Editor’s note: I have loved reading Sam’s adventures through the Balkans, since it is a part of the world I’ve only seen a bit of. For these, and all of Sam’s awesome trips to more than 60 countries, make sure to click here to visit his index page and spend some time wandering the globe with our favorite rabbi.
One of the best backpacking trips that I did was three weeks across the Balkans. In doing so, I discovered what I would say is easily the most underrated and potentially the best part of Europe. To be honest, what sparked my trip was pictures of the city of Dubrovnik and the beauty of Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. (Click here to read about Plitvice Lakes.) However, with friends in town and cheap plane tickets to Athens from Israel, where I was living at the time, I decided to begin my journey in Greece and work my way up to Croatia. In planning the trip, I largely saw all the countries that I would hit in between Greece and Croatia as just stopovers on my way to the main attractions. However, what surprised me was that each of the countries that I visited in between Greece and Croatia I actually liked more than Croatia. Now, before I get any Croatians angry with me, let me clarify that I did really enjoy Croatia and am thrilled that I went. However, Croatia has become one of Europe’s top destinations and the experience there felt like Western Europe, of which I am not as big of a fan.
Croatia, like other places in Western Europe that I have been, was more expensive, more crowded with tourists, and did not feel as culturally authentic or as friendly as the other countries in the Balkans that I went to. If you are wanting the experience of Croatia without the feel of Western Europe, my recommendation is to go to its southern neighbor of Montenegro. As one of the newer countries in the world, establishing its independence from Serbia in 2006, many people do not know of Montenegro. However, from its interior mountains to its coastal cities, it is a surprise that it is not consistently ranked one of the world’s best travel destinations.
I traveled to Montenegro via an overnight bus from Skopje, North Macedonia through Kosovo before arriving in the coastal city of Budva. Nicknamed “the Montenegrin Miami”, Budva is a great place if you want to relax or party. Located on the Budva Riviera of the Adriatic Sea, there are 35 beaches in the Budva area, some rocky and others sandy, especially the Mogren beaches. At Mogren Beach, there are numerous rock formations and caves with pathways through them that are beautiful and provide shade from the intense summer heat. If you are particularly brave, you can cool off by jumping into the sea from cliffs. After taking a while to muster up the courage and screaming so loudly the whole beach heard, I had a great time doing the 20-foot jump off what is called Shark’s Rock. However, for those who are real daredevils and lack any common sense, there is a cliff next to Shark’s Rock with a 100-foot plunge. For those who wish to jump off of this cliff, there are memorials on the way up of those who have died trying the feat, perhaps as a suggestion that they reconsider; for me safely on the ground, it was fun to watch these risktakers.
Nearby the beach is a famous statue of a girl dancing. From this spot, you can take pictures of the beautiful orange tiled roofs of the Stari Grad, or Old Town, of Budva and the dramatic, jagged mountains behind the city. The Stari Grad was initially built on an island that was then connected to the mainland by a sand bridge. Inside the Stari Grad are a few churches from the 19th century, and the town is surrounded by walls that date back to the 15th century, which are lit up at night. While Budva is a great destination to visit during the day, the city really comes alive at night. Along the seaside promenade are numerous outdoor bars and nightclubs. While the partying is a bit too ruckus for some, it is still fun to walk along the promenade and see the flashing neon lights and the scantily-clad go-go dancers.
Prior to leaving Budva, another site worth seeing is a village that dates back to the 15th century called Sveti Stefan. Sveti Stefan is a short bus or taxi ride south of Budva, but it can also be reached by a ten kilometer hike. Like the Stari Grad in Budva, Sveti Stefan was an island that was connected to the mainland by a tombolo. However, the land bridge is so narrow that Sveti Stefan has become perhaps the most famous site in Montenegro. Build on a rocky island with cliffs, an entire small, but densely packed, town emerged. Today, there are, according to the 2011 census, 364 inhabitants on the island and also one of Europe’s best five-star hotels, the Aman Sveti Stefan. While only inhabitants or resort guests can go onto Sveti Stefan, it is still worth going to the cliff above the island and getting a great view of this unique town.
While Budva is fun for a weekend, the best city in Montenegro to visit is only a half hour north of the beach town: Kotor. Kotor dates back to the 5th century BCE and has been ruled many times by different empires. Nestled on the most secluded part of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor, it was an important port for millennia. While under the rule of the Venetians in the 16th century, large walls were built around the city to repel Ottoman invaders. These walls are 4.5 kilometers around, 20 meters high, and between 2 and 16 meters in thickness. The walls run along the bay, Mt. St. John, and the Skurda River. Along the walls are ramparts, towers, citadels, bastions, gates, forts, and other buildings. Behind the Stari Grad of Kotor up Mt. St. John is a winding pathway with more walls. The strenuous hike rises 280 meters above the city and at the top is the Castle of San Giovanni. While the current structure dates back to Venetian times, there have been fortifications at this site for over 2000 years. From the ruins of the castle, there are breathtaking views of the Bay of Kotor and the town itself. All of these fortifications are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bay is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is well worth taking a boat tour while you are there.
Like Budva, the town of Kotor has only about 13,000 residents, but it is full of wonderful restaurants and historical attractions. Enter the Stari Grad through the main entrance, the ornate Sea Gate, built in 1555. Having been annexed by Italy during World War II, above the gate is now an inscription that reads, “What belongs to others, we do not want; ours, we do not give.” Once in the old town, you will find yourself in the main square, the Trg od Oruzja (The Arms Square) with its 17th century clock tower, built using both the Baroque and Gothic architectural styles. Inside the Stari Grad are many great bakeries, gelaterias, and shops, but also historical churches, three of which I will mention. The most important church of Kotor is likely the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, dating back to 1166. Inside this old Catholic cathedral, there is a rich treasury, renaissance artwork, and tombs of previous bishops in the walls. The other main Catholic church worth visiting is the Church of Our Lady of Remedy. With a tall tower looming over the city, the church can only be visited by going up 650 steps to the structure built in 1518. Beneath the church are the ruins of a basilica dating back to the 6th century. Finally, within the Stari Grad, to experience a different type of regional Christianity, visit the early 20th century Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, which is draped with the Serbian Orthodox flag. (While not in the Stari Grad, another fascinating church is the Our Lady of the Rocks, a church that dates back to the 15th century built on a humanmade island in the Bay of Kotor from rocks and seized ships. It is full of many priceless works of art and has been for hundreds of years a place of pilgrimage.)
While other Adriatic countries and cities have more international recognition than Montenegro and its towns of Budva and Kotor, there are none that are better or more affordable. If you want history, scenery, and worldclass beaches all at a price that will not break your bank, skip the rivieras of France, Italy, and Croatia and head on over to Montenegro.
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