Butterflies still clung to my life jacket as our raft upended us into the rushing waters of the Tara River. An unexpected dunking hadn’t been on my Montenegro itinerary, but more on that later.
I came to this tiny Balkan country in search of adventure. You’ve likely heard of Montenegro’s high end coastal resorts, and fjord-backed Kotor is a stalwart on most Adriatic cruise itineraries. But head inland beyond the coast and you’ll find dramatic mountains, crystal rivers, and some of the last virgin forest in Europe.
Here are some of the best ways to get active on holiday in Montenegro, all the while supporting communities and conservation.
How to reach Montenegro by train
Choosing train over plane is guaranteed to get your holiday off to an adventurous start. While trains are more comfortable, fast and reliable than flight aficionados think, you never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll see along the way.
You can reach Montenegro from many places in Europe in a day and a half. From the UK, take the Eurostar from London to Paris, connect through to Stuttgart, on to Zagreb and finally Belgrade in Montenegro’s neighbour, Serbia. From there, take a train to Bar and you’re in Montenegro. The final step is the most adventurous – tickets from Belgrade to Bar can only be booked in person at Belgrade Centar station.
Tara River: Rafting on one of the cleanest rivers in Europe
Until our raft took an unexpected flip, our time on the Tara River had been glorious. We were surrounded by scores of colourful butterflies for most of the journey, making us feel part of the nature that surrounded us.
Winding along the base of Europe’s deepest canyon, the 144km Tara is one of the longest rivers that is fully drinkable. It’s so clear that it looks like someone has turned on a tap somewhere near Albania and simply left it running. From above it cuts an unbelievably bright swathe of turquoise through the surrounding green mountains.
There’s 85km of river to explore by raft through the gorge. Choose from short day trips to a three-day rafting epic through the entire canyon. From April to June the waters tend to flow fastest, as snowmelt from the surrounding mountains pours into Tara. For a gentler experience pick the end of the European summer, when the water levels are lower.
When we did capsize, our rafting guides gave us the dubious honour of being the first group to have done so in years. Maybe your group will be the second.
Durmitor Mountains: Hike between homestays
With the taste of a post-rapids walnut ‘rakija’ (a type of Montenegrin fruit brandy) still lingering, we headed west to the town of Žabljak.
There’s a folk tale, our guide Djordje tells us, that when God was making the world he dropped his sack of rocks on Montenegro, creating the mountains that cover the country.
In Montenegro’s northwest, these mountains form the Durmitor National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its exceptional natural beauty. Old growth black pine forests shelter brown bears, grey wolves and crystal lakes. While high-altitude alpine meadows are home to traditional rural villages like Nedajno and Trsa, only accessible when there’s no snow on the ground.
The area is beautiful but, like many parts of Europe, a victim of rural depopulation, as residents leave in search of an income. A growing network of eco villages aims to revitalise Montenegro’s rural villages.
Homes-turned-lodges offer rural accommodation and serve up traditional local food, bringing alternative sources of income that boost living standards and support beekeeping, cheese-making, and other traditional rural livelihoods.
In Durmitor, the eco villages are perfect for reaching marked hiking and biking routes. From Crno Jezero, the Black Lake, you choose anything from a gentle 3.5km walk around its shores to strenuous trails on the surrounding pine-covered peaks.
Expect to end a hike with a warm welcome and free-flowing rakija, before tucking into a portion of delicious ‘ispod sača’, local lamb slow cooked over coals in an iron bell with potatoes, vegetables, rosemary and garlic.
Lake Skadar: Kayak around Montenegrin wine country
“We are one of the smallest countries in Europe,” says Djordje, “But if you flattened us out, we’d be one of the biggest in the world.” Montenegrins are very proud of their mountains and with the Zeta Plain, which surrounds the capital Podgorica (rhymes with pizza), you can see why.
It stretches to the shores of waterlily-clad Lake Skadar, a huge expanse of freshwater straddling Montenegro and Albania. This is Montenegrin wine country, where vines have been grown in the fertile soil for centuries.
Combine tastings of black wine – the dark red wine typical of the local Vranac grape – with wild swimming and kayaking on the lake. Day tours are available from the sleepy, yet tourist-centric village of Virpazar (30 minutes from Podgorica), but longer itineraries take you into its quietest corners and connect you with some of the lake’s most famous inhabitants, the rare Dalmatian pelican.
Take a kayaking trip with Undiscovered Montenegro and your holiday will help fund the installation and maintenance of artificial breeding platforms on the lake. These have been enormously successful in encouraging more of the birds to nest, with pelican numbers almost doubling in five years.
Travel here in May or June, and you can kayak to see the nesting birds as pelican chicks are old enough at this point not to be disturbed by visitors, yet young enough to still be in their nests.
Podgorica to Kolašin by train: One of Europe’s most spectacular journeys
We drove through the ever deepening Morača Canyon between Podgorica and Kolašin. But having seen the route, I wish we’d taken the train.
Where the highway follows the river north, the train climbs. At points, the rattling Yugoslav-era rolling stock disappears into one of the 254 tunnels that punctuate the 470km route between Bar on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast and Belgrade in Serbia. When it emerges, it’s along a sliver of track clinging to the vertical canyon sides – one of the most spectacular stretches of railway in Europe.
Sit on the left heading northbound for the best of the vertiginous views and alight at Kolašin or Mojkovac to hike in the Biogradska Gora National Park, home to one of the three remaining virgin rainforests in Europe.