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This was a trip I have been wanting to do for a few years as it is the only country in the Balkans I hadn't visited.


Montenegro (Crna Gora) is a small country with a population of less than a million, but it has witnessed most of the great historical events that have traversed the Balkans. The Illyrians settled there by 600BC and there is some evidence of Greek colonies. The Romans subdued the Illyrians and occupied the area until the empire split with Byzantium taking control. The Goths, Avars and Bulgars all came and went but it was the gradual infiltration of the Slavs that had the lasting impact. The first mini-state was established in around 850, followed by the Kingdom of Duklija and then Raska and Zeta. This developed into the Serbian State that controlled the whole region at its high point under Stefan Dusan in the 14th Century.

The arrival of the Ottomans left the Crnojevic dynasty isolated in their mountain strongholds and they moved the capital to Cetinje in 1482. While the capital was burnt and plundered, the Ottomans never succeeded in occupying all of Montenegro. In 1516 it became a theocracy ruled by the Prince-Bishops (Vladikas). Later under Danilo and Petar Njegos they defeated the Ottomans and gained formal recognition of independence in 1799. All of this mostly happened in 'Old Montenegro', the mountain areas around Cetinje. The coastal region had a strong Venetian influence and the Austrian's replaced them after the Napoleonic Wars, controlling the strategically important Bay of Kotor (Cattaro). Prince (later King) Nikola led the Montenegro to victory against the Ottomans in 1876 and 1878 and as part of the wider settlement Montenegro almost doubled in size, but still without a real coastline. They were successful again in the Balkan Wars but the First World War led to occupation and subsequent incorporation into a greater Serbia and then Yugoslavia. The Italians occupied the country during the Second World War and it became an important partisan base due to the terrain and the strength of the communist party. After the death of Tito and the fragmentation of Yugoslavia, Montenegro stayed with Serbia for a while until a referendum in 2006 voted in favour of independence.

Getting there

We flew from Glasgow to Gatwick and then onto Tivat in Montenegro. The other alternative is to fly into Dubrovnik. Picking up a car at the airport, not essential, but is for me given the obscure places I will want to get to. We based ourselves just outside Kotor in a modern apartment with a great view of the old town, organised through Explore Montenegro. Excellent facilities including WiFi.

Bay of Kotor

The old town of Kotor (Cattaro) is an ancient town site of legend but certainly Byzantine and medieval Zeta. The walls are recognisably the Venetian fortress it was for several centuries until the fall of the republic in the Napoleonic wars. The walls are very well preserved, although the Castle above the town is in some disrepair, not to mention a stiff climb in the heat. There is a small but interesting maritime museum in the lovely old town with its narrow streets, churches and palaces.


There is some British interest. In 1814 Captain William Hoste besieged Kotor with Montenegrin help. Finally capturing the town by dragging cannon up the mountainside. He left the keys with the locals and sailed away without waiting for the Austrians, who by treaty were taking over. It was eventually turned into a major Austrian and then Yugoslavian naval base.

Further down the bay is the town of Perast. Originally the base of the Illyrian Pirusta tribe it became a corsair stronghold and then a Venetian base with a small fortress. Probably most famous for the picturesque island church of St George, built as penance for the murder of a Benedictine Abbot. The town became a famous for its naval tradition, guarding the Venetian standard at Lepanto in 1571. Later, Peter the Great sent noblemen to be trained at the naval academy. There is an excellent maritime museum on the harbour front that celebrates the town's naval tradition and main families, housed in a former palace.


Carry on down the bay and you come to Risan. This where the Illyrian Queen Teuta jumped off a cliff rather than submit to the Romans in 229BC. This is the only town in the bay without a seafaring tradition, allegedly because of the Queen's curse. Not much to see here other than some Roman mosaics.

Keep going down the bay and you arrive at the major resort town of Herceg Novi, started in 1382 by the Bosnian King Tvrtko I. Difficult to ignore the one way system and the commercial seafront, but persevere, because there are three fortresses in the town. The 1538 Fortress Spanjola, started by the Spanish but finished by the Turks, is impressive as is the Forte Mare, a Venetian fort on the seafront. Finally, the ruins of the Kanli-kula (Bloody Tower) - the name says it all about this Turkish fort and prison. In the distance you can see one of the several Austrian coastal defence forts that defend the entrance to the Boka Kotorska (see below).



