Picturesque Kotor: narrow streets and a mountain fortress

Kotor turned out to be everything I’d hoped: beautiful, friendly, and a great base to explore. We spent the morning of our first full day in Kotor hiking to the top of Kotor’s St. John Fortress. Two access points from the old town to the path up are manned buy locals who exact a fee of around €3pp. Steep stairs and rough, cobblestone paths make the ascent easier than mountaineering, but it’s still 87 stories-worth of climbing! The fortress is entirely in ruins, with occasional small shrines and a little church along the climb and a surprising wealth of wild purple irises and bright yellow wildflowers covering the rocky terrain. We thoroughly enjoyed the climb, but were told it could be hot and crowded in the summer. Thankfully, we had neither of those problems.

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Old Kotor: on the way to the path up to the fortress
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Mountainside shrine on the way to the fortress
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Wild irises and yellow flowers
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Church, mid-way to the fortress (and David!)

At the summit, we explored the ruins of the fortress proper, climbing through window holes and up dead-end stairs. Huge flocks of black birds swooped and swirled, both above and below us. Clouds had gathered, but fortunately rain held off and we had a beautiful view of the bay beyond the red tiled roofs of the old city.

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The summit of Kotor Fortress: the Montenegran flag and a flock of birds

We descended the mountain to exit further south than our entry point, but still within the old city walls, at a spot near Sveti Tripuna (St. Tryphon’s) Cathedral. It seemed the perfect opportunity to visit the cathedral and explore the small museum there. The cathedral is small as cathedrals go and the museum is tiny as well. The museum’s collection is typical of medieval churches, but worth a look and the visit does not take long.

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St. Tryphon on a sunnier day

The real pleasure of Kotor is simply being there, exploring the maze of narrow streets, strolling around the harbor, sitting in a café. It’s a luxury to simply have time there. Cruise ships are now docking at Kotor and, while we certainly understood the appeal of this beautiful little city and the right-there dock, it was annoyingly crowded when a ship pulled in and a relief when it sailed away. The old town is already over-supplied with shops selling souvenirs and depressingly-similar restaurants. I imagine it will only get worse as tourism to this beautiful little country increases. [This was a scenario I would soon find to have already played out in neighboring Croatia.]

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Montenegro, at long last!

I’d wanted to visit Montenegro when my boys and I had been in Dubrovnik back in 2003. It was so close!…but I’d decided against making what, in essence, would have been little more than a toe-touch in the country. Now, finally, I was going back and we had 5 nights in Kotor to explore this mountainous country. I was thrilled.

The getting there from Belgrade was both easy and fun. Pre-boarding, we enjoyed the amenities of the airport Business Club courtesy of our Priority Pass membership (an AmEx Platinum perk). Once aloft, we flew over the rugged mountains I’d originally thought of crossing by train, enjoying the views…and convinced we’d made the right decision to skip the train. The Air Serbia flight between Belgrade and Tivat, Montenegro, was barely more than an hour and as pleasant and efficient as our Ljubljana to Belgrade flight had been (with yet another “$0” free meal). Eventually, the mountains gave way, but only somewhat, to a spectacular Adriatic coastline.

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The Montenegran coast on the approach to the Tivat airport

We landed in the tiny Tivat airport and were met, as promised, by Marijana, the driver sent by our AirBnB host. Marijana led us to her own, small cluttered car. On the short drive to Kotor, she told us that she was a divorced mother of young children. She was interested to her what we thought of Belgrade, having lived there herself for years with her Serbian ex-husband. In her estimation, it was a great city and she missed it, but her children liked Kotor and and the cost-of-living was lower for her in Montenegro.

In no more than 15 minutes, we parked beside a canal just across from the walls of the old city of Kotor. Our host, Bojan, owned two apartments he rented on AirBnB on the 3rd floor. He listed the 2 together on AirBnB which explained my confusion as to the orientation of some of the rooms I’d seen online. Both are nice, new 2-bedroom apartments with balconies facing the old town. (While the living rooms were stylish and well-appointed in each, both apartments also had spartan upstairs bedrooms with ceilings that sloped laughably low. Bojan had been clear about that though, so it was no surprise. Just funny as David, who had the inside side of the bed and to stoop his 6’3″ low and scuttle, crab-like around the end of the bed to get out.) We were given our choice of apartments since we were the first to arrive and were soon happily settled.

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The roofs of Kotor old town. (Our apartment was in the 4th building to the right of the tall, modern building just off-center in the photo.)
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Crazy-low sloping ceiling in our bedroom

Now late afternoon, we set out to explore the old town on foot and find somewhere to eat. Old Kotor is achingly picturesque and its setting like something from a fairy tale with fortress walls running the length of the mountain at its back and and a magnificent, fjord-like bay before it.

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Old Kotor with the fortress and walls on the mountain beyond

One of my favorite food memories from the two weeks I spent with my sons in Croatia all those years ago was of perfectly grilled squid in Trogir. Happily, we found a pretty outdoor restaurant in old Kotor with great little grilled squid and the potato and chard side dish we’d found to be a staple in Belgrade. The restaurant was touristy, but not obnoxiously so, and the view of the fortress on the mountain looming above us was particularly beautiful as sunset gave way to dark. Lit up along the length of its walls, the fortress lay like a string of gleaming pearls on the ridge of the mountain. And, one of the joys of traveling off-season, we had the place almost to ourselves. In Montenegro, squid soon came to be our go-to meal: always good and, surprisingly, nearly always the cheap option. What an awesome country!

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Delicious grilled squid dinner in Old Kotor

 

April 7, 2016