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