Thomas W. Hodgkinson

Tall tales from the Balkans

Daily Mail, December 2015

The people of Montenegro think they’re the tallest on the planet. It seems a bold suggestion — and one that founders against the reality that the Dutch may well claim that accolade.

But I can honestly report that many of the Montenegrins I have met are exceedingly tall.

‘I have travelled the world, but I never found such beauty and riches in so small a space,’ says hotelier Zarko Radulovic, exhaling a mushroom cloud of cigarette smoke. I want to tell him that, as a proud Montenegrin, he’s a little biased. But I don’t. He is a giant of a man, standing 6ft 4in.

We are speaking on a high floor of the Hotel Splendid, which provided the soigné setting for the gambling scenes in the James Bond film Casino Royale.

Despite its mildly comical name — sounding like the sort of ironically christened bolthole Sid James might have managed in one of the Carry On films — this five-star retreat is a delight, pitched on the edge of the Adriatic in the town of Becici.

When it comes to luxury, Montenegro has a lot to offer. I find myself staring at the Aman Sveti Stefan resort, which may be as close to Heaven as you can come without leaving the physical world. It’s a former fishing village: a cluster of houses on a rock, moored to the mainland by a slender isthmus. Terracotta rooftops add a splash of colour to the scene.

Film star Sophia Loren was a regular in the Sixties.

The resort is so beautiful that it is almost a shame to stay there — because it means you cannot gaze at it. For the best view, check in at the Villa Milocer.

Built in 1934 as a residence for Queen Maria of Yugoslavia — and later a retreat for the country’s authoritarian leader Josip Tito — it perches on the shore as a discreet part of the Aman enclave.

Though the Yugoslavian kings and queens have gone, guests here are still treated like royalty.

The restaurant is regally superb, and its majestic spa boasts what may be the most skilful masseuses on the Adriatic. By the time you reach the end of your special 90-minute Aman massage, you will feel, maybe, 30 years younger.

So why, if it is so wonderful, is Montenegro not better known?

For two reasons. First, the Balkan wars in the Nineties drove away tourists.

Second, the country is still young. It declared independence from Serbia only in 2006, meaning it has not had much time to develop a profile as a destination. But it is working on this.

Money has poured in, resulting in luxury developments such as Porto Montenegro — a marina designed for the super-rich and their super-yachts.

I recommend spending a night at the complex’s Hotel Regent, but only if cash is no object.

For anyone in search of a more affordable holiday, the Bay of Kotor is a priceless jewel that sparkles for free — an enormous fjord surrounded by granite hills.

Its furthest corner provides the setting for the tiny medieval town of Kotor, whose image, reflected on the water — with Sveti Ivan castle above — is one of Europe’s most magical sights.

Budget accommodation here includes the 13th-century Hostel Old Town, which has double rooms as well as dorms.

If you are feeling energetic, tackle the walk to the castle.

A more relaxing outing is to take a boat onto the water to the shimmering island of Our Lady of the Rocks.

It has an odd tale. Though it appears to be a conventional island, this little outcrop, with its small church, is built atop a series of shipwrecks.

They certainly do things differently in Montenegro. On returning to dry land, reward yourself with a stiff shot of rakia, the local grappa. Better yet, sample a glass of Montenegrin Vranac. Wine-lovers can learn about this fine red by visiting the Plantaze vineyard outside the capital city, Podgorica.

Montenegro is small enough that no part of it is more than a couple of hours from any other.

In the north are the ski resorts of Mt Durmitor; in the south, the nature reserves and beaches of Ulcinj. The latter includes a stretch of sand known as Velika Plaza, which is one of the longest beaches in Europe. Zarko is right. In terms of ‘beauty and riches’, Montenegro stands tall.