The most southerly town on the Montenegrin coast, Ulcinj (Ulqin in Albanian) is immediately different from anywhere to the north. The Venetian influence that is dominant from the northernmost reaches of the coast down to Bar is absent here, and Ulcinj, just 18km shy of the Albanian border, has a marked oriental flavour. This is little surprise given that more than 80% of the population is Albanian – Turkish-style houses huddle around the bay in the cramped Old Town and up in the surrounding hills, and there are no fewer than 26 mosques in town.
What to see and do in Ulcinj
Ulcinj today has precious little to show for its ancient history, although the Old Town, sited high up on some cliffs to the southwest of town, retains vestiges of its colourful past. Largely destroyed during the earthquake in 1979, the citadel, embraced within its thick reinforced walls, is for the most part a dilapidated ruin, though there are now a couple of hotels and a clutch of restaurants here.
There is also the very worthwhile Museum of Local History, a small complex of three buildings clustered around the old slave market, often referred to as the Square of Slaves. Before entering, take a peek at a section of wall through the arch beyond the reception desk – these huge stones comprise the oldest remaining section of the original walls dating, incredibly, from 5 BC. The first building, the 14th-century church-mosque, whose minaret was unceremoniously chopped off leaving an enlarged stub, keeps numerous archaeological curios – Illyrian earthenware, Greek and Roman pottery, cathedral pillars and finds from Šas/Svač.
Across the way is the Balšič Tower, a chunky stone edifice that was almost wholly rebuilt following the 1979 earthquake. Its three floors are taken up with an eminently enjoyable photographic exhibition, with photos depicting life in Ulcinj from the late 19th century through to the 1950s. The tower is also notable for the two altars on its top floor, where the 17th-century Jewish dissident and passionate advocate of Talmudic reform, Sabetha Sebi (Sabbatai Cevi), used to come and pray in secret. Housed in the third building is the ethnographic collection, featuring the standard hunting and fishing exhibits and local folk costumes. More interesting are the amphorae and several Turkish displays, notably the mock-up Muslim living room with a sofra, a low circular table around which people would kneel and eat.
Before leaving, have a look inside the ground floor of the museum’s office building (near the entrance), where a maquette illustrates how the citadel looked prior to the earthquake. More curiously, etched into the walls are drawings of boats – the etching just inside the entrance is thought to be some 400 years old – which would indicate that this was once a dwelling place for pirates.
Just to the west of the citadel stands the Cathedral of St Nikola (Catedrala Sv Nikola), a rare concession to the Christian faith hereabouts. Its lawns are carpeted with rows of lovely olive trees. Interestingly, the church was rebuilt as such in 1890, having previously functioned as a mosque. It’s a short walk down from the citadel to the Pasha Mosque (Pažina džamija), designed by Ali Pasha I in 1719 and the only mosque in the country with a working hammam.
Heading further towards the heart of town, the next mosque you come to is the Namazdjah Mosque (Namazdjah džamija, built in 1828 and complete with a fine-looking clocktower. Beyond here, the Bregut Mosque (Bregut džamija), built by the sea captain Ahmed Djuli in 1783, is the largest of the lot. Note that the minarets here in Ulcinj are conspicuously shorter than elsewhere, the result of reconstruction following damage during the earthquake.
Arcing below the citadel is the gunmetal-grey town beach (Mala Plaža, or ‘Small Beach’), which is pleasant enough but you can’t move for bodies in the summer. For that reason alone you’re better off heading to the vast expanse of the Great Beach (Velika Plaža), south of town.
Getting there and away
The bus station is a 10-minute walk northwest of the town centre just off the Adriatic Highway. Ulcinj has good links, with regular daily buses to Bar (€3; 35mins); four to Budva (€6; 1hr 45mins), nine to Podgorica (€6; 1hr 50mins) and seven to Virpazar on Lake Skadar (€4; 1hr 10mins).
Frequent minibuses operate between Ulcinj and Škodra in Albania via the border crossing at Sukobin–Muricani (Muriqan). From Škodra there are onward connections to Tirana. More locally, minibuses depart hourly for Velika Plaža from outside the Rozafa restaurant, roughly halfway down Bulevar Skenderbeu.