Why Montenegro Was the Perfect Choice for My Recent Family Reunion

1. Back from Europe: a Crazy/Amazing Rollercoaster of a Trip

  • Why Montenegro Was the Perfect Choice for My Recent Family Reunion (this post)
  • I must admit, Montenegro was never at the top of my travel bucket list. I’ve heard that the country is worth visiting, but seriously doubt I would ever go through  the trouble of actually planning a trip there. Why would I do that if I could go back to Venice, Santorini or other places in Europe that I love?! It’s not like Montenegro is easy to get to.

    But the circumstances made me consider it for our family reunion. My relatives live in Belarus, and very few countries in Europe currently let them enter without visa. On top of it, at the time I started planning the trip, most places required visitors to be vaccinated with WHO-approved vaccine, and Sputnik V is not one of them. Since Belarus and Russia are on the US “Do not travel” list, I didn’t want to risk going to either country. So, instead we’ve decided to meet somewhere in Europe.

    Fortunately, Montenegro had very relaxed entry requirements for Belarusian citizens. And flying there from Minsk would cost only slightly more compared to Istanbul. Since Montenegro is set to join EU in a near future, I reasoned that I might as well sponsor my family to vacation there while they still can. Since my dad’s health is going downhill, I needed to pick a destination that would not involve super long flights. Of course, due to war in Ukraine, their flight to Istanbul has increased from two to six hours. But that’s out of my control. The tickets were bought, and there was no going back.

    I can’t tell you how happy I am that we planned a trip to Montenegro. It exceeded my expectations in every possible way. My relatives can’t stop talking about how much they loved it. I sort of expected a poor man’s Italy, but that would be an insult to a diverse country like Montenegro. It’s not a poor man’s anything, but a unique culture influenced by various civilizations that thrived here over the centuries.

    I’ve met a marine scientist from Croatia who jokingly said that Balkan peninsula is home to Italian Slavs. I actually think  he nailed it. To me it felt familiar, yet exotic at the same time. The men are  tall and from  behind look like guys I grew up with. Yet their faces appear Italian. The same can be said about the cuisine. Strong Italian influences, but also dishes my mom used to make (lots of potato dishes etc). My son at some point exclaimed: “Montenegro is like Belarus, but prettier.” I concur.

     The best deal in Europe?

    If you travel on a budget and like Mediterranean culture, I don’t believe  you will find a better deal anywhere. The whole time I kept thinking that things should cost more that what we were paying. Obviously, I’m not complaining since we were covering a bill for nine people. And even at budget Montenegrin prices, the costs certainly added up. We spent about 200 euros on dinners a few times, but that was when dining in a fancy waterfront restaurant and ordering a nice bottle of wine, plus appetizers and desserts.

    My sister and nephews look unhappy, but are actually having a great time

    It’s not often that my family gets to do this sort of thing, so I decided to splurge like there is no tomorrow. And worry about the bills when I get back to the US. The situation in and around Belarus is becoming more and more dangerous each month, due to war in Ukraine. I figured we can always make more money, but we may not be always to be together like that. Of course, now my husband jokingly says we need to eat ramen noodles for a month, but I digress…

    My point is, we paid about half of what we would in Italy or Greece and got views that would rival either country. In the touristy center of Kotor you could get away with paying 8 to 9 euros for a tasty meal. Even the most expensive dishes like grilled octopus set me back 18 euros. If you are really on a budget, you could go to a great pizzeria and get a huge slice of pizza for only 2.5 euros.

    Something that won’t mean much to most of you but what I really appreciated is the fact that almost all the restaurants had their menu translated in English as well as Russian. So, I could actually relax and focus on my own order rather than going back and forth with my family. Of course, there was the matter of my parents constantly bickering with each other, but that’s par for the course.

    I will do a separate review of the lodging we rented in Kotor, but I still can’t believe what a good deal we got.

    I rented three very nice apartments in the center of the old city of Kotor for a total of $1,450 for the whole week. Ours cost the most since it had two bedrooms, but my parents’ studio with a beautiful courtyard was only $55 per night, all taxes included. It was located in a building from the 13th century, with original stone walls.

