Our destination was the small Balkan country of Montenegro, part of the former Yugoslavia. With a population of only 602,000 people, it’s a relatively tiny place. The country isn’t (yet) part of the European Union but they use the Euro, a consequence of hyperinflation of their former official currency.
We travelled with our close friends, the same ones that we holidayed with last year. The journey started with a 5am taxi from home to Gatwick Airport, which despite being ‘just around the M25’, always feels like it gets further away every time I go there. We’d booked a local taxi to take the eight of the 12 of us that live in Berkhamsted as it seemed like a bargain. I felt like an idiot when it turned out that I had misheard the cost on the phone.
Each family had booked a package trip with British Airways, flying into Dubrovnik in Croatia and then being driven across the border into Montenegro. We had read that the border crossing could take up to six hours at the busiest times; thankfully we hardly had to wait at all before we got to the other side. We were staying at the all-inclusive Iberostar Herceg Novi, named after the local municipality as well as the town facing us across the bay.
The hotel itself was good. It bills itself as ‘four star’, but star ratings are often dubious and I thought this was being a little generous. One of the reasons we booked was the relatively low cost compared to neighbouring destinations; it was definitely good value for money.
The location is incredible; photos of the beautiful, mountainous landscape around where we stayed will never do it justice. We got very used to wandering up and down the stairs between the facilities and our hotel rooms. The hotel had everything you would expect, with a decent swimming pool, a ‘beach’ area with sun loungers and private area for sea swimming, a buffet restaurant, a small number of bars — including a beautifully-situated rooftop bar that was ideal for looking over the bay at night — and a coffee house. But the drinks were quite lacklustre, with odd-tasting cola, and wine dispensed through red, white and rose taps. Towards the end of the holiday we started going to the little shop located outside of the hotel to buy decent beer, with and without alcohol.
One of our first challenges was trying to get the shower to work. We could get the water flowing out of the tap into the bath, but couldn’t see how to divert it to the shower head. After both my wife and I puzzled over it for twenty minutes or so, our friend popped into see if he could work it out. But the mystery remained. The only option left was to call the front desk to see if they could get someone to come and fix it. Ten minutes later, a maintenance guy showed up. He walked into the room, saw the tap and said “Ah yes! Everyone calls about this. It’s the only one in the hotel like it.” And then he showed us how to use it. It seems that our holiday brains were not equipped for the lateral thinking that was required:
Across the week, our children didn’t spend any time in the pool, instead opting for the swimming area in the bay. We hired a paddle board for €50 a day which the kids loved playing with, ferrying each other to and from the diving platform at the far edge of the safe zone.
Everyone thought that the food at the hotel was good, although by the end of the week it felt a bit repetitive. Unlike other all-inclusive hotels that we have stayed at, there were no on-site restaurants to book alternatives to the buffet. My options were a little limited as I don’t eat meat and try to avoid fish, so most evenings I found myself having a good salad course followed by a ‘kids course’ of pizza and a few chips. The restaurant itself was quite functional and had the feeling of a brightly lit cafe.
One evening we took the taxi boat from the hotel to the town of Herceg Novi to eat in a local restaurant, the amusingly-named Konoba Feral1. It was great to have a change of scenery. The food was really good, but it all came out too quickly — the mains appeared before we’d made much progress with our starters, which left us feeling a bit rushed.
The hotel’s evening entertainment was unwaveringly awful. Towards the end of the trip we lost hope that it would improve and stopped wandering down the steps to the beach bar to see what was on. At the swimming pool bar there were a variety of singers with guitars across the week. The best of them played towards the start of the week, but the lasting memory of the evening was a random guest getting up on stage to sing The Cranberries’ Zombie, which is my musical kryptonite even in its original form. It was traumatic.
On our first full day we took the taxi boat over to Herceg Novi. Billed as ‘the Town of 100,001 Steps’, it lived up to its reputation. A wander through the old town area mainly involved ascending and descending lots and lots of stairs. It’s a very cool place, with lots of little alleyways and shops to see as you explore.
Halfway up we came across the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in a beautiful little square. There was a constant trickle of people going in and out of the tiny church, stepping backwards and crossing themselves as they left.
At the top of all of the stairs is the Kanli Kula Fortress, which translates from Turkish to ‘bloody tower’. It’s an interesting place which is now used as an amphitheater, with spectacular views.
Herceg Novi also introduced us to Montenegrin street food. An incredibly reasonably-priced bakery sold us some spinach, potato and onion-filled burek which tasted so good. (They looked just like these ones.) Others in our group found a street-facing serving hatch off the side of a restaurant that sold bread pockets of various meat fillings with self-serve sauces. It was also our first encounter with Moritz Eis, manufacturers of wonderful, delicious ice cream. We kept finding their shops in different places that we visited throughout our stay. Wandering around Herceg Novi was one of my highlights of the trip.
We hadn’t planned to hire cars when we were there. Getting around mainly consisted of speaking to Bobana, the representative of Petar Boats at our hotel, about trips that we could do. We booked ourselves in for a half-day private boat for a trip to the ‘Blue Cave’, which made economic sense for 12 of us, as well as trip to Kotor — which we were told was a must-see — on a large shared boat.
The cave didn’t let us down. Our skipper navigated us through the narrow entrance before hooking the boat to the cave wall. Inside it was beautiful — the water really did glow iridescent blue. We were told that it was safe to dive in the water as long as we stayed close to the boat, as lots of other boats would be coming and going. I didn’t need asking twice. Swimming in the cave was so much fun.
On our way back from the cave we entered a tunnel that was used by the Yugoslav navy to hide submarines during the Cold War. It was interesting to see, but the fumes from our boat were overpowering in the enclosed space and I’m glad we didn’t stay long.
