It’s A Small World
Kotor is a destination of small delights, much like a display case sparkling with estate jewelry. Should you, veteran traveler that you are, pause long enough to sample this medley of delights, you’ll soon discover they all add up to one gloriously satisfying adventure. This is to say that Kotor is a very special destination. In fact, it’s so extraordinary that only a few years back, the Washington Post called it “the next small thing”.
Towering Peaks, Too?
Well, actually, Montenegro isn’t only... small. It also boasts the obligatory towering peaks. Yes, it’s true. They form the country’s rugged spine creating a natural barrier between the southernmost extension of the Adriatic’s Dalmatian Coast and the interior. This geographical barrier was only recently pierced by a tunnel thus providing easier access to the capital city, Podgorica. Nature also engineered some overhanging limestone cliffs that create a fjord-like entry to the Bay of Kotor and cast nearly daylong shadows for the town of Kotor that rests at the head of the bay.
The history of Montenegro is a twisted tale of Greeks, Slavs, Romans, Venetians, Goths and Turks, so Byzantine—so Balkan—that it would be impossible to do it justice in this brief article. Suffice to say that recent history saw the country align itself with Serbia following the breakup of Yugoslavia and essentially close its doors to the outside world. In the 1990s and earlier this decade it survived primarily as a lawless haven for smugglers and a variety of mafia organizations. In 2006, the citizenry took control back and voted for independence from Serbia. Since then, a reawakening as “the next Croatia” has provided significant momentum to a revived tourism industry and a rediscovery of Montenegro’s many treasures.
Kotor Makes The Top Five
The old town of Kotor is considered by many as Europe’s best-preserved medieval city. A whole day can easily be spent wandering its narrow alleys, climbing ancient stairways to neighborhood squares (Trg od Oruzja or Square of Arms is the main one), and poking about the churches, palaces and local markets. Keep an eye out for the 12th century Sveti Tripun Cathedral, the Prince’s Palace, Napoleon’s Theater, and the Maritime Museum housed in Grgurin Palace.
The face of Kotor can be attributed primarily to the Venetians who dominated the Dalmatian Coast from the 15th to 18th centuries and Kotor rose to maritime prominence on the coattails of the powerful Republic of Venice. The old town is surrounded by an impressive sixty-foot high, thirty-foot thick, three-mile long wall started in the ninth century and “completed” a thousand years later (like your kitchen remodel). Not unlike Dubrovnik, you can feel the sense of security medieval citizens must have enjoyed when tucked inside this massive fortification. The Lion of Venice guards the main gate on the seaward side and promises the very Venetian clock tower, palaces and piazzas within.
Following a serpentine path from the eastern walls up 1,350 steps to the Fortress Sveti Ivan will put you 900 feet above the bay with a spectacular view of the surrounding coast. From here you can imagine the sailing fleet—pride of Kotor—that once had primacy in this section of the Adriatic, and provided many of the old galleys, instruments and engravings you see in the Maritime Museum. Note there are no services on this path, so take water… and your camera.
The Bay and Beyond
The Baroque village of Perast is a nearby, nearly abandoned (just 400 people) town on Kotor Bay that was once home to wealthy families that made the sailing fleet so successful, and vice versa. It’s a place of former glory and once-luxurious Venetian palaces, many abandoned remains of twelve clans that flourished here during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
A bright jewel in Kotor’s crown is the island of Gospa od Skrpjela (Our Lady of the Rock). This island was built entirely of ballast stones brought by sailors from Kotor and Perast. These rocks form the base upon which a church, famous for its 68 Tripo Kokolja paintings, was built in 1630 to honor an icon of the Holy Mother of God found after a ship wrecked near the island. Each July ceremonial stones are brought from Perast and added to the island.
Perast and Gospa od Skrpjela can both be visited as part of regular daily cruises offered from Kotor or by taxi boats available in the harbor. (Just be mindful of the timing.) Budva, a 2500-year-old town; Lastva, 1,000 feet up from the sea; and Montenegro’s former capital city Cetinje are all worthy of a closer look, should your schedule permit.
Montenegro and Kotor are still making their way to most people’s “Been There” list. So, enjoy it now and cherish the bragging rights that go with being first on your block to “discover” this little jewel of the Adriatic.
Karyn L. Planett