    I had to pinch myself each morning when I opened the shutters to this lovely square, listening to birds and seeing the city wake up.

    I was told that the Yugoslavian war in the nineties and the subsequent  sanctions have set Montenegro’s economy years, if not decades back. Things are picking up, and tourism is recovering after the long Covid hiatus.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that Kotor is off-the-beaten path. It certainly caters to tourists, and there are many businesses in the city that depend on visitors. Still, you get the feeling that it’s a living, breathing community, rather than a  destination that became a cliche of its former self.

    If I could compare it to another city, it would be Venice. Take away the canals and gondolas, and it would be hard to tell the difference. It’s no surprise, since Venice ruled Kotor for over four hundred years. In fact, its original name was Katarro.

    I kept getting lost in the maze of Kotor streets

     

    One thing I need to let you know is that Montenegro gets hot in the summer. Like, really hot. We went at the beginning of June, and the temperatures rivaled my state of Florida. That’s why my sister and I decided to do a hike to the city fortress close to sundown. Mornings and evenings feel very comfortable due to lower humidity.

    Don’t bother if you have bad knees

    I think Montenegro would be a great destination for spring or fall, though my Belarus family loved the heat. Belarus summers can be quite chilly, so they really enjoyed it. We were super fortunate to get almost no rain during our stay.

    Not just Kotor

    While I loved Kotor and very glad I chose it as our base, there are a lot of other places in Montenegro that you can explore. We did not a rent a vehicle during our stay. It’s a nuisance on the coast anyway, plus, it would be hard to transport nine people. Instead, we relied on group tours, taxis and buses. I recommend you do the same.

    Here are a few things we did:

    1) A tour of Durmitor National Park and Tara bridge 

    This was a fun, if very long  excursion. We booked this tour via Viator and it was operated by the company called Monte 360. At $57 per person, I thought it was a great value, plus we got a 10% discount for booking via Viator app. We could book a private tour for about $120 more, but I decided to save the money. No regrets. My dad stayed behind in Kotor, since he would have a hard time getting enough oxygen in the high elevations due to lung damage from Covid.

    My sister and older  nephew got to do ziplining over Tara canyon for only 10 euros per person. Definitely not something they can do in Belarus. Both absolutely loved it.

    We also stopped a few times to take photos of magnificent scenery and enjoy the bird’s eye view of the Bay of Kotor.

    2) Visiting ancient Roman sites

    I will say upfront that if you’ve been to Italy, these will not impress. But since my relatives have never seen any Roman sites in their life, they were thrilled. We visited ancient dig with mosaics in Risan, a 25-minute bus ride from Kotor. The bus ride was an adventure, and my dad almost got left behind. But that’s another story.

    This used to be a fancy Roman villa

    I also paid extra, so the driver would take my relatives by Doclea ancient ruins near Podgorica, that used to be the original ancient Roman settlement in this neck of the woods.

    3) Going to a local beach for the day

    Again, if you have been to beaches in my home state of Florida, you probably won’t be impressed. But my relatives don’t live in Florida, so they absolutely loved it. They normally have to swim in cold lakes, so this was a real treat, especially for the boys. And to be fair, Plavi Horizonti beach has a very picturesque setting going for it. Plus, it wasn’t too crowded, unlike other beaches in Montenegro.

    The beach has bathroom facilities and a restaurant on site. It was full of local families, so the vibe was very relaxed. It is not on any major bus route, so we paid the owner of our apartments to drop us off and pick us up at the end of the day. Him and his wife brought two vehicles, and I gave them 50 euros each way for both (25 minute ride from Kotor).

    It’s probably a bit more than taxis would cost, but I trusted him to be there when he said he would. We had a perfect day at the beach for a grand total of 100 euros, which I thought was a good deal.

    4) Renting a sailing yacht

    Ok, so I’m normally not a “rent a yacht” kind of gal. But I really wanted to explore the bay of Kotor, and sailing on a boat with a group of strangers would end up costing us almost the same amount as going private. Again, if you don’t have 9 people in your party, it likely won’t be the case.

