
- July: Held in the small town of Bijelo Polje, in northeastern Montenegro, the Tamburaši Festival is a three-day folk music celebration. The tambura—a traditional Montenegrin instrument similar to a mandolin—is the star of the event.
- June-August: During the summer months, Budva—nicknamed the “Theatre City”—plays host to artists, actors, and musicians as part of the Summer Festival. Performances take place in the city center and along the more than 30 beaches of the Budva Riviera, making this Montenegro’s summer culture capital.
- Early August: The Montenegro Film Festival showcases the country’s best new films for a week each August, and features Q & A sessions with actors and directors.
Held on the third Saturday of each August, Boka Night shows off medieval Kotor at its finest: dramatic fireworks light up the night skies, town squares come alive with open-air music and dance parties, and a parade of boats gracefully glide across the bay.
Montenegro in September-November
September is an excellent month to visit Montenegro, as the heat and humidity of summer have dissipated—taking the crowds with them—but the ocean is still warm enough for a dip. October brings a delightful riot of color, painting the trees shades of orange, yellow, and brown, while November is known as the wettest month. Good deals can be found throughout the shoulder season, though some restaurants and hotels along the coast may be closed.
Holidays & Events
- Late October: The Days of Plijevlja Cheese festival celebrates the local highland cheese and dairy produce of the Plijevlja region in northern Montenegro.
- Late November: The ancient Roman town of Stari Bar is home to a 2,000 year old olive tree, reputed to be the oldest olive tree in Europe. So it is only natural that Stari Bar hosts a lively annual olive harvest festival each year, celebrating their most famous local product with traditional music, folk costumes, and, of course, plenty of olives.
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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