The One with Kotor, Montenegro


Monday, May 19, 2014

After an amazing day in Dubrovnik we loaded up in the car for an hour-and-a-half drive to Kotor, Montenegro! We're not used to having to stop at borders for passport checks, but it had to be done! And we got more stamps in our books!
Welcome to Montenegro!
If Dubrovnik is the grand finale of a Croatian vacation, then Montenegro is the encore. One of Europe's youngest nations is just south of the Croatian border with dramatic scenery, a refreshing exotic appeal, and the excitement of a new independence. Historically Montenegro has been even more of a crossroads of cultures than the rest of the Balkans. In some ways there are two Montenegros: the remote, rugged, rustic mountaintop kingdom that feels culturally close to Serbia; and the staggeringly strategic, sun-drenched coastline that has attracted a steady stream of rulers over the centuries. At one point or another just about every group imaginable - from the usual suspects (Venetians, Austrians) to oddball one-offs (Bulgarian kingdoms, Napoleon's Ljubljana-based Illyrian Provinces, Russian czars) - has planted its flag here. In spite of their schizophrenic lineage, or maybe because of it, Montenegrins have forged a unique cultural identity that defies many of the preconceived notions of the Balkans. Since gaining independence in 2006 the Montenegrin coast has become a powerful magnet for a very specific kind of traveler: millionaires from Russia who have chosen to turn this impressionable, fledgling country with its gorgeous coastline into their very own Riviera.

After being part of Yugoslavia then Serbia & Montenegro, it's now the Republic of Montenegro which means "Black Mountain" in the native language. Long overshadowed by its Croatian and Serbian neighbors, Montenegro finally achieved independence on June 3, 2006 in a landmark vote to secede from Serbia. Montenegro is home to 662,000 people. It's 5414 square miles, slightly smaller than Connecticut. Montenegro is characterized by a rugged, rocky terrain that rises straight up out of the Adriatic into a steep mountain range. The country has 182 miles of coastline, about a third of which constitutes the Bay of Kotor. The only real city is the capital in the interior, Podgorica (144,000 people). Upon declaring independence in 2006 Montenegro's economy was weak. But the privatization of its economy (including its dominant industry: aluminum) and the aggressive development of its tourist trade (such as soliciting foreign investment - mostly Russian - to build new luxury hotels) have turned things around. Though it's not a member of the EU Montenegro uses the euro.

We headed straight for the Bay of Kotor. With evidence of prehistoric settlements dating back to 2500 BC the Bay of Kotor has been a prized location for millennia. Its unique bottleneck shape makes the Bay of Kotor the single best natural harbor between Greece and Venice. We stopped to take pictures of the Verige Strait. The mountain on the left looks black - appropriately fitting the country's name "Black Mountain!"
This tight bottleneck at the mouth of the bay is the secret to the Bay of Kotor's success: any would-be invaders had to pass through here to reach the port towns inside the bay. It's narrow enough to carefully monitor (not even a quarter-mile wide), but deep enough to allow even today's large megaships through (more than 130 feet deep). Because this extremely narrow straight is relatively easy to defend, whoever controlled the inside of the fjord was allowed to thrive virtually unchecked. Centuries before Christ, even before the flourishing of Roman culture, the Bay of Kotor was home to the Illyrians - the mysterious ancestors of today's Albanians. In the third century BC Illyrian Queen Teuta spanned this straight with an ingenious shipwrecking mechanism to more effectively collect taxes. To this day many sunken ships litter the bottom of this bay. 
In later times chains were stretched across the bay here to control the entrance. The name "Verige" comes from a Slavic word for "chain." Later still Venetians came up with an even more elaborate plan: place cannons on either side of the strait with a clear shot at any entering ships. Straight through the strait is the town of Perast which was also equipped with cannons that could easily reach across the bay. Thanks to this extensive defense network, Ottomans or any other potential invaders were unlikely to penetrate the bay either by land or sea.
We drove over the Ljuta River - according to locals this is the "shortest river it the world."
It comes right out of the mountain! (right picture) and goes just a little way into the Adriatic (left picture). Short as it is, it's hardly a trickle - in fact its name means "Angry River" for its fierce flow during heavy rains, which it had been the day before. The river actually courses underground for several miles before emerging out of the mountain here.
We drove through the city of Perast (though because of the shape of the bay we first saw it from across the water and took a picture of it from there). This second-most appealing town on the fjord (after Kotor) is considered the "Pearl of Venetian Baroque." 
Because Perast was an essential link in the Bay of Kotor's success with the important duty of aiming cannons through the Strait of Verige, Venice rewarded Perast with privileged tax-free status and the town became extremely wealthy. Imagine our world without taxes... Anyway... Ornate mansions proliferated here during its 17th and 18th-century heyday. But after Venice fell to Napoleon and the Bay of Kotor's economy changed, Perast's singular defensive role disappeared. With no industry, no hinterland, and no natural resources, Perast stagnated, leaving it an open-air museum of Venetian architecture.

