I have a confession. I’d never really heard of Montenegro until a few years ago. The passing mention of the former Yugoslavian country on Eurovision each year was perhaps as far as my awareness stretched. But, my God! I had no idea what I’d been missing.
Montenegro really began to sag on my consciousness about two years ago. My parents had returned home from a cruise around the Adriatic and were raving about this place called Kotor. “You go down, like, a fjord, and then you come to this little old town filled with cats,” they said. And, frankly, I was sold.
However, it wasn’t until EasyJet began flights between Manchester and Tivat in Summer 2016 that a trip to Kotor became easier than ever. So, with no time to lose, we packed our carry-ons and set off for the largely unknown.
It didn’t take long for this small gem of a country to work its magic on us. Even descending into Tivat Airport is an experience. The mountains seem to grow around you and until you’re touching down on a runway adjacent to a nature reserve.
We were staying at an AirBnb, and the lady who was running it picked us up at the airport to transport us 10-minutes down the road to our apartment just to the south of the Old Town. Already, it was clear to see this place was special. The clouds hanging over the jagged mountains nearby seemed to go unnoticed by the children playing beneath our apartment block. All of a sudden, I began to wonder what living in a place so strikingly beautiful would actually be like.
First of all, we wondered round Kotor’s famous bay, following the coastline while simultaneously eyeing up the city walls. It’s safe to say I’d never snapped so many pictures within an hour of arriving somewhere as I did here. And that was before we’d even stepped foot in the old town.
Passing through Kotor’s ancient Sea Gate is like stepping into a time warp. The delightful Square of Arms is the first sight to greet tourits. The piazza is city’s largest square and is known for its iconic clock tower which dates from the 16th century.
The only way to really explore this city is to throw yourself into it. There are no street names at all. So, if you’re going to get to grips with this maze of marble streets, little churches, and hidden piazzas, you’re going to have to do some leg work. But losing yourself in Kotor’s enchanting streets is likely to be one best things you do all trip.
Perched between the sparkling bay and dramatic mountains, Kotor dates back to the Roman era and has since withstood Venetian, Ottoman, Napoleonic, British and Austro-Hungry rule. Today, it boasts one of the best-preserved medieval old towns in Europe and was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979.
One of the first things to strike you about Kotor is the sheer amount of street cats. And, it appears, there’s a story behind that. Or, at the very least, a rumour. Apparently, the old town was once overrun with mice. So, to deal with the problem, authorities brought in a few cats to clean up the streets. However, as well as eating up all the rodents, the kinky kitties simply began to breed, and now the city’s teeming with cats instead.
For a different perspective of the old town, or perhaps to get your bearings, be sure to climb up to Castle of San Giovanni for a bird’s eye view you’ll never forget. Simply hand over your three euros at the bottom and ascend the 1,350 steps to the top. While it may sound like a hefty trek, standing 1,200 metres above the old town and the bay offers one of the greatest panoramas I’ve ever enjoyed.
By the time you’ve come back down to earth, you’ll probably be hungry and definitely thirsty. Well, not to worry. Kotor is home to countless little eateries and drinking holes that are bound to hit the spot. For my best food and drink recommendations see here.
If you’re eager to see as much of bay as possible, I’d recommend taking the tourist boat to Perast and Our Lady of the Rocks Church. It sets off from just outside the old town and sails up the famed Bay of Kotor – or Boka Kotorska – to these two scenic spots.
Some people describe this winding bay as Europe’s most southerly fjord, but it’s actually a submerged river valley. However, the scenery is every bit as delightful as the famous Scandinavian fjords and the climate is arguably better. The best way of seeing this gorgeous geographical feature is by boat. However, driving along the coast is also pretty spectacular.
In the centre of the bay, and opposite the town of Perast, sit two small islets. The largest of the two is Our Lady of the Rocks, which is home to a Roman Catholic church of the same name. According to local legend, the artificial island was created after sailors found an icon of Madonna and Child in the sea back in the 1400s. Over hundreds of years, when mariners would return from a successful voyage, they would lay a rock or sink captured ships in the area.
Eventually, an islet began to grow from beneath the water. The tradition is still celebrated each year on July 22. On this day, local residents sail out to the island and throw rocks into the water. Since 1632, the island has been home to the Church of Our Lady of the Rocks. The quaint chapel is home to a number of 17th-century baroque paintings as well as an impressive collection of silvers and tapestries.
After taking in the delights of Our Lady of the Rocks, the tourist boat stops at the town of Perast. Perast overlooks the narrowest part of the bay and, despite its minuscule size, boasts 16 churches and 17 palazzos. The main square sits on the front of the bay and is home to St Nicholas’ Church.
Thanks to a flight cancellation, we were forced to extend our week’s holiday in Montenegro by another four days. And, somehow, I managed to fall in love with the place even more. Kotor has all the beauty of the Italian lakes and the history of Dubrovnik without the crowds of either. All in all, a pretty perfect paradise.