Kotor is considered as one of Europe’s perfect getaway destinations, largely due to its breathtaking mountains, its tranquil, winding rivers, and its impossibly beautiful coastlines. It’s the photographer’s paradise, since every turn is a picture-worthy vista. It’s also a place popular to cruise ships including ours craving to experience our slice of paradise.
But what’s truly European about such a landscape? Surely mountains and coastlines, just as beautiful or even more so, can be found in other parts of the world. Well, when one thinks of Europe, one certainly visualizes its rich history embedded within the remains of medieval walls and structures. In this front, Montenegro does not disappoint.
Nestled along a coastline, much like Dubrovnik, is a living remnant of times past. Just as perfectly preserved as Croatia’s capital was Kotor — Montenegro’s Old Town and a thriving part of the country’s history.
The reddish roof of the buildings was unmistakeable as we made our way into the port. Like we did before, we docked right into the Old Town and disembarked. Here I began a DIY tour that led me to appreciate this little-known city in Southeast Europe.
The Main Square
Passing through the town’s Main Gates, I arrived at the main square — the Piazza of the Arms, which was (and still is) the main site of gatherings in the town. As Kotor strives to cater to tourists, the area is laden with cafes, restaurants, and shops. Aside from this, it’s also surrounded on all sides by palaces! These date back to the 18th and 17th centuries.
On one side is the old theater and town hall, which is now the Hotel Cattaro. There’s also a Clock Tower that dates back to the early 1600s, and Rector’s Palace. This abundance of living artifacts justifies Kotor’s place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the more interesting structures around here is a pyramidal structure standing at the base of the Clock Tower. Called the Pyramid of Shame, it was used for torture and punishment in the Middle Ages. You can’t feel the horror as you step in today, what with the touristy atmosphere, but at one time this was the most repulsed part of the town!
The Walls of Kotor
Like any other European Old Town, one of the most distinct characteristics of Kotor is its impressive network of fortifications. Rows of walls, many still intact, are punctuated by towers, gates, and citadels. There is also a castle and surrounding buildings. Some of these, like Castle St. John, had been in existence since the 6th century. Some others are the fruits of painstaking preservation and restoration efforts, especially since a good part of the fortifications were damaged by a huge earthquake in 1969.
When you set foot in Kotor, it’s impossible not to notice the rustic beauty of these structures. Following the upward slope of the landscape, the walls are silhouetted against the sky. And if you’re not content to be at the bottom looking up, you can make your way up the ramparts for a stunning view of the town. It’s one of those times when man’s creations only serve to enhance the beauty of the nature around it!
Palaces and Churches
The town’s palaces are not just those located around the main square — they pepper the city, giving an insight to the relative affluence of Montenegro since the Middle Ages.
There is, for example, the Prince’s Palace and the Baroque-style Maritime Museum which was once the Grgurina Palace. There is also the Buća Palace, belonging to the influential Buca family. The Gothic structure was originally built in the 14th century, but was reconstructed into a far more modest-looking structure in the 1600s after an earthquake damaged the original. The only remnant of the original structure is a window on the western side that can be only seen from the walls.
Across Buća is the Pima Palace, which completely eclipsed its neighbor in beauty. It was built from dust as the Buća was being renovated, and its Renaissance-Baroque structure is a must-see. It still bears the coat of arms of the Pima family for whom it was named.
And just like in Dubrovnik, if you really want to see elaborate architecture in this Old Town you should best head for the churches. I visited the little St. Luke’s Church, whose petite structure belies a rich religious history. Constructed by Catholics before the 1200s, it held two altars from the late 1600s to the beginning of the 1800s: one Catholic, and one Orthodox. Each faith took turns in using the church for its services! Sadly, this custom came to end.
Much more recent is the building of St. Nicholas Church, whose present incarnation was completed only in the 20th century. The original one fell after a fire consumed it years before. This is currently the largest church in Kotor, and contains a mini-museum of artifacts, books, documents, and ancient items.
One Last Look
Kotor is a fairly small town, and in no time I had covered a lot of the must-see places. Pretty soon, it was again time to board the ship. But the sightseeing was not yet over. As we sailed off Kotor, captain decided to give us a little treat before heading out to the open sea. The ship rounded two small islands adjacent to each other. These were the Our Lady of the Rock and St. George islands!
Located in the mesmerizing Bay of Kotor, the first island contains a museum and a church. What’s really remarkable about it is that it’s an artificial island, made by sinking ships and rocks. St. George, on the other hand, contains a monastery and served as the graveyard for the region’s old nobility. While we did not get to land in either of the islets, we did get a good 360-degree view of them!
Montenegro is a really invigorating place, and the type where you won’t get tired even if you spend the whole day walking around its sights. Maybe it’s the refreshing backdrop of nature, or the laidback setting of the medieval city. Maybe it’s the vibrant history surrounding the place, or the passionate culture of the locals. Whatever it is, Kotor is something that’s worth your visit any time of the year!