If ever you are lucky enough to be on a Mediterranean cruise that calls into the small medieval city of Kotor, Montenegro, a climb up to the old St John’s Fort (aka Castle of San Giovanni) is a must. For two reasons – the incredibly outstanding views and much needed exercise after being on the ship! (I call this a climb, but other say it’s a “huff and puff” hike…only one way for you to find out!)
But first – arriving in the Bay of Kotor, on the Adriatic Coast. The city has a population of 13,500 and is quite small and secluded. Navigating into the heart shaped bay is a magical experience as it’s surrounded by very steep rugged mountains up to heights of 1,800m. (No, you don’t climb to the top of these).
As the ship glides past the tiny twin islands of St George’s the charming church of Our Lady of the Rocks that was built in 1484 makes an appearance. (The church was having a face-lift which meant there was a lot of scaffolding around).
A Climbing we will go….
Well, the decision had been made to stretch the old pins with a walk up to the Castle of St John’s. After all, there were “only” 1,350 steps to climb. Not any old steps mind you – these were all shapes and sizes, some treacherously slippery being carved from marble.
Important tip – wear decent joggers with grippy soles – unlike myself who went in thongs! Although this trusty footwear did have arch support and had walked me around a lot of Mediterranean cities – plus, they are blue, the colour of the sea!
From the port it’s only a short walk to the old town. On the way it’s easy to see why Kotor is described as one of best-preserved medieval towns in this part of Europe – surrounded as it is by forts (20 of them) built during the ancient 14th century in the Venetian times. (So hard to digest such amazing history, when Australia was only discovered about 250 years ago!)
The entry to the town from the port is by the Sea Gate (West Gate). After walking through you turn left, then right and continue walking through the town to reach the River Gate (North Gate) which is the start of your climb.
A local person is waiting here to take your entry fee of € 2.00. This only applies from May to September and includes a pamphlet that gives you centuries of history and suggestions for hiking on the trail.
Then we were off. Luck was definitely with me…. about 100m along the track I found a bamboo stick resting against a tree that a previous Good Samaritan had written my name on! (Never look a gift horse in the mouth I say)
Onwards and upwards. After 10 minutes we came across a local man selling bottles of water and beer! (Definitely too early in the day for the latter). Another 15 minutes further and we arrived at the Church of Our Lady of Remedy at an altitude 100 metres. This is a good spot to stop, have a drink of water and look through the quaint chapel along with the souvenirs on offer. History tells us that this small church was built in 1518 by survivors of the 14th century plague and became a site for pilgrims.
NB – It was very re-assuring at this point to be told by a walker coming down that the Church was a bit less than half way up to the Fort. (Personally I was hoping we were at least 3/4 way up!)
Looking down at this point towards the town, the view was already spectacular. A mass of bright orange roofs, (reminiscent of Dubrovnik), brilliant blue waters of the harbour and a backdrop of rugged mountains.
The next stop was a small fort that had shelled out rooms and crumbling walls. This was interesting to explore and again have a break from those “steps”.
Another 45 minutes of walking found us arriving at St John’s Fort/Castle to be welcomed by a huge red and gold Montenegrin flag.
From this high point, looking back to the brilliant blue Bay of Kotor and the township was one of those once in a lifetime experiences – literally breathtaking. The terracotta roofs were so tiny that Kotor looked like a model village. Even so, the Fort is only 250m above sea level meaning you are still surrounded by the massive mountains.
NB – Make sure you look over the back of the hill to see the goats and village below and allow an hour at the top to explore the nooks and crannies of the castle and fort ruins.
Back down the steps…
Before we knew it, time had come to head back along the 1,350 steps which took about 40 minutes. Although we were told of an alternate longer route back we opted to retrace our steps – particularly as I was wearing the blue thongs!
Arriving back in town we headed to one of the many cafes for a couple of cold beers, to recover, and relive our climb. Being a hot day (late September) meant the beers even more enjoyable. There are many cafes in the town square that has such a vibrant atmosphere filled with happy people (mostly tourists) – eating, drinking and enjoying life in the slow lane at Kotor.
If you have wine or beer enjoy the local smoked or creamy cheese with bread. If coffee is your thing why not enjoy a slice of the local cherry strudel which was very popular.
More Tours of Kotor
If hiking up to the fort isn’t your scene you can always hop on a bus to the top of the mountainous island and enjoy the 25 hair raising hairpin bends on the way!
On arrival there will be magnificent views of both sides of the island waiting for you. These tours of Kotor can be organised from your ship or independently at Kotor Bay Tours
Statistics on the Wall Climb:
- The formidable medieval walls form a continual link around the old urban centre and sheer cliff of the Hill of St John.
- The wall is 4.5km long and was started in the 9th century.
- The walk starts at the North Gate and circles the old city centre.
- The main climb is 1,200m and takes in 1,350 steps, some over slippery marble. (I went barefoot over these bits.)
- 1.1/2 – 2 hours return trip. (This doesn’t include stopping time)
What to take on the walk:
- Sturdy joggers or walking shoes – not thongs as I did.
- Water and snacks
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- Cash (Euros) for entry fee and water/souvenir purchases on the way up.
- Trekking pole or sturdy stick
NB – If climbing in the spring and summer months, i.e. from May to September, try to walk in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat
Snippets from the Locals
- Kotor Bay was featured the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale!
- The clock tower in the town square is Kotor’s main icon. This was started in 1602 and completed in 1667. Reason for the delay is an earthquake made it lean to one side and a rebuild was needed. The poor old tower again needed rebuilding and straightening after a major earthquake in 1979!
Other places of interest if in Kotor for more than one day:
- Nine palaces
- Cathedral of St Tryphon
- 14 churches and monasteries, including St Luke’s an St Nicholas.
- 20 forts.
- Maritime Museum and Cat Museum
Kotor offers a huge option of sightseeing for such a small city.
Cats of Kotor
A blog on Kotor wouldn’t be complete without mention of the cat inhabitants – thousands of them! They are literally everywhere and very healthy specimens at that.
So, why are there so many? Well, the owner of Cats of Kotor Shop explained that for centuries Kotor was a busy trading port. She was unsure of the exact history of the town but “Mrs Google” revealed this ancient city is believed to be as old as the sea trade in the Adriatic.
And… with those ships came cats from all around the world. This resulted in Kotor today having a very large multicultural cat population with the felines being the unofficial emblem of the City!
The local cuisine has both Turkish and Mediterranean influences (of course). Fish and lamb are favourites and herbs, olive oil and spices play an important role in all dishes.
Suggested local food and drink to try:
- Cherry Strudel
- Cheeses – both smoked and creamy (delicious)
- Smoked-dried ham
- Montenegrin wines and plum brandy – we bought a small bottle to take home.
- Hello – Zdravo
- Please – Molim
- Thank you – Hvala
- How much – Kali