First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes … vacation with the in-laws?
It’s the part left out of most storybook romances. Vows have been exchanged, the honeymoon is long since over, and you suddenly find yourself having to reconcile a limited amount of vacation time with the obligations of visiting family located in various corners of the globe.
For our first few years together, my Albanian-born husband, Neritan, and I had a great time solving what most of our friends regarded as an enviable problem. One summer, we spent a week together in Italy before flying to meet his family in Albania; on another visit overseas, we traveled to Crete, where Neritan’s aunt was living at the time, and where his mother met up with us midway through our trip.
For our most recent trip to Europe, though, we faced a dilemma: My husband hadn’t seen his folks in more than a year, and, understandably, wanted to spend some time with them. But having already visited Albania, Italy and Greece, I was eager to discover somewhere new.
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That’s when Neritan’s mom put forth an appealing suggestion: What if we flew to Tirana and then drove three hours north to Montenegro, one of the six republics that make up the former Yugoslavia? We could split the cost of a two-bedroom apartment near Budva, on the Adriatic Coast. My in-laws would then spend their days reading on the beach, and my husband and I could take off for the sort of history-minded day-trips we relish and explore a country that didn’t actually exist until 2006.
And while there would be no candlelit dinners for two overlooking the Mediterranean, well, there’s a lot to be said for dinner for four on the cliffside terrace of a seaside apartment, followed by a spirited round of gin rummy.
If you’re like most Americans, all of your associations with Montenegro are of the fictional variety: This is the swank, moneyed country where Daniel Craig, in his first outing as James Bond in Casino Royale, squared off against Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre in a high-stakes game of poker at the Hotel Splendid Casino.
As it turns out, no such casino exists (and the Montenegro scenes in Casino Royale were actually filmed in the Czech Republic), but the Bond film wasn’t entirely fantasy. Since a 2006 vote to dissolve its state union with Serbia and become its own republic, Montenegro has emerged as a playground for wealthy Russians and Eastern Europeans, many of whom stay at the ultra-luxe Aman Sveti Stefan, a resort located on its own island, about six miles south of Budva. It’s here that you have access to private, virtually empty beaches, as well as a world-class spa and numerous fine-dining restaurants.
We opted for more modest digs at Apartmani Kazanegra in the tiny bayside village of Pržno, located between Sveti Stefan and Budva. Built into craggy hillside, on a cape that juts into the water, the apartments all feature balconies that offer take-your-breath-away views of the Bay of Budva. At about 180 Euros a night, the apartment costs a fraction of what a similarly situated apartment might cost in the more commonly trafficked spots along the Mediterranean.
As anyone who’s spent time traveling with family knows, the first order of business is to come up with low-stress activities that minimize the chance of getting on each other’s nerves. Lucky for us, we’re all readers and sun-lovers; and — even luckier — to access the beach from our apartment, we merely had to walk down a flight of stone steps and follow a sandy pathway. In July, the water was a shimmering blue, brisk-but-not-too-cold — perfect for swimming.
A couple of caveats: At the height of tourist season, the beaches of Montenegro can get crowded — your best bet is to visit in May, June or September, when the visitors are fewer, but it’s still warm enough to swim. This corner of the country also attracts a lot of younger revelers, who populate the town’s sometimes noisy discotheques and bars; one night during our visit, we were kept up past 2 a.m. by a karaoke party at one of the beachside clubs.
But we quickly established a relaxed rhythm, sleeping in, spending our late mornings and afternoons on the beach, and then enjoying dinner at one of the nearby restaurants, like Blanche, where we feasted on grilled octopus and Serbian salad (think Greek salad, but heavy on the cucumbers). Our apartment came equipped with a full kitchen, so we could also cook dinners at home and eat on the terrace to the soundtrack of water lapping against the rocks.
Seriously, what family wouldn’t get along in so mellow and transporting a setting?
My husband’s parents had traveled to Montenegro previously and had already visited the major tourist destinations. So while they spent a few more days on the beach, we took the car and set off to learn more about this tiny country, with its population of just 620,000. Originally part of the Ottoman Empire, Montenegro became a principality in 1860, and — after a tumultuous few decades — became part of Yugoslavia in the years after World War II.