    I got in touch with a Russian guy who reached out via WhatsApp and quoted the price: 500 euros for 8 hours of sailing. However, we would have to leave from port of Montenegro, which is about 20 minutes from Kotor. Still, the next cheapest quote was 800 euros, so even with the cost of taxi, it still made sense to go with the first offer. Plus, we would have a chance to see the port of Montenegro, something I wanted to do anyway.

    Renting a big sailing yacht has its pros and cons. Obviously, it’s pretty cool, especially when our captain unfurled the sails and turned off the engine for about ten minutes.

    Sailing near the beautiful city of Perast

    On the other hand, a yacht won’t be able to enter the Blue Cave, something I was hoping to do while in Montenegro. We were told we would have to swim into it, and watch out for small boats entering the cave. Nope. We decided to skip it.

    Instead, we sailed all around the Bay of Kotor, and even entered the open sea at one point.

     One of the reasons I’ve decided to rent a yacht is because it had  a bathroom and several beds. My husband was happy to have a place to nap. This is crucial to him having a good attitude.

    We packed sandwiches, drinks, snacks and fruit, plus a bottle of wine (their was a fridge available). Nothing like having a picnic on a private yacht, while enjoying these views.

    A few times, the captain let us go swimming right off the deck, which the kids absolutely loved.

     

    My husband’s favorite thing was sailing past old Yugoslavian submarine bunkers.

    Overall, if you are going to do one splurge in Montenegro, this is probably it. You can do a search on Google, as there are many local companies offering yachts for rent, captain’s services included. I will say that our captain wasn’t super friendly and talked about politics a few times. But he got the job done, and I feel like we got our money’s worth and then some.

    My daughter wanted to recreate “I’m king of the world!” scene from the movie “Titanic”:

    I sent an inquiry for the yacht via this website and then had to arrange a 100 euros deposit via PaySend to reserve our yacht. I gave the 400 remaining euros to the captain directly. It was a bit of a hassle compared to booking a tour on Viator. But it was the best deal in town, bar none.

    Should you add Montenegro to your European itinerary? 

    It really depends. Just because I loved it, doesn’t mean you will love it too. That said, my husband told me it’s now his favorite country in Europe, and we’ve been all over the old continent. He said that he loved the local culture and the low-key approach of Montenegrin people. And of course, the city of Kotor, the jewel of the Adriatic.

    As I’ve mentioned at the beginning of the post, it’s not the easiest place to get to, though that’s changing. We were able to fly from Tivat to Paris for only $50 per person, which is an amazing deal.

    Overall, if you don’t like connections, your best bet will be flying to Dubrovnik, which has  direct seasonal flights from Newark via United. From there, it’s a 2-hour taxi ride to Kotor, including border crossing. For other possibilities,  I recommend the website FlightConnections which can help you figure out the easiest option to add Montenegro to your European itinerary.

    I was able to redeem United currency on a flight from Tampa to Tivat (with connections in Chicago and Frankfurt) at 33k miles+$15 per person. That’s a very good deal, though if you’ve read my previous post in the series, we’ve missed the last flight and ended up flying to Dubrovnik the following day. So, make sure you have a contingency plan in place, in case things go south.

    Something else you need to keep in mind is that while quite a few places in Montenegro accept credit cards, many do not. Also, there are ATMs available, but not all debit cards will work. For example, my SoFi card was a no-go, while the debit card from my local bank worked just fine. It’s important to have a backup, though that’s really true for any country in Europe that you visit.

    Overall, things mostly work as intended, and the tourism sector is geared towards you having a stress-free vacation. This is their bread and butter. Many do speak some English, especially the younger generation.

    But keep in mind, Montenegro is still an emerging economy trying to catch up to the rest of Western Europe. So, don’t expect things to work smoothly 100% of the time. But the same can really be said about Italy, where you will pay double  and still may experience some issues. And I love Italy.

    If you have any questions about Montenegro, hit me up in the comments!

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