I’ll begin with the takeaway. If you’re traveling in the Adriatic, east or west side, seriously consider making a stop in Kotor, Montenegro. Forget the cruise ship tourists, forget the comparisons to Dubrovnik.
Find a place to stay inside the old town, and spend at least two nights. Then wander and lose yourself in the picturesque cobblestone alleyways of this marvelous, Medieval town.
Tiny Kotor escaped damage in the Balkans war, and consequently, is one of the best preserved Medieval towns in the Mediterranean. And as splendid as the Stari Grad (old town) is, it owes a large part of its charm to its location. Wedged between a crystal-blue, idyllic bay and the precipitous and imposing slopes of the Dinaric Alps, its location couldn’t be more dramatic.
Like other cities in the Balkans, Kotor has a long and complex history. Originally a Roman colony, it was later ruled by a collection of colonizing powers, but today’s city took shape between the 12th and 14th Centuries as a Venetian outpost and trading center.
And most of the impressive palaces, churches, and monuments scattered around the town today show the architectural influence of these Italian rulers.
It’s only 60 miles south of Dubrovnik, and most travel guides are quick to make comparisons. The Rick Steves Travel Guide even called it “Little Dubrovnik,” but I’m not fully on-board with this description. Yes, both cities are well-preserved Medieval towns, and Kotor is smaller than Dubrovnik, but the very things that make Kotor different add to its authentic charm.
For a start, even though the historic town is small, visitors quickly learn that maps are essentially useless. None of the maze-like streets have names, and part of the fun is just wandering – which is exactly what’s needed to truly appreciate Kotor. With some aimless rambling and perseverance, the winding, narrow cobblestone alleys reveal their romantic charms.
Tiny shops squeezed into ancient spaces, sun-drenched piazzas, stately palaces, historic churches, and quiet courtyards – all combine to create an intimate ambience all its own.
At first glance, what you’ll notice are Kotor’s impressive fortress walls. These heavily built fortifications surround the town and snake their way up the towering mountainside to the lonely hilltop castle of St. John. On a smaller scale, but reminiscent of China’s Great Wall, the construction effort must have been staggering. And if your travels have interrupted your exercise routine, here’s a chance for redemption. The hike to the top is 1350 steps – your very own Montenegrin StairMaster.
Terri once again demonstrated her skill at pulling rabbits out of the hat and found a delightful apartment, which was an enjoyable part of our experience. Our third-floor studio was in an ancient building just inside one of Kotor’s three gates and next door to the Monastery of St. Francis. The studio had attractive stone walls and was L-shaped with a window on each end. One window provided a nice view of the bell tower and mountains, and the other window was handy for keeping tabs on our sentinel watch-cats.
As we’ve said in other posts, we really enjoyed our time in Dubrovnik, and encourage everyone to visit. But if you’re looking for a more intimate and less crowded experience, we also suggest a trip to Kotor. Yes, there are cruise ships, and like most of these coastal cities on the Adriatic, there’s no escaping the tourists. But during our visit the ships seemed smaller and less frequent, and consequently, the crowds weren’t as much of a problem. Early mornings and late afternoon lulls in tourists were perfect times for crowd-free walks. As always, our usual broken-record line is to go in the off-season. And besides, after a trip to Montenegro, you can boast of visiting one of Europe’s newest countries.
James & Terri
Our friend Tricia Mitchell and her husband Shawn hiked the 1,350 stairs to reach the top of the Kotor Fortress. If you want to see some fabulous photos from the top of the mountain you will love her post.