The cruise ships are pretty much the first thing you notice about the tightly packed medieval town of Kotor.
They crowd into the narrow neck of the fjord-like bay – one after another, two or three times a day – and drop anchor within hailing distance of the grey-walled, red-roofed Old Town. Small boats ferry the passengers in and out, and the guttural horn signalling departure sounds like the call of a maritime muezzzin, echoing off the surrounding hills. From the harbourside, the sheer sides of the ships rise high and mighty, blocking out the views of the opposite shore and obscuring sunsets. Later, as they slide out of the bay, the ships’ wash tumbles onto the thin beaches, turning stones, and rattles the lines of moored craft.
The cruise ships are both blessing and curse. A boon for tourism – which has elevated Kotor to the rank of neighbouring Dubrovnik – but entirely inappropriate for the scale of a town that otherwise marks its skyline with graceful Venetian towers, squat church belfries and snaking stone walls.
Cobbled alleys, precipitous stairways and tiny squares
The walled, gated Old Town itself is beautiful – a sun-warmed warren of cobbled alleys, precipitous stairways and tiny squares that has still, just about, got a human pulse. It is given over to tourism, no question, with its endless tour groups, pavement cafés, souvenir shops, classy bars and pushy restaurant hustlers. But laundry hangs from upper-storey apartments, and signs on the side of ancient stone buildings – for dentists, doctors, kindergartens, florists and pharmacies – speak of a local population hanging on by their fingertips.
It’s draining, and a little dispiriting, to traipse around such beauty in high season, with every alley log-jammed with visitors. There’s no view that isn’t blocked, no appealing café with a spare seat, no silence to savour.
But there is a solution – one that rolls back the centuries and puts Kotor, and its cruise ships, back into perspective.
A sign at the back of the Old Town leads you under a sculpted archway and up a cobbled alley, through the gate leading up to the city walls. Even by 8am there’s usually a steady stream of climbers and – as temperatures easily top 30℃ in summer – the earlier you start, the better.
For there are city walls, and then city walls, in Kotor – the first encircling the Old Town itself and the second set looping up and around the craggy limestone mountain behind the town, forming a defensive girdle that was key to protecting Kotor during its long period of prosperity. The first hillside walls were built as early as the 9th century and were added to for the next thousand years, with the circuit topped by the fortress of St John. With the open bay to the front, and the mountains behind, Kotor’s formidable defences helped keep the Venetians in power here for almost 400 years.
It’s brutal – straight up the hillside, on over 1,300 steps
Quite how formidable is clear the minute you start to climb. It’s a brutal enterprise – over a kilometre in length, straight up the hillside, on over 1,300 steps and steep cobbled stretches that hug the grey stone walls as they zig and zag above town.
The views behind you soon unfold – first, a relatively intimate rooftop panorama as you clear the town buildings, and then an increasingly impressive sweep across Kotor and its bay. Terraces at intervals let you grab a breath, while enterprising vendors hunker under umbrellas for shade and lay out chilled cans and plastic bottles on ancient stones. The morning sun slowly rises above the mountain behind and blazes across the hillside; if there was a welcome shade when you started the climb, it soon disappears.
A hand-painted yellow sign points around a ledge to an arched doorway set in an outer section of the wall. Climb up and through this – literally a hole in the wall – and you would be on your way to the even more adventurous zig-zag hiking route up the mountain to Lovcen National Park. Make a note for another day; for now, the walls of Kotor will be enough.
Climb. Stop. Catch your breath. Climb. Stop. Look back. It’s relentless, and ever hotter, though the views are more inspirational with every step.
At occasional bottlenecks, you wait in line to let people pass on the steps. The adjacent cobbled path can be treacherous and this is no place to slip and fall. At the final ascent there’s a rather alarming metal walkway, festooned with padlocks, followed by stone steps that break through a shattered concrete floor.
It takes about an hour to reach the tumbledown fortress walls at the highest point you can reach. A flag flies, rather forlornly, over the remains of a once-powerful Adriatic stronghold, but even now – reduced to rubble in places – it’s easy to see how hard it would have been to attack and overcome this mountain fastness.
The views from here are simply extraordinary, with the red roofs of Kotor and the green mountainside setting off the sparkling blue of the bay. Shattered turrets, dilapidated walls and collapsed rooms offer pockets of shade to the dripping, sweat-drenched visitors who have made it this far.
And far, far below – finally humbled by the scale of the walled fortifications – the cruise ships of Kotor sit like toy boats in the bay below.
Need to know – climbing the city walls
The entrance to the walls and fortress is permanently open, but from May to September between 8am and 8pm there’s an €8 entrance fee. At other times, you’ll be able to make the climb for free.
Start early, wear proper shoes or trainers and take plenty of water. It’s incredibly hot and hard-going in summer, so don’t underestimate the climb.
The ascent to the fortress takes 45 minutes to an hour, depending on your level of fitness/how many times you stop for the views. Figure on slightly less to come back down, plus some time at the top, and you’re looking at a two-hour round trip at least.
Eating and drinking in Kotor
I didn’t find anywhere to eat in the Old Town that I’d recommend – mostly too pushy and too pricey – though the Evergreen Jazz Bar has a quiet outdoor terrace and is good for a drink after you get back down from the climb. There’s also live music, and evening cocktails.
The best places to eat, almost without exception, are a walk away from the Old Town along the harbour.
Caffe del Mare is consistently good, serving good fresh fish, seafood and pizzas, right by the water’s edge. If you want to sit closest to the water, call in earlier in the day and reserve a table – the staff are lovely. It’s a 15-minute walk along the harbour (Dobrata direction) from the main gate.
Konoba Portun is a longer walk in the same direction (30 mins from the main gate, just past St Matthew’s Church) and is utterly charming. It’s more expensive than most but the shaded, vine-clad terrace is right on the water, and the food is pretty perfect, including fresh pasta, risotto and seafood.