Discovering the little gem that is Montenegro

The Full Monte. For a pocket-sized country, Montenegro punches way above its weight as a tourist destination.

Durmitor MassifThe astonishing folds of the Durmitor mountain range in the north of Montenegro

But first things first, do you have an accurate idea of where this Balkan gem is situated? “Next door to Greece,” said one friend. “Bordering Slovenia?” hazarded another. Ne! Its borders are (clockwise from the west) the Adriatic, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Albania. The country is a little smaller than Wales, its coast Mediterranean in style, the interior wild and rugged, with excellent trekking.

Getting there was not straightforward, but in the end very rewarding. Planes from Nice don’t land within 250km of the place, so getting to the most used airport for Montenegro – Dubrovnik in Croatia – means changing planes and a long day. Why not drive, we thought. Good plan. The route takes you a long way down Italy, with the bonus of an overnight in one of the magical towns of Tuscany or the Marche. We chose Gubbio, and took in Urbino with its fabulous Renaissance ducal palace the following morning, before driving a further 450km to Bari to take the overnight ferry for Bar in southern Montenegro. (There is an Adriatic ferry crossing from Ancona, but it only operates until mid-September.)

The next day we drove for an hour up the coast towards our destination, a villa on the Lustica peninsular in Montenegro’s “fjordland”. On the way we passed a sometimes tacky and overdeveloped part of the rugged coast, which culminates in the city of Budva, and has something of the bad side of Ibiza about it.

PerastThe jewel-box town of Perast, built by the Venetians, is the perfect spot for lunch after a boat trip across the magnificent “fjords”

With this behind us, we came upon another Montenegro, with its olive groves, simple villages and slow pace of life that took me back to the Greece I remember from my youth. The Villa Mandelin, which swallowed up three couples and a singleton with ease and a deal of comfort, had stunning views over the bays that lead towards the famous medieval walled city of Kotor, while the imposing peak of the Lovcen mountain, a sacred place to the Montenegrins, was never out of sight. From the villa a path frequented by tortoises wound down to a sheltered bay of great beauty, the gently sloping sand making for the safest of swimming for the little ’uns.

In this part of Montenegro tourism is still in its infancy. The restaurant just behind the beach serves the locals with delicious fish and salads at local prices – we paid a quarter of the South of France price for food and drink in this lovely haven.

At the end of our stay we ventured three hours inland on very reasonable roads to walk in the majestic Durmitor massif, which rises to 2522 metres, and where Black Lake and brown bears can be found. Zabljac is the main town in this area, turning into a ski resort in winter. More treats were in store as we made our way back to the coast and the ferry via the fabulous Tara River Gorge at 1300 metres, the deepest in Europe, and by the huge and beautiful Lake Skardar, which Montenegro shares with Albania.

DubronvikThe Croatian World Heritage city of Dubrovnik is not much over half an hour from the border

When to go? To be able to explore the country in comfortable temperatures, late spring and late autumn are ideal. Yes, summers are hot, but that’s just what you want for an unforgettable family holiday in a land where the locals are laid back and helpful and there’s a place on the beach for everyone.

LAND: The 6-bedroom Villa Mandelin costs from €1400 per week (REF MN572 at www.ownersdirect.co.uk) as does its sister villa, the Villa Maslina (REF MN323).

AIR: Montenegro Airlines (www.montenegroairlines.com) fly to the capital, Podgorica, twice a week.

SEA: Montenegro Lines (www.montenegrolines.com) run ferries to Bar from Bari and (in summer) Ancona on the Italian Adriatic coast.

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