A Day in Montenegro Part 1: Kotor and San Giovanni Trail

Friday, October 13, 2017

A small country in Southeastern Europe, Montenegro is an Adriatic gem that travelers both within and outside Europe begin to explore. Majestic mountains, medieval towns, Mediterranean views, untouched coastline, rich history, multiple cultural influences, and UNESCO approved sites – there’s nothing short of amazing in this country also known as the “Black Mountain”.

old town, kotor skyline

Contrary to its monicker, this Balkan country is a colorful and picturesque country despite coming here on a gloomy, post-fall weather. Believe it or not Montenegro is a top destination of party-goers and beach lovers during peak season in summer, but still remains charming for people who seek to be in tune with nature. For many Montenegro is still a virtually unknown territory, but it is a rare jewel tucked between the sea and the rocks.

Coming from Dubrovnik, we traveled two and a half hours by car to Montenegro. We only had a day to spare so we booked a day trip itinerary to Kotor and Budva. On the way, we already see the changing views from Croatia’s coast to the rugged mountains kept unspoiled. The drive didn’t feel that long when you got a conversant tour guide and a beyond impressive mountainous panorama.

Bay of Kotor, St. George Monastery, Our Lady of the Rocks
Foggy bay of Kotor. On a clear day, the islands St. George Monastery and Our Lady of the Rocks can be seen from this vantage point.
After crossing immigration borders, our first stop was on a viewing deck overlooking the Bay of Kotor. This is what drew me to book a trip to Montenegro, but I was disappointed because it was cold and cloudy early in the morning. Fog covered the bay and there wasn’t enough sunlight to capture the scene.

The next stop was the UNESCO World Heritage Site and Medieval town of Kotor. Kotor has substantial Roman, Venetian, and Ottoman influences. Because it is a coastal town, many tourists have been coming here recently via cruise ship. We arrived early in the day – on the wettest month of the year – and so the town feels eerily quiet with very few tourists and only a number of locals passing by the narrow alleys.

Kotor Clock Tower and Karampana Fountain

Hotel Marija and church door in Kotor

an alley and cute chubby cat in Kotor

We were first led to the main square where the seat of governance was located, as well as the clock tower which was a monument known for beating defiant citizens centuries ago (sounds horrific, but it’s true). A few steps from the clock tower is the famous Beskuca Palace, which was home to the powerful Beskuca family towars the end of the 13th century. The only decorative piece in the palace was the Gothic portal above the doors. Another interesting site was the Karampana Fountain, which was the only source of fresh water in Kotor a long time ago. In addition, the said fountain was also the folks’ source of news, information, and gossip.

Beskuca Palace, Kotor
Gothic portal of Beskuca Palace
Aside from the main square, the clock tower, and the fountain, another interesting well-preserved and restored site is the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, a Roman Catholic church built in 1166. Orthodox churches were also prevalent in the town.

Cathedral of Saint Tryphon

Now the most unexpected, yet most thrilling trip to Montenegro was climbing the city walls and hiking the trail up to St. John Castle (Castel San Giovanni). From below the old town of Kotor, the hike was intimidating because we were not prepared for such kind of physical activity at all. Our tour guide said the entire climb up to the castle takes an hour, but we can make our first stop at the Church of Our Lady of Remedy (also known as Our Lady of Health) which “only takes 15 minutes,” he said.

BUT NO. It took us 30 minutes, barely breathing to reach Our Lady of Health (Lol)! However, you should not be discouraged if you plan to go here, for an incredible view awaits those who are determined to climb the city walls. For nature lovers and (budding) photographers, this hike shouldn’t be missed.

A little back story about the city walls – this is called St. John’s fortress (also known as the fortifications of Kotor; the mountain is named St. John). Building the fortress started in 9th century up to the 19th century to protect the town of Kotor from invaders. From Byzantine era to the Venetian rule, the city walls were equipped with bastions as defensive spots during war. The entire wall is 4.5 km long, 2 to 16 meters thick, and 20 meters high.

Today hiking up the wall is open to the public, but you have to pay €3 (peak season is from March to September). Lucky for us, we visited during off-peak so we entered the trail for free and there were very few people who hiked up the mountain. To be honest, going up the trail isn’t a walk in the park (literally). A few steps uphill made me exhausted, but the view starting from the red roofs encouraged me to keep going. The steps were made of rough and uneven cobblestones, sometimes shifting beneath our feet, so we had to be very careful on the way up.

More than a path for walking, the steps made along the trail were intended to lug military supplies up to the castle. I think our tour guide was correct when he said we could reach the church in 15 minutes. It just took us double the time as we were admiring the view, taking photos, and at the same time catching our breath.

We started the hike wearing thick, down jackets on and found less clothing as soon as we reach the church. Seriously, aside from comfortable and safe footwear, you’ll need a liter of water to survive. I can’t imagine climbing up here during summer.

Upon reaching Our Lady of Remedy, we were embraced by a stunning view of the old town and the bay of Kotor. The church can only be reached by foot, so it’s also a popular site for pilgrimage. Outside the church are tables and chairs where people rest, but I found myself sprawled on the steps of the church.

Finding that we only had 30 minutes left before meeting our tour guide once again, we sadly turned around and descended the path. If we had enough time (and drinking water), we’d definitely push through until we reach Castle of St. John. The scenery would’ve been more astounding!

The Divinas in Kotor, Montenegro
Walking down the city walls
Skurda River outside the city walls of Kotor
Skurda River and Kampana Tower
Skurda River and Kampana Tower

On the way out, we took some photos and rested for a while at the benches near the clean and refreshing Skurda River. This river surrounds the walls of the old town towards the Kampana Tower.

After Kotor, our tour guide drove us to the view of Sveti Stefan and Budva, the playground of the rich and famous. I’ll write about them very soon!

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