That first signpost we laid our eyes on turned out to be but one of many scattered around town to help clueless tourists like ourselves find their way to various sites of interest – the once-splendid, now-ruined Hotel Fjord included.
Let’s face it, urban exploration as a hobby can be a real pain in the butt. You can spend weeks, months, even years researching and keeping tabs on an interesting place for that one chance to see it before it shuts itself off from you again – and that’s if you’re lucky. Dead ends always seem to outnumber successes.
Once in a blue moon, though, success comes so easy that you’re left wondering if it can be considered success at all. This happened to our intrepid duo of explorers at Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor, home of the famous abandoned Hotel Fjord, where, as it turns out, living is easy and urban exploration is easier still.
Did I mention there are actual signposts showing you the way to the most magnificent ruin in town?
In Kotor, all roads lead to Hotel Fjord
I almost laughed out loud when I saw the first sign. Paul and I were fresh off the bus – well, ”fresh” was debatable given the intense end-of-July Adri
atic heat – and making our way to our Airbnb, which mercifully was located just around the corner from the old town and central bus station.
Kotor was the second to last stop on our last year’s trip around the Balkans, and more than anything I was looking forward to finally plunging into the clear-blue waters of the Adriatic Sea that I remembered so well from my trip to Croatia a few years back. It was those waters that had made me reconsider my deep-set (and perhaps a little childish) hatred of beach vacations for the first time in my life.
The other goal for the next four days was going to be a little less conventional. I’d heard internet whispers about an abandoned five-star luxury hotel somewhere in the expansive bay area and, as usual, scheduled some time for locating it. I was expecting the usual combination of vigorous googling, map cross-referencing and asking locals plenty of potentially awkward questions, citing a general interest in “architecture”.
I ended up needing to do none of this. That first sign we laid our eyes on turned out to be but one of many scattered around town to help clueless tourists like ourselves find their way to various sites of interest – the once-splendid, now-ruined Hotel Fjord included. Although the information on the signs was clearly outdated in parts, they at least looked new-ish and well-kept, as if the town was actually encouraging you to check out its derelict wonders.
Then there was the location of the ruin, which would have been easy enough to spot even without the signs. The Brutalist gem of a structure could not have been more conspicuous standing right at the bottom of the Bay of Kotor, between our Airbnb and the old town.
I was already beginning to like Kotor.
Picnicking among modern ruins
On that very first night in town, we decided to save a few pennies and have a little bayside picnic. The Adriatic coast may have many good things going on for it, but let me tell you, cheap restaurant dinners is no longer one of them. This is how we found ourselves enjoying an evening snack of bread, cheese and (some pretty terrible-tasting) ciders at Hotel Fjord’s premises, the darkening bay in front of us and the hulking shadow of the hotel behind our backs.
The hotel itself looked empty and silent, but its premises were anything but. The decaying but still-charming beach area and outdoor tennis court were populated at all times by both locals and tourists, with no apparent opposition from town authorities or the owner of the property. Now, after dark, people were gathering on the beach with beers, snacks and guitars. Many appeared to be young scouts judging by their uniforms and the tents they had set up on the site.
It seemed that Hotel Fjord, over a decade after its closing, continued to play an unexpected role in Kotor’s day-to-day life. Known as the town’s most controversial piece of architecture dating back to the Yugoslavian era, it stands firmly between the past and the present, a symbol of the tourist resort’s prosperous past and its later economic troubles.
Kotor before the Yugoslav Wars
Before the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, Montenegro’s coastline was a hot spot for domestic and international tourism. Visitors from near and far were drawn to its quiant little towns, magnificent outdoors and – compared to many other destinations at the Mediterranean Sea – reasonable prices.
Not that everybody who came was a budget traveler: the tourist guides of today are eager to tell you all about the days of yonder when classic film icons like Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor would frequently be spotted in the towns and villages dotting Montenegro’s coastline. The region offered something for everybody.
