Once upon a time, there was a young maiden who had very itchy feet (she suspects it’s a gift from a wise and adventurous fairy-godmother). She had trouble staying still, often daydreamed about far away places, and ogled longingly at maps. One day, she asked her prince, “Can we go away, to a place we’ve never been before?” The young man knew it was futile to discourage her. Luckily, he had easy access to an enchanting and very useful tool people called “Google Maps”.
“Hmm,” he pondered, “since we’re near anyway, do you want to go to — Montenegro? There’s a small city here called, hmm, Kotor. Maybe it’ll be nice. What do you think?” The young maiden had no idea what they would find there, but she could hardly keep her heart from bursting with excitement.
Spoiler alert: that young maiden was ME. With a little nudge, I was able to beg my way into squeezing in a short side trip to a small city called Kotor, which was to be my introduction to the Balkans. We didn’t have enough time to snag a rental car before we arrived in Dubrovnik Airport, so we were at the mercy of how favorable offers would be once we were on the ground.
Budget alert: renting any car in Dubrovik is set to be very pricey! For a hundred euros, we were offered a tired-looking station wagon. We retreated back into the airport, hopped on the wifi, and found a better deal online. It still wasn’t very cheap, but at least we did get a brand-new SUV to drive, and our fears of breaking down in the middle of the countryside were allayed.
As we knew very little of our destination, the drive alone was enough to blow our minds. If you love long, scenic routes, then the coastal drive alongside the Bay of Kotor will be after your heart. Glistening turquoise water and bobbing boats peeped out at every turn. It reminded me of the grand fjords you may expect from New Zealand or Norway — only in eternal Mediterranean warmth. Holiday-makers decked the side of the road every now and then, with the little ones cannonballing into the water blithely. It has the makings of the perfect road trip: driving around with fresh wind brushing against your face, pulling over for a quick dip on the idyllic beach, repeat.
We finally made it to Stari Grad, or to the Old Town of Kotor, its presence made known by an imposing fortified wall, made even more dramatic by the looming black mountains of Montenegro. In we went into the fortress, and were immediately bewitched by one of the best preserved old towns I’ve ever seen.
One could easily organize a self-guided walking tour around the old town, as there are plenty of sights to catch your eye. Striking churches, both Byzantine and Baroque, vie for the chance to regale architecture and history fans with its icons. A maritime museum also stands to showcase Montenegro’s seafaring history, as well as the accounts of the fierce battles in the Bay of Kotor during both World Wars. When your legs are tired, you can simply pick one of the many cafes and restaurants that mostly offer fresh seafood and wine, which line the maze of the old town’s streets. Take note that the Stari Grad is a popular stop for cruise ships, though, so it may be best to frolic around town either very early in the morning, or late in the evening, to have the sights almost all to yourself.
If you’re looking for something a bit more athletic, the hike up to the ruins of the Castle of San Giovanni, set atop a mountain right behind the Old Town, will reward those who fare with the thousand-odd steps up with a stunning grand vista of the bay. If you start your jaunt before 8 am, before the ticket master sets up his stall at the bottom of the steps, then you’re free to climb without the usual small entry fee. Halfway up, you can take a well-earned rest at the steps of the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, found to house the oldest known building in Kotor. Right across the church is a balcony overlooking the bay, where you can admire the rugged beauty of nature while catching your breath.
The hike up is not exactly easy, but not too vigorous either. I would recommend giving it at least three hours for the roundtrip, so that you have enough time to enjoy the sights, take in the fresh air and maybe even have a small picnic at the top (like we did). The path is pretty straightforward, except for somewhere near the top, where the road forks towards the smaller sentry posts of the castle. The wrong turns ate up a bit of our time, but they also made for interesting detours, as they led us to small gardens and new viewing points that we would have otherwise missed. That, I feel, goes in line with the whole theme for our short side trip to Kotor: with a small turn here, maybe a small detour there, one finds that the world is full of endless wonders for those who always ask, “What’s over there?”
- Double room at Palazzo Druzko – 89 Euros/night
- Rental car from Dubrovnik Airport – 80 Euros/day
- Entry to the Maritime Museum – 4 Euros, including the audio guide