From its coast on the Adriatic to a lake shared with Albania and snow–topped mountains bordering Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro’s landscape is as rich as its history. A modern success story with old world charm, it is the perfect backdrop for adventure, and for test-driving the new Jaguar F-Pace.
It’s like Spain in the 1980s, explains our driver when he picks us up from the airport, speaking in a heavy Montenegrin twang. All the beauty, none of the commercialism is what he means, talking about his home country, Montenegro.
He doesn’t need to elaborate, either, because it takes about 90 seconds to leave behind any signs of the developed world upon exiting the country’s biggest airport in the capital, Podgorica. The airport is similar to what you might find in a regional centre in New Zealand – small, modern and highly efficient.
Montenegro is one of those places that you probably need to consult a map to locate. It has a coast on the Adriatic Sea to the southwest, is bordered by Croatia to the west, Bosnia and Herzegovina to the northwest, Serbia to the northeast and Albania to the southeast – in fact, a lake in Montenegro is shared with Albania.
And you’d be forgiven for a lapse in geography knowledge: in its current guise at least, Montenegro has only been recognised as a country for 10 years.
It has existed in many other forms for long before that, though – in the ninth century, there were three principalities on the territory of Montenegro; large portions fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire from 1496 to 1878; and it has been variously controlled by Venice, the First French Empire and the Austro-Hungarian empire. From 1918, it was part of Yugoslavia. Then, after an independence referendum held in 2006, it was declared an independent state.
Montenegrins, who number about 700,000, speak a language that is a blend of Serbo-Croatian and are striking in appearance – dark haired, pale skinned and very, very tall (some of the tallest people in the world, in fact). They are also incredibly welcoming, and tourism is becoming a boon for the country, particularly since Lonely Planet this year named it as one of its top places to visit.
Having touched down at Podgorica Airport, we are promptly whisked to the coast in style, a Jaguar XF – it’s the kind of luxurious sedan Jaguar is famous for, and the only thing rivalling the beauty of the car was the stunning scenery.
Montenegro is said to resemble Croatia, its better-known cousin to the west, and the country is truly beautiful: small towns dot the stunning coastline, with the magnificent Bay of Kotor nestling inland and rugged mountains dominating the north.
Terracotta roofs appear as a cluster as we approach the Aman Sveti Stefan – a resort made out of a fortified village that dates to the 15th century, located on its own islet off the coast. It was built to shelter families from outside forces before becoming a village for about 400 people in the 1800s, and then a resort in the Aman group in 2009.
A narrow causeway links Sveti Stefan with the mainland and, on this occasion, it is lined with Jaguar F-Pace vehicles. The blue, silver and red cars are a departure for Jaguar: the marque’s first foray into SUVs.
The Jaguar F-Pace is a performance crossover providing agility and responsiveness along with everyday versatility. It combines purity of design with practicalities such as plentiful boot space and cabin width.
It also has a number of special features that make it stand out from the crowd:
• Jaguar Activity Key: a waterproof, shockproof wristband that allows you to lock the key in the car and set off.
• A built-in wi-fi hotspot capable of connecting up to eight devices.
• A state-of-the-art camera at the heart of the Autonomous Emergency Braking system means vehicle speed can be projected into the driver’s line of sight by the optional laser head-up display.
• A 26cm tablet-style touchscreen with superb quality graphics.
• Remote controls to allow the driver to use their phone to lock or unlock the car, receive an alert if the alarm goes off or even find the car. • Remote control can also set climate control up to 30 minutes before you get in.
• The F-Pace has a 280kW supercharged V6 petrol engine from the F-Type.
Sveti Stefan is overwhelmingly beautiful, its 50 rooms, cottages and suites set within original buildings but fitted with modern, luxurious amenities. It has hosted plenty of famous faces over the years, including tennis star Novak Djokovic, who wed here in 2014.
The focus of our stay is the roads of Montenegro and, more specifically, the spectacular F-Pace. We have ample opportunity to put the vehicle through its paces on the country’s well-sealed routes.
The highlight is the drive which takes us from the coast through winding single lanes, heavy with local traffic, climbing through a forested pass to the Lovcen National Park, in the rocky Dinara Alps.
Black Mountain, from which Montenegro takes its name, is the centrepiece of this national park known for its skiing. Today we are treated to a Montenegrin specialty – flaky triangles of pastry surrounding a cherry paste – while basking in surprisingly warm spring sun under cobalt blue skies.
The most spectacular way down from the mountains to the Bay of Kotor is along the old Kotor road, one of the most dangerous in the world – in one 8.3km stretch there are 16 hairpin bends with a fair few livestock along the way.
There are jaw-dropping views and fear-inducing drops – though nothing that alarms the locals, apparently: we spot one Montenegrin family picnicking casually on the side of a cliff at one of the highest points.
The Bay of Kotor has just a small passage to the sea and is surrounded by mountains so it has warm, calm waters and a continental climate.
This bay has long provided refuge to sailors and one of its most prominent points is an islet in its centre known as Our Lady of the Rocks. Local myth says sailors saw a vision of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on rocks in the bay and so, after every successful voyage would lay a rock so a church could eventually be built.
The tiny church found here today embodies much that Montenegro represents: myth and tradition enveloped by bountiful wilderness. It is a lot like Spain three decades ago. And that’s why it’s so blissfully beguiling.