Kotor’s main attraction was always its medieval old town, one of the best preserved in the Adriatic and a UNESCO world heritage site. The town is surrounded by the Gulf of Kotor on one side and the limestone cliffs of the Lovcén Mountain on the other. Here, you could swim in the ocean, climb a mountain and go museum-hopping in town in the span of a single day – and indeed you still can, which we can happily attest to.
The rise and fall of Hotel Fjord
Hotel Fjord, its name a nod to the fjord-like shape of the bay it faces, had the misfortune of being conceived and built only shortly before things were about to take a turn for the worse for Kotor and the whole of Montenegro. Designed by Zlatko Ugljen, a Yugoslavian architect of Bosnian origin, the five-star hotel opened in 1986. It boasted 155 rooms, four suites, restaurants, bars, tennis courts, a swimming pool and a conference center.
I’ve previously written about what happened next. Although the Yugoslav Wars were fought outside of Montenegrin soil, their ripples were felt everywhere in the country: businesses began to fall like dominoes and formerly thriving tourist resorts found themselves grappling with rapidly decreasing numbers of tourists. In Croatia, a mere hour’s drive from Kotor, real bullets were being exchanged.
By some miracle, Hotel Fjord managed to stay officially open until 2005 – one year before Montenegro finally gained its independence and began a slow process of modernization. With no redevelopment plan in sight, the hotel was unceremoniously emptied of loose furniture and left to the elements as the town around it continued to grow and evolve.
A couple of days after our moonlight picnic, we returned to the hotel for a little daytime exploration and photography. The experience turned out very relaxed if not a little surreal: it’s not every day that you get to wander around an abandoned site the size of Hotel Fjord surrounded by tantalizing mountains, international cruise ships and masses of of scantily-clad sun worshippers.
Outside it was hot and crowded, but inside it was pleasantly quiet and airy. There were very few marks of any past malicious activity to be seen, which I found both delightful and surprising. The hotel had seen a lot, but it hadn’t seen direct warfare like Dubrovnik’s Hotel Belvedere or systematic vandalism like any well-known abandoned property in West Europe. Does this mean that the structure could still be saved and repurposed into something new?
Redevelopment plans come to nothing
This was the question on everybody’s lips in 2013 when the current owner of the property, Irish investor Michael Fingleton, announced his plan to renovate it into a cutting-edge luxury hotel.
There were grounds for optimism: after two decades of hardship Kotor was finally experiencing a return of foreign tourism and investment. The envisioned redevelopment of Hotel Fjord had everything it would take to become a showcase project for the town’s regeneration.
Unfortunately, before the project could properly launch, Fingleton faced criminal charges over the deal that was deemed corrupt. Nothing has been heard of the disgraced businessman since. The property that he is still the legal owner of was left in a state of purgatory where it can be neither developed nor demolished, effectively robbing the town of one of its prime pieces of real estate.
Luckily Kotor’s overall redevelopment does not seem to have been hindered by any one failed construction project. Paul and I certainly found the town abuzz with backpackers, day-trippers and cruise tourists, though not to an unmanageable degree like Dubrovnik a few days later. If I had to choose between the two, I would always go for Kotor in all of its still-remaining quirks and nuances.
For the time being, anybody visiting Kotor has a chance to experience its weirder side that may one day be gone as redevelopment marches on. All they have to do is pack their swimsuit and follow the signposts leading up to Hotel Fjord.
Beauty in the Balkans: Montenegro is cheaper and less crowded than the French Riviera – and knows how to do glamour too, Daily Mail (26/12/2015)
Fingleton given go-ahead for his hotel in Balkans, Herald (10/06/2013)
Fingleton’s abandoned Montenegro resort in ruins, The Irish Times (23/04/2014)
Hotel Fjord: The Yugoslavian Costa Azzurra in ruins, Totally Lost
Join the Kotor coterie: Head for the Montenegro bay that the stars adore, The Sun
Then God created Montenegro, Norwegian