Every summer I spend vacation time in both Croatia and Montenegro and make a point of visiting the lovely coastline of each country for a few weeks on end. These trips usually combine family visits to southern Dalmatia and then extend across the border into Montenegro along the beautiful Bay of Boka. When driving into Montenegro from the southernmost Croatian tip that was once the no-mans-land called Prevlaka, one will catch a glimpse of a most breathtaking site in the very middle of the narrow entrance where the Adriatic sea extends into the Boka gulf. There, resting almost majestically and untouched, lies the ruins of an old citadel fortress built into the very rock of the island. The island is called Lastavica, but is more often referred to and better known by the name which locals on both sides of the border have attached to it - Mamula. The monumental fortress that sits on a rocky perch was built by the Austrian Admiral, Lazar Mamula, at the end of the 19th century and over time bore his name.
I had seen the fort quite a few times from a far-off distance both while driving and while perched along the long coastal road waiting for the border queues. It wasn’t until 2008 however that I had a chance to get up close and personal with Mamula island. That year, while looking for some new swimming coves, a group of us embarked on a small yacht from Perast towards the mouth of the Boka. Our navigator anchored close to Mamula and we decided to dive in and explore its rocky outcrops from a safe distance. The sea around Mamula was so blue and turquoise and not very deep at all. The sea bottom was clearly visible from the surface and the tranquility of the place provided a welcome home for a school of beautiful orange colored monkfish and a lone octopus. I frolicked and basked in the sea and let the warm Adriatic sun touch my face.
The sea was fine and calm that day with few waved in sight, making for a perfect afternoon of exploring. As we swam towards the western side of Mamula island we noticed a set of stone steps leading from what once must have been a harbor dock towards the fortress itself. With nobody in sight, we decided to explore the ruins of Mamula. At first glance, the fort looked a bit scary, but once we entered, we were immediately amazed by the untouched nature of the place and its beautiful surroundings. Mamula’s haunting rocky walls reminded me of the citadel fortress in the Count of Monte Cristo movies and told a similar tale. During its long existence, Mamula has had many purposes. Due to its isolated position, it was used as a concentration camp in both world wars. This was a story I had heard many times over from my Grandfather, himself a political prisoner in the 1950s at Lovcen. For a period of time after WWII the fort also served as a prison, the laborers toiling away most likely over some slight made towards President Tito. At the time of its construction in the 18th century, however, the main reason for building Mamula was to stop enemy ships from entering the Boka Bay. Even so, the fortress never really served its purpose, since not a single cannonball was ever shot from it (according to local lore that is).
Nowadays, Mamula represents one of the most popular tourist attractions of Herceg Novi. A few months ago, my relatives on the Croatian side mentioned a Montenegrin tender to a Swiss company to renovate and lease Mamula and turn it into a 5-star resort. This naturally angered the families of those held in the concentration camp during WWII and plans were temporarily put on hold, although the government recently announced that it was still continuing to push through with this plan. In the early 2000s, when I was living permanently in Croatia, I had heard that the fortress was to be used as a summer school for university architecture students from all over the world, although that too fizzled out. Personally, I think this latter idea would be more suitable for Mamula and it would benefit by being used as a first-class educational facility or an art gallery or concert hall. The decision, however, is not up to me.
Regardless of what happens, one thing is certain – Mamula will get a much sought after facelift at some point in the very near future. If you have the chance to visit Montenegro before that happens, Mamula is one of those places you don’t want to miss out on, along with Rose, Zanjic beach, and the Blue cave. On the other hand, if you are planning to dedicate a whole day to this forbidden island, remember to bring your goggles with you. The visibility is magnificent given that the island is encircled by transparent, clear, blue sea and surrounded by interesting marine life. It is quite easy to reach by boat or kayak and in the summer there are guided tours that will take you to the island for very little money, or you can do what my friends and I did and rent a small chartered yacht, thereby navigating the island’s fine waters on your own.
So, it’s all up to you. If you are far more adventurous and brave, you can have a picnic or even make camp on the island and try living on the basics. My friends and I had some simple prsut, olive oil, wine and bread and it was more than enough for a lazy afternoon exploring the nooks and crannies of Mamula. Exploring this deserted island offers a perfect escape from the problems of modern life. It is quite well preserved and some elements like the old well and its ominous twisting stairs, still exist. Walking about, you certainly feel the atmosphere of the old fort, its wide spaces and the historical events that took place on this little island creeping up all around you while walking through the ruins. There is much to see, from the waterfront to the tall walls of the fortress to the old prison cells. Because of its structure and position, Mamula is a perfect place for filming movies and survivor shows like those popular in America, but to my knowledge, nothing has as of yet been filmed here. Here’s hoping that changes.