Adriatic Coast

Next stop, the Adriatic coast of Montenegro. A short drive from Kotor is Budva. Probably a Greek and then Illyrian settlement, the picture postcard old town is Venetian. It was their most southern outpost on the Adriatic from 1443. Bit of a disappointment this for me. The Citadel has been refurbished with a very modest museum and the streets and churches are interesting. The walls are lost in cafes and the whole area is one busy commercial beach zone. There isn't even a signpost to the old town off the main road, you have to guess! As you leave the town on the Tivat road there is what looks like an Austrian fort on the headland. Brown sign, but not even a small lay-by to park on what is a very busy road.


There is a ruined Austrian fortress at Kosmac on the Cetinje road, high above the town that is worth a look.


Most of this coast is set aside for beach tourism including, probably the most photographed part of Montenegro, the island of Sveti Stefan. It was a fortress built by the Pastrovici clan in the 15th Century, but now an upmarket hotel complex. A bit further on is Petrovac with a small Venetian fortress guarding the harbour, now a nightclub. I didn't go down to the Haj Nehaj area on the Albanian border as I have been to Lake Skadar from the Albanian side. I have only seen pictures of Zabljac castle at the mouth of the Moraca River, but it looks worth a visit.

Defending Kotor

I spent an excellent, if exhausting at 40c, day trekking around the Austrian Forts that defend Kotor Bay. First the land defences on Vrmac Hill that dominates the road from the coast into Kotor town. You leave the old Tivat road just before the Cetinje road turning at the brown sign 'Vrmac'. This takes you on a steep winding Austrian military road up to the main fortress complex. My admiration for Austrian military engineers knows no bounds!

It's all a bit overgrown, but the main block can be walked around on a path. You can't get inside (this hiker did a couple of years ago), probably just as well as a snake guarded the barred entrance! You can take the car a bit further past the fort to a barracks and a large gun pit. There may be more further on but that would require more hiking than I had time, or energy, for. There are well marked hiking trails up here and would be worth a day out at a cooler time of year. About 500 yards on the way down at a hairpin bend there is a path. Park the car and walk for about 300 yards and there is what looks like a much older fort. At a guess I would say 1850's and this dominates the Tivat road. Very pleased with myself for investigating, as there is no sign. I usually work on the basis that the only people building paths up here are the military.


Next stop is down to the coastal plain and the Lustica peninsula. The roads are very confusing (village names didn't match my map) here, but follow the signs for the commercial beach resort 'Lustica Bay'. Just before you get there turn right and you are on the only road that crosses the peninsula. It's very narrow but keep going and you will see the occasional brown tourist sign 'Mamula'. You end up in Zanjica Bay, at least according to my Berndt map, although it has the forts wrongly marked.


This is a small beach resort, park the car and walk on a track to the left of the beach that leads to Fort Arza, on Mirista Point. From there you get a good view of the Mamula fort on an island and another fort on the opposite coast at Prevlaka in Croatia, although it is a disputed territory. According to photographs in the naval museum in Kotor they housed 210mm cannon. There is a monastery on another island closer to the bay - presumably pre-dating the forts! I suspect the resort is a former naval base supporting the forts, looking at the small harbour and rail tracks for ammunition transfers.

As you leave, when you reach the top of the hill there is a space to park the car by some small caves. Walk along the track for about 500 yards and you will find a selection of simple gun pits on the headland. The very best views of the forts from up here. Bit of a trek this, but worth the effort to see the forts that protected the bay and its naval bases.



Up into Old Montenegro

Another day out takes us inland, up into the mountains to the old royal capital of Cetinje. The drive up the mountainside gives great views of the coast and the Lovcen National Park gives a more accurate feel of old Montenegro than the coast. Also 10c cooler! Having churned the stomachs of my family enough on the hairpins, I bypassed the sky high mausoleum of Petar II Njegos. The views from there will be impressive.

Cetinje is in a scooped out hollow in the mountains, picked because it was more defendable. The Turks burnt and plundered it a couple of times, but never held it. This is a lovely city centre with a fine monastery, monuments and museums. The National Historical Museum is the best from a military point of view. It has a fine collection of weapons and uniforms. The other is in King Nikola's palace, confusingly called the State Museum in the guide. More weapons and captured Ottoman banners, riddled with bullets.




In conclusion, Montenegro is a lovely country to visit. Plenty to see and do for the history buff and the rest of the family. Everyone had a good time. My only regret is not having time to visit the north of the country and the Durmitor National Park in particular. Save that for next time!


Recommended reading:

For the history of Montenegro there is Realm of the Black Mountain by Elizabeth Roberts, my companion for the visit. Together with the Bradt and Rough guides.

More general histories are also useful. Particularly, John Fine's two volume study of the medieval Balkans. I would also recommend F.W.D Deakin's, The Embattled Mountain who was parachuted into Montenegro in WW2 as the first British military mission to Tito.




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Last modified: 01/23/12