After the fall of communism, Montenegro aligned with Serbia in its battles against Croatia and Bosnia — and tensions among these various ethnic and nationalist groups still linger. The country formally declared independence by referendum in 2006, making it the third-newest country in the world (after South Sudan and neighboring Kosovo).
For most visitors, though, the best history lesson will come with a visit to the walled “Old Town” of Budva, with its imposing stone walls that once provided fortification against invading mariners. These days, the Old Town is host to a mixture of shops, restaurants, hotels and apartments, and you easily can spend a long afternoon wandering through its twisting cobblestone pathways, imagining what life here might have been like in the Middle Ages.
An even more fascinating journey into the past comes at Lovcen National Park, about an hour north of Budva, where you’ll find the mausoleum of the Montenegrin national hero Petar Petrovic Njegoš, whom many credit with modernizing the country in the early 1800s. Prior to his death, Njegoš wished only to be buried in a chapel located atop Mount Lovcen, the second-highest point in the country. Over the next century, that original chapel was destroyed, rebuilt and razed again so that the then-ruling communists could build a new, nonreligious mausoleum in 1974.
Talk about a time capsule: To get to the mausoleum, you have to climb 461 steps, through a tunnel that has been built through a blasted-out hole in the mountain. At the top, you’ll find an immense granite statue of Njegoš and — inside a small room tucked deep inside the rock — a tomb said to contain his remains. Adding to the general weirdness of the scene is a tourist kiosk where you can don traditional garb and have your photo taken alongside a traditionally dressed Montenegrin, a la Colonial Williamsburg.
On the one hand, Lovcen is less a monument to Njegoš than to the Communist Party and its flair for ostentatious, wildly impractical celebrations of national pride. On the other hand, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more breathtaking view of Montenegro’s lush mountains and blue waters. Whether you find yourself dazzled or completely bewildered, though, this much is certain: You’ve never seen anything quite like it.
As is usually the case when you’re traveling to spots not necessarily frequented by English speakers, our trip to Montenegro wasn’t without its hiccups. We took a wrong turn on the way to Lovcen and had to stop three times before we found someone who could make sense of our elaborate pantomimes and point us the right way.
Our attempts to buy fresh parsley at the grocery store, meanwhile, resulted in purchasing a very large quantity of oregano that we didn’t want or need. (After all the trouble the grocer went through to try to make sense of what we were asking for, we certainly weren’t about to leave without buying something.)
Yet all went smoothly on our last day in Montenegro. The whole family piled into the car and drove about an hour, up into the mountains and then down along a winding, waterside road to Kotor, yet another supremely beautiful stone-walled city, located on the Bay of Kotor.
Then we made our way farther around the bay, to the sleepy seaside town of Herceg Novi, for lunch at Konoba Feral. The view of the water from our table would have been enough — but the fact that we also enjoyed a sumptuous platter of fresh fish and a bottle of wine, all for less than 80 Euros, made us even happier.
From there, we took the long way home and wound our way to the town of Porto Montenegro, with its marina filled with yachts and its retail village filled with upscale shops and restaurants. (A new luxury hotel, the Regent Porto Montenegro, opened a few weeks after we visited.)
And while you might think spending a day trapped in a car in a foreign country with your in-laws would be nightmare, in our case, the breeze coming off the water was just enough to temper the summertime heat.
Oh, and anytime a potential family bickering session developed, we could just look toward the sea and calm ourselves down with a vision of picture-postcard majesty.
Getting to Montenegro isn’t necessarily easy; there are no direct flights from the United States, so plan for a two-layover, 18-hour trip each way. Round-trip airfare to the capital city of Podgorica or the smaller city of Tivat for the prime summer months is about $2,000. From Podgorica, Budva is an 80-minute drive. From Tivat, Budva is about 30 minutes away.
Where to stay:
Ulica Obala 12
85315 Pržno/Sveti Stefan
Apartments from 150 Euros
Aman Sveti Stefan
Rooms from 870 Euros
Regent Porto Montenegro
Porto Montenegro Village, Tivat
Rooms from 500 Euros
Where to eat:
Setaliste Pet Danica 47