A Day in Kotor, Montenegro: An Archaeological Dig, Friendly Felines & Mammoth Strawberries

Overhead view of Kotor's terracotta rooftops, as seen from the Hill of St. John.

Tucked away among rustic mountains, on a majestic bay, is the small Montenegrin city of Kotor. It’s ringed by fortifications that took one thousand years to build and has an impressive Old Town and alluring fresh food market. (Think strawberries that rival softballs!)

Two stone lookouts are visible on Kotor's fortifications.
A lookout on Kotor’s fortifications.
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Herceg Novi’s bus station.

To get there, we caught a bus with a plush tangerine interior in the former Yugoslavian-era resort town of Herceg Novi, Montenegro. Folk music blared as our bus driver gesticulated and spoke passionately about the topic of the day with his female conductor and local passengers. Thankfully the ride was only about an hour, for within a short amount of time, smoke from the cigarette that was dangling out of his mouth had filled the cabin.

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Lady of the Rocks Church, built on a manmade island, as seen through our ‘sweaty bus’ window.

Ironically, with the legendary vistas that were literally just around the corner, we’d been destined to ride what we dubbed the ‘sweaty bus.’ The double-paned windows trapped the humidity, putting a hazy, Impressionist-like filter on everything outside the windows.

Leaving Montenegro’s Adriatic coastline, we swept inland, circling around the Bay of Kotor. The bay is often referred to as Europe’s southernmost fjord, though it technically is not a fjord since it was not carved out by a glacier, but by a river. I have not yet seen Norway’s fjords, but I have heard that the fjord-like description of the Bay of Kotor is well-deserved. As we hugged the coastline road, we caught glimpses of the towering mountains, village belltowers, and the famed Lady of the Rocks church, which sits on a manmade island near the town of Perast. Legend has it that sailors threw rocks in that spot of the bay every time they returned from a successful voyage, leading to the island’s formation. Villagers from Perast still continue this tradition  by tossing stones onto the island each July.

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Kotor's red and white flag blows in the breeze near the town's fortress (right) and people walk into Kotor's Old Town (right)
The flag of Kotor blows in the breeze.
Shawn pulls luggage into Kotor’s Old Town from the city bus station.

When we first arrived in Kotor, my gaze inevitably went upward – towards the craggy mountains which were just starting to sport an emerald green hue that signaled spring’s return. I also couldn’t stop looking at the ribbon of vertical fortifications encircling Kotor’s Old Town. They instantly reminded me of a diminutive version of the Great Wall of China. I ogled continuously as we rolled our luggage from the bus station, to the cobbled lanes of the stari grad or Old Town, arriving at our cozy studio apartment.

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An abandoned shipbuilding structure.
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A cheery red iron gate in front of the town’s fire station.
Neon blue water fills a moat outside Old Town Kotor.
Neon-blue water fills a moat outside Old Town Kotor’s walls.
A skull and crest adorn the exterior of a stone building in Kotor, Montenegro.
A skull adorns the exterior of a stone building in the Old Town.
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Young women, in silhouetted form, walk through the cobbled streets of the Old Town in Kotor, Montenegro.
Young women, in silhouetted form, walk through Kotor’s Old Town gate.
Cobbles everywhere!
Shawn stands next to Kotor’s Sea Gate.
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Entering the Square of the Arms.
Kotor’s Clock Tower,
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Mosaic detail on the Serbian Orthodox Church.
St. Tryphon's Cathedral in Kotor, Montenegro.
St. Tryphon’s Cathedral
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Detail on the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon.
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The city has the unique distinction of being part of UNESCO’s Natural and Cultural Historical Region of Kotor. Though there are about 1,000 UNESCO World Heritage Sites worldwide, less than 30 of them meet the criteria for both natural and cultural significance.

Kotor’s history is fascinating, but extremely complicated. There have been ties with or occupation by the Romans, Illyrians, Bulgarians, the Republic of Ragusa (present-day Dubrovnik), Serbians, the Republic of Venice, Ottomans, Habsburgs, Russians, British, Austro-Hungarians and Yugoslavia. Montenegro declared its independence in 2006.

Me and Shawn.
The Lion of St. Mark, a symbol of Venice.
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An anchor collection near the city’s Maritime Museum.
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Each morning we were in Kotor, I ran down to the fresh market where vendors’ receptacles overflowed with dried figs, oranges, olives, a wild asparagus relative called kljuke, chubby tomatoes, and mammoth-sized strawberries that filled the palm of my hand. I instantly took a liking to one soft-spoken vendor. He was gentle in his business approach, and sold the market’s star strawberries. Inspired by the fantastic dish that we had in Croatia, during the afternoon of our wild asparagus foraging mission, we ate hard-boiled eggs and kljuke for breakfast, rounded off by those beautiful strawberries. Pure heaven.

