Sveti Stefan: A luxury legacy of communism

By Rob Packer

Looking back on it, Yugoslavia really had my kind of communists: sometime after breaking with Stalin in the 1950’s, Tito’s government requisitioned Sveti Stefan, a small and incredibly picturesque island fishing village on the Montenegrin coast to turn it into a luxury resort whose guests included Sofia Loren, Princess Margaret and Marilyn Monroe.

When Yugoslavia fell apart during the 1990’s, the bottom fell out of the Montenegrin tourism industry and the resort closed. It has now reopened as part of Aman Resorts and from the pictures on its website it is obviously aiming for luxury and exclusivity – or maybe eksklyusivnost.

Exclusivity comes at a price though: the place is strictly off-limits to non-guests.

Sveti Stefan, luxury resort in a communist state.

The closest I was getting to Sveti Stefan this time.

The other view from Sveti Stefan.

White Elephants? Tourism in Montenegro

By Rob Packer

In southeast Asia when a subject overstepped the mark, the king sometimes gave him a white elephant, a holy animal requiring elaborate care and a ban on paying its way by working; in most cases, this “gift” bankrupted the recipient and the term white elephant has come into the English and French languages to mean something that is very expensive to maintain with very little gain. The term doesn’t exist in all languages and certainly doesn’t in Serbian: one of the real estate agencies I saw in Budva was called Bijeli Slon, which means White Elephant. Not exactly what Montenegro’s government has in mind as it develops its tourism infrastructure at breakneck pace.

White elephants on the Montenegrin coast.

Budva's harbour: count the yachts.

Montenegro is often touted as an “undiscovered Mediterranean jewel” Read more of this post

Inside the Black Mountain

By Rob Packer

As the road snakes its way up from Budva towards the Montenegrin interior, the landscape undergoes a profound change: the relatively lush greens of the coast disappear and are replaced, in winter, by the browns and greys of a landscape that reminded me a lot of the surface of the moon. The first time I saw it on my way to Cetinje, I wondered how people survived on this land that—apart from a few areas of farmland and some terracing—appears to yield next to nothing. But rather than being a marginal, remote area of the country, this is actually its heart: the Black Mountain—what Montenegro means in every language I know—is the one area of the Balkans where neither the Ottomans nor the Habsburgs penetrated and where Montenegrins guarded their independence for centuries.

The Black Mountain: the view over Montenegro's mountainous interior.

The view of the coast from the road to Podgorica and Cetinje, the current and former capital.

Montenegro's rocky interior.

It has never been a rich place, and this is obvious from the start in a place like Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro’s prince-bishops before joining Yugoslavia after the First World War. Read more of this post

Perast: A Town on the Bay

By Rob Packer

Like so many places on the Montenegrin coast, Perast gets by on its good looks in summer and spends its winters in hibernation. The town is a former Venetian port town on the steep slopes of the Bay of Kotor and it’s full of pretty stone buildings looking out on two small islands in the bay.

Other than eating and visiting the islands in summer, there really isn’t all that much to do though.

Pretty much all you need to know about Perast: stone buildings and two islands.


No wasted journey: Herceg Novi

By Rob Packer

It might not look far on a map, but the journey from Herceg Novi, the first Montenegrin town you’d arrive at from Croatia, to anywhere in Montenegro takes far longer than you think it should at first glance. The reason is quite simple: the indentations on the Bay of Kotor are enormous and the road hugs the shoreline. After the 2-hour journey from Budva, I quickly started to think that those were two hours wasted: Herceg Novi’s old town is decent enough, but nothing compared with Kotor, Dubrovnik, Hvar or any of the other towns I’ve visited on this trip. With a this-had-better-be-worth-it attitude, I stormed off to the Savina Monastery, an Orthodox monastery supposedly founded in the 13th century (reports differ). It was more than worth it: the monastery complex is made up of two churches dedicated to the Assumption: the larger one is newer with an enormous iconostasis, but the real gem is the smaller—and older—one, which is covered with fantastic frescoes.

The journey was more than worth it. Read more of this post

Reality in Kotor

By Rob Packer

My arrival in Montenegro was hardly glamorous: my bus pulled into Budva at around 4:30am after 8 and a half hours crossing the mountains of Bosnia and Montenegro: either the quality of the roads or the suspension combined with an inconveniently timed border crossing into Montenegro meant that I didn’t get much sleep and justified my lie-in that way.

I decided to spend the afternoon in Kotor, a city that saw its heyday under nearly four centuries of Venetian rule. The town sits at the head of the Bay of Kotor, a spectacular submerged river canyon that feels and looks more like a fjord. In winter, it’s almost deserted and you can enjoy getting lost as you wander around: the place is a maze, although the Romanesque cathedral with its frescoes and the sides of the bay are always there to orient you.

The postcard view of Kotor.

What will make Kotor forever special for me, though, was the lunch I had at the Stari Grad restaurant. Read more of this post

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