Medieval Majesty in Former Yugoslavia
The ancient walled town of Kotor is beautifully located between an alluring fjord and brooding mountains – an absolute joy; when I went in 2011 it was not that well known, which has all changed with it now firmly on the cruise ship itineries. Like it’s near neighbour Dubrovnik, it now requires some careful planning to avoid the crowds.
Montenegro is one of Europe’s tiniest and newest countries following its peaceful if not entirely amicable split with Serbia in mid-2006. At the moment it still offers excellent value for money and with its picturesque coastal towns, great variety of flora and fauna and dramatic mountain backbone, it makes it an extremely attractive destination.
The country is full of gems, the pick of which is undeniably medieval Kotor situated at the head of Europe’s longest & deepest inland fjord south of Scandinavia.
Kotor really has a fantastic setting, the honey-coloured walls of the old town, backed up by the imposing fortress atop the jagged Mountain of St John and fronted by the deep blue waters of Kotorski Zaliv.
Kotor Old Town & Fort
Begin with a leisurely stroll around the compact old town, duck down narrow alleys and through stone arches, pop into small shops selling local produce & crafts such as puppets and colourful woollen hats or stop for a strong espresso on one of the town’s shady cobbled squares.
At night there is an ethereal atmosphere over the town – the shadowy mountains standing like giants over the tastefully illuminated walls and buildings.
During the hottest part of day take refuge in the superb gothic cathedral of St Tryphon with its baroque steeples, 14th Century frescoes and intricate series of vaulted roofs.
In the cool of morning head through the southern gate for an invigorating climb up the 1500 steps to the mountainside fortifications – you will be glad you did. The route to the top is well signposted and not too strenuous, although it is best to avoid the midday sun. As you climb, the view becomes more and more stunning.
To start with, you can just see an assortment of terracotta roofs mixed with the cathedral towers and the steeples of the churches of St Luke, St Mary and St Nicholas, but as you ascend the winding path, the fjord stretches out into the distance like a deep blue ribbon before curling left behind the hillside. You can pick out the old town walls and the grid like lay out of buildings.
At the summit, it is easy to see why the fort held such a strategic position against would be marauders. Flanked by impenetrable mountains and with views for miles around, it would surely be impossible for invaders to arrive unseen.
When we went, the walk was not geared up for health and safety with several rocks to negotiate and huge pit to avoid. This is how I described said pit in my Eastern Europe Travel Book:
Up at the fortifications Hamish and I witnessed what we both agreed was potentially the worst accident waiting to happen that you could possibly imagine.
A crater in the ground led to a twenty-foot drop. Hazardous enough, however this hole had a coup de grace. Growing out of its perimeter was a large shrub bedecked in yellow flowers, catnip to hordes of wasps, hornets, bees and unidentified red-winged beasties.
To trip and fall down this hell hole would see you taking a large portion of shrub with you, of course accompanied by an angry mob dressed predominantly in black and yellow.
The thought of lying at the bottom of the pit, legs buckled, with all those winged guests for company made us both shudder. Dante’s Inferno, Pandora’s Box and Room 101 all rolled into one!
We bravely teetered over the edge for a photo of the nest of vipers and shuddered once more. It would have made ‘Touching the Void’ a picnic in comparison if either of us had lost our balance and crashed through the seething throng – in our biased opinions only of course!
“I will give you a pound if you take a run up and jump across the crater wearing only your underpants,” I suggested to Hamish.
Moving swiftly on…
I am sure the tourist dollar has improved this somewhat. Whether you average cruise ship guest would venture this high up is another matter.
After an unhurried ramble around the ramparts, take the path back down and reward yourself with lunch al fresco in one of many pizzerias that line the central piazzas.
Food & Drink
Kotor offers an excellent and varied choice for dinner – opt for Bastion or Kantun – both rustic in décor and good value for money, with a decent meal with wine costing about €10 in 2011.
Kantun is down a small street in the old town called Pjaca od mlijeka. It is an intimate venue with wooden beams, wooden tables & bench-seats and white stone walls. There is a maritime theme, whilst the food is cooked in an open kitchen looking over the diners. Dishes are chalked up on blackboards with traditional local dishes on offer such as grilled sausages and fried cheese and in keeping with the restaurant theme, tasty fresh fish. It is popular with locals as well as visitors so book ahead on 082 325757.
Bastion is near the northern gate on the edge of the old town, next to St Mary’s church. On warm evenings, you can sit outside on Bastion’s pleasant terrace. Fish is again a speciality and there are also good vegetarian dishes and salads. Call ahead on 082 322116.
There are several lively bars inside the walled old town (Stari Grad) – it was amusing to see everybody puffing away sat below the no smoking signs in Cesare, Kotor’s hippest joint. Happily the warm evening was conducive to the doors being left open to let in free air conditioning as we drank our local beer and listened to disco-beat music.
You can catch a bus a few miles along the coast to Budva, another lovely walled town with narrow cobbled streets and its array of eateries and interesting shops. There are even a couple of good beaches if you are that way inclined. Herceg Novi, close to Croatia, is also worth a visit to take in its landscaped gardens with rare plants & trees.
Dubrovnik in Croatia is less than 40 miles away – you will need to get there early though to beat all of the cruise ships and their thousands of passengers that pour into the place.
Sleeping & Getting There
We stayed at Marija Hotel, a very comfortable, clean lodging in the old town costing €60 in 2011 per night twin/double with breakfast. The hotel is wood panelled throughout and is right in the thick of the action – ask for a room at the back if you intend to have an early night as the locals do like to make a noise!
Euro is Montenegro’s official currency despite it not being in the EU or Eurozone – less hassle for a ‘new’ country than launching its own notes & coins.
The cheapest way to get to Kotor is to fly into Dubrovnik (Thomson do budget flights from Luton) and either hire a car or take one of the regular buses taking about 90 minutes. If you did a two centre holiday of Dubrovnik and Kotor, you should definitely consider a third destination with Mostar easily accessible by bus from the Croatian jewel.
I actually travelled up through Albania by (painfully slow) train (average speed 38 kmh!) crossing the border by taxi to a town called Bar. From there you can either take a bus to Kotor, or as we did a picturesque train ride to Podgorica followed by a bus from the capital.
The bus journey was again very scenic and thoroughly recommended if time is on your side.