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So many different kinds of olives!
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A wild asparagus look-alike called kljuke.
Pineapples, apples, oranges, and pomegranates at Kotor's fresh market.

A vendor sells olives at Kotor's fresh market.
Olives and herbs.
Vendors sell fish inside Kotor's fresh market.
Vendors sell fish inside the market, underneath the Lion of St. Mark.
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Fresh honey, dried figs and jam.

The Kotor market is not all about fresh fruits and vegetables though, as Shawn and I discovered when we met a father and son cheese-making duo. The massive rounds of homemade cheese lured us in, and we were promptly offered generous samples of homemade cheese – versions studded with blueberries, olives or walnuts, as well as more customary varieties. Dravid’s family have been making cheese for more than a century, using Old World production methods favored by their ancestors. It turns out that their marketing methods are also traditional, as when we asked Dravid for a business card, he said that he does not have one since that would be “too commercial, too industrial,” and an approach that his grandfather would vehemently oppose. With a blend of unique cheeses swimming in our bellies, we headed off ‘home’ to make breakfast. Out of the corner of our eye, we spied the family’s other offerings – dried mangoes, cranberries, pears, nuts… For the sake of our waistlines, it’s probably better that we did not return.

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Cheese aging in a bucket of wheat.
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As we walked Kotor’s irregularly-cobbled streets, which are filled with intricately-carved archways and Romeo and Juliet-esque balconies from the Venetian period, we met an endless stream of stray cats. Some congregated by the city’s designated garbage spots, whereas the more savvy felines hung out directly underneath our second-story apartment’s window.

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Looking out onto the stone stairwell outside our apartment windows, we became captivated by a stunning black cat, which we eventually nicknamed ‘Cat-tor.’ Whenever we opened our windows to peek out upon the old stairs and lamppost below, Cattor was there, staring at us with his enchanting yellow-green eyes. We quickly discovered why Cattor had such an intense gaze when two sets of neighbors across the street tossed him generous slices of bologna and salami. We followed suit, treating our honorary feline to a bit of turkey breast. Having seen his other benefactors in action, we were pleased that he’d be in good hands when we bid farewell to the city.

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Our interactions with the people of the city were equally special. Each day, we’d hear the next-door laborers/archaeologists busily emptying soil from the shell of an old church named Franja Novog. One day, the crew stopped and invited us to take a peek inside what they said was a 1,000-year-old site. The stories about their finds inside made the site and Kotor’s history come alive. It turns out that they’d found 400 skeletons inside.

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They concluded that the remains likely belonged to victims of the plague, which struck Kotor in 1572. Deep underground, they’d also found religious ruins that predated the current ancient structure. We surmised that the church probably fell victim to Kotor’s major earthquakes in 1563 and 1667. There was also a destructive earthquake in 1979. The crew’s make-up also illustrated the complexities of the region and the former Yugoslavia. They mentioned that they were from Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. One crew member even introduced himself as being from “Yugoslavia.”

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Colorful cobbles.
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Shopska Salad: tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, soft cheese, parsley, and olive oil. Below:
Peppers stuffed—and slathered—with a creamy cheese.

We spent five marvelous days in Kotor. When it came time to say goodbye, I felt a bit sentimental bidding farewell to ‘Cattor’ as well as the kind market vendors who nodded, waved, and wished us well on our journey.

A stone church sits on the rocky hillside overlooking Kotor, Montenegro. it is surrounded by an uphill path, and green foliage.

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Kotor is roughly 90 km (about 55 miles) from Dubrovnik, making it a popular day-trip destination, however, we enjoyed staying about a dozen days there. Ultimately starting in Dubrovnik, we traveled to Herceg Novi, then Kotor, by bus. The journey from Herceg Novi to Kotor took about one hour.
  • Highlights of our time in Kotor included a day trip to pretty Perast, and a hike to the Kotor Fortress. This mini trek offered incredible views of Kotor’s Old Town, Bay of Kotor, and surrounding mountains. We started our ascent around 15:30 on an April afternoon, and our excursion lasted roughly 4 hours. We read that you can do the hike more quickly, but we like to explore at a slower pace. Next time, I think we’d start a bit earlier, so that we could maximize the springtime sunshine.
  • We stayed at the Apartments Đukić (affiliate link), which are centrally located in Kotor’s Old Town (or Stari Grad). We initially stayed in the Apartments Đukić’s smaller studio apartment, then moved to be a bit larger one a few days later. In total, we stayed about 10 days in their properties. The two apartments featured all the basics that we needed, and had characteristic grey-stone walls. The employee, Stefan, was friendly and eager to help us with any questions we had about Kotor. He even allowed us to do our laundry in the apartment’s central laundry area.
  • We mostly self-catered in our little apartment, but one afternoon we ate at the Bastion Restaurant, which has locations just inside and outside Kotor’s medieval walls. The traditional Montenegrin food was fantastic! Our two dishes are pictured above.
  • See Kotor’s website for more information.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

