A tour to Montenegro reveals stunning views of clear lakes, gorgeous mountains and spectacular medieval towns stretched along the Adriatic coast.
"You'd love it here; this is the where the young crowds chill out during summer nights," said our redheaded Montenegrin tour guide as we strolled past the many cafÃ©s and seafood restaurants along the seaside boardwalk in Budva. "It's the center of action, there's always something going on here at this time of year, a beach party, street fair, even Madonna came to give a concert last summer - of course I went."
Yes, I thought to myself, a beach party is what I need during my midlife crisis. I settled for a bottle of Nik - the local beer - for a reasonable 1 euro at one of the bars overlooking the coastline. However, wandering the narrow alleys and squares in Budva indeed inspires with its Riviera-like atmosphere. After all, until the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s this fashionable beach town was a holiday hot spot for models, movie stars and celebrities from around the globe.
Known to the locals as "Crna Gora," which in Serbo-Croatian means "black mountain" after the dark forest that once covered the area, this pocket-size country is considered one of the pearls of the Mediterranean, and has been crowned by a British magazine as the fastest growing tourism destination in Europe of the next decade.
Half the size of Israel, with population of a little more than 650,000, the republic of Montenegro gained independence only three years ago, after seceding from Serbia.
On a four-day jeep tour put together by Medraft Nature and Adventure Company, we had a chance to explore the diverse landscape and culture Montenegro has to offer.
FROM FIRST-RATE beaches to fascinating history, from the largest lake in the Balkans to Europe's southernmost fiord, plus remote, picturesque villages along the way, this country has plenty of astonishing scenic surprises.
Most impressive were the snow-covered summits of the Dinaric Alps. To get there, we had to zigzag our way along narrow scenic roads, and through tiny villages of small farms and pasture land where the people are friendly and the homemade goat cheese accompanied with raki - an alcoholic aperitif - are national delicacies. Warm hospitality is a part of the local tradition, and during a stop in Rushko, one of the locals introduced us to a traditional Montenegrin meal that included freshly picked tomatoes, yogurt, cheese and, of course, raki - all produce of his family's farm.
City life in Montenegro has its own unique charm. As we walked the streets of the capital, Podgorica (known as Titograd until 1992 in honor of the former president of Yugoslavia), we had the feeling of visiting a modern Western European country. The crowds we passed through, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s, besides being remarkably tall, seemed to be modest and simple people. So was their clothing.
ANOTHER PLACE well worth visiting is the old city of Kotor, located on the Adriatic. Built between the 12th and 14th centuries, this walled town with monuments of cultural heritage and well-preserved medieval architecture was once one of the most important ports in the world and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But it's the maze of narrow cobblestone streets, the quiet squares and the lively open-air food markets with a view of gigantic limestone mountains that make Kotor so special.
A short drive from the Bay of Kotor, on roads that wind through steep, pine-covered mountains, brings you to the country's signature resort, Sveti Stefan, a former 14th-century fishing village perched on a small outcrop of rock connected to the mainland by a narrow pathway. In the late 1950s the government converted it into an upscale hotel where royalty and movie stars like Sophia Loren, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor came to stay. It is now being refurbished by a hotel chain that promises to return Sveti Stefan to its former glory and again attract the celebrities.
For nature lovers, there are beautiful attractions not to be missed, such as a boat trip around Lake Skadar, the biggest lake in the Balkans - 44 km. long and 14 km. wide - which is most famous for its diversity of flora and fauna.
If a short nature hike sounds attractive, Biogradska Gora National Park is the place for you. Embraced by the Bjelasica Mountains, this is a little piece of heaven on Earth. An easy-to-walk circular path goes by the side of the park's small lake where visitors can hike in a flourishing meadow beneath a canopy of virgin forest. Even though white garlic flowers dominate the park, you will most likely fall in love with the scenery and with Montenegro.
Make or break
The right travel agency can sometimes make or break a vacation. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of ways to weed out the poor ones except by word of mouth, since they all tend to offer the same postcard pictures and catchy slogans. When you plan a vacation abroad, you want a travel guide you can live with for more than a few days, and preferably one who shares your interests, gives good advice and has a sense of humor.
I was invited to Montenegro by the Medraft Nature and Adventure Company, a local firm that offers a variety of package tours to locations in Europe and the Mediterranean. Highlighting cultural character and regional customs, the company is putting together some attractive tours on which travelers can actually meet the locals and get familiar with their day-to-day life.
"Flexibility is the name of the game in our tours," says CEO Omer Flum. "We try to tailor a suitable tour to satisfy each group of travelers, from family-oriented tours to adventurous jeep trips and from bike tours to a luxury vacation in boutique hotels."
For those who plan to visit Montenegro, Medraft Nature and Adventure Company is offering a variety of four-, five- and eight-day all-inclusive tours with a 2 1â„2 hour direct flight from Tel Aviv with Arkia Airlines. Prices start at $955 per person for a four-day adventure tour. Medraft's tours include a stay at four-star hotels, meals, tour guide, gas and entrance fee to the sites visited.
For more information, call Medraft at:
(03) 578-0555 or visit www.medraft.co.il.
The writer was a guest of Medraft Nature and Adventure Company.