Kotor, Where There’s So Much More

Inhabited for more than 26 centuries, Kotor enjoys a combination of natural elements that have made the city a coveted place for a series of civilizations and cultures.

From this vantage point, you can appreciate Kotor’s location “on a bay within a bay.” The town is sequestered by a steep spine of mountains. Ships, like the cruise ship barely visible in the distance on the far left, must come in from the Adriatic, through one bay, and then another to reach Kotor.

Tucked tightly into the far end of a “bay within a bay” is Kotor, a town so old – and important – it is one of the few to be included on ancient and historic maps that detail the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. And though Montenegro is a new country, Kotor and the surrounding region is one of the oldest settled areas in what is now Eastern Europe.

There is a charm and beauty to be found almost anywhere in Kotor’s Old City.

The date on this spire say 1166, while the date on the other one says 2016 (photo above) — marking an age of five and a half centuries of this church.

Kotor’s name is thought to derive from a combining of the words “ten gates,” the number of ways in and out of the Old City fortress. Kotor’s historic significance is evidenced by more than 26 centuries of habitation, and more recently as being among the earliest World Heritage Sites named by UNESCO (1979), and the first of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Montenegro. Stari Grad (Old City) is a beautiful setting, yet such a confusing maze of streets that even life-long residents of Kotor can get lost.

When the winds are calm, the waters of Kotor’s bay are glass-smooth, as seen by the reflection of houses in the water.

Early civilizations were undoubtedly attracted to the area because of the unusual configuration of a “bay with a bay.” The long narrow waterway where Kotor sits offers seclusion from passing ships along the main coast, as well as protection from fierce storms that can lash the Adriatic. Kotor’s strategic location is further enhanced because the city’s rear is protected by vertiginous massifs that are part of the Dinaric Alps (stretching from Italy to Albania). And lucky for Kotor, the Scurda River flows from the mountains to provide a reliable source of fresh water.

A steady supply of fresh water is a must-have for any ancient city, and the Scurda River has been supplying Kotor for thousands of years.

This combination of natural elements drew civilizations who would conquer, develop, and then lose control of Kotor to succeeding sets of land grabbers. First settled in the 7th Century B.C. before the time of the Greek poet Homer, there was a parade of Greeks, Illyrians, Romans, Visigoths, Byzantines, Slovenians, Venetians, Ottomans, Austrians, Russians, French, Yugoslavians, and Serbs who would all try to pull the region into their spheres of influence. In 2006 Montenegro became a nation of its own.

The arches are a Venetian-influenced design, evidence of one of the many cultures that held Kotor in their domain.

Kotor is an appealing visitor destination because there are numerous sights and natural attractions. The Old City (Stari Grad), constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, is a warren of narrow streets and ancient buildings where getting lost happens all the time, even if you have a map. Some of the popular places to visit in Stari Grad are Saint Tryphon’s Cathedral, one of two Roman Catholic cathedrals in Montenegro. Predominantly a Christian Orthodox country, Montenegro’s entire population is less than 625,000 (Kotor is the ninth-largest city in the country with a population of under 13,000 residents). Saint Nicholas’ Church towers over the Old City and this Serbian Orthodox house of worship is often used as a guidepost for many who become lost. The Maritime Museum offers an excellent overview of Kotor’s rich seafaring history. And for feline lovers, Kotor even has a Cat Museum (cats are often in port cities because they keep the rodent populations at bay, thereby reducing the potential outbreak of pestilence and plague.)

A big reason Kotor is popular as a visitor destination is the Old City is well preserved, and also small, making it easy for visitors to take in the sights.

The Maritime Museum showcases the rich seafaring tradition of those who have called Kotor their home.

There is a relatively narrow band of flat land that rings the edge of the bay before the land rises to the mountains. The twin spires of St. Tryphon’s Church can be seen on the left.

With all of the natural attributes that make Kotor a desirable city location, ancient residents decided to add one more element to Kotor – a fortified wall. The Kotor city walls provide a protective ring against anyone who might want to attack from the mountains. Rising as much as 850 feet above the city and running approximately 2.5 miles in length, the first stones were laid beginning in the 9th Century A.D. It is a signature element that gives Kotor a one-of-a-kind look. But be forewarned: this is a strenuous climb with more than 1,300 steps that are uneven and in many places in need of repair, and in the heat of summer the ascent can be a thirst-sapping exercise. But the views back down to the city and bay make the trip well worth the effort.

At night the Kotor city walls are illuminated, showing both their scope, and the effort it took to construct them.

From the city below, the Kotor city walls are a formidable defense that deterred virtually any invading army from attacking the city from the mountains.

Getting to the top of the city walls means climbing more than 1,300 steps, many of which are uneven. In the summer season it can be crowded and hot, so wear sturdy shoes and take water.

Ascending the stops of the city walls gives one a panoramic view of the city and the bay. Church of Our Lady of Remedy, right, is a small but beautiful sanctuary.

Inside the Church of the Lady of Remedy is a contemplative place to pause and reflect on what it took to fashion stones into a house of worship and defensive walls that protected the city of Kotor.

With just a few solders, Kotor’s rear flank could be protected so the residents below could go about their daily lives.

Today, the flag of Montenegro proudly flutters in the breeze above Kotor, but over the centuries flags of many other nations once held possession of Kotor.

An added advantage of the city walls is that look outs would know well in advance of the arrival of any ships that might be sailing into the bay.

No visit to Kotor would be complete without a visit to two incredible spots just a few miles down the road from Kotor. Risan was first settled in the 4th Century B.C., and the small town’s (population 2,000) claim to fame are world class Roman ruins and mosaic tile floors that were once part of a complex of opulent villas. At its height in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. as many as 10,000 people lived in Risan.

