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Balkan Odyssey Part 16: Ulcinj, Montenegro
Although technically still part of Serbia until the end of the year, quaint little Montenegro has a personality all its own. That would explain why the people of this region voted just a few months ago to secede from Serbia & Montenegro to become their own country.
Sandwiched between Croatia and Albania, Montenegro is easy to get to from popular Dubrovnik (more on that in a later post). I was coming from the south, however, and did so by paying 20 euros for an hour taxi ride from Shkodra, Albania to the coastal town of Ulcinj (cheaper minivans run the same route a couple of times a day).
My first impression of Ulcinj was rather disappointing. The taxi driver refused to take me into Old Town and dropped me off on Bulevar Maršala Tita, a busy thoroughfare lined with ugly little shops not so far from the bus station.
I grabbed my luggage, headed up the street and turned left at Ulitsa Skenderbeu. This street headed downhill to the bay and Old Town. It was less than half a mile, but the more I walked the nicer the street became. Restaurants began popping up, cafes were filled with people sipping drinks, travel agencies beckoned with exciting excursions, locals stopped me to ask if I needed accommodations, and tourist shops were hawking all manner of kitsch made from seas shells and rocks. After seeing so few tourists in Albania, it was strange to walk down a street whose storefronts were all dedicated to serving them.
My destination was a hotel in Old Town poised on a hilltop overlooking a perfect half-moon bay. That's it, the furthest building on the far left of the photograph. Dvori Balšica (fax 421 457 email@example.com) cost an incredible 55 euros for a bedroom, spacious living room, kitchenette, bathroom and phenomenal ocean views.
The above shot was taken just outside my hotel window. There are much cheaper places up here as well, for as little as 10 euros. It seems everyone has a small hotel or B&B willing to put you up.
Old Town is small and ripe with character. Although there are a fair number of hotels and restaurants, they are all incorporated into the ancient stone architecture. In fact, most of Old Town is private residences, just as it has been for centuries. There are no tacky tourist shops or busloads of Germans blindly following their tour guides. Old Town is quaint and left alone.
Wandering through the narrow cobblestone alleys you really gives you an authentic feeling for the place; it's not some tourist manufactured claptrap with locals dressed in period costumes handing out fliers or selling ice cream.
Most of the restaurants in Old Town have amazing patios where you can chomp down sea food and soak up the killer ocean views. Restaurant Klaja, Antigona, and Teuta were three of my favorites. The food was good, perhaps a little pricy for a place like Montenegro, but very nice nonetheless. Even if it was bad, however, I would have kept coming back for the view. Both restaurants have phenomenal patios overlooking the ocean. Indeed, this was my way of choosing a restaurant in Old Town; I just looked for those with a great view and sat down. I was never disappointed.
What struck me odd about Old Town and its great hotels and restaurants was that they were all nearly deserted. At the most, there might have been one or two tables occupied at every restaurant I visited. Often times I sat by myself. Montenegro is still very far off the radar for foreign tourists.
Ulcinj, however, remains very popular for local tourists who can't afford the high prices in Old Town and stay down by the water instead. In fact, the town actually gets a little crowded down by Obala Borisa Kidrica, a typical seaside promenade running along the beach at Mala Playa. The beach itself is quite nice, although I preferred swimming off the concrete dock below Old Town. Old town is just to the left of this photograph.
At night, Obala Borisa Kidrica explodes with young vacationers who cruise up and down the promenade dressed up and shooting sly flirtatious looks at each other. There are plenty of non-descript bars and cafes as well, but walking up and down the promenade seems to be more heavily favored. This was the same ritual I saw throughout Albania. It was not a big surprise. Ulcinj is 85% Albanian. This means the city is mostly Muslim as well. The mosques which had haunted my waking hours in Albania with their morning calls to prayer had followed me across the border--fortunately the sound blasting from the minarets wasn't able to reach Old Town.
Ulcinj is one of those waiting-to-be-discovered beach resorts where good deals are to be had and good times are to be enjoyed. It has a wonderful, beach town vibe, but one day when it becomes popular (and it will), the whole place is going to change. I'm sure happy I was able to enjoy it before the jetsetter crowd arrives.