Mostly known across the Balkans for its summer party scene, Montenegro’s southernmost city Ulcinj offers more than just hazy nights and hung-over beach days.
Founded by Illyrians in the 5th century BCE, the town quickly established itself as a vital port in the eastern Adriatic, first under the Romans (both the Roman Empire and Byzantium) and subsequently several smaller Slavic entities, before being subjugated by the advancing Ottoman Empire.
Therefore, the town boasts an extremely intricate and diverse past that might not be blatantly obvious at first.
Ulcinj’s most intriguing period began in the 15th century CE though, when the harbour became an infamous centre of piracy. For four centuries, its citizens, then known as Ulcinian sea wolves, raided and looted ships navigating the currents of the Adriatic Sea, greatly disrupting the flow of goods between Europe and Asia, amassing enormous riches in the process. These skilled seafarers were no scoundrels at all, however, but very opportunistic in their approach, shifting from piracy to trade, depending on the circumstances, even lending their swords to meddle in the affairs of the major European powers at the time. The legacy still lives on today, as nifty Ulcinians have started to use it for touristic purposes.
In any way, from exploring the dilapidated remains of Ulcinj’s salt industry, to wandering the crooked alleys of this former pirate haven, or contemplating life beneath the swaying crowns of ancient olive groves, you can easily cover two thousand years of living history in a single day, while still retaining time to indulge in the relaxed coffee culture of the Balkans.
Below are the six best things to do while visiting this charming Montenegrin coastal town.
WANDER AROUND THE OLD TOWN
Perched on top of an imposing rock overlooking the bay of Ulcinj, the town’s old quarter is a confusing maze of narrow alleyways, cobblestone courtyards, and traces of its multifaceted past.
The Imperial Mosque, a church turned mosque turned museum (Museum of Ulcinj), might be the epitome of this fascinating mix of cultures that have claimed dominion over these lands. From Illyrians to Romans, and Venetians to Turks, countless people reigned within these walls, before vanishing into the annals of history. Now, numerous archaeological finds are displayed in the museum and bare witness to those fallen civilizations that formed the town visible today.
Truthfully, the old town is quite small and besides the museum you won’t spend much time here (unless you are staying for a sunset dinner).
Nevertheless, a morning stroll through this former pirate town is still a pleasant pastime, before it is time to set sails and hunt for all the other treasures Ulcinj has to offer.
CHASE BIRDS IN THE SALINA
Just a short distance from Ulcinj’s city centre lie the derelict salt pans of the Salina of Ulcinj.
What used to be the biggest saline of Yugoslavia (even one of the biggest in the Mediterranean!) is now one of the most important breeding, resting, as well as wintering sites for birds in the eastern Adriatic.
In fact, more than 250 species of birds, including 20 endangered ones, find shelter between the arching reeds of the nature reserve.
The days when men extracted the white gold from the shallow waters of the Salina might be over, however, what remains is a truly unique biosphere shaped by humans but reclaimed by nature.
Today, the Salina of Ulcinj presents itself as an astonishing habitat and an absolute bird watcher’s paradise.
EXPLORE THE DECAYING REMAINS OF THE SALINE
During its heyday, the Salina of Ulcinj employed hundreds of people and provided nearly 60% of Yugoslavia’s salt consumption. When production was finally halted in 2013, in an effort to preserve the extraordinary biodiversity of the Salina, the saline was forced to close its doors, marking an end to this profitable enterprise in Montenegro’s far south.
With the departure of industry, the entire complex fell into disrepair. For nearly a decade, rot and decay have reigned uncontested and nature has slowly started to creep onto the premiss. What remains is a fascinating display of days gone by. Today, the skeletal remains of a warehouse, collapsing factory halls, and dilapidated administrative buildings reminisce of the saline’s golden years.
An eerie place forgotten by the world but a perfect playground for curious explorers on the hunt for the unusual.
Check out this photo series about the crumbling remnants of the saline.
TAKE A STROLL ALONG THE ADRIATIC COAST
While visitors may gaze out to the sea from one of the many restaurants inside the old town, the Adriatic coast will reveal its full beauty beyond the city’s ramparts.
Just a short walk from the town’s natural harbour, a simple footpath snakes along the sea towards the infamous Long Beach (Velika plaža), an 18-kilometre conglomeration of beach bars, clubs, and kitesurf schools that transforms into one gigantic party during the summer months (according to my host, the city’s population swells from merely 20.000 to 150.000 people in this period).
However, the roughly two-and-a-half kilometre stretch in between offers an ideal opportunity for travellers wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a few hours.
In the shade of arching pines and to the tune of crashing waves, it is hard to imagine the alcohol induced bedlam that will occur on the neighbouring seaside in summer.
UNWIND IN THE SHADE OF GRANDEUR
Greatness sometimes shows itself in unsuspected ways.
Covered by a silver carpet, the northbound hills, rising beyond the thick walls of Ulcinj’s old town, shield one of the country’s biggest treasures. More than 10.000 olive trees proudly stand atop these unassuming slopes and grace the hundreds of man-made terraces hewn into the rock.
However, it is not their abundance that deserves recognition but rather their age. From a time when ancient philosophers gazed at argent moons and pondered over astral secrets, to humanity’s first steps on Earth’s lone companion, they endured. Seemingly everlasting, some of them have stood guard for more than two millennia. As Earth altered, they witnessed. An incredible display of permanence in a world that seems to shift oh so quickly.
And yet, their shade offers visitors the same tranquillity as it would have thousands of years ago.
Since their inception, little has changed beneath these silver leaves.
Hopefully, it remains that way.
RELAX AT VALDANOS BEACH
Beyond the ancient, silver crowns of Ulcinj’s olive groves, Valdanos Beach might be the ideal getaway for those looking to escape the intoxicated crowds of Long Beach and to experience a more laid-back side to this bustling tourist town (in summer that is).
Forested slopes slowly creep towards the sea before abruptly ending in precipitous cliffsides, while small fishing vessels gently rock on the turquoise waters and lie scattered across the rocky shoreline, telling the fisherman’s tale.
The area becomes especially beautiful at sunset when the golden light dances across the waves and mingles with the silver glow of the olive forest.
There is also a footpath leading to a small lighthouse, however, the gate was closed when I got there (don’t even bother; there is more convenient spots to see the sunset).