English poet Lord Byron wrote: “At the birth of the planet the most beautiful encounter between land and sea must have been on the Montenegrin coast.” The Bay of Kotor, a submerged river canyon surrounded by dramatic rising mountain cliffs, is the jewel of Montenegro’s shore. Like Dubrovnik to the north, Kotor was a major medieval trade center and was fortified by the Romans, Dalmatians, Venetians and the Habsburgs. Today, it is charmingly preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city walls and the imposing fortress of Saint Ivan stands in lush green mountains above the blue waters.
The town’s strategic and romantic history is built into its walls. Enter the city through its Sea Gate, constructed in 1555 when the city was ruled by Venetians. Don’t forget to look up above to see a red star on the plaque from Tito’s Yugoslavia, commemorating the city’s liberation from Nazi occupiers after WWII. For a small city, there are an impressive number of churches. Check out the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, built in 1166—an homage to the city’s patron saint. See religious plurality at the smaller St. Luke’s, which has a Catholic altar as well as a Christian Orthodox one.
In the northern corner of town behind the River Gate, you’ll find a moat built after an attack by the Ottoman Empire’s navy in 1540. To the south, the most impressive gate is the Gurdic Bastion, built in 1470, with a drawbridge over a fantastic spring.
Kotor’s is not all religion and war: there are plenty of restaurants and shops selling trinkets. If you’re in need of some pampering, check out All Nut Kotor, which sells handmade organic creams, oils and sun lotion. As well, to really learn the ins and outs of the Old Town, book a walking tour like the one organized by one of the region’s best outfitters, Black Mountain.
After walking through the marbled alleys and byways of the Old City you are sure to have an appetite. You can pick up some fresh fruit at the city market just outside the Sea Gate. But the real call is fish and seafood. An Adriatic specialty is mussels in buzaru sauce, a light and fresh tomato and garlic sauce that must have been made with bread dipping in mind. It can be found at almost any restaurant but it is great at the Hotel Conte’s restaurant, which sits within feet of the water’s edge in nearby Perast (see number five below).
If fresh fish is what you’re after, head to Konoba Trpeza, hidden away on the north end of town between stone walls. If you’re ready to splurge, visit the elegant Luna Rossa.
Make sure you try Njeguski prsut, specialty smoked ham like prosciutto, which is cured and smoked nearby. It pairs nicely with local white wine and Njeguski sir, cheese from the same region.
After a filling lunch there’s nothing better than a strenuous and gorgeous walk above the walled city to see a view of the whole inlet. The walls are three miles long and there is a trail of 1,350 steps stretch to the Fortress of St Ivan, 850 feet above sea level. The climb begins just behind the Church of St. Tryphon and meanders initially through a residential neighborhood built into the hill. At the halfway point, you have the gorgeous St. John’s church.
“If man were given an endless supplies of rocks, trees and water, he could never model such a scene as this,” wrote English travel writer Bernard Newman, who cycled across the Balkans in the 1930s. “I was almost appalled by the majesty of it all.”
You’ll surely be hot and sweaty from all the climbing so the best thing to do is cool off. Kotor itself doesn’t have spectacular beaches and it is a hub for cruise ships but if you follow the coast in either direction you’ll quickly be out of the town and come upon any number of places to swim. Usually these are attached to cafes, so you soak up the rays and then retire to a beachside eatery for a break from the sun. Favorites include Dobrota and Prcanj. From the water in the Muo area of the bay, you can truly appreciate the stunning height of the fortress.
Seven miles from Kotor lies the charming baroque town of Perast, known for the two island churches in its harbor: The Abbey of Saint George, a functional monastery which dates to the 9th century; and Our Lady of the Rock, which was built on the site of several shipwrecks in the mid-15th century. Boats will take you to Our Lady of the Rock for a small fee. Perast is a great place for a swim. Make sure you try the town’s specialty: almond cake. If instead of calm and quaint you want glitz and glam, ten miles in the other direction lies Tivat, a former naval headquarters being remade into the posh Porto Montenegro. You can stroll down its palm-lined riva, or waterfront promenade, check out the ultra yachts in the harbor, swim with other glitterati and party at Madame Coco, the town’s nightclub.
Valerie Hopkins is a journalist based in Belgrade, Serbia.