Grand canyons and communist ghost towns – 13 things you probably didn't know about Montenegro

Oliver Smith
Sveti Stefan welcomed the likes of Princess Margaret in the 1970s - ©Young

Tonight the England football team face Montenegro, a little-visited country that - for travellers - is a bit like Croatia in miniature. Here are 13 things about Montenegro that you possibly didn't know.

1. It is one of the world’s newest countries – but packed with history

Barely the size of Northern Ireland, and with a population of just over 600,000, Montenegro has had a tumultuous history – though it only became a sovereign country in 2006.

“Ruled by Illyrians and Romans, by infighting Slavic tribes, Huns and Goths, by battling Venetians and Ottomans, and most recently embroiled in the meltdown of Yugoslavia, Montenegro wears its war wounds as medals, rather than scars,” says Telegraph Travel expert Rodney Bolt.

“The tiny country packs in rich remnants of its past occupiers and invaders. In one 30-minute drive along a bay-side corniche, I took in prehistoric rock art, Roman mosaics and a Venetian naval town, pretty much unblemished, before going on to admire art in a Serbian Orthodox church and a somnolent Roman Catholic chapel.”

2. Europe’s biggest canyon is there

In terms of volume, the Tara River Canyon, which straddles Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, is Europe’s biggest. The most dramatic section is a deep inverted triangle among the mountains, inaccessible except by rafters, for whom this is heaven. For those who prefer to stay dry, finding the best viewpoints takes some investigation, though a bridge crossing 500ft above the foaming water helps. The lower depths of the gorge are splendidly replete with trees, waterfalls and caves; it’s a real lost world down there.

The bridge over the Tara River Credit: GETTY

3. Its people are very tall

According to the website www.averageheight.co, which collects data from a variety of sources, only the Dutch are taller, globally, than Montenegrins. A typical man stands at 1.832m. Britain, whose men are 1.77m on average, comes in at 26th.

4. They will be happy to see you

The World Travel and Tourism Council reports that 11 per cent of Montenegro’s GDP comes courtesy of foreign travellers. Within Europe, only Malta (14.2 per cent) is more reliant on your money.

5. It has one of Europe’s sunniest capitals

Podgorica isn’t really a destination but a gateway; most travellers who fly there (it’s on Ryanair’s route map) quickly move on to Montenegro’s beach resorts and mountains. But it does have a few things going for it, including a thriving coffee culture and a handful of impressive churches (including one for fans of Brutalism). What’s more, it gets 2,480 hours of sunshine a year. London gets a measly 1,410.

But it’s not all sunshine and sandals in Montenegro. Crkvice, close to Mount Orjen, is reputed to be the wettest inhabited place in Europe.

6. There’s a scandalously underrated national park

The UK’s Lake District National Park receives 15.8m annual visitors and can get horrendously busy. So head to Montenegro. A glorious kingdom of sky-scraping peaks, jade-green glacial lakes, ancient black pines, mossy forests and plunging river gorges (including the aforementioned Tara River Canyon), the country’s Durmitor National Park is pure perfection. But it welcomes just 130,000 people each year.

Minty Clinch, following a riding holiday in 2016, recalled a “profusion of wildflowers in natural grassland… gentians, wild hellebore, rock roses, bellflowers, multiple violets: such rich variety has long disappeared from rural England.”

Hiking in Durmitor National Park Credit: GETTY

7. Its beaches – there are 117 in total – deserve more visitors, too

Montenegro’s meandering coastline, backed by dramatic limestone mountains, gives on to the serene blue waters of the Adriatic,” says Telegraph Travel expert Jane Foster. “And while Croatia, to the north west, has grown in popularity, few Britons drive two hours down the coast from Dubrovnik to the ancient town of Budva. Founded by the Greeks in the fourth century BC, and then fortified during the Middle Ages, the town forms the heart of the Budva Riviera, which runs 22 miles from Trsteno to Buljarica, and is dotted with a series of sheltered coves and sand and pebble beaches.”

The beach at Budva Credit: GETTY

8. You can sleep in a former ghost town

The spectacular little fortified island of Sveti Stefan, a few miles south of Budva, was once home to around 400 people. But emigration took its toll during the first half of the 20th century and the population dwindled to around 20 by 1954. So communist authorities turned it into a luxury hotel. In the 1970s it was a playground for the rich and famous, with Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Margaret all signing the guestbook. The Yugoslav Wars put it off the travel map but in 2007 the hotel was snapped up by the swanky Aman Resorts chain and it is once again welcoming the great and the good. Rooms cost an eye-watering £740.

9. It punches above its weight when it comes to World Heritage Sites

For a whole lot of heritage packed into a relatively small area, it’s hard to beat Montenegro. It has four World Heritage Sites inside its 13,812 km², or one site per 3,363 km². Only Malta, Lebanon, Israel, Belgium, Cyprus and Switzerland can do better. Durmitor National Park is one; another is the spectacular Bay of Kotor.

“With its mountainous backdrop, beautiful blue waters and medieval and Venetian-era settlements, this butterfly-shaped bay is the jewel in Montenegro’s crown,” says Jane Foster. “The walled town of Kotor itself is a wonder of cobbled streets and squares, churches and a lovely museum bearing proud testimony to the region’s seafaring prowess. Farther around the bay, the baroque town of Perast is the site of a famous victory against the Ottomans. From here it is possible to make a very special pilgrimage by boat to the island known as Our Lady of the Rocks: truly a place to inspire princely reflection and a sense of wellbeing.” Sign us up.

10. There’s a glorious lake to explore – and fine wine to drink

“Just south of Podgorica lies Lake Skadar, a lovely expanse of mountain-fringed water that stretches around into Albania,” says Telegraph Travel’s Adrian Bridge. “Here you can find the wild ruggedness and pristine nature for which Montenegro is also prized; here, too, thanks to the travel operator Undiscovered Montenegro, you can explore by foot, bike and kayak and enjoy wild swims in crystal-clear waters. When the day is done, unwind over a glass of the excellent locally produced vranac red wine.”

Lake Skadar Credit: getty

11. Its domain name is a doozy

After gaining independence, Montenegro also gained the “.me” domain – what could be more appealing to the narcissistic social media generation? Between 2008 (when it went live) and 2010, 320,000 names were registered - including 50,000 on the first day, making it the fastest selling top-level domain ever.

12. Rail lovers are catered for

“When the vast Mala Rijeka viaduct was built in the Seventies, it was hailed as the tallest in Europe and was one of the many star attractions on a stretch of track linking the Montenegrin port of Bar with Belgrade,” adds Adrian Bridge. “The line is undoubtedly a great feat of engineering (in addition to the viaduct there are 435 bridges and 254 tunnels), and along the way passengers are treated to views of stupendous gorges, caverns and dramatic peaks. Tito used to travel to Bar in his own specially crafted Blue Train, his favoured place for meeting foreign dignitaries and heads of state, including The Queen. While not as grand, public trains still ply the scenic route.”

For information on Belgrade to Bar by train, see seat61.com and railbookers.com.

13. There are plenty of off-beat attractions 

Don’t fancy cruising around the Bay of Kotor, yomping up mountains or relaxing on an Adriatic beach? Then make tracks instead for Stara Maslina, one of the world’s oldest olive trees (in Bar); Ostrog Monastery, which is carved into the side of a cliff; or the curious Cats Museum of Kotor, packed with art and paraphernalia related to felines.