A coast & countryside weekend in Montenegro

The peaks of Durmitor and Bobotov Kuk offer an invigorating backdrop for a five-day trek through this little-explored European gem

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It was cloudy when I set off, following the mostly unmarked route up towards the pass – a broad, grassy swathe on the horizon between the two rocky peaks of Bandijerna and Zupci. But as I waded up the last sections of scree and threaded my way around bluffs, the weather broke and, suddenly, I had a clear view across to the improbably steep profile of Bobotov Kuk, (arguably) the tallest peak in Montenegro, and the undisputed high-point of Durmitor National Park.

Tucked in the country’s north, Durmitor is also known as Soa Nebeska, or ‘Pillar of Heaven’. Bounded by the River Piva on one side and the River Tara on the other – the waters of the latter rushing through one of the deepest canyons in the world at this point – Durmitor’s rocky peaks and vertigo-inducing ridges are punctuated by glacial lakes and lush forest, and criss-crossed by numerous hiking trails.

Yet the number of visitors who venture much beyond the park entrance – or travel inland from the coast at all – is remarkably few. With two new guidebooks to Montenegro published this year, perhaps that is set to change.

Around the Bay of Kotor

Durmitor is certainly easy to get to, making an excellent five-night long weekend possible, combining a taste of Montenegro’s wild splendour with the gorgeous Bay of Kotor on the Adriatic coast. Having landed at Dubrovnik in next-door Croatia, I jumped in a taxi and headed straight over the border to Herceg Novi, from where a local bus whisked me along the coast and up to Kotor’s medieval walls.

The Bay of Kotor is one of the loveliest spots on the Adriatic – an idyllic, fjord-like inlet (actually a drowned river canyon) surrounded by mountains. Like Durmitor, Kotor is a Unesco site, its labyrinthine alleyways opening onto small squares lined with cafés and ice cream shops, where locals sip coffee while discussing the economy and the smell of grilled fish or roasting chestnuts drifts through the warm air.

Mountain slopes loom above the town, and old walls and fortifications cling to the crags. I took an old stone path beside these to the fortress of St Ivan, passing a tiny chapel on the way. Then, following a red-and-white sign, I ducked through a gap in the walls to find a small church standing in the shade of tall cypress trees. 

Beyond, a stone track zigzagged relentlessly up towards the village of Krstac, on the flanks of Mt Lov´cen – its distant summit crowned by the mausoleum of Montenegro’s great ruler-poet Petar II Petrovic Njegos, described as ‘possibly the loneliest and windiest grave in the world’.

But I turned downhill and wandered slowly back through the old city, passing by the 12th-century cathedral of St Tryphon and the little church of St Luke. Then I headed outside the walls to the market to stock up on a few supplies for my next few days in Durmitor, before settling down for a meal of grilled trout at a waterside restaurant. I was saving the finest view of the Bay of Kotor – from the village of Perast, a few kilometres away – for my return journey.

Overlooking the bear

The following morning I took an early bus to the capital Podgorica, then another north to the small mountain town of Žabljak – a cluster of shops and houses with steeply pitched roofs on the edge of the mountains. I continued on foot, hiking up through luxuriant pine forest then over rolling rocky downs to Lokvice, some two and a half hours’ easy walk away.

Perched on the edge of a large glacial cirque, below the towering ramparts of Me–ded (‘the bear’), Lokvice has a small, unstaffed mountain hut and plenty of sheltered camping spots. Trails of varying difficulty radiate in all directions to various peaks and passes – making it a perfect base for exploring Durmitor.

There is an old katun (summer cottage) here, and I found the owner, a tough old giant of a mountain man, tending his sheep. “Kovacevic, Vuk,” he introduced himself, giving my hand a vice-like squeeze, before telling me – rather unencouragingly – of climbers being blown to their deaths off Me–ded.

Bobotov Kuk, at 2,523m the highest peak in Durmitor, is the most popular day-trip from Lokvice. After filling my bottle at a nearby spring I struck out on an easy trail heading west, climbing gently then passing around the edge of a glaciated cirque. Here, the peak reappeared at closer quarters, rearing up against the skyline.

I passed small hills studded with hardy thickets of dwarf mountain pine and, closer to the path, small flowers coloured the rocky desolation. On the far side there was a rather grim slog up over scree slopes, bringing me to a high pass that made a perfect spot for lunch, gazing out over spiky rock formations.

I continued over the mountain’s eastern slopes, then rounded a corner with jaw-dropping views down over the basin of an emerald lake hemmed in by steep grey rock, with a small, red-roofed mountain hut on the far shore. Then a final scramble – exhilarating, slightly exposed and the only part of this walk that is a little more challenging – brought me onto the airy summit.

I arrived back in Lokvice just as the last of the sheep were being driven down off the surrounding slopes – encouraged by much whistling and stick-waving from Vuk.

A chance of meatballs

On my third and final night in Durmitor I stayed at Ivan do, just outside Žabljak, where there is a handy campsite with a superlative view of the mountains. I wandered into town for a much-anticipated meal of small grilled meatballs and a salad of tomato, cucumber, onion and creamy white cheese, washed down with a glass or two of Montenegro’s favourite beer.

Strolling back to my tent, replete, I met the owner of a local campsite. I politely turned down his offer to stay, explaining that I had already pitched my tent. He shrugged, and as a consolation offered me a swig of homemade rakija – that quintessential local spirit, never far away when travelling in the Balkans.

“Ah,” he said, clearly pleased that I liked his hooch, “I have another here which is really good!” and produced a small, nondescript plastic bottle from his car. He was right: it really was good. And the perfect toast to this realm of little-known mountains.

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