Nowadays Risan is best known as a rich archeological site that was once home to wealthy Romans. Risan is a short bus ride from Kotor.

The mosaic floors were carefully laid by hand by highly skilled and well-paid craftsmen.

Risan is a well-planned venue that shows the archeological remains in their best light.

Centuries of time and weather have worn down some of the remaining pieces of what were once richly-appointed homes and villas of Roman elites who lived in Risan during the much of the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.

As one of the oldest settled areas in the eastern Adriatic region, Risan’s winding, narrow streets offer delightful routes to wander.

Our Lady of the Rocks is a manmade islet situated in the Bay of Kotor. It was created over the years when ships loaded with rocks were sunk there and built up the spot to create a place for a church. Legend has it two brothers who were sailors came upon an image of the Virgin Mary on July 22, 1452 and the site was declared sacred. Over the years, sailors returning from the sea deposited rocks there and in 1630 a Roman Catholic church was built on top of a previously established Orthodox church. The custom of leaving rocks persists to this day and every July 22nd people throw rocks into the sea around the islet, at sunset.

Our Lady of the Rock, right, is a man made island because sailors, over hundreds of years, would deposit rocks at the site, either one rock at a time, or by sinking ships full until there was enough of an island to build a church.

The calm water of the bay serves as a mirror to the elements of the Lady of the Rocks Church.

Getting to Lady of the Rocks Church is a short ferry ride from the mainland and from Kotor, it is just a short bus ride to Perast to board the ferries.

On a warm, sunny, autumn day, Lady of the Rocks makes it obvious why Kotor and this area are such a highly-prized visitor attraction.

A table outside at Lady of the Rocks Church is held up by a pair broad-shouldered men.

Inside Lady of the Rocks Church is a collection of items and memorabilla from the centuries.

The interior of Lady of the Rocks Church is a testament to the devotion of the faithful. Running along the top is an impressive collection of silver votive tablets.

This is among Lady of the Rocks Church’s most impressive relics. This votive tapestry took 25 years for Jacinta Kunić-Mijović from Perast to complete. The silver and gold work is also notable because she used some of her own hair to make the tapestry, and by the time she was finished, she had gone blind.

The overwhelming pressure to profit from tourism monies is beginning to put pressure on Kotor, and her ribbon-narrow bay. (Currently most visitors come from Russia and Serbia, but more and more people from around the world are beating a path to Kotor’s door.) It is estimated tourism accounts for as much as 23 percent of Montenegro’s total Gross Domestic Product so there is considerable interest in expanding the revenue stream. In recent years it is estimated Kotor has seen a 40 percent increase in visitors year over year.

On a quiet autumn day, it is hard to imagine, but in the busy summer tourist season restaurants are packed and people fill the streets.

It is likely that artists and street vendors would be more willing to bargain over the price of a picture during the slow months than in the busy holiday season.

One of the great treats of being in a coastal city is the availability of fresh fish. It is prepared simply, without fanfare and it is delicious.

If a meat dish is your preference, Kotor offers plenty of that as well, with ample portions, and served with some very good local wine.

One sector being exploited is day trippers from cruise ships. As many as three large ships clog Kotor’s narrow inlet during the summer travel season. Aside from the crush of people in an urban center with a population of only 12,500, Kotor currently has no “cold iron” electric generating capability to power cruise ships while in port, so noxious diesel fumes fill the bay. And during the summer tourism season, busloads of visitors originating from Croatia, wend their way along a narrow two-lane road to get to Stari Grad for a few hours of walking about.

For a city like Kotor, cruise ships show the bright — and dark side — of a booming tourism industry. Cruise passengers find Kotor an exotic port of call, thanks to the narrow bay, steep mountains, and small Old City. But a lack of modern equipment — in this case, electric generation capacity so diesel engines can shut down while in port — means ships emit tons of pollutants into the air.

Additionally, in an effort to lure even more tourists, hotels are being built and private homes are rapidly being converted to vacation rental properties. Concerns have been voiced by UNESCO, conservation and sustainability groups, and others, because a rapid, poorly-planned expansion program could jeopardize Kotor’s current harmony with nature.

The streets and buildings of Kotor’s Old City are a great way to soak up beauty and history all at once.

Like the sightseers walking by, the tree in this courtyard has been providing shade to passersby for hundreds of years.

A poorly planned rush to cash in on tourist money can have adverse consequences. As one good example, Croatia’s “Pearl of the Adriatic,” Dubrovnik, has become overrun during the summer tourist season. As many as five cruise ships disgorge thousands of passengers, all eager to take in the sights. Dubrovnik’s Old City, once a vibrant community of many generations has been repurposed into tourist venues – restaurants, trinket shops, hotels and short-term vacation rentals – and a large majority of locals have moved out in order to capitalize on tourist money. In the offseason Dubrovnik’s Old City nearly becomes a ghost town, a situation Kotor might avert with careful planning.

Just walking around Kotor will delight your senses, give you a true appreciation for how long people have lived here, and hope that a place this special can be preserved for thousands of years more.

For centuries people have attended services at this church, met friends and family here and walked by these gates.

But worry not, the Old City and the Kotor area still retain local charm, especially when filled with residents who meet in the city center to have coffee, share a meal, visit with family and friends, and catch up on the events of the day. And as a visitor wandering the streets and taking in the beauty, you will quickly come to appreciate all there is to see and enjoy in Kotor.

Like many old cities around the world, the regular chores of life must be attended to, and getting the laundry washed — and dried — is no exception.

For more information about Kotor and some of the attractions in the area, click over to these websites: