independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Montenegro: A Balkan beauty with blue skies, beauty... and now golf

A temple overlooking the bay within the ancient walled city of Kotor, which is a Unesco world heritage site.

It was extremely apt that I should be reading a book about the women in architect Frank Lloyd Wright's life on the plane to Montenegro. As the plane took off, I discovered that one of the very important women in his life was Olgivanna, who hailed from Montenegro. Before I arrived, she had added an air of the exotic to a country I had never visited before and knew little about. And I wasn't let down.

On the journey from Dubrovnik airport, I couldn't believe the beauty of the coastline. I know it's a cliche, but I had never before seen such an amazing shade of blue as that of the Adriatic, with its backdrop of mountains and red-roofed villages dotted throughout the coast.

We based ourselves at the Vardar Hotel in Kotor, a walled city which is more like a town. With its cobbled streets and outdoor cafe culture, it's a wonderful place from which to explore.

It's a Unesco world heritage site so every shop, cafe and restaurant is housed in a building with a story to tell. The labyrinth of cobbled streets occasionally give way to bustling squares with little churches and other historic buildings, and to sit on the terrace outside my hotel with a glass of local Montenegrin wine and watch the world go by was a real treat.

It's a laidback country that has had its share of troubles, and many Montenegrins that I met were quick to point out that the Irish and the Montenegrins are very similar in their outlook and laid-back attitude.

If you're in a hurry, don't come to Montenegro was the advice of developer John Kennedy, a Londoner who has had the foresight to bring his Sea Breeze development of homes and his golf complex to Montenegro. It's the up-and-coming place to go.

There are no golf courses in the country and John sees it as the ideal location for one. With the help of his course designer, Steve Marnach, he is constructing an 18-hole course on an old vineyard with spectacular sea and mountain views.

Steve is very upbeat about the project and referred to his irrigation consultant on more than one occasion. I couldn't help mentioning, I could do with one of those. Not the right comment to make – especially since he was very attractive...

Right next to Tivat airport, and very near to the main resorts, John's complex will incorporate residential units, a hotel, a driving range, clubhouse and, of course, the golf course. On the other hand, his Sea Breeze development will be purely residential, perched on a hill with wonderful views of the Adriatic.

Montenegro has it all, he maintains, and he's right. History, culture, nightlife, great food and wonderful weather. The temperatures rarely go below 10 degrees on the coast, while the mountains are ideal ski venues in the winter. There's 300km of coastline and the country comprises more than 60 per cent mountainous landscape – all providing spectacular vistas.

Our little city of Kotor was a gem. It's entirely surrounded by walls. Outside is bustling with a daily market, and boats of all shapes and sizes hang about the bay, while inside is another world of tranquillity and culture. It belonged to Venice from 1420 to 1797, so Venetian architecture is very much in evidence.

Much of it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1979, but was restored brick by brick. Many beautiful, little 17th century palaces in the maze of streets are now private villas and all the facades must be carefully maintained. The mayor is a woman, so flowers and plants abound throughout this little city.

We took the short and beautiful drive to the resort of Budva just 22km away. A beach on the road from Kotor to Budva has played host to The Rolling Stones and Madonna. Another fortressed town, Budva has gates which open directly on to the beach, and Richard Burton made one of his earlier films there and, as a result, the beach is called Richard's Head.

One tiny little square hosts no less than four churches – two Catholic and two Christian Orthodox. The town is another example of modern shops in old buildings. None of your big glassed frontage here.

Walking around the parapets of the old town, I glimpsed a local woman doing her gardening on one side and, rather incongruously, on the other side of the wall were huge boats moored in the marina.

We took a hair-raising journey up the mountains to the old capital of Cetinje. With two national parks, the biggest lake in south east Europe and numerous cultural places to visit, it's a must. All the original embassies have changed function, but are still magnificent buildings.

We stopped off at a little village on the way down and ventured into the smoking room before purchasing some of their wonderful smoked cheese and pork.

A trip to Perast, a tiny little coastal village, and a short trip from there out to the Church of Our Lady of the Rocks was wonderful.

It houses many great artefacts and gifts of gratitude for bringing sailors home safely from the sea.

One woman, a sailor's wife, had so much time on her hands that she created an intricate tapestry of Our Lady and used her own hair to create the hair in the tapestry.

Why can't I do something worthwhile like that instead of drinking, smoking, eating and carousing? And talking of eating and drinking, the Montenegrins make a lovely white wine which I became very fond of, on my trip, and the food was sublime.

We ate at One in Porto Montenegro, the Puerto Banus of Montenegro, where I indulged in home-made gnocchi with mushrooms and truffle oil, and a divine beef stroganoff, while for dinner at Galion, just outside the gates of Kotor with the water lapping, we had freshly caught red snapper and sea bass.

The culture is wonderful, the people are lovely, the food is divine and the wine isn't so bad either, so I'll be back when John has his golf course up and running – I might have a decent handicap by then.

GETTING THERE

You can fly direct to Dubrovnik from Dublin with Aer Lingus and Europe Air Post. Montenegro is just 75 minutes from Dubrovnik airport.

Eleanor stayed at Hotel Vardar in Kotor Old Town. Visit www.hotelvardar.com

Rates start from €125/night on B&B basis for two persons sharing a room.

Sea Breeze villas – prices start at €399,000 for a 210sq m, two-bedroom villa and go up to €899,000 for a 243sq m, three-bedroom villa. All new villas come with a free Fiat Punto car. For more information, Tel +382 (0) 32 331 555, email: sales@seabreeze.me, website: www.seabreeze.me

Irish Independent

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