By Dave S. Clark
There are many reasons to go to the ancient town of Kotor, Montenegro. It sits on a unique, deep blue fjord-like bay and is surrounded by mountains jutting up from every shoreline. The tight lanes of the Byzantine walled city are a blast to explore and get lost in. It’s the best place to get a pizza doused in ketchup. And it’s also home to one of Europe’s most scenic drives.
The drive is a 25-switchback marathon rising above the towns of Kotor and Tivat. It’s the best possible spot to be able to fully appreciate the Bay of Kotor’s beauty. I could probably pass on the views of the cheap looking resort town of Tivat, but that’s not why you drive up the switchbacks. The quality of this drive isn’t a secret. It was a regular fixture in the Leige-Sofia-Leige rally race, a 1960s endurance rally that ran from Belgium to the capital of Bulgaria, then back again. In 1970, it was a tricky part of the route for the Daily Mirror World Cup Rally, which saw drivers race from London, all across Europe, board a ship in Portugal, gather their cars in Brazil and continue to race all the way to Mexico City. This 16-kilometre stretch was a small but memorable section of the 16,000+ kilometre event. The first road along this route was built in the 1880s by the Habsburgs and near the top, there is a decrepit customs house, that once served as the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Montenegro. But now, its all a part of Montenegro.
Before we did the drive, we hiked the city walls, straight up the mountain, to get a better viewpoint of the geographical oddity that is the Bay of Kotor. It was a difficult hike with lots of loose rocks and stones, but well worth it for the views alone. But it didn’t prepare us for the sheer magnificence of the view that the switchbacks did. The hike was cheap, just a couple of Euros, so if you’re in shape, give it a go in the morning before it gets too hot and ideally before any giant cruise ships come in and spoil the mood.
The drive starts as you leave Kotor, heading toward the pre-packaged resort district of the Budva Riveria. We had no real interest in Budva, but it is a hotspot for Russian tourists. Once you leave town, you exit off the E80/65 Highway and swing around into the mountains. You start to climb on the northeast side of the highway, before doubling back over the E80/65 and starting to climb up the opposite mountain. As you swing over the highway, the Bay of Kotor opens up for you. Climbing up, the views of the town of Kotor and the stunning bay that it sits on only continue to get more dramatic.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking for an experience similar to what drivers in the World Cup Rally or Liege-Sofia-Liege Rally had 50-some years ago, a road that you can downshift and power out of tight corners while on the edge of your rev limiter, you won’t find it here anymore. It’s no longer a road for the driver. It’s a road for the sightseer. It’s highly touted in guidebooks for that reason. There are massive tour buses going up and down the hill to get the same views you are after, so any spirited driving would probably end with you meeting an oncoming bus head on in any of the 25 razor sharp corners. We got stuck behind buses a number of times and we had to pull right off to the edge to let several descending coaches head down.
If you’re nervous driving in close proximity to near drops or get white knuckled when on tight roads, this probably isn’t a good place for you to get behind the wheel. But I always felt safe and never in any danger. My parents were in Montenegro shortly after I was and they also went up the switchbacks, but didn’t enjoy it as much as we did. They didn’t self drive, so they went up in a large tour bus as a part of a day trip from Dubrovnik. The heights and the drop offs combined with the thick blanket of rain that was falling were a bit unpleasant.
After the switchbacks, we drove through the Montenegrin highlands and stopped in the eerily quiet town of Cetinje, a former capital of Montenegro and home of Europe’s most underwhelming royal palace. We also passed by the exclusive city-turned-island-resort of Sveti Stefan, which we sadly didn’t have time (or money) to explore. The destination was Bar, a dull, grey port city full of communist architecture. I wouldn’t recommend catching the ferry to Italy here as the boat was frighteningly filthy. But just outside of Bar are the crumbling remains of Stari Bar, the unrestored old city. It’s small but worth spending an hour in exploring if you’re in the area.