Having focused on shooting people for the last 15 years, I thought it was about time I tried my hand at travel photography. So, the clan and I set off on our annual holiday somewhere photogenic. We chose Undiscovered Montenegro as our travel company and this blog serves as both a review of them and travelling in Montenegro.
Communications from Emma & Ben at Undiscovered Montenegro pre-arrival where fantastic. They sent out useful information, kit lists we may need (hint: buy the filter water bottles they recommend unless you like carrying lots of water!) and generally answered our many questions quickly and efficiently. We left home feeling all would be taken care of and could relax.
The company was fantastic to be fair, it isn’t some huge multi-national with an army of agents who could work there one day and be gone the next. It’s a married couple who not only book you in, but are with you throughout your holiday as guides on the activities you do with them. It’s their livelihood, their passion and their lifestyle. They go out of their way to make sure you are happy and have a great time.
It was all incredibly easy to book and get there. Ben had arranged for a local taxi to pick us up from the Airport and we found him with ease. He drove us directly to Lake View Apartments where we were welcomed by the owner there and greeted like an old friend. We sauntered into town to get some bits and find our bearings and then Ben came to pick us up in one of his vehicles to take us up to Villa Miela for a welcome meal with the rest of the group. He dropped us off back at the apartment at the end and made arrangements to pick us up next day. Couldn’t really have been much easier.
We were a little late booking and missed out on staying at Villa Miela, but Undiscovered Montenegro arranged for 2 comfortable, well maintained apartments for us at Lakeview apartments. These are just a few minutes walk from town with one of the most incredible views I have ever seen. The owners here were also incredible, they speak little English, but know how to make you feel welcome. They live on site and we saw quite a lot of them over the week and they always had time for a smile and a sort of game of charades asking what you had done that day.
The apartments at Lakeview accommodated only 2 people each so we had two. The owner suggested we sleep upstairs and the kids downstairs, but knowing our two our best not left on their own, we split them up and I had some extra bonding time with my little boy and my wife our daughter.
The apartments had comfortable bed and sitting rooms, basic cooking facilities and a veranda outside. It also had that all important wi-fi access. The shower was awesome, must be the mountains but the water pressure was fantastic. The best bit was the view though, literally, wow!
Lets not beat about the bush. You go to Lake Skadar for the views, not the clubs or the nightlife. It has a natural beauty that is hard to overstate.
Its a huge lake stretching all the way to Albania and surrounded by mountains, flood plains and rocky hills. I got a sense of rugged openness and scale I simply don’t have access to in the leafy countryside of Hampshire. It’s a great environment for landscape photography if you can sit still long enough and time your trips to coincide with the evening light. We were on the adventure holiday package, not a photographic one as I know my two kids do best with lots to keep them busy and little waiting around.
Virpizar, the little village we stayed in is very pleasant, but be warned it is incredibly small. It is hard to kill time as you can browse through everything it has to offer in an hour. If you were not being looked after by the likes of Ben & Emma at Undiscovered Montenegro you could quickly become bored. If you are, you are out most days doing activities and too tired to want to do much on your free days.
There is a shop which has everything you probably need apart from insect repellent (do bring), a few restaurants, a couple of places to hire adult sized bikes (no children sized ones) or Kayaks, a couple of pottery shops, half a dozen boat trip companies and that is about it.
I quite liked Virpizar, all the locals seem to know each other and its almost like its stuck in some of time bubble. I was amazed to go into one pottery shop and found the the guy listening to an old tape machine with a pile of audio cassettes next to it. Very retro. It’s not a wealthy town, but it did feel very safe and has a definite charm about it.
When book with Undiscovered Montenegro you do all of the activities with a group of fellow tourists. This can be the make or break part of the holiday I suspect.
Our group was nice enough, its fair to say we would probably mix in different circles back home but everybody was friendly, talkative and amicable. If you have ever watched ‘Come Dine With Me’ that pretty much sums up the vibe at the welcome dinner on the first night. Everyone is polite and on best behaviour but learns to relax and and have more fun as the week progresses and you get to know each other.
The activities were all well run by Ben or Emma and quite diverse. As they moved to Virpizar over a decade ago they have built up lots of local contacts and so can arrange things that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise.
