A Rough Guide to Montenegro: Things to Do in Kotor Old Town
The Montenegrin town of Kotor came as a pleasant surprise.
It was a place that I had never heard of before in a country I knew very little about.
The first sight that catches the eye is the remarkable wall above the rooftops.
This rambles up the hillside over the old historic village section of Kotor.
A more diminutive version perhaps of the Great Wall of China and it served as a splendid and unusual backdrop to the town.
It leads up to St John's fortress and at the time of writing there is no cable-car service. But the ascent is worth the panoramic reward of Kotor Bay.
The UNESCO Heritage site of Kotor sits under the mountainous scenery of the coastline of Montenegro. In fact the whole bay area basks in this international accolade and you will realise why if you climb St John's hill above.
The waterway into Kotor is a narrow entrance enclosed by the spectacular mountains around. It's the perfect arrival point for millionaires yachts or the many cruiseships that regularly disgorge curious visitors during the summer months.
You could call it a canyon, you could call it a fjord but whatever vernacular you chose there's no denying that it's a breathtaking landscape. It's also typical of the Montenegrin coastline which twists and turns alongside the Adriatic Sea offering many visual treats and surprises as you travel its length.
A couple of notable features are the two little islets in the water each with a church. The former, called 'Sveti Dorde', is natural while the latter is artificial having been built by rocks piled in the water. This is called 'Our Lady of the Rocks' and it actually resembles a mosque. It was deliberately intended to deceive Moslem invaders in olden times to avoid attack.
Top 5 attractions in Kotor Old Town
1. St Tryphon's Cathedral
Named after Kotor's patron saint.
2. St Luke's Church
Romanesque,dates from 12th century.
3. The Pima Palace
17th century Renaissance building.
4. St John's Fortress
Military history and fantastic views
5. The Maritime Museum
Naval history and artefacts on display
In terms of tourism Montenegro is a sleeping giant much like the mountains of which the people are rightly proud. But in the 21st century it is gradually flourishing both in terms of popularity and quality holiday services.
Decades of Communist underdevelopment still show in its towns, villages and resorts so it still has some way to go before it can truly compete with places like Spain, Italy and Greece. A vast number of tourists come from rouble-laden pockets of Russia but increasingly more people from the west are venturing into Montenegro.
Like many historic sites the old centre of Kotor sits within an intimidating protective barrier. On a day trip from Dubrovnik in Croatia our mini-bus parked up beside the blue-green waters of the formidable moat that surrounds the old part of the town.
The Defensive Perimeter
A favoured defence of many a fearful town or castle but now a pleasant aquatic feature for the visitor. We sat having a snack on one of the benches lining the still waters feeding some little birds who came to join us.
Looking down you could appreciate how difficult it would be for the besiegers of old Kotor to negotiate those waters. I'm sure many perished in the attempt as the defenders fought furiously to repel them.
If that wasn't enough to deter or drown any invading hordes of Barbarians then there was more.
The next obstacle in the 'Let's capture Kotor' jamboree would have been that huge defensive wall.
Still intact to this day it is a truly remarkable barrier of rock.
It comprises 5km of impregnability rising 20m high as well as being 10m thick.
It's almost as if the builders had foreseen the advent of 21st century armour-piercing ordinance.
They built the structure as dense and as strong as possible.
It would need to be in order to withstand the destructive earthquakes of 1563 and 1667. Unfortunately a massive earthquake in modern times destroyed half of the Old Town buildings within. That happened in 1979 and major reconstruction and restoration was required over several years.
I always harbour mixed feelings about these ancient fortified villages around the European tourist trail. Certainly from the perspective of early civil engineering the construction is highly impressive and the walls are a living monument to the story of Kotor.
The wall is frozen in time within the contrast of the modern streets, buildings and technology of the larger town. It's a physical reminder that recounts an important aspect of the historical narrative of the town.
But for the modern visitor there may be a feeling of incongruity about aesthetic design being encased and obscured in such a solid and forbidding mass.
Of course the previous incumbents may have had less desire to quibble over architectural niceties when their mores inclined towards safety and security. The importance of fending off belligerent attackers or cowering in their homes under bombardment would certainly take precedence over artistic imperatives.
The Italian influence and heritage of Kotor
Within that power and strength of the perimeter the Italian influence is noticeable, as it is indeed throughout the Adriatic Coast. Archaeological remnants and historical legacies are reminders of the days of Roman Occupation and Venetian hegemony.
The latter held suzerainty for almost 400 years from 1420 although the Ottomans spoiled the party by taking over twice in the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact in the mid 1800's around 1/3 of the population were from Italy.
The Italians briefly returned in the 20th century when Mussolini's forces took control in World War II. Modern warfare came back again in the 1990s when Montengro made the ill-advised decision to ally itself with Milosevic and his Serbian forces during the terrible Balkans conflict.
By stepping into the old historic centre of Kotor you can't help feeling that you may have absent-mindedly passed through Italian border control.
This includes the entrance gate which has a strange mix of iconography.
It sports a winged lion indicating its 1555 Venetian origins but also a Communist star celebrating the towns liberation from the Nazis.
Continuing onwards you pass by the 'pillar of shame' where public punishments were once inflicted on lawbreakers.
There is no indication it will be introduced for unruly and drunken tourists.
On the other side of town the Gurdich Gate is worth seeing principally because the streets in that area are old and narrow and once again you experience the feeling of entering another, more historic era of antiquity.