From Perast we could see St. George and Our Lady of the Rocks - these twin islands (one natural, the other man-made) come with a fascinating story.
The Island of St. George (the rocky island with trees and a monastery, closed to tourists unfortunately) named for the protector of Christianity, was part of the fortification of the Bay of Kotor. This natural island had a small underwater reef nearby. According to legend, two fisherman noticed a strange light emanating from this reef in the early-morning fog. Rowing out to the island they discovered an icon of Our Lady. They attempted to bring it to shore, but it kept washing back out again to the same spot. Taking this celestial hint, local seamen returning home from a journey began dropping rocks into the bay at this same place. The tradition caught on, more and more villagers dropped in rocks of their own, and eventually more than a hundred old ships and vessels were filled with stones and intentionally sunk in this spot. And so, over two centuries, an entire island was formed in the middle of the bay. In the 17th century locals built the Our Lady of the Rocks Catholic church on this holy site and filled it with symbols of thanks for answered prayers. You can take a boat out to Our Lady of the Rocks from Perast. Next time :)

Another couple views of the glorious Bay of Kotor.
We found Sava's Kotor apartment on, of course, airbnb, located directly across from the town of Kotor in the tiny city of Muo. For only $64 a night!!!! Are you kidding me? I've never been to Thailand or Singapore or places of that nature, but it sure felt like that's where we were! All of this for $64 a night! I mean, what a steal.
When we arrived all of the doors and windows were open, letting the warm sea air blow through. 
And it's HUGE! We had the entire lower level of the house to ourselves along with a yard for the kids to play around in and let me tell you, after being cooped up in the car and stroller for days they were soooo happy to have a little place to play around in! They even found Sava's two pet turtles and had a ball playing with them.
There's a huge entryway, kitchen, living room with fold-out-couch bed, two big bedrooms, bathroom, free internet, parking, and more. 
The view? Seriously people, this was the nicest place I've ever stayed at in my life. It goes house, road, Bay of Kotor. Nothing in the way to block this AMAZING view. For $64 a night! I just can't get over it.
We fell asleep instantly, ready to take on another amazing adventure the next day.

History of Kotor: butted up against a steep cliff, cradled by a calm sea, naturally sheltered by its deep-in-the-fjord position, and watched over by an imposing network of fortifications, the town of Kotor is as impressive as it is well-protected. Though it's enjoyed a long and illustrious history, today's Kotor is a time-capsule retreat for travelers seeking a truly unspoiled Adriatic town. There's been a settlement in this location at least since the time of Christ. The ancient town of Catarum - from the Roman word for "contracted" or "strangled," as the sea is at this point in the gnarled fjord - was first mentioned in the first century AD. Like the rest of this region, Kotor's next two millennia were layered with history as it came under control of a series of foreign powers: Illyrians, Romans, Serbs, Venetians, Russians, Napoleonic soldiers, Austrians, Tito's Yugoslavia... and now, finally, Montenegrins. Each group left its mark and Kotor has its share of both Catholic and Orthodox churches, sometimes both at once, plus monuments and reminders of plenty of past colonizers and conquerers. Through all those centuries Kotor avoided destruction by warfare. But it was damaged by earthquakes, including the same 1667 quake that leveled Dubrovnik, as well as a devastating 1979 earthquake from which the city is still cleaning up. While only 3000 people live within the Old Town walls, greater Kotor has a population of about 12,000. Kotor has a compact Old Town shaped like a triangle. The two sides facing the bay are heavily fortified by a thick wall and the third side huddles under the cliff face. A meandering defensive wall climbs the mountainside directly behind and above the town. I've never seen a wall like this, built so high on the mountain! It's hard to make out because it blends in.
Here's a picture with the walls in purple and red. Plus they light the walls up at night so we got some amazing shots of it because Sava's house is right across from Kotor. Keep reading :)
While Jaylie went off to hike to the tippy-top of the town wall, our little family walked the 15 minutes from our apartment to the Old Town. Chris said he felt like he was back in the Philippines. Something about these mountains and palm trees and houses is just so tropical and other-worldly!
Check out this HUGE and EMPTY Hotel Fjord. Can you imagine if this place was fixed up? Major money-maker because of its location right on the water!
As we entered the town we passed the rightmost part of the wall. The water in front is such a pretty shade of aqua and green!
The Main Town Gate.
The wide-open square fronting the bay and waterfront marina now welcomes visitors. But for centuries its purpose was exactly the opposite. As the primary entry point into this heavily fortified town, it was the last line of defense. Before the embankment was built the water came directly to this door and there was only room for one ship to tie up at a time. If a ship got this far (through the gauntlet back at the Verige Strait) it was carefully examined here again, taxes were levied, and then passengers could disembark. This double-checkpoint was designed to foil pirates who might fly the flag of a friend to get through the strait, only to launch a surprise attack once here.

