Portonovi + Boka Bay Montenegro
“Just as if I have returned to town from the most beautiful fairytale of my childhood.” Sophia Loren
The great Italian actress is a fan. Roughly the size of Northern Ireland but with less than a third its population, Montenegro is experiencing a long overdue tourism renaissance. This small country clinging to the edge of the Adriatic Sea in southeast Europe is set to enhance its luxury offer. Its tourism may date back to the 14th century when Sjora Roza boasted a tavern and café but it wasn’t until Montenegro regained independence in 2006 that it started securing travel destination status. Like Northern Ireland, you can only travel about 150 kilometres or so before driving into the sea or crossing a border. Unlike Northern Ireland, it averages 250 sunny days a year.
Where nature ends (five National Parks), architecture begins (three cultural Unesco World Heritage Sites). Durmitor National Park alone has 82 kilometres of canyon, 23 peaks over 2,300 metres, 18 glacial lakes and is home to 163 bird types and 1,500 flora species. It may have beaches stretching for nearly 300 kilometres, but Montenegro takes its name from the Italian for “Black Mountain”. Swim in the morning; ski in the afternoon.
Herceg Novi on Boka Bay is known as “The City of the Sun” and “The City of 100,000 Steps”. It’s both. Although “City” is pushing it for somewhere with 30,000 residents, the same population as Ballymena in Northern Ireland. The Nobel Prize Poet Laureate Ivo Andrić went further, describing it as a place of “eternal greenery, sun and promenades”. The setting is impossibly romantic: mimosa cloaked historic buildings cluster at the foot of Mount Orjen where it meets the coast. The walled Old Town, or Stari Grad, is an eclectic mix of architecture. Not surprising, considering Montenegro has belonged to six Empires – Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Venetian, Napoleonic and Austrian – followed by a stint in Yugoslavia before becoming the People’s Republic.
Now, Herceg Novi is set to expand. “Montenegro essence” is the strapline for the new waterside development Portonovi. It aims to capture on 26 hectares all that is great about the country. A destination within a destination. A microcosm of Montenegrin discernment. The site was a military base – 90 buildings from the 20th century were demolished. One very precious building was saved: a 16th chapel with rare 18th century frescoes. It is being carefully restored and returned to its original use. The Government is retaining the freehold of the whole site but went out to international tender for its redevelopment. Ahmet Erentok, Chairman of Azerbaijani company Azmont, who won the contract explains, “Portonovi is our largest investment outside the Azerbaijan.” It will total almost €1 billion (€960 million to be exact) when complete.
General Manager Stevan Milic relates, “Portonovi has two kilometres of coastline and a 238 berth marina. There will be 8,500 square metres retail space and a further 7,500 square metres of multifunctional floorspace. Amenities will include high fashion shops, jewellers, galleries, a gym, health club and Espace Chenot Spa. The first phase opening shortly will deliver 214 homes including 50 rental properties.” The average home is €1.6 million for 157 square metres of accommodation. Prices range from €600,000 for a one bed to €11 million for a six bed villa. The first One + Only Hotel in Europe with 10 branded villas will open next year. Its standard room will be 65 square metres. “Europe’s largest smallest room!” smiles Ahmet. The hotel will include two restaurants: Locatelli Italian and Tapa Saki Japanese. A sandy beach, tennis courts, water features and gardens will bind the built and natural environments together.
“Portonovi is typical Mediterranean style with lots of stone, timber pergolas and vivid colours,” Stevan points out. “It looks like it’s been here for ages! Other designs are completely different with lots of glass. But there’s a nice unity. Each group of homes has a pool and all the penthouses have their own rooftop infinity pools. The buildings only go up to a maximum five storeys and the slope of the site allows most properties to have sea views. Portonovi is a very high end resort of the type you can find in France or Italy.” Its Italian contractor and developer, Pizzarotti, are renowned for top end schemes in Monaco and New York. British architects Harper Downie add to the international talent collaboration. The cross border marina and helipad include passport control, customs and police. Tivat airport is just 15 minutes travel by boat. A VIP helicopter summer service from Dubrovnik adds to the luxury transport options.
Serpentine corniches snake round the coastline of Boka Bay. Verige 65 is an arrow shaped restaurant and bar built on a former parking lot at the bay’s narrowest point, 13 kilometres from Portonovi. The views are spectacular and constantly changing with the weather – Montenegro lives up to its “wild beauty” tagline – as the clouds and mountains merge and disentangle at a moment’s glance. Local tour guide Liset Kuhar calls the tiny islands in the middle of the bay in front of Verige 65 “our two little pearls”. She notes, “Our Lady of the Rocks was manmade in the 1400s. St George is a natural island with a Benedictine monastery dating from the 1100s.” Chardonnay served comes from Savina winery in nearby Herceg Novi.
Perast and Kotor are two Unesco World Heritage Sites close to Portonovi. Liset refers to Perast as “a little piece of Venice”. Bujović Palace is one of its many architectural gems. Designed by Venetian Giovanni Battista Fontana in 1694 for Vicko Bujović, Commander of the Town Fleet, the palace is what American philosopher Marilynne Robinson would call “an exploration of a glorious mind” set in stone. Liset continues, “Perast is a gorgeous baroque town built by seafaring noble families. Kotor is like Perast with stone walls and terracotta roofs. The town walls of Kotor date back to the ninth century.”
Over dinner in Porto, a traditional restaurant in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the Minister of Sustainable Development and Tourism Pavle Radulović acknowledges Montenegro isn’t very well known yet. “It’s a challenge; it’s an advantage. We’re trying to spread the tourist season which at present is concentrated from April to September. We’re diversifying the offer. We want the upper class of clientele to come to the Bay of Kotor. In Boka Bay in particular, we’re encouraging high end luxury tourism. We know how to cater for the needs of high net worth individuals. We’re not targeting the mass market in Boka Bay. We’ve different plans for other places. For example, we’re promoting Budva as a party town. DJ David Guetta played there recently. We want to elevate all levels of tourism.”
Pavle is in charge of the largest Government department which covers climate change, spatial planning and the environment in general. Ecology is written into its constitution. His broad remit of sustainable development and tourism is key to increasing national prosperity while keeping the country unspoiled. “We’ve opened over 50 hotels in the last two years,” he adds. “Tourism has grown to two million visitors in 2018 bringing €1 billion to the economy. But we’re very careful with growing our offer. We’re building a product. This is the place to visit; this is the place to live. We have the second deepest canyon in the world and one of the biggest natural reservoirs in Europe.”
Ahmet believes real luxury is “when you feel really comfortable, where you can be yourself in your own zone. Portonovi is a place to escape, to call up your friends and hang out for two or three days or longer. We could’ve invested anywhere but we chose Montenegro for the beauty of the country. The people are very hospitable, very committed, very friendly. Most importantly, I want Portonovi to be the number one project, the best place in Herceg Novi, the best place in Montenegro!” It’s difficult not to wax lyrical about Montenegro in winter, from the glimmering amber sun fading behind the onyx shaded clouds to the emerald green hills dotted with lemon quartz mimosa trees and alabaster alpine resorts reaching down to the golden speckled strands and clear sapphire waters. This country really is a jewel in the crown of the Adriatic Coast. As Marilynne Robinson would say, Montenegro exudes “a ravishing sense of the divine beauty manifest in Creation”. The great English poet was a fan.