Inside the walls the buildings have all the flavour and modest gusto of legendary places like Venice and Verona. Of course they severely lack the glamour and spectacle of those grandiloquent cities but nevertheless the physical atmosphere is strongly Italian. As an added attraction Kotor doesn't suffer from the commericalised over-popularity of its Italian cousins.
The Streets of Colour
The fabric of the town is not completely steeped in the style of the Italian past. The Venetians may have imported their flair and creativity from the far side of the Adriatic but the substance is local.
The masonry of the Kotor buildings is hewn from the nearby mountains and cliff-sides displaying a trademark sturdiness in white limestone.
Therefore the architecture is a hybrid of Montenegrin stoicism and Italian panache.
The ubiquitous white colour is enlivened by hues of salmon pink and lemon yellow.
These are reminiscent of the famous villages of the Cinque Terre perhaps.
You will even discover striped patterns of reddish-pink and cream.
These colours often decorate the streets and buildings of Northern Italy.
The flagstones below your feet are also variagated in pale colours.
Plus around you will enjoy the ancient friezes and medieval tiles that adorn the walls. Regular features of subtlety offering a complementary lightness of touch to the durable walls.
The Cathedral of St. Tryphon
The outstanding structure is the twin-towered cathedral of St Tryphon which dates from the 12th century. It is named after the patron saint of the town.
Kotor is actually the seat of the Croatian Catholic Bishopric which covers the entire gulf area. The cathedral suffered serious damage during the earthquake of 1667 but was restored and the second bell tower added at that time.
You can also visit St. Luke's Church which also originates from the 12th century and is an important part of the heritage of the town. It was a site of early ecumenicalism as it had two altars for both Catholic and Orthodox masses. This reflected the Serbian and Croatian mix of the inhabitants.
Staying on the religious theme there is the 13th century St Marys Collegiate Church fronted by large bronze doors with bas reliefs and also boasts a huge crucifix. Inside is the glass coffin of the Blessed Osanna of Kotor. You can also visit St Nicholas' Orthodox church which dates from 1909. Underneath its glazed dome you will find silver bas-reliefs, attractive décor and stained-glass.
Art for arts sake
At the time of our visit we saw several works of Pop Art around the streets. They were quirky novelties and witty accessories to accompany the holiday spirit. More akin to the self-deprecating French style of the satirical and the ridiculous they brought added charm to the surroundings.
A long washing-line stretched across one street with huge clothes attached by giant pegs hanging out in the sun. Initially we were under a satisfying sky with light cloud to ease the heat from above. But this soon changed into instant paradise when the sun had its way eventually and brightened up the town.
On another street a collection of coloured and patterned umbrellas dangled ironically in the air like redundant icons awaiting the wet, winter months.
But in the summer season Kotor is home to many and varied entertainments. There are classical music performances indoors and outdoors plus a theatre festival for children.
These all take part in July and August when there are cultural lectures, workshops and touring productions including performances by international acts.
Water Features in Iron
Permanent fixtures can also offer both charm and interest.
For example we saw an attractive street pump wrought in iron standing in a street.
Even more impressive is the Karampana fountain which was constructed with Baroque metal work.
It used to be the only water source in Kotor as well as a social hub.
Local people would gather around to gossip and chit-chat..
Perhaps a pre-theatre huddle before the entertainment began over at the 'pillar of shame' of an afternoon.
Museums, Mansions and Palaces
But there are other more significant things to see such as the 17th century Pima Palace with its Baroque architecture evoking the Renaissance. It has a double balcony facade with fine detail.
Although it looks its age and could do with a facelift it blossoms nicely in the sunshine. But the lived-in appearance gives it character by adding to the charm, intrigue and sense of history.
It's on Flour Square near the main square and nearby you will also find the Beskuca Palace. It has an impressive gothic entrance with the Bizanti family crest as a permanent memory of the old nobility.
Unsurprisingly there is a Maritime Museum in Kotor situated in the Grgurin Palace on Museum Square near the Karampana Fountain. It has exhibits relating to the history and development of the maritime trade and industry with many artifacts on display.
More modest attractions are on view in this open-air museum of Kotor.
You will see many green-painted shutters decorating the windows.
There are also many stairwells leading to doorways below small balconies.
These overlook the narrow alleyways or attractive piazzas.
All basking in the cool shade or soaking up the sunshine as time passes slowly by.
Food and Drink
If you are touring the coast then Kotor is a perfect location for a spot of lunch or refreshments.
And that's exactly what we did although not for the indigenous wines like 'Vranac, 'Pro Corde or 'Krstac' nor the local brew of 'Niksico' beer.
Just some orange juice and a sandwich sufficed, although if you are there in colder weather you may prefer a good Montenegrin brandy.
The local food is an interesting and rich mixture of its middle and eastern European neighbourhood. As well as indigenous fare you can sample the exotic tastes of Italy, Hungary and you can even sample some Turkish flavours.
Transport and Accomodation
Kotor has good transport communications as it is linked to the Adriatic Highway along the coast. On the other hand, travelling inland you pass through the Vrmac Tunnel to the interior of Montenegro.
It is also well connected with the surrounding towns and hamlets by bus. The main bus station is only 5 minutes walk outside the old walls.
There are three airports within reasonable distance at Tivat, which is only 8km away, Podgorica is further at 90km and in fact Dubrovnik Airport in Croatia is closer at 73 km. Be careful of taking taxis from the airports as you might get exploited by some unscrupulous drivers.
Although Montenegro is not in the European Community they not only accept Euros but have actually adopted it as their national currency. Accommodation in and around Kotor is relatively inexpensive and there is usually lots of space available. It's well worth a day visit on your Adriatic travels.