This pinkish gate has parts dating from 1555. It once featured a Venetian lion (there are still some around the gate, as seen in the left picture below), then the double-headed eagle of the Habsburg Empire. But today, most of the symbolism touts Tito's communism. The Tito quote (tuđe nećemo svoje ne damo) roughly means "don't take what's ours and we won't take what's yours" - a typically provocative statement in these troubled Balkans. 
We walked through the gate and emerged into the Square of Arms.
The square is ringed with artifacts of the city's complex history. At the base of the town's Bell Tower is an odd triangular structure which was once the town pillory. Wrongdoers would be chained to this with their transgression printed on a placard hanging from their neck, open to public ridicule of the rudest kind imaginable... sounds fun... not!
The bottom left building was once the palace of the rector who ruled Kotor on behalf of Venice; princes could watch the action from their long balcony overlooking the square which served as the town's living room. Later, the palace became the Kotor Town Hall.
The building on the right in the picture below is the Venetian arsenal, the square's namesake, and the building on the left is the "French Theater" named for its purpose during the time this area was under Napoleon's control. 
We walked down the paved with red-and-white-striped tiles street and admired past mansions of Kotor's medieval big shots. 
There were souvenir shops on every corner and alleyway. I loved this seashell hanging.
We walked to Pjaca Sv. Tripuna (aka Trg od Katedrale) home to the Cathedral of St. Tryphon.
Even though most Kotorians are Orthodox, Kotor's most significant church is Catholic. According to legend, in AD 809 Venetian merchants were sailing up the coast from Nicea (today's Turkey) with the relics of St. Tryphon - a third-century martyr and today's patron saint of gardeners. A storm hit as they approached the bay so they took shelter here. Every time they tried to leave the weather worsened... so they finally got the message that St. Tryphon's remains should remain in Kotor.
Upstairs inside the church is a reliquary with paintings, vestments, and other ecclesiastical items.
Oh the stories these items could tell!
Behind this Baroque altar and the screen are 48 different relics. In the center is St. Tryphon - his bones in a silver casket and his head in a golden chalice.
The nave of the church has stout columns, surviving Byzantine-style frescoes under the arches, and a fine 15th-century silver-and-gold altar.
After the church we walked to the Karampana - this well served as Kotor's only public faucet until the early 20th century. Chris swung the pendulum to try and get the water flowing, but nothing happened. This was also the top place for town gossip. It's said that if your name is mentioned here you know you've arrived :) The town's gossip magazine is now called Karampana
Straight past the well is the next square called St. Luke's Square.
There are two Serbian Orthodox churches on this pretty square, each with the typical Orthodox church features: a squat design, narrow windows, and portly domes. We went inside the little St. Luke's Church in the middle of the square which dates from the 12th century. There was a room off to the side with this screen of icons.
The back side of St. Luke's Church.
The bigger and much newer St. Nicholas' Church was built in 1909.
Stepping inside we noticed some key differences from Catholic churches: no pews (worshippers stand through the service as a sign of respect), tall and skinny candles (representing prayers), and a screen of icons, called an iconostasis, in the middle of the sanctuary to separate the material world from the holy world, where the Bible is kept. 
I really loved the ambiance of this city.
Fantastic doors.
Pigeons eating popcorn. | Dozens of cats sleeping under the shade of this bush. | Orange poppies. | Gorgeous window screen.
Looking up through the narrow alleys. | Homeless cats everywhere, so sad. 
Magnificent archways. 
We exited out the Northern Gate.
