It’s time for the Balkan Riviera

MONTENEGRO, roughly the size of Northern Ireland gained independence in 2006 and confronted a readymade identity crisis. Few people actually knew where it was, apart from a hazy notion that this obscure place was hidden somewhere within the former Yugoslavia.

It’s time for the Balkan Riviera

The tour bus edges around yet another frightening hairpin bend among some of the Balkans’ most impenetrable mountainous territory on our 500km round day-trip from the coast into the interior, visiting the famous Tara Canyon close to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This spectacular rip in the earth, bisected by a crashing river, happens to be the second deepest canyon on earth after the Grand Canyon. Yet nobody on the bus had ever heard of it before. Our guide Alexander explained “people used to think Montenegro was a province of Brazil or a country somewhere else in South America, they didn’t seem to know who we were or where we were for a while”.

Truthfully, I only had a hazy idea in the past based on TV clips of beautiful mountains and glittering sea views, ear splitting soundtracks and incomprehensible dialogue accompanying those eccentric Eurovision Song contest entries beloved of Central and Eastern Europe.

A sort of Italian-lakes-meet-Greek-islands rocky shoreline, emerald sea, forest clad islands dotted around the bay, stretched out from the balcony of my hotel aptly named Queen of Montenegro.

The great poet Lord Byron who visited in the early 19th Century feasted his well-travelled eyes on the panorama here proclaiming it “the most beautiful encounter between land and sea”.

Montenegro (meaning Black Mountain) is still a relatively new tourism kid on the block – an enticing reason to visit — along the Balkan Riviera but that is all changing fast. One of the top ten destinations to visit next year in Lonely Planet’s prestigious ‘where to go in 2013’ list, says the country is “on a fast track to tourism superstardom”.

You see the downside here and there. Some beautiful untamed stretches of Montenegro’s stunning coastline are victim to the cranes overshadowing a tangle of tasteless developments cut into the cliff sides. A few are abandoned half-finished. The money ran out or developers had no planning permission and were forced to halt their assault, the driver explained. Locals who watched the foreign developers move in like sharks to devour their precious views during the boom years want stricter government planning conditions so this special coastline does not turn into another Med or Adriatic concrete eyesore.

Down the coast is Porto Montenegro, whose luxury yacht marina and waterfront community with exclusive boutiques, expensive restaurants and luxury properties hope to emulate Marbella’s Porto Banus.

Modest by comparison, adjacent Tivat is where you can find a pizza and beer for under €8 at a pavement terrace along its pleasant promenade. If you stretch your neck and look to the right you can still view the gleaming super yachts moored at nearby Porto Montenegro.

Arrival in Montenegro from Ireland involves up to a two-hour bus trip from Dubrovnik Airport to where direct flights operate. On a inky black autumnal night parts of the only road from the airport to Croatia’s border with Montenegro were a bumpy track, like a battle zone, which brought to mind a savage war only a little more than two decades ago in the region. The UNESCO heritage city of Dubrovnik came under siege for two years, resulting in devastation of many historic buildings but most have since been lovingly restored.

My base for the next four days was the beach resort of Becici, less developed than nearby lively Budva, a €1.50 bus ride away. Budva old town is a mini Dubrovnik, jutting out into the Adriatic combines ancient ruins, a church with faded frescoes, the citadel and cobble stoned streets and squares, little boutiques and affordable restaurants within its fortified walls. The atmosphere here is so wonderfully chilled that you might fall asleep, as I nearly did under the shade of a giant olive tree, basking in warm sunshine, lulled, by a glass or two of excellent local Vranac red wine.

The absolute jewel in Montenegro’s crown is Kotor, about half an hour by taxi from Budva and well worth the journey with buses and tours also regularly ferrying tourists back and forth.

The bay of Kotor, a spectacular fjord, sets the scene of the elegant walled town, much of it built by the Republic of Venice in the 15th century, which is car free and only just a little less impressive than Croatia’s Dubrovnik.

