An adventurer’s paradise in Montenegro

With shape-shifting scenery reminiscent of an eerie moonscape, the rugged Durmitor range offers white water rafting, white-knuckle jeep safaris and sterling skiing without the crowds.

Sveti Stefan, Budva, the Bay of Kotor… Montenegro’s dazzling Adriatic coastline has long been a byword for glitz, glamour and hedonism. But the tiny European nation is more than crowded beaches and mega yachts. Montenegro (Crna Gora) means “Black Mountain”, and it is in its lofty inland massifs that the country bares its dramatic soul.

A superlatives-defying jumble of three heady canyons, 18 glacial lakes and nearly 50 limestone peaks more than 2,000m high, the impossibly rugged Durmitor mountain range, a Unesco listed national park in northwestern Montenegro, is a relatively unknown – and delightfully unpolished – adventurer’s paradise. Jeep safaris take white-knuckle rides down terrifying mountain passes; the Tara River Canyon is renowned for white water rafting; and the secret is out on Durmitor’s sterling skiing – but the region is years away from being overrun by crowds. With shape-shifting scenery reminiscent of an eerie moonscape or the gnarled mountains of Caucasia, Durmitor offers visitors the most splendid of isolation, all just three hours from the coast.

All roads (and ski runs and bumpy trails) lead to Žabljak, regional capital and at 1,450m above sea level, the highest town in the Balkans. Quaintly ramshackle – though in the process of smartening up – Žabljak is the gateway to Durmitor’s mountain adventures. While far from the affluent appeal of Alpine playgrounds, accommodation here is surprisingly varied: visitors can choose between eco-resorts, traditional homestays or mid-range hotels. Keep an eye out for restaurants serving domaća hrana (domestic food) – heavy, hearty and indescribably delicious. Local specialties include njeguški pršut (smoked ham), kajmak (a salted clotted cream), kačamak (cornmeal with cream, cheese and potato) and jagnjetina ispod saca (lamb cooked in a clay pot). Those who take to the cuisine a little too well can stride it off with a brisk 3km walk to Crno Jezero (Black Lake), one of almost 20 glacial lakes dotting the Durmitor range that are known as gorski oči (mountain eyes). The biggest and most spectacular of the “eyes”, Crno Jezero is a photographer’s dream; its sparkling cyan waters  reflect evergreen thickets and white sands, all presided over by the looming 2,287m-high Međed Peak and flat-topped 2,175m-high Crvena Greda. Skirted by an easy 4km path, Crno Jezero offers cyclists and casual amblers stunning views without the heavy legwork; the more athletically inclined can start here for serious hikes to other lakes through meadows, valleys and up neighbouring peaks. There are more than 200km of marked trails in Durmitor, including an all-day tramp up the range’s highest peak, 2,523m Bobotov Kuk.

Adrenaline junkies descend on Durmitor from May through October for unrivalled rafting on the Tara River Gorge. One of the world’s deepest canyons at 1,300m (the US’ Grand Canyon plummets only 300m deeper), the ravine is sliced by the fast-flowing, 144km-long Tara River, ranked on the International Scale of River Difficulty alongside the celebrated Colorado and Zambezi Rivers. Foamhounds take half- to three-day tours from Žabljak, whizzing down churning rapids on rubber and wooden rafts through scenery impossible to catch from land: pristine cascades, ancient rock stalactites, hidden monasteries and dense pine forests all rim popular river routes. During calm water lulls, the keen-sighted might also clap eyes on any of the park’s 160 bird species, including the golden eagle and peregrin falcon. Those catching a glimpse of the native brown bear or grey wolf may find themselves wishing for a return of the current.

For those who prefer whiteouts to whitewater, Durmitor offers some of Europe’s best – and most affordable – skiing. With 120 days of snow cover (December to March), prime panoramas and oft-empty slopes – all for about 15 euros a day – Durmitor rivals more famous destinations on both experience and expense. Well-serviced by two chair lifts and a cable car, the 3,500m-long Savin Kuk is the most popular slope; while nearby peaks Štuoc (2,600m) and Javorovača (800m) offer shorter, but equally exciting runs. Can’t wait until winter? Try skiing in July at the 2,455m-high glacier Debeli Namet, fed year-round by avalanching snow.

Simply driving Durmitor is a delight – if a shuddery one – of its own. Those with wheels can brave the countless twists, turns and sheer drops of the incredibly precarious – and often closed in winter – 45km back road from Žabljak to the village of Plužine. Even the most terrified passengers are urged to keep their eyes open as the narrow 1,800m-high road winds past grizzled limestone formations, alpine streams, rural oddities (keep an eye out for tiny mobile shepherd’s huts known as kućara) and eerie boulder-strewn fields. Locally organised jeep safaris cater to those without a car – or nerves of steel – with many operators, such as Montenegro Explorer, offering village drop-ins, traditional lunches and off-road bushwhacks.

Žabljak can be reached via bus from Montenegro’s capital Podgorica (170km) or the central city of Nikšić (80km). Drivers can take the recently upgraded 130km long Risan-Zabljak road from the Montengrin coast. The Durmitor Tourism Information booth in Žabljak’s centre (Trg Durmitorska Ratnika, bb) offers free, detailed hiking maps, accommodation options and English tour advice.