There's a buzz among travelers that humble little Montenegro is becoming a new Mediterranean hot spot. Once part of Yugoslavia and then allied with Serbia, this tiny mountainous nation on the Adriatic achieved independence only recently, in 2006. In the summer of 2009, my film crew and I set out to capture the country for a public television show.
For me, rugged and forested Montenegro — tucked away in the Balkans — used to evoke the fratricidal chaos of a bygone age. It made me think of a time when fathers taught their sons “your neighbor's neighbor is your friend” in anticipation of future sectarian struggles.
My visit changed my view. My impressions — of impressive infrastructure improvements, a welcoming tourist trade, well-educated young people and an enthusiasm for Europe — left me feeling the country is on an upward trajectory. Still, the Montenegrin road is bumpy.
Montenegro has a pretty coast but the country is pretty light on sights. I'm fond of Cetinje, the scruffy but former historic capital. Tourists flock to the Budva Riviera, Montenegro's best stretch of sandy beaches, with the famous resort peninsula of Sveti Stefan.
Probably the most dramatic stretch of its Adriatic coastline is the Bay of Kotor and its delightful town of Kotor. People love to call the bay “fjordlike.” Too many people who say “fjordlike” have never really seen a fjord. If you've been to Norway, you know it's rare that something routinely described as “fjordlike” actually is. But the Bay of Kotor is worthy of the description.
The tourist board put my film crew in an “emerging hot spot” designer hotel on the Bay of Kotor. It was so elite and exclusive that I expected to see Idi Amin poolside. (Actually, he's dead ... but I thought it would be cool if they had a blowup version of him just parked next to the pool on a lounge chair.)
The hotel, open just a month, was a comedy of horrible design. We felt like we were the first guests. My bathroom was far bigger than many European hotel rooms — but the toilet was jammed in the corner.
I had to tuck up my knees to fit between it and the sink cabinet. The room was dominated by a big Jacuzzi tub for two. I am certain there wasn't enough hot water available to fill it. I doubt it will ever be used, except for something to look at as you're crunched up on the toilet.
When we left the glitz of Kotor, the country stretched out before us — a basin defined by a ring of dark mountains, Montenegro's heartland. Exploring the poorest corner of any European country can be eye-opening — but Montenegro's is more evocative than most.