If you were to ask me what holiday I’d most like to repeat, I couldn’t name just one. However spending a week or so hiking through Montenegro to end up by the tiny gem like old town of Kotor would be pretty darn close to the top of the list.
I have been recommending this trip to friends, acquaintances (look, basically to anyone who will stand still for long enough to listen to me talk about it) for years. Literally for years. So I think it is time to share it a bit more broadly.
You can see our route below (follow the blue line, our stops are noted with the blue pins). I’ll link to everything I’ve pinned as we go along.
Day 1 – Travel by train to Podgorica to Virpazar (Lake Skadar).
Day 2 – Stay by Lake Skadar. Travel from Virpazar to Rijeka Crnojevica.
Day 3 – Stay in Rijeka Crnojevica. Local hike and swim.
Day 4 – Drive or hike from Rijeka Crnojevica to Cetnje Manastir.
Day 5 – Hike from Cetnje Manastir to Lovcen National Park.
Day 6 – Hike from Lovcen National Park to Kotor.
Day 7 – Stay in/near Kotor. Relax!
Day 8 – Travel from Kotor to Cavtat, Croatia (by bus/taxi). Stay in Cavtat.
Day 9/10 – Stay in Cavtat. Fly out from Dubrovnik, Croatia (a quick 20 min drive from Cavtat to the airport).
Time of year: We travelled in the shoulder season, the second half of June. It was bloody hot even then so keep that in mind if you’re thinking of this kind of trip. We flew into Podgorica and then planned to hike our way across the country for 5 days to each Kotor before flying home from Dubrovnik in Croatia. We backpacked so we just carried everything with us.
Day 1 – Travel by train to Podgorica to Virpazar (Lake Skadar)
Fly into Podgorica (the capital of Montenegro) and then catch a train down to Virpazar on the banks of Lake Skadar. The train journey itself is worth it as far as a European adventure goes. Grab a borek (spinach and feta filled pastry) from the hole in the wall station platform bakery and jump onto the rickety old style train for the journey south. It doesn’t take long but the tracks follow a pretty beautiful route that takes you part way over the lake itself. This is why we chose to train it rather than drive. One thing to note (and hopefully save you sprouting a few stress related grey hairs) is that that the station at Virpazar is very much just a space for the train to stop for a minute. We almost missed our stop because we didn’t realise it was one! Luckily some kind locals told us to jump off and we just about had time to scarper across the other tracks to the other side before the train took off again!
The walk into the little town from the train station is an easy 10 minutes. If you have time though stop off at Vinarija Masanovic Winery (it looks like a little house on a side street) for a drink and/or wine tasting. We stumbled on it and man they make some delicious local wines.
Virpazar is right on the lake. It is tiny and very atmospheric. We stayed at Apartments “Lake View”. It’s basic but clean and easy to get to and from. It’s also got a beautiful view from the terrace where you can sit and chill out. The food in town is rustic and delicious. Think fresh fish, chopped salads, thick slices of a feta like cheese with olives, fluffy bread and roast veggies. Look for the restaurant on a boat on the river. Next morning make sure you try the little warm donut puffs with honey for breakfast!
Day 2 – Stay by Lake Skadar. Travel from Virpazar to Rijeka Crnojevica
Spend a night or two and hire a boat to take you out onto Lake Skadar to explore. We got lucky and had a boat to ourselves which was amazing. The guide took us through the most beautiful parts of the lake through huge rafts of water lillies teeming with bird life and stopping off in crystal clear bays to let us jump in for a swim to cool down. The water level of the lake changes throughout the year so if you time it right you can also venture up little tributaries to explore further. Lucky for us our guide knew of an amazing little place like this – apparently one more day and the water level would have fallen too far to see it. We left the boat and hiked up to some tiny little freshwater springs off the beaten track for a dip. Without a guide we’d never have found them and it very much felt like one of those special places that only a few people get to experience.
We had another reason for hiring a boat which was to take us to our next destination. Ask the guide if they will drop you off at a place called Rijeka Crnojevica at the north western side of the Lake. You’ll glide into the little town under the ancient old bridge and be able to step off the water straight into the crumbling historic old town. Believe it or not this used to be the capital of Montenegro hundreds of years ago (from 1475) and was also a winter residence for the Montenegrin royal family until the turn of the 20th Century so there is a lot of history here. Now though it very much feels like it has been left to quietly crumble away and large parts of the town have been abandoned. According to Wikipedia it currently has a grand population of 175 people. Stay at the Guest House Ljudmila and you’ll be treated to a pretty view over the river and the old bridge from your room. We strolled over to Restoran Sabina Luka for a bite to eat while watching a local Shepard herd his cows across the bridge (I kid you not) and then wandered back to wile away the evening at the little bar by the old bridge with drinks and monopoly deal.
Day 3 – Stay in Rijeka Crnojevica. Local hike and swim
If you have some time to spend here there is a lovely local hike (I’d allow 1.5 hrs each way) that takes you through along a winding path through the forest – mind the little tortoises walking around – and a beautiful gorge to a big and dramatic cave called Obodska Pecina. You can scramble up into the cave and you’ll hear the bats rustling around. The river winds its way through the gorge and will accompany you for much of the walk. If it’s a hot day like what we experienced then bring/wear your swimmers and stop off at the natural rock pools for a dip.
Day 4 – Drive or hike from Rijeka Crnojevica to Cetnje Manastir
We had intended to walk from Rijeka Crnojevica up into the mountains to stay the night in Cetnje Manastir. However, as I said, it was HOT, even in June. Our hosts doubled as the local taxi service and so we decided to drive this leg. If you do this make sure you ask them to stop off at the Pavlova Strava Viewpoint – it was possibly one of the most spectacular vistas I’ve seen. A huge sweeping view of the Lake and mountains, I would not at all have been surprised to see some dinosaurs emerging, real Jurassic Park stuff.
Cetnje Manastir is a quaint little mountain town. If you spend the night (we stayed here) it is easily walkable and there are a few things I would take the time to see. The beautiful old monastery being one, as well as the National Museum of Montenegro which is well worth a visit. This is is country with so many layers of history and I always find I appreciate a place more when I understand what has shaped it to date! The parks are leafy and green and the icecreams…highly recommend.
Day 5 – Hike from Cetnje Manastir to Lovcen National Park
We started walking from Cetnje Manastir and headed into the Lovcen National Park. We downloaded a hiking trails app before this trip and it was great to follow and keep an eye on where we needed to go and not get lost.
The Park landscape varies from wild open meadows filled with wildflowers, to rocky hills and forested glades with tiny wild strawberry patches (pick them as you walk for the sweetest little energy hit). After a couple of hours walking you’ll end up here at the Hotel Monte Rosa. It looks like, and probably is in winter, a ski chalet. In summer it’s a lovely little hotel with a pool and big terrace to lounge on. We started our walk very early to avoid the heat of the day so we were well ensconced and relaxing over lunch in the shade by about 1pm.
Look out for Part 2 of this post where I’ll take you from the mountains of Montenegro back down to the sea and to Kotor, finishing up the trip in Cavtat, just over the border in Croatia.