Tucked away a few miles around the coast is Perast, a Baroque village, which could be some place in Italy, and is visited for its quirky pilgrimage island Our Lady of the Rock. The tiny island built on the wrecks of seized pirate and enemy ships is reached by boat taxi and is a short but lovely excursion (and a steal at €3 for a return ticket).

The Balkan Riviera enjoyed jet set status once upon a time when the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and other super stars of their time made one of its famous beauty spots fashionable.

A fortified fishing village, Sveti Stefan, separated from the mainland by a causeway appears so familiar but that is because it is one of the world’s most photographed beauty spots.

The exclusive hotel retreat offers accommodation starting at €700 a night rising to €3,000 if you care to occupy the two storey villa, complete with private swimming pool where Sophia Loren used to top up her tan and bathe. More recent guests include Tina Turner, Mel Gibson and Sylvestor Stallone and the German fashion model Claudia Schiffer.

Convinced that Claudia was in residence a frantic young German couple pleaded in vain to be allowed to briefly snoop around Sveti Stefan.

Moving back up the coast for two nights sojourn in Dubrovnik to explore this extraordinarily beautiful town overrun unfortunately with hordes of cruise ship passengers blocking up the pavements I had the good fortune to share my hotel lift (Dubrovnik Palace Hotel) and share a few pleasant words with Game of Thrones star Charles Dance.

Later I even ogled another star of the series, hunky Sean Bean at the 5 star Palace hotel’s swanky poolside bar under the moonlight.

I have not watched too many episodes of fantasy historical thriller Game of Thrones in the past, (previous episodes have been filmed in Montenegro, the new series is set in Dubrovnik featuring the usual blood and gore and steamy sex in medieval surroundings) but they threw a great closing party making for a perfect finale to a memorable Balkan Riviera Odyssey.

Flights: Aer Lingus, Dublin to Dubrovnik from Mar 31-Oct 26, ex Dublin every day except Tues and Sat (www.aerlingus.com). I flew Croatia airlines ex Cork on a 2 centre package (4 nights Becici and 2 nights Dubrovnik) with Concorde Travel (www.concordetravel.ie) tel 01 7759300. Their 2013 packages with flights and accommodation start from €420pp, including tailor made holidays and two centre destinations, direct flights ex Dublin, Shannon, Cork, Knock and Belfast.

Accommodation: I stayed at the stylish 4 star Queen of Montenegro Hotel in Becici (www.queenofmontenegro.com) — a week from €774pp sharing with B&B, including flights, transfers etc. in 2013. At the award winning luxury resort hotel, 5 star Dubrovnik Palace, (www.dubrovnikpalace.hr) Concorde offering €200 savings per couple for early bookings next season at one of Croatia’s top hotels, among a range of price options.

Sites: In Kotor, explore cobbled alleyways and secluded piazzas with cafes and churches galore. Jaz beach, a horseshoe expanse of terracotta colored sand where thousands watched Madonna in concert, is a couple of miles north of Budva. An air of mystery abounds in frontier town Ulcinj on the border with Albania. Venture into the interior by bus beyond the mountains to beautiful Lake Skadar or a wild national park.

The shopping: Organic food stuffs sold at markets everywhere. Look out for delicious homemade preserves, cured hams , wooden carvings and Rakija, a renowned grape brandy. In Dubrovnik, find delicatel glass and jewellery. Bookshops feature interesting accounts of the Balkans War, such as the richly illustrated local best seller War in Dubrovnik.

The Food: Montenegro and Croatia embrace past history, Turkish, Italian and Greek, not to mention Austro-Hungarian cuisine influences. Pizza, pasta, goulash, moussaka, rich traditional stews and grilled meats from the mountains. Under €30 with a bottle of wine will buy a dinner for two in Montenegro which thankfully has the euro. Croatia is more expensive on all fronts, from excursions to eating out.

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