The small Balkan country that is Montenegro is one of Europe’s most under-the-radar gems. It’s just waiting to be discovered.
We all have travel wish-lists and there’s much left to do on mine. Dance the tango in Buenos Aires, stay in a traditional ryokan in Japan and see the turtles in the Galapagos Islands are just a few of the things I still want to tick off. Europe, on the other hand, I thought I had mostly ‘done’. And then I was offered the chance to visit Montenegro.
First of all, I had to look it up on the map and, even on paper, it’s an elusive place. The tiny country on the Adriatic is tucked away in the shadow of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Albania, all of which border it. Or, you could say, hide it. Turns out that while the travel cognoscenti have all been flocking to Croatia, they’ve been missing a trick right on their doorstep.
Its name – translated as Black Mountain – sounds like something from a fairytale and its dramatically beautiful landscape doesn’t disappoint. You can’t go far in Montenegro without having moody, forest-covered mountain ranges as your backdrop. By way of contrast, the country’s glittering coastline to the south, stretching 175 miles, is having a moment, literally, in the sun. Glorious bays with pink-sand beaches are unspoilt and unfathomably unpopulated. Historic coastal towns are charming places to wile away the hours.
One of these is the walled town of Kotor. Like any good fairy story, it is a place rich in myth and legend. Kotor’s list of past occupiers, for instance, reads like a roll call of western civilization: from the Romans to the Byzantines, the Russians to the Venetians – there are not many who did not conquer this beguiling place over the past 2,000 years. It’s a wonder that the town’s walls – which climb impossibly high into the looming mountains – are still standing.
These days, thankfully, it’s peaceful here. Instead of battle cries, the gnarled and weather-worn market sellers call out the prices of their organic produce bought in from nearby farms – plump, red tomatoes, gloopy honey in unmarked jars and bunches of wild flowers. Winding streets and tiny squares are dotted with orthodox and catholic churches, home to relics and rich paintings, their bells marking the hours. Secret piazzas and characterful buildings, some dating back to the 12th century, house restaurants whose menus reveal the mix of Montenegrin cuisine that is influenced by other people’s homelands. Italian seafood risottos jostle with Albanian-influenced meat dishes, such as the staple lamb cooked in milk. Hearty Balkan soups, Mediterranean fish dishes and Turkish coffee reveal a culinary hotpot that is inspired from both eastern and western cultures.
Kotor’s spectacular fjord like bay is a real highlight. Classed as one of the most beautiful in the world – it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – it is gloriously picturesque and the picture-postcard still waters are only slightly rippled (some might say marred) by the oversized cruise liners that float in the distance.
Further north is the stretch of coastline that in its heyday in the 60s attracted a glitzy jetsetter: Sophie Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton all lay down their sunhats here. These days the glamour has been reinstated – in a rather more understated way – by Amanresorts, which has restored a former fortified village, dating back to the 15th century, on the tiny islet of Sveti Stefan, as well as the eight-suite Villa Miločer, a former royal palace, located on the mainland.
The Asian luxury hotel brand has converted the island’s former fishing cottages into stylish guest rooms and suites, pristine cobbled lanes have been scrubbed up and are now lit by designer sea lanterns, referencing those of the original fishermen who built the stronghold to protect themselves from marauding Turks. The original tiny piazzas, with artfully-placed olive trees, make ideal courtyards for al fresco meals while the signature restaurant Enoteca has magical views over the crashing waves below.
Aman Sveti Stefan is no exception to Amanresorts’ signature minimalist style. Rooms retain bare brick walls, rustic sisal rugs lay on wooden floors and there are rough-hewn ceramic bottles for its toiletries – a nod to the various tribes that have lived here since 1400. But add in fine bedlinens, Slovakian oak furniture and handmade linen slippers, and you find yourself on the luxury side of restrained.
If the cliff-top pool is not enough for you (stunning but small), then saunter across the causeway back to the mainland and discover the hotel’s latest uber-glam addition that is the new spa. You meander along a hillside path, past two pristine beaches belonging to the hotel, until you reach Queen’s Beach. Here is where Aman comes into it’s own. Seriously sexy architecture – rolling lawns, a reflection pond and a glass-housed pool – will no doubt attract a new wave of so-called Aman Junkies, who only travel to destinations where the group has an outpost.
The spa’s USP is based around privacy and expertise (presumably for the A-listers that will be checking in). So there are expansive treatment suites housing their own relaxation lounges and bathrooms, private yoga lessons and a Master Thai massage therapist. There’s also an emphasis on bespoke holistic therapies with the Adriatic Rejuvenation being the signature treatment. You are exfoliated with mint-infused olive oil, wild honey and raw sugar, followed by an oat milk soak and a lavender oil massage. It’s a sensory, enlightening treat much like my journey of discovery in Montenegro.
Three nights at Aman Sveti Stefan (www.amanresorts.com) costs from £1,164pp based on two sharing a Village Room on a B&B basis, including flights to Dubrovnik and private airport transfers. To book visit www.thehealthyholidaycompany.co.uk
Europe’s other best-kept secret
This tiny private island – just a short ferry ride from Corsica and close to Sardinia – offers immaculate sandy beaches and turquoise lagoons straight out of a Dolce & Gabbana advert. Check in to the chi chi Hotel & Spa des Pêcheurs for a lavish get-away-from-it-all and tour the island by bike. (www.hoteldespecheurs.com)
History buffs will fall in love with Portugal’s most underrated city. Filled with 19th century romantic architecture – think castles, palaces and rambling estates – it is framed by lush hills and close to the sea. It was also inspiration for many literary greats – such as Byron and Hans Christian Anderson.
Lofoten Islands, Norway
Made up of four main islands which are connected by bridges and tunnels, Norway’s Lofoten Islands are ruggedly beautiful. Expect sheltered bays hidden between craggy peaks and traditional villages beside fjords. Wonderfully scenic there’s tons to do: from whale safaris to Viking museums (www.lofoten-info.no).