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Understudy to the Riviera

Montenegro may lack polish, but its setting and prices make a trip to the Balkans worth it.

October 02, 2005|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Sveti Stefan, Serbia and Montenegro — IN Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," a young woman finds herself shipwrecked on a strange coast. "What country, friends, is this?" she asks.

Scholars speculate -- and I like to think -- that she landed on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro, a place as little known to many people today as it was to Shakespeare's poor, lost Viola.

A few intrepid travelers came here for suntans and seafood in the Soviet era, when Montenegro was a part of the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia and hotel rooms were a steal. But the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, of which Serbia and Montenegro were a part, in the early 1990s, followed by a dark decade of ethnic cleansing and war, virtually erased the region from the tourist map.

Now, with peace restored and all but two of the six republics that made up the former Yugoslavia independent, vacationers have started returning to the southern Balkans.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 11, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Montenegrin church -- An Oct. 2 article in the Travel section on Montenegro incorrectly identified the church atop the island Hotel Sveti Stefan as Greek Orthodox. It is Serbian Orthodox.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 16, 2005 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Montenegrin church -- An Oct. 2 article on Montenegro ("Understudy to the Riviera") incorrectly identified the church atop the island Hotel Sveti Stefan as Greek Orthodox. It is Serbian Orthodox.

The coast of Croatia, just northwest of Montenegro, became Europe's hot beach spot a few years ago. Then -- in the inevitable way of flash fame -- it became increasingly crowded and pricey. Adventurous, cost-conscious vacationers began looking to forgotten little Montenegro, about the size of Connecticut and with a population of around 670,000.

Last spring, I clipped an item from the French newspaper Le Figaro touting Montenegro as the next eastern Mediterranean beach destination. The article promised haunting medieval towns like Kotor, rugged mountains, dreamy beaches and low prices compared with those on the French Riviera and Italy's Amalfi Coast.

I also was interested to learn that Montenegro enjoys a beach season that starts as early as April and lingers into October.

So, I reasoned, if I went in September, when most Europeans were back at work after summer vacation, I could return with a fresh, head-turning tan, not to mention leftover money.

But my four-day visit to Montenegro in early September was mostly due to Shakespeare, who depicted the country as a wild, romantic place where marvelous things can happen. Such things stick in the minds of travelers like me, who take trips to find out whether the real place resembles the imagined one. The truth is seldom unalloyed, as I discovered in Montenegro.

From the start, there were problems. I had only the vaguest notion of where the country was and couldn't locate a guidebook that covered it. I did find the website for the National Tourist Organization of Montenegro and then an office for Montenegro Airlines, from which I bought a round-trip ticket from Paris to Podgorica, Montenegro's administrative capital, about 40 miles from the coast.

The ticket agent gave me the name of a travel agency in Montenegro -- Luminalis -- that arranged my airport transfers and accommodations. I was offered a double at a small, new hotel in the seafront town of Sveti Stefan for about $60 a night.

The price was right, but I had my heart set on the most storied place on the coast, the Hotel Sveti Stefan, occupying its own little island and connected to the town by a causeway. It was formerly a medieval fortress, then a fishing village before it was converted into a hotel in the late 1950s. It briefly upstaged places like St. Tropez as a glamorous hideaway for such movie stars as Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor.

The travel agency warned me that the government-owned Hotel Sveti Stefan was no longer up to VIP snuff. But the price for a single, with breakfast and dinner, was about $130. That didn't seem too much, given that visitors who aren't hotel guests must pay $7 just to see the place, one of the main tourist attractions on Montenegro's 175 miles of coast.

Then came a few unsettling omens. To pay the travel agency, I had to wire funds to the agency's bank from mine, because credit-card transactions aren't yet secure in Montenegro. And right before I left, I read that a crony of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, indicted on war-crimes charges, had just been arrested in Budva, near Sveti Stefan.

Balkan puzzle

IT was rainy and cold when I flew to Montenegro, a 2 1/2 -hour trip that ended with a stirring flyover across the virtually mountain-locked Bay of Kotor. On landing, I found bright sunshine at the diminutive Podgorica airport and a Luminalis agent waiting to take me to Sveti Stefan in his car.

On the way, we skirted the western side of wide Skadar Lake, half in Montenegro, half in Albania, one of the largest bodies of fresh water in Europe. We then crossed Montenegro's coastal range. It crests at little more than 6,000 feet but is stark and steep.

The country is a still-mysterious puzzle piece, fitted between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the northwest, Serbia to the northeast and Albania to the south. Settled by the Greeks and then the Romans, Montenegro lay on the boundary of the dominions of the Byzantine Orthodox Church in Constantinople and the Catholic Church in Rome.

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