You build a strategically sited hillside town overlooking the southern Adriatic at your peril. Sure, it’s protected by the mountains behind and has an early-warning view down across the plain to the ocean. Great location, looks nice and safe and can be easily defended. There’s fresh spring water too, and figs, vines, pomegranates and peaches grow in abundance. Who wouldn’t want to live here?
If you’re Bar – settled since at least 800 BC, maybe longer – the unfortunate answer is: everyone.
After variously fighting off or succumbing to a motley selection of tribes and kingdoms, you end up in the Byzantine Empire, before being knocked around for several more centuries by Slavs, Venetian and Ottomans. You do get to become part of Montenegro in 1878, though unfortunately only by being liberated – oh all right then, blown up – by heavy Montenegrin artillery. And to cap it all, anything that is left standing is then given another good going over by a devastating earthquake in 1979.
That would explain the ruins then. And why there’s a modern city of Bar, down on the coast, where everyone actually now lives.
In Stari Bar – or ‘Old Bar’ – things are stirring
But up in Bar – now known as Stari Bar, or ‘Old Bar’ – things are stirring. Within the encircling walls and battlements of the old town, tourists now wander the tree-shaded cobbled alleys and streets, peering into collapsed buildings and clambering across piles of rubble that once were houses, shops, churches and mosques.
In part, it’s a melancholic experience. That it should come to this, for proud Bar – to be yoked to the tourist dollar and packaged as a tumbledown historic sight. There are worse fates though – just ask the current inhabitants of living, breathing Kotor and Dubrovnik, who continue about their daily lives amid the crowds vomited from towering cruise ships. At least here in Bar there are no locals to annoy, and you have the space to use your imagination, as you scramble across the ruined thresholds of houses where families once lived. If there are ghosts here, they seem content to be disturbed by the occasional visitor that strays up the side alleys and investigates the mounds of fallen masonry.
The Montenegrin Pompeii, some call it, and there’s certainly a superficial resemblance. Crumbling houses facing streets that go nowhere; sketchy foundations and floor plans that refuse to give up their mystery; wild flowers spreading through heaped stones; empty windows framing isolated walls and distant views. Candles outside a restored church flicker in the gentle hillside breeze, and red-faced visitors sit under the shade of ancient trees that have been allowed to spread and grow in the shattered spaces.
The Montenegrin Pompeii?
Unlike Pompeii, however, there’s no sense that life just stopped moments ago. No embalmed lovers entwined; no ancient graffitied shop counters; no surviving mosaics, frescoes or adornments. The town was comprehensively flattened and it’s hard to make sense of the vine-clad ruins and broken buildings, though some have been reconstructed and others have simple explanations attached. Paths and signs point you round the site, while climbing to the fortress walls gives you grandstand views down to the modern city of Bar and the sparkling sea beyond.
Aside from a small museum and a restored building or two, there’s no development inside the walls, though outside is a different matter. The steep street up from the taxi stand and bus stop is lined with souvenir stands, cafés and restaurants. Modern Bar – way below – is creeping back up, as the descendants of those who abandoned the old town in the first place realise that there are pickings to be had from the increasing number of tourists. It’s still on a fairly manageable scale, and largely good humoured, though again – ask Kotor or Dubrovnik – it’s surely only a matter of time before garden bars sprout within the walls and enterprising entrepreneurs turn battered buildings into boutique B&Bs.
For now though, despite the continual daily influx of visitors through the grand fortified gate, it’s still possible to escape the crowds.
Move away from the pinch points, explore beyond the main streets, peer into roofless rooms and clamber into hidden chambers – it’s here that you can really lose yourself among the whispers and memories of the Lost City of Stari Bar.
WATCH THE VIDEO! Join me on a day out in the ruined city of Stari Bar, Montenegro.
Need to know – Stari Bar
Bar itself is on the coast, around 50km south of the capital of Montenegro, Podgorica. You certainly don’t need to stay in the undistinguished modern city of Bar to see the old town – the whole thing is an easy day trip, just an hour by train or bus from Podgorica to Bar (around €5 return).
Stari Bar is 4km out of Bar, up in the hills, and while there is an hourly bus (€1 each way, from Bar’s train or bus station), it’s a whole lot easier and quicker just to jump in a taxi outside either station. You can try haggling, but it’s basically €5 each way and you’ll be dropped off right by the main gate. If you’d rather catch the bus back to the station, just walk 5 minutes down the steep hill outside the main gate and the bus stop is right at the bottom.
Entrance to Stari Bar is another €2, paid at a hut just inside the main gate.
There are several cafés and restaurants on the steep hill outside the old town, and they are serve fairly similar menus at fairly similar prices. The nicest place I found is Kaldrma, which has a pretty vine-covered terrace and a wide range of traditional dishes – such as baked garlic aubergine, roast lamb, and stuffed vine leaves. Quite a lot of the menu is veggie-friendly and it’s a really pleasant place for lunch.
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