The first day was a little bit of everything. Some walking, scrabbling, a bit of swimming, riding across the flood plains in their off-road vehicles and a visit to an old fort. It was amazing how much we packed in that day. Ben and Emma also use this as a day to assess your abilities as a group so they can tailor some of the activity days to the groups level.
The second day was kayaking which was probably my favourite. We covered about 10K over the course of the day but with plenty of stops to rest and have a little swim. We saw water snakes and got close to a group of wild pelicans out on the water. We stopped at a little island for lunch provided by Ben and then at another island convent where we were shown around by one of the nuns. That just wouldn’t have been possible without Undiscovered Montenegro.
The next we took it easy with a long boat trip on the lake. This was arranged by undiscovered Montenegro but you pay for separately. At 10 Euros each it was very reasonable. The trip was about 4 hours long with lots of swimming stops and a stop at a little village. They also provided doughnuts with honey and…cheese! That was a new one for us but its a winning combination. Is definitely worth a try. The boat trip day was well timed, it gives you a rest day after the first multi-activity day and the all day kayak-a-thon the next.
The last activity day we went for a longer walk over some quite hilly terrain. There was lots of stops for wild swimming at a waterfall and various streams and some stunning scenery. I’m in the process of getting qualified to be a walking group leader in relation with my voluntary work so this was right up my street. We stopped for lunch at a friend of Ben & Emma’s and she put on the most amazing meal for us. I had not tried any of it before, but it was all delicious! I’m now convert to Oregano juice. There was also plenty of snacks to much on you could pick straight from the trees. Figs were in season on our trip but if you time it right there are thousands of pomegranates around.
Fitness Levels Required
I would argue you need to be fully mobile and have a basic level of fitness to fully take part and you will enjoy it a lot more if you are reasonably active. By that I mean if you walk for 30 minutes a few times a week. Its moderate activity for a prolonged period rather than intense exercise.
You don’t need to be super fit. My 8 year old boy and 12 year old girl managed with no problems at all although both are reasonably active. You do need to understand you are out walking or kayaking for hours at a time and so if you struggle getting up the stairs or walking down to the local shops this may not be for you.
As I mentioned earlier, Virpizar itself doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of entertainment. On our first free day we visited an old that overlooks it which cost a few Euros for 4 of us. That was interesting and had some stunning views of Virpizar but only takes up an hour or so. We did intend to hire bikes and go exploring but the local hire companies only do adult sizes which scuppered that plan. The next idea was to walk down to the lake, turned out to be impossible unless you hack through heavy brush. There aren’t any pools or amusements in town and now in the afternoon we ended up heading back to the apartments.
On our second day off we were a bit better organised and took a train and taxi up to Stari bar, an ancient Muslim settlement some distance away. This was fascinating and within minutes we were transported to another world as they called the faithful to prayer over loudspeakers. We spent the whole day exploring Stari Bar and arranged for the taxi driver to come back and pick us up at 4pm and he was as good as his word and came on time.
The ruins were really interesting and offered some breathtaking scenery. They, along with the whole of Montenegro it seems were very quiet given it was one of the main tourist attractions during late August! Very peaceful to just wander around, sit, then wander a little more.
After we left the ruins we went into the town for ice-creams and a cold drink. We also had a browse in the local shops. It was a lovely little place and definitely worth a visit.
Transport is Montenegro is seriously cheap. Our taxi from the airport was 20 Euros, the train, from Virpizar to Bar, about 30 minutes away was 2 Euros, for all FOUR of us! and the taxi from Bar to Stari Bar, a reasonable distance was just 5 Euro.
The train system is a bit hit and miss. The train out would have put anything in the UK to shame, modern, clean, air-con and with seats twice as wide and two or three times as much leg room as in the U.K. I wish my usual train into London was as good. The train on the way back was, well, not. It looked like it might have been old soviet stock! The train stations are pretty basic, there are not any information boards and the staff do not speak English. There are no platforms as such and no bridges to get to the other side. It was quite an experience coming from the UK where health & Safety and signage is everywhere but for 2 Euro for a family of 4 on a journey that would have cost about £75, I’m not complaining!