Fox walked into this little niche and said "Cheese!" all by himself, but I didn't catch it in time, silly guy. | Jane resting her feet by riding on Daddy's shoulders. 
More of the town walls and the über cool green water. 
Back into the town we passed St. Mary's Church. For such a small area this town sure has tons of churches!
For lunch we ate at City Restaurant by the Cathedral of St. Tryphon from the beginning of our jaunt in Kotor.
It was shaded and cute and the pizza was delicious. 
Then we got some ice cream :) 
Yet another church, I can't even remember which one this is, and green plants from our wanderings.
Then it was time to hike the Town Walls. I knew it wouldn't be easy because we'd have to carry Fox and Jane, but I wanted a view and we just had to experience the town's best attraction! As we were walking up the cobbled, rough lane to get to the access point with our stroller, people were looking at us in disbelief, shaking their heads and saying, "There's no way that stroller can go up the wall." Duh, we were just trying to park it close to the entrance :)
Kotor's fortifications begin as stout ramparts along the waterfront then climb up the sheer cliff face behind the town in a dizzying zigzag line. Rick Steves says, "If there's a more elaborate city wall in Europe, I haven't seen it." Imagine what it took to create this "Great Wall of Kotor": nearly three miles long along extremely inaccessible terrain. It was built in fits and starts over a millenium (9th-19th centuries, though most of it was during the Venetian occupation in the 17th and 18th centuries). Its thickness varies from 6 to 50 feet and the tallest parts are 65 feet high! Sections higher on the hill - with thinner walls, before the age of gunpowder - are the oldest while the thick walls along the water are most recent. It was all worth it; the fortified town survived many attacks including a two-month Ottoman siege in 1657. 
On the way up the steep switchbacks we noticed the sign explaining that the fortress reconstruction was funded by the United States (Nov 2004) - so we considered this hike our tax dollars at work :)
Sights from the hike.
After 20 minutes or so of hiking what felt like straight up, we were a sweaty mess but we made it to the Church of Our Lady of Health! This is the halfway mark of the entire climb, but our final destination. 
The Church of Our Lady of Health was built as a votive church in the 15th century following numerous plague epidemics.
Evans family above Kotor, Montenegro on Tuesday May 6th 2014.
The views from up here were so worth every drop of sweat. WOW!
On the way back down there was a platform and I asked Chris to jump on it and he obliged. He's a keeper :)
Three mini churches (???) on the trek back down the wall.
Once we were back down on the mainland we felt we had thoroughly seen Kotor and began our walk back to the apartment for an afternoon nap. We passed through street vendors selling fruit and veggies and all kinds of trinkets. 
We looked back at the wall we had just climbed halfway up. Pretty amazing!
While the kids were napping we decided to jump in the lake. 
Jay was the only one who got up the guts to give it a go because it was sooooooooo coooooooold. 
While he was pumping himself up for the plunge he kept saying over and over, "This is bad idea. This is a bad idea." So funny.
Now Jay can say, "I swam in the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro." 
Once the kids woke up we drove to the Budva Riviera and Sveti Stefan - but that's coming in the next post.

At night the walls are lit up. This was our view from the front yard of Sava's apartment. Pretty freaking awesome. You can see the Church of Our Lady of Health halfway up the left where we hiked to.
After another fantastic night's sleep we woke up and saw a ginormous cruise ship coming in. I'm soooooo glad we did our tour of Kotor the day before!
We took a family selfy, packed up, and headed out!
Of all the places we went on our Croatian Vacation, it's Kotor Montenegro that I want to go back to the most. I would seriously love to buy Sava's house and turn it into our home away from home. I loved it here that much.

Next stop: KORČULA, CROATIA!
Paige Taylor Evans © // Quinn Creatives DESIGN