The Romantic poet Lord Byron famously put it thus: “At the moment of the creation of our planet, the most beautiful merging of land and sea occurred at the Montenegrin seaside… When the pearls of nature were sworn, an abundance of them were strewn all over this area.”
Whether or not you believe in divinity, it’s hard to disagree with either Byron as you drive round the Bay of Kotor. It looks a bit like a mash-up of Lake Como and Norway’s Geirangerfjord, with a few mini Dubrovniks scattered around the water. Once called Europe’s southernmost fjord, the bay – all steel-blue water and steep cliffs – is actually a ria, a submerged river canyon (fjords are created by glaciers). But, whatever – all you need to know is that it’s stunning.
Tiny Kotor, which has been an important port since Roman times, revolves around a gorgeous old medieval town made up of pretty squares, churches and old limestone captain’s houses. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the main influence since its formation in 535 AD has been the Venetians, who ruled for the best part of 400 years, when it became a centre for shipping and Renaissance literature. But while it’s considered the best-preserved old town on the Adriatic, it’s changed hands too many times to list, and been tossed about a bit – plundered by Saracens in 840 AD, damaged under the First Bulgarian Empire, besieged by the Ottomans, attacked by the British Empire and destroyed by an earthquake in 1979. It was rebuilt completely, and you wouldn’t know half the town lay in rubble. If there’s any negative to it, it’s the same issue you’ll find in any beautiful Balkan old town: tourists, and lots of them, many dawdling around with earpieces and blank expressions.”
It’s little wonder the tourists come, and they says Kotor has more to offer than Dubrovnik, the more famous old town an hour and a half up the coast in Croatia. “Kotor’s much older, more original and more charming. We’ve got six 12th-century churches here; the Dubrovnik cathedral was built in the 17th century.”
Perhaps dating back to the Sophia Loren days, high-end hotels in Montenegro tend to measure themselves by the celebrities who’ve stayed there – the Wikipedia page of Hotel Splendid, the five-star option in tourist-y Budva down the coast, has a whole section devoted to famous guests, from Brad and Angelina to the Rolling Stones.
Attracting foreign superstars seems to be a bit of a theme. The following day we head to the nearby town of Tivat and the new Porto Montenegro superyacht marina, which was converted from an old naval shipyard in 2006 by Canadian billionaire Peter Munk, and a glamorous consortium of Rothschilds and Arnaults. It’s a staggering sight – hundreds of superyachts that make Saint-Tropez look like a small-fry harbour.
Still, Montenegro’s far more than bling. Probably the most picturesque spot on the bay is tiny, perfectly preserved Perast, overlooked by the islets of St George and Our Lady of the Rocks. Strict planning laws have kept the baroque palaces and cobbled alleys almost perfectly intact, including Dublin, which is surely the world’s most beautiful Irish pub.
And this is the thing about the Bay of Kotor in 2014. Locals say Montenegro has to develop – it needs motorways (there are currently none) and more hotels – but then you only have to see the built-up seaside resort of Budva just half an hour down the coast to see the high-rise perils of misguided development (“At least the girls there are pretty”. Either way, it’s a fascinating time to visit – and whatever you think Montenegro should do with its natural and historical treasures, you won’t be in any doubt that God has done his bit.