It has gorgeous scenery, a fascinating history and luxurious new homes at a fraction of the cost of Italy or France. No wonder Montenegro is fast becoming a 21st-century Riviera
For many people, their ideal home is not just in a foreign country, it is in another time as well. Close your eyes and think of the Côte d’Azur and you quite possibly imagine a quieter era, before chock-a-block motorways along the coast and 20 flights a day. A time when there was still greenery between the buildings, and enough ocean to sail your boat wherever you pleased.
Some parts of Europe avoided the mass development of the 20th century that blighted parts of the Algarve, Spain and Italy. Last night, England played football against just such a country: Montenegro. It is a jewel of the Adriatic, with all of the charms of Greece or Italy, but with none of the long history of mass tourism. For much of the 20th century, it was hidden from Western eyes, first as part of Yugoslavia and then as part of Serbia, caught up indirectly in the horrendous wars of independence.
In the Sixties the country had a brief heyday, when stars such as Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren would come to frolic in smart casinos, but this tailed off. Montenegro was a location in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, starring Daniel Craig, though scenes were actually filmed in the Czech Republic.
Since it gained independence in 2006, however, Montenegro has been catching up. Unable to rely on the old industries such as steel-making, it has sought tourism, and investors from around the world have looked at its dramatic, unspoilt coastline and seen somewhere ripe for expansion. Billions of pounds are flooding into the country, much of it to build smart waterside properties. For a fraction of the price of a top-end property elsewhere – holiday apartments start at around £150,000 – you can buy a haven in a growing nation. No wonder buyers are piling in.
“The government here is young, smart and has a clear strategy,” says Kieran Kelleher of Savills Montenegro. “Wherever five-star hotels go, property prices follow, and at last hotels are coming. There is 2bn Euros of high-quality investment planned over the next few years. I don’t know anywhere else in Europe with these kinds of numbers. It is going to transform the area. Buyers are taking a punt on what Kotor will be like in five years time, and I think it could be quite incredible.”
The new development is focussed around the Bay of Kotor, a Unesco World Heritage Site and Europe’s southernmost fjord. It is about an hour’s drive south of Dubrovnik, in Croatia, and on roughly the same latitude as Rome. The landscape is magnificent, shaped by green hills that plunge steeply into clear blue water. Caught between Greece and Italy, this area has been fought over since antiquity, but for much of its history it was part of the Venetian empire. The older buildings have shuttered windows and weathered old stone. Kotor itself, at the furthest inland point of the bay, is an extraordinary place: a walled Venetian city in the shadow of an old castle. Fortifications stretch down the hill like huge grey lizards.
Ten minutes away is Tivat. Here the first of the new wave, Porto Montenegro, is up and running. At present there are 130 residences, with a few hundred more in the pipeline. There is a maritime museum, luxury pool and boutique shops. Celebrities are starting to return to Montenegro: Pierce Brosnan was spotted here this summer, while the singer Emeli Sandé wed her Montenegrin boyfriend here.
“It has been great to be part of something that’s so good for my country,” says Danilo Kalezic, who left a job as a political communications officer in the capital, Podgorica, to head up sales for Porto Montenegro. “At first the local people took some convincing, but now they love it.” As part of his role, he arranges tours for local schoolchildren, who come to marvel at the mega yachts. “It’s great for them to see what’s going on, and the kinds of jobs that could be open to them.”
Across the bay, is Lustica Bay. Here another resort town is in the early stages of construction. Eventually it will be a marina, with a golf course, hotels, apartments and villas, studded around a glorious bay. It is being marketed as a more active destination, with watersports, golf and walking on the doorstep. Studios start at just €170,000 (£144,000). Not bad for a bolt-hole that enjoys 270 days of sunshine a year.
“I think buyers here are more adventurous than in some other places,” says Colin Kingsmill, head of sales for Lustica Bay. “We’re also seeing lots of families. Parents in their sixties are buying villas that can then be enjoyed by their children and grandchildren. I get a sense that people are buying to create a legacy for the future. By getting in now, they’re getting a head of any price inflation, and also they get the best locations.”
Elsewhere there will be a One & Only resort, backed by Azerbaijani wealth. Much of the interest is coming from newly rich nations, looking for a foothold in the Mediterranean market. John Kennedy, the founder of Porto Montenegro, is also behind the Sea Breeze development of 50 villas. Many of the sites are on old military bases, sold off after independence. It is easy to see how the tiny country (about the size of Northern Ireland, with a population of 600,000) is being energised by all this investment.
None of which is to say there aren’t problems with being part of the former Yugoslavia. On the drive down from Dubrovnik airport you pass through Herceg Novi (the border is a fabulously old-fashioned, Tintin-style red-and-white barrier, where a stern-looking man asks you for your papers). Here the buildings seem like an affront to good taste: “it’s our concrete,” they say, “and we’ll do with it as we please.” Half an hour from Tivat, the town of Budva is a caution against mass condo-building. The architectural lessons seem to have been learnt: new developments are mostly tasteful modern interpretations of the Venetian style.
Neither was the country immune to the financial crisis. In the years after independence there was a spike in prices (up to 20 per cent a year), before the crash in 2009 brought things back down, by up to 25 per cent. There were also fears about ownership of land seized during the Tito era, but these have been ironed out. Tax is fixed at three per cent, with a reservation fee of £4,020 offset against lawyer and agent fees. Montenegro is not in the EU, so you will need your own health insurance should you fall ill.
The other factor for British buyers is that Montenegro is a bit harder to get to than, say, France. There are year-round flights only to Dubrovnik, which is a 90-minute drive from the new destinations. Hardly long-haul, but it makes it more difficult to pop over at weekends. Not everyone sees this as a bad thing.
“That’s one of its advantages,” adds Kingsmill. “You can be on the beach in the morning, and skiing in the afternoon. Montenegro feels like the French Riviera 50 years ago. It’s like a secret garden that has just opened its doors.”
The recent recession was not global: outside of Western Europe and America, much of the world thrived. Fuelled by cash from powerhouses in the east, Montenegro is an outpost of that optimistic spirit. Opulent glamour is returning to this part of the world, as canny buyers are realising. James Bond, you suspect, would fit right in.