23 Nov 2013 A Montenegrin Surprise
After a quick walk from the bus station to the heart of the Old Town, I explored within the town walls before making it to the waterfront, and, if needing to gauge my location based only on what floated in the marina that sunny, early October afternoon, I would have guessed some out of the way place along the Côte d’Azur…but I was nowhere near the French Riviera.
I knew little about Montenegro in general, and Kotor specifically, when, a few weeks before arriving, I was advised by a native Montenegrin to include it in my first tour of the Balkans. The Adriatic coast, mountains, secluded bay; it took little convincing to add Kotor to my agenda, and apparently others received the same advice. Along with yachts, sailboats and catamarans, two cruise ships were in the harbor: one, a large commercial cruise liner and the other, The World; the uber-expensive, private residence/yacht/cruise ship hybrid.
“All these people must be here for a reason,” I thought aloud, then, turning and looking up above the town, I learned why.
The Old Town sits at the base of the mountain of St. John. The peak, initially fortified in the mid-6th century, eventually became St. John Castle and is now a tourist attraction, for outdoorsy types who like a good hike, and the average tourist.
Starting near the center of the town’s back wall, I began hiking up the more than 1350 step switchback trail. Every stopping point on the path offered needed rest and spectacular vantage points for avid vacation photographers, each view better than the last. Hiking all the way to the top deserves a reward and the mountain didn’t disappoint. The Bay of Kotor panorama from the castle on the peak is well worth the effort.
It’s from here the reality of why people have inhabited this location for more than one thousand years set in. With mountains behind the fort and surrounding the bay, this was a strategic defensive location in a time when attack meant fighting with swords, or bows and arrows. The natural barriers created safety and at the same time allowed citizens to live in an awe inspiring location. Because of these natural surroundings that sense of awe lingers today, two centuries after the last significant battle, even with hundreds of tourists flooding the Old Town streets and trail to the peak daily.
This brings me back to my visit. For a few weeks my plan had been to, upon reaching the coast, find somewhere I liked and spend a couple of weeks. That said, after my first afternoon in Kotor (and first ascent of the mountain), I knew my stay would be longer than the initial three night booking. I’d just spent a few weeks traveling first through Serbia, then Bosnia and Herzegovina, and while they are extremely interesting countries, the constant reminders of what happened after the breakdown of Yugoslavia make for intense travel. The need for a full recharge of my travel batteries was eclipsed on the Things to Do list only by the need to catch up on some reading and do some serious writing. The concentration of those post-conflict cities, one after another, had stymied the creative process. My right brain needed a kick start!
Not knowing this when I arrived, the Bay of Kotor has a lot going for it and was just what I was looking for. The bays south end, where Kotor is located, combines a location abounding natural beauty, the ancient walled Old Town, and laid-back Balkan attitude to make a top travel destination along the Adriatic Sea’s eastern coastline. But for me it was more than just a vacation hot spot.
Finding Kotor to be a cookie cutter example of what I needed was a welcome surprise. Various vantage points on the mountain above became my desktop, the sights below my muse, and warm fall afternoons my workdays. I guess that’s why I climbed portions of the mountain at least six times during my two-plus week stay. So perfectly fitting my needs was Kotor, it fueled me for weeks after. Writing, reading, traveling. All with ease and harmony.
Thank you Kotor, Montenegro. I like surprises!
About the Author: Jacob Curtiss is a traveler and travel writer. He has recently finished a nearly year long backpacking trip through Europe. You can see more of Jacob’s work on his blog or check out the Unmapped Travels Facebook page.