Our second boat trip felt like a bit of a let-down compared to the fun we had on the first one. It was a very long, very hot day, and we were on a strict time schedule. After breakfast, we grabbed the taxi boat across to Herceg Novi in order to board the larger tour boat that would be our home for the day. We were told to find some seats and make sure that we kept to the same ones throughout the trip — not as comfortable as being able to move around with a breeze blowing at you. The places we stopped at were extraordinarily beautiful — the Church of Our Lady of The Rocks, Perast with its incredible number of churches for a population of just 269, and the pretty Donji Stoliv with its luxury hotel — but we were too hot, too thirsty and too worried about missing the time to get back onto the boat to explore very far.
Kotor was what we had really come to see. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, founded in the 5th century BC and surrounded by fortifications originally built in the Middle Ages. The old town is one of narrow alleys which I thought would be like wandering around Herceg Novi. We had just under two hours to look around, but spend the first half of the allocated time trying to find somewhere that would serve us some quick street food; we didn’t want to use our whole time there sitting down for a meal. We resorted to a pizza joined staffed with gruff, grumpy people after exhausting all other options.
By the time we were done we had to start to make our way back to the boat again. The town was much, much busier than any other place we went to and I know we just scratched the surface. The gigantic staircase up into the mountains and distant mountainside chairlift gave us some of idea of what we were missing. I’d love to go back.
During our stay I was pleased to get a few runs in. Getting to the taxi boat jetty at the other side of the bay and back was about 11km, so running was a great way of offsetting the endless portions of food available throughout the day.
The weather was superb all week. On our last day, one of my friends said that a storm was due to roll in, which felt impossible given the clear blue sky. And then we saw it come over the mountains behind Herceg Novi.
Once the lightning started to strike, it seemed as though the whole population of the hotel retreated from the beach and the pool back to their rooms. I spent my time on our balcony, trying to capture some slo-mo footage of the spectacular lightning strikes.
Our journey home was eventful. We passed the time in the airport buying overpriced food and watching the England vs Australia World Cup match on our mobile phones. Our BA EuroFlyer service, provided by Avion Express (no, me neither), upgraded our family to the front of the plane. Despite the improved leg room, this may have been a poisoned chalice. The food was dreadful, with three sandwich ‘fingers’, a scone, an incredibly bizarre blue cake and some very stewed, bitter tea. I was the only one of the four of us to eat the sandwiches; that night and throughout the next day I was ill at home with what I can only assume was food poisoning.
We made great time towards Gatwick. As we descended, our captain came onto the intercom to tell us the airport had suddenly shut for emergency repairs. We circled a few times before the decision was made to divert to Stansted in order to refuel. The cabin crew were visibly distraught at the news. Once we landed, people started asking questions about whether they could get out and the head of the cabin crew said something along the lines of “due to European law, the only way you can leave is in an ambulance.” True to his word, the only people let off the aircraft was a mother and her son, the latter of which had been having a panic attack.
At this point, everyone on the plane seemed to need (a) a glass of water and (b) to use the toilet. The captain then announced that the earliest landing slot at Gatwick would be around five hours later, so we had to scramble to get in contact with our waiting taxi drivers to work out what the best plan would be. The head of the cabin crew told off one of his colleagues for being at the front of the plane when she should be at the back; she had wandered to the front as she “couldn’t stand the sound of the toilet constantly flushing.” Fortunately, the refuelling didn’t take long — the captain announced that Gatwick had given us the go-ahead to leave and we would soon be on our way again. In what seemed to be the aviation equivalent of “if you’re only driving round the corner you don’t need your seat belt”, the cabin crew didn’t walk through the plane to check everyone was ready to go and instead spent the entire take-off procedure showing each other funny videos on their phones. Stansted to Gatwick is a short journey on an A320, so it wasn’t long before we were on the ground again.
Holidaying for a week always feels quite rushed. If we had spent more time in Montenegro I would have liked to have travelled around to see more of the country, as the little we saw was unbelievably beautiful. But an all-inclusive hotel takes a lot of the stress out of a trip when travelling with children, especially when you are in a large group. I’m so grateful that we got to spend time there with our friends.
Aside from our trip, in the past two weeks I also:
- Was shocked to learn of the passing of yet another person that I went to school with. I know it is inevitable, but we still seem so young for so many of us to not be here anymore.
- Watched England progress through the World Cup before ultimately losing to Spain in the final. Spain were definitely the better team on the day.
- Enjoyed Album Club #150. I can’t believe we’re halfway to our next century already.
- Cleared the gutters in our back garden in an attempt to stop a small waterfall from appearing above the patio doors when we get anything more than a small rain shower. It then rained, and the problem seems to be worse. Further investigation required.
- Finally got someone to come back and look at our leaking toilet for the second time, two and a half months after the first visit. Apparently a part is definitely on order now.
- Had a visit from a Virgin Media installer to upgrade our home hub to the latest model. We’re now on a plan where we can get 1Gbps downloads. I haven’t noticed the difference with anything except upload speeds, which now exceed 100Mbps.
- Watched Right to Fight (2023), an incredible documentary about the early days of female boxing in the USA. The early pioneers of the sport were amazing in so many ways, pushing for recognition but being met with sexism and hate.
- Had a rare trip to the cinema with my wife — without the children — to watch Oppenheimer (2023). I am so glad that we opted for the IMAX screen, for the sound as much as the picture. The film is SO LOUD and shakes you in the chest, but it never felt inappropriate. It’s a masterclass in storytelling, with wonderful actors and performances throughout.
Next week: Back to work!
- ‘Feral’ in this context means a ship’s lantern, not wild animals. ↩