With clean sandy beaches, well-preserved old towns and a coastline every bit as dramatic as Croatia's, it can only be a matter of time before the tourist hordes rediscover the magic of Montenegro
Lord Byron gushed, ‘At the birth of the planet the most beautiful encounter between land and sea must have been on the Montenegrin coast’. Sailing across the waters of the Bay of Kotor, I find it hard to disagree. Crna Gora, the country's native name, means Black Mountain, and it's an apt moniker for a nation dominated by the precipitous peaks and ridges that rumble south from the Serbian border to a dramatic meeting with the Adriatic.
With two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Kotor itself and the Durmitor Mountains to the north), a coastline that is every bit as dramatic as Croatia’s, a fine sweep of clean sandy beaches, a spine of rugged mountains and the biggest lake in the Balkans, Montenegro should be teeming with tourists. Indeed, during the 1980s it was - but then along came the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.
The war may be a rapidly fading memory, but tourism recovery still has a long way to go. In Kotor what the hordes are missing is a remarkably well-preserved town where the centuries slip back along the winding streets. Licking the remainder of its sturdy defence walls are the waters of the Bay of Kotor, while to the rear sheer rock walls rise up like skyscrapers and a trail of 1,350 steps stretch up to the Fortress of St Ivan. The arduous climb is rewarded by a stunning view over the Bay of Kotor as it broadens seawards like a silvery tongue.
From Kotor you can either head up into the mountains or travel further down the coast. The first big coastal resort is Budva, which comes complete with an old town that fronts the Adriatic Sea and conjures up comparisons with Dubrovnik. The Greeks, Romans and Venetians all breezed through Budva, but today’s medieval appearance belies the fact that it was almost completely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1979.
From Budva, the coast curls south past Becici, voted Europe’s most beautiful beach back in the 1930s. From Becici, Sveti Stefan is unmistakable, an old fishing village that looks implausibly pretty as it reclines on its own islet seemingly set adrift in the Adriatic. In the 1960s the remaining villagers left and the old stone houses were converted into an exclusive hotel. Sophia Loren, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were amongst the stars who flocked here in those halcyon days.
Venturing inland, up serpentine roads and around tight bends, highlights include Njegusi, which is famous for its smoked ham. Many villagers have their own smokehouses where dozens of hams hang amongst the smoky fires and you can smell the enticing aroma as you drive through the village.
Tourism is even more low-key in the Montenegrin hinterland, but there are plenty of opportunities for adventure. The Durmitor Mountains are perfect for hiking and climbing, with 18 lakes, five canyons and 27 peaks over 2,200m. Over 200km of trails have been laid out, but they are never too busy. Meanwhile, the Tara, the biggest river in the land, claims to boast the longest and deepest canyon in Europe, with cliffs stretching well over 1,300m high. The rapids on the Tara provide an adrenaline-pumping challenge, whether you tackle them in a canoe or a raft. Montenegro also has a number of less taxing rivers.
Then there is Lake Skadar, one of Europe’s top bird sanctuaries. This vast body of water spreads its tentacles from just south of Podgorica all the way to the Albanian border and beyond. The lake is stunning, with verdant slopes rippling down towards the emerald blanket of fauna that cloaks its edge. Sweeping back towards the coastline, the hulking karst mountains eventually give way to the shimmering Adriatic. As the darkest days of the 1990s fade into an ever more distant memory, it is clear that more and more people will discover Montenegro, the place that Lord Bryon so extravagantly, but so correctly, praised as one of the most alluring and unspoilt corners of Europe.