When Marc, our head of group tours, was dispatched to Montenegro a few years ago to recce a new tour, he did so reluctantly, convinced he’d drawn a short straw. When he returned 10 days later he was beaming, positive he’d explored one of the most beautiful countries he’d experienced in his long and varied travel career.
I have to say, now departing myself, I can certainly see why.
Although we weren’t blessed with the best weather possible – a tempestuous storm that had reeked havoc across much of Europe soaked us on more than one occasion – within minutes of setting off on our week-long horse ride it was obvious we were somewhere special. The name Montenegro means black mountains and although small, when it comes to epic vistas it’s a country that punches well above its weight; the Tara River canyon which we drove along, rode around and rafted down is second only to the Grand Canyon in depth and was only one of many world class views we enjoyed. Forests of birch and beech as well as giant vaulting pines were punctuated by immaculate turquoise lakes, out of which we filled our water bottles. And beyond them stretched vast velvet steppes, ablaze at this time of year with colourful wild flowers.
We rode on a bucolic trail through two national parks, spanning three mountain ranges, stopping off each evening at small guesthouses, homestays and tiny eco lodges, where we were looked after by charming friendly locals. At one such place, wanting milk for our tea our host sent his daughter down to the cowshed to milk the cow. For lunch and dinner we were treated to lots of homemade cheese, yoghurts, breads and jam, tasty pork and beef goulash, shots of moonshine and glasses of excellent local wine. The horses we rode were fresh and fun, a local breed perfectly equipped to tackle the mountainous terrain. And the tack was better than I expected. I have been lucky enough to ride through many countries, and while I wouldn’t place this ride at the top of the premier league of horse safaris – in my experience Kenya, Botswana, Argentina and Mexico would occupy those slots – few I have enjoyed more than this.
Montenegro feels like the new country it is. Uncluttered by delusions of misplaced ancient grandeur, modest about its place in the world, the country and its people feel totally unspoilt, making Montenegro a wonderful secret corner of a fast changing Europe. On our ride we only saw four other tourists and felt like we were travelling back in time.
By a strange quirk of planning I happen to be coming back here to lead another tour – this time for walkers – in August. Before coming here, I was, like Marc, somewhat irritated to be using up my precious travel time on the same country… now I am not. I am delighted to be returning so soon and being given the chance to check out another part of this tiny Balkans gem.