When Kara decided she would meet me in Europe for a week after Cannes, she suggested we go somewhere other than France, Spain or Italy because she’d visited several times since moving to New York (yes, poor baby). Always one with an “alternative” location in my back pocket, I suggested Montenegro because of its reputation for being just as beautiful as Croatia, but with fewer people. Actually, it was my sister Joanne who planted the idea even before this Europe trip was a glimmer in my eye. Since Kara hadn’t been to either Montenegro or Croatia, we decided to split our time between the two countries. I had been to Istria, the northern Croatian peninsula, but never to the south, so these were new destinations for us both.
After four nights in Dubrovnik we packed up our little red rental car and drove south, headed for Kotor. The drive is less than three hours along the coast, so some people even pop over for a day trip from Dubrovnik. We, however, made the much wiser decision to stay and explore the area. At about 28km in length from the Adriatic to the harbor of Kotor, the Bay of Kotor is a UNESCO World Heritage site. While technically a ria (a submerged river canyon), it used to be referred to as Europe’s southernmost fjord because it closely resembles one: a narrow inlet bordered by steep cliffs. Whatever you call it, it’s stunningly beautiful. Unfortunately cruise ships think so too as they were anchored in the harbor daily. While certainly less-touristy than Croatia, it’s far from secret.
During our drive we spotted a cute little restaurant on the side of the road and decided to pull over. We walked through Tramontana to its outdoor area which was essentially a private beach. It didn’t take long for us to plop down on a couple of lounge chairs that were nestled into pebbles, steps away from the water.
The Airbnb apartment we rented in Muo, about 4km from Kotor’s old city, was… perfect. The bedroom area was a simple loft upstairs with two double beds, while the living area and kitchen were very modern. What sold us on the place, however, was the balcony that overlooked the bay. Most mornings and evenings were spent sitting on the balcony with either a glass of Montenegrin wine or a cup of stovetop Turkish coffee which we somewhat perfected after a few tries (thanks, YouTube!).
Tripo, the apartment owner, lived right below us and we would often see him tending his garden. On our last night we invited him up for dinner: a Greek salad and pasta with oven-roasted veggies. Tripo worked on a ship and traveled all over the world so we had fun swapping travel stories. He also introduced us to his homemade cherry brandy which went down like liquid candy. Cherries are cheap, plentiful and super sweet in southern Europe, so I would spend the next two months shoving my face with them. The next morning he returned the favor by inviting us to his place for breakfast where a spread of scrambled eggs with spring onion, tomato salad and bread was on offer along with homemade jam and local honey. Not a bad send-off.
The medieval fortified city of Kotor resembles that of Dubrovnik, but is smaller and much less crowded. It was under Venetian rule for 400 years, which is reflected in the architecture. Small cobbled alleys led to plazas with restaurants and cafes surrounded by old, stone buildings.
Italian food is unsurprisingly prevalent, but the best meal we had was outside the city walls in a non-descript building across from the town’s supermarket. Tanjga is the #1 rated restaurant on Trip Advisor, which is 100% for the food and not at all for the ambiance. It’s a butcher/deli shop with a grill behind the counter and harsh fluorescent lighting. A few tables were crammed inside, although togo orders are probably more the norm. The menu was entirely in Montenegrin, but we quickly learned by watching others that you simply point to what you want and they will throw it on the grill. Kara and I got a platter of chicken, sausage, pork belly, beef sirloin, eggplant, zucchini and bell pepper. They serve it with some cold cucumber, tomato and cabbage salad along with bread, a garlic sauce that we asked for much more of and some hot sauce. We each had a hard cider with the platter and the total for two was about $15 USD. A steal! The sirloin was a little tough, but the rest was fantastic. We even had leftovers.
Since we had a car and the area is so beautiful, we did a lot of local exploring. One day we drove to Budva, another town on the coast with a fortified old city. As I’ve found with churches and temples, these walled cities started to look the same after a while. They are incredibly charming and lovely to walk around, but the details start to meld together. I’m glad my phone provides the date and location of the photos or I might not be able to recall one from the other. Yes, I know, these are my stressors.
Sveti Stefan is a little private islet off the coast of Budva and belongs entirely to the Aman Resort. It looks like a storybook from the outside- matching stone buildings with ivy crawling up the sides, red roofs and meticulously manicured trees. I certainly appreciate beauty, but it was almost too perfect; like a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon had run amok. Admiring from afar was good enough for me.
Around the other side of the bay from Muo lies the town of Perast, known for its two tiny islets. St. George was closed to tourists, but we took a boat to Our Lady of the Rocks for 5€ each round trip.
