It was the best morning workout ever!
Climbing to the top of the fortified walls above the medieval town of Kotor is likely to be the highlight of your trip to Montenegro. I’ll be honest: it’s not easy. A little planning and common sense will make a big difference, whether you are here on a cruise for one day or staying for a while.
Beating the crowds is not the only reason to get an early start. The rising sun starts out behind the mountain, and you’ll be in the shade until about 9:30 am. Once the sun gets above the peak and starts beating down, you’ll be shedding layers of clothing, slapping on the sunscreen and reaching for the water bottle with summer temps in the high 90s fahrenheit.
Entering the town through the main Sea Gate, don’t miss the inscription with the Communist star and a quote from President Tito of Yugoslavia, marking Kotor’s liberation from the Nazis.
You might have to ask directions in the old town to reach the trail entry point, as it’s easy to miss the small signs pointing the way. Officially the trail is open 24 hours a day, and there’s an admission charge whenever someone is manning the entry point, usually from 8 am to 8 pm. We arrived before 7 am on a mid-summer morning and found a ticket taker. The price is 3 Euros per person, up from the 2 Euros listed in our Lonely Planet guidebook.
Mind the Steps
Once on the trail, follow the markings (pictured on the tree, above) to find the easiest path. The trail has been damaged by earthquakes, and there’s a lot of slippery gravel underfoot. Conserve energy on the way up — and reduce your chances of a nasty fall on the way down — by sticking to the side of the trail with steps. This can get tricky when the trail becomes crowded with people who don’t feel like stepping aside.
There’s only enough room for one person on the steps in some sections. At one point, the entire flow on the trail in both directions came to a screeching halt when a little boy about 4 years old decided to just stand there and cry. And I won’t even talk about the guys instagramming their cute girlfriends — while you wait.
Not much remains of the fort buildings, except a few atmospheric doorways. But it’s easy to see why these fortified walls were intimidating to anyone but an army of mountain goats.
Our Lady of Health
This charming, tiny church is about at the halfway point of the climb. Say a prayer of thanks to Our Lady of Health if you made it this far and enjoy the view. Many of the older and less fit folks we met on the trail, or families with small kids, decided this was far enough.
Worth the Effort
Those who make it up the equivalent of 78 floors to the top will be rewarded with magnificent views. We were fortunate to make the climb on a clear day with a bit of a breeze. On still days the air can get quite smoky, either because of burning trash or forest fires. This will put a haze over the view, as we experienced on our visit to Mt. Lovćen.
Old Town Kotor: Cats, Dogs and Tourists
Cafes and restaurants on the narrow, shady streets and open squares offer a respite from your hike. Old Town Kotor has geared up to welcome large groups of cruise ship passengers, and we found prices here to be generally higher than in the nearby towns, with shortcuts on the service.
We didn’t go inside the cat museum because the Cats of Kotor are a thing, visible everywhere in town and guarding the trail on the hill above. Step carefully around the Dogs of Kotor napping on the cobbled streets, oblivious to the tour groups.
An August Mardi Gras is staged in the Old Town for the benefit of tourists. Maybe there’s something weird about folks wearing costumes designed for a pre-Lent festival in February during the heat of summer. Or maybe it was the samba bands lip-synching to the recorded music, but this didn’t feel very authentic to me. Where was everybody? Outside the walls in the neighboring air-conditioned shopping center, which had its own, much livelier summer Mardi Gras.
Authentic Balkan Bites
For an authentic Balkan meal, walk outside the Sea Gate and turn left toward the fishing village of Muo until you reach a traffic circle. That’s where you’ll find the family-run Tanjga Grill. Don’t despair if there’s a line and no place to sit inside. There’s a pleasant patio in the back, where you’re on the honor system to serve yourself from the beverage cooler. Place your order, claim a table, and a groaning plate of food will soon be on its way.
Meat lovers will enjoy the cevapcici — chopped meat, grilled in the shape of sausages or meatballs. Non meat-eaters can have their veggies in a sandwich or on a plate. The bargain prices are a welcome contrast to what you’ll find in the touristy old town. The friendly waitress totaled up our bill and commented, “You drank more than you ate!”
A little farther on the opposite side of the road, the more upscale Ladovina Restaurant beckons you inside with cooling mist fans. They provide magazines (in local language) for you to browse, and you’ll feel like hanging around for a while. The waiter recommended an excellent white pro anima wine to go with my fresh sea bass. On our second visit to this place we were limited to pizza — which was excellent — because we happened to arrive when the grill chef was taking a break. Reservations recommended for late dinners.
And if you’re up for another adventure, the spooky Hotel Fjord is right across the street.
Terry’s Travel Tips:
Be prepared: Footwear makes a difference. Don’t be like the cruise ship passengers who tried to do it in flip-flops — guaranteed fail! Athletic shoes with treads, or these cool hiking shoes from the makers of Salomon ski boots, will help you navigate the slippery gravel.
Travel light: On hikes like this, I prefer not to lug heavy camera gear. My compact Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot camera captured the wide-angle views as well as the low-light interior of Our Lady of Health. It freed up space in my backpack for useful stuff like water bottles and sunscreen.
Getting there: I flew into and out of the capital of Montenegro, Podgorica. Turkish Airlines offers connections through Istanbul from the United States. Check out my post on how to get a free hotel room along the way. The smaller resort airport at Tivat is also an option if you are flying from elsewhere in Europe. Some visitors land at Dubrovnik across the border in Croatia.
If arriving in Kotor by car, there are several pay-parking lots just outside the Kotor city walls. Cruise ships anchoring in the Bay of Kotor provide shuttle service.
Staying Near Kotor: We booked our accommodations through a British agency, Explore Montenegro. They also arranged for a no-hassle rental car through Enterprise with an automatic transmission and the necessary stickers to take the car across the borders to Dubrovnik in Croatia and Trebinje in Bosnia for an extra fee. We enjoyed the awesome views from the balcony of our air conditioned two-bedroom apartment at Kotor Vista. The pool was a much needed cooling-off spot, after a day of sightseeing. Most accommodations in the area don’t have pools, with happy European vacationers staking out a spot on the edge of the Bay of Kotor and diving right in. Despite the UNESCO protection of the bay, you’ll have to make your own judgement about the cleanliness of the water in this busy cruise ship port. Many locals think the water is cleaner at Herceg Novi and Perast, which you can easily visit on a day trip. Click here for more hotel options.