The local businesses haven’t really cottoned on to tourism yet. They are starting to but prices are still very reasonable to downright cheap. For example soft scoop ice-cream of the type you pay £3.5o for in Cornwall are just 50 cents, about 44p! A 500ml bottle of water is 29 cents and a 5 litre bottle just over a Euro. Beer in the supermarket is from 50 cents and from about 1.50 Euro in a restaurant. These are in the prime tourist areas.
A family meal for 4, with a drink each including a beer for me came to about 25 euros in most places. Eating out is reasonably cheap. Eating in is also inexpensive but the price difference is not as great compared to home.
Little handmade ceramic souvenirs where a 1 to 1.5o Euro with some larger items up to 3 or 4 Euro.
We brought over half of our cash home, we couldn’t spend it!
One thing that really stuck out was how friendly the locals are. Everybody we spoke to had a smile and was happy to see us. They isn’t a huge amount of tourists which is part of the charm and may explain why the local businesses were always so happy to see us but their friendliness really stuck out.
Despite being in a foreign country, walking around at night on unlit streets did we ever feel unsafe or uneasy.
What we Really Liked
Just so much to write here. First of all Ben and Emma at Undiscovered Montenegro, it would not have been anything like as good as it was without them their to arrange activities and facilitate. If you are going to Lake Skadar, you definitely want to book with them.
The second thing was the activities which allowed us to explore the natural and raw beauty of this place. Particularly the Kayaking, that was just a magical day. but all of the activity days were fantastic in their own way.
The activities force you take little risks, nothing outrageous but certainly against the grain of regular life back home. For example on one day crossing a bridge my daughter climbs up on the bridge railing crossing a river 5 metres below. ‘Get down’ I tell her. 20 minutes I was encouraging her to jump from the same bridge into river below….and she did! I think these help you grow in confidence, particularly the kids.
Stari Bar, just great to be immersed in a completely different culture.
I also loved the fact that it was all just a bit different to anywhere else we had done before and felt like a proper adventure. From the trains to very few people speaking English and selling olive oil and home made wine at the side of the road to just how sparsely populated it is. For a major tourist attraction in August there were very few people about really. We walked for about 5 hours and only saw one other couple who were not part of our group.
As a tight northerner living with Southern family who seem to spend without looking at price tags I also loved how we were all so busy during the day and tired at night that there really wasn’t anything to spend money on. Big plus point for me!
The Bad Bits
Mosquitoes and other bitey things. I can have quite extreme reactions to bites and so need to take care, if you are like me you definitely need a good quality insect repellent. You are in a hot country near a huge lake so its no surprise that mosquitoes are about. I was careful about applying repellent and as a result, despite being in shorts and t-shirts the entire trip, I only picked up 3 or 4 bites. I did however, choose to stay out of the water as I knew I would be exposed so no wild swimming for me, apart from the first day, when I got bit!
My wife and kids also applied repellent but swam. We stopped counting after my wife hit 34 bites and my son picked up over 50! For most people this is just an itchy irritation but could have spelled the end of the holiday for me hence my caution.
One thing I really hated was the amount of stray dogs and cats around. The average take home monthly salary in Montenegro is just 511 Euros and with the cost of neutering a pet a fifth of that people just don’t bother. They throw puppies out with the rubbish and if a dog is injured or sick its cheaper just to grab a new one. They just don’t look at dogs and cats the same way we do. we saw loads of stray dogs wondering around at night. Many of these are lovely looking, sweet friendly dogs that would have been scooped up in hours back in the UK. We fed them and made a point of giving them some attention but it made me feel bad every time I saw them. I still feel sad writing about it now, almost 2 months later.
The other thing was the rubbish. You could almost thing fly tipping was a national pastime here. People don’t have much money and lots of space so rather than pay to dispose of rubbish they just dump it. It saddens me to see such beautiful countryside swimming in so much rubbish.
Finally, sugar free drinks were so hard to come by, what is that all about? Rarely found diet coke, only original and then you get clouds of wasps everywhere, meh!
This was a great trip and its probably changed how we do holidays going forward. We will definitely do adventure holidays more and we noted that Undiscovered Montenegro do other trips around the area we may explore as the kids get a little older. The multi-day kayak trip looks like a winner once my little boy can paddle his own weight.
If you are reasonably active, love the outdoors and are not looking for nightlife this is a great holiday.