The island was built stone by stone. Legend suggests local sailors saw a picture of Jesus and Mary on a rock in the sea during the 15th century. They made an oath that after every successful voyage, they would add a rock to the same spot so they could construct a church. The islet only houses the church with adjoining museum and gift shop. Entry into the main hall of the church is free, but you must pay to enter the museum. It didn’t take a lot of time or money to visit, but nothing to rush home and recommend.
What we enjoyed much more was the lunch we had in Perast at Café Armonia. The stone building and leafy covered patio were beautiful and inviting, but we opted for an even better seat across the road and over the ocean.
We found several iterations of this along the Bay of Kotor. The main restaurant was on one side, with ocean-front dining across the street. Umbrella’d tables sat on a small, concrete dock jutting over the water, surrounding diners on three sides. Servers navigated passing cars, tray in hand, as they moved between kitchen and waterfront tables; an occupational hazard I didn’t know existed.
While I enjoyed the places we visited, my greatest joy came from simply driving the narrow road that outlined the bay. It’s the same road that ran in front of our Airbnb rental, and on our final day, we drove that road without purpose or destination. It’s barely wide enough for two cars, so if someone drove toward us, we slowed to clear each other. Side mirrors were turned inward to gain those few precious inches. At times there was a bit of shoulder to leverage, but often the road ended where the sea began. You could almost reach your arm out the window and dip it into the water.
On this no-agenda day we noticed a wedding. Naturally we stopped the car and sat shamelessly in the adjoining park area to watch… for about 10 minutes until we felt like voyeurs and moved it along. The wedding party was small, fitting for this little town with miniscule roads and tiny docks. Flowers and draped fabric adorned a wooden frame right on the dock’s edge—a backdrop for the ceremony, I presume (we only “attended” the reception). I couldn’t have picked a lovelier place if I had 100 to choose from. Cars were parked along the side with trunks full of beverages. People were smiling; photos were taken. Simple joys.
Since we didn’t actually attend the wedding with all of the perks that come along with it, our next stop was one of those restaurants with ocean-side tables across the street. We saw one that looked inviting and pulled over. Kara and I sipped a drink while staring into the ridiculously clear water, pointing out schools of fish to each other.
The next morning we said farewell to our gracious Airbnb host and headed to the airport in Podgorica, about two hours away. Since there is only one daily flight between Podgorica and Istanbul, Kara and I were on the same flight. There she would connect to JFK and I would spend another night at gate 202 to await my flight the next day to Malaga, Spain. Only it didn’t happen that way.
Our flight to Istanbul was delayed, which meant Kara would miss her connection… AGAIN. The first time it led to me driving through three countries to pick her up. We deplaned on the tarmac in Istanbul and boarded a bus to get to the gate. As we rode, Kara and I saw a plane pushing back from the jetway. According to the gate announcements we heard onboard, it was bound for JFK. We watched Kara’s plane leave without her.
Kara’s next flight option was the following morning, so Turkish Airlines provided a hotel for the night. She was rightfully frustrated and I genuinely felt bad, but that also meant I wouldn’t be sleeping at gate 202 (insert selfish sigh of relief). Unfortunately I needed a visa if I wanted to leave the airport, so I stood in a very slow line to pay $30USD for a visa I’d use for less than 24 hours. Kara had actually gone through this process on her way in the first time when she thought she’d have to stay in Istanbul for the night and await her flight to Podgorica. Of course she ended up flying to Dubrovnik instead and never left the airport.
A solid three hours after we landed, we were on a shuttle bound for the Radisson Blu airport hotel. It was nearly 9pm. I had been to Istanbul several years ago, but Kara hadn’t, so we decided to take a cab into the city to have dinner. We met a fashion stylist at check-in who would also be on Kara’s flight the next morning, so the three of us got in a cab (after withdrawing some Turkish Lira) and headed to Sultanahmet, the old city where the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia stand. They were naturally closed, but still beautiful to admire from the outside. We strolled the area and sat down to a Turkish dinner of kebabs, rice, bread and meze–an assortment of small dishes. Bellies full, we made them even happier with baklava from a sweets shop, then cabbed it back to the hotel.
While not the planned ending to our trip, we made the most of our night in Istanbul–Kara even happy she missed her flight. As a bonus, I rolled around on clean hotel sheets instead of curled up in my pink sarong under fluorescent lights at gate 202. The next morning Kara headed back to NY. I would spend the next two months in Spain, with a little side jaunt to Portugal.
For lessons learned from these and other flight snafus, check out my article on what to do when you miss your flight connection.