45 thoughts on “A Day in Kotor, Montenegro: An Archaeological Dig, Friendly Felines & Mammoth Strawberries

      1. That hike was also one of our highlights, Andy. We particularly enjoyed walking down the mountain via the switchbacks, which the locals use. The little church behind the fortress (and stone ‘ghost town’) are equally intriguing.

  1. Well Tricia, I am totally enchanted with Kotor thanks to your wonderful description and stunning photos! So sorry we missed it on our recent journey through the area, but now we have the perfect reason to return and explore further. I was particularly interested in the crew’s makeup. Did you feel that the man who said he was from “Yugoslavia” was alluding to allegiances or looking for an easier explanation? ~Terri
    BTW, Where are you two heading next?

    1. That’s a great question, Terri. My impression is that the man was proud of the region’s past political make-up. We’ve met a few others who’ve referenced Yugoslavia as their location, and some that we’ve met throughout the region mentioned that many citizens (in Croatia, Montenegro, etc.) preferred life when the countries were united as Yugoslavia. It’d be interesting to see if any polls have looked at this question.

      Isn’t it fun that you’ve more places to add to your must-see list? :)

      We’re now in Albania. More on that soon too! Very ‘authentic’ here.

    1. Agreed, Jo! It’s refreshing that some of the spots in the Balkans are largely undiscovered too. Kotor is on the cruise ship circuit, but we were lucky to have the city mostly to ourselves. I think things will be in full swing in a few weeks, though.

    1. Virginia, those two critters were initially very civil to each other, until the little pup got a bit unruly with the cat. It was sad seeing many strays on the streets of Kotor, but they seem to be pretty well-cared-for by the locals: lots of petting, and tossing of treats.

  2. I really enjoyed this. I was there many years ago as a magazine photographer (when it was still Yugoslavia) and I see from your photos that some things have changed but many remain the same as they were years ago. It’s an intriguing part of the world.

    1. Jim, I agree with your assessment that it’s an intriguing corner of the world! For you, it must’ve been fascinating to have been here when it was Yugoslavia. Do you remember which specific spots you visited? So far, we’ve been lucky enough to visit a few cities in Croatia, as well as Montenegro, Albania, and now Macedonia.

    1. Jenna, we’ve been constantly surprised by all the little gems that we find here. Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of many of these spots. And, since you’re such an Italy aficionado, you can easily hop on the ferry over to the heel of Italy. :)

  3. What a most beautiful post, Tricia, the colors are so vibrant and intriguing, and so many details about this place, I fell like I went on a trip while reading your words of history and adventures with the locals on food , and cats!!!. Your truly capture your impressions on your trips so well, that I feel I can smell all the aromas.

  4. Montenegro is on my list! I too want to return to the Balkans and learn more about this region. Fabulous photos, Tricia! Thanks for guiding us on a tour through Kotor. Oh, I hear Albania is “interesting”…will look for your post about your travels there. ;)

    1. Ruth, this whole region is fantastic! Now, we’re in Ohrid, Macedonia, a place I hadn’t admittedly heard of until recently, and it also has much history and natural beauty.

      We enjoyed Albania very much. I’m looking forward to sharing some stories about the tremendously-friendly locals that we met there. The country also has its quirks, as you alluded to – namely hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers scattered throughout the countryside. Our host built them for 20 years, and so of course, we had to interview him. I’ll share that soon.

  5. What a beautiful city, what a beautiful country. This is not about “travel”, it is about LIFE writ large. Thank you!

    1. What a generous compliment, Vera. Many thanks.

      I wish you could’ve been with us as we explored Albania last week. There were many people speaking Italian. I just know a few words, but when we stumbled into a little cafe, where only gentlemen were hanging out, playing the accordion, it would’ve helped us communicate. Miming and a few words went far though. :)

  6. Absolutely stunning. You transported me there right with you. I must see this place. you write with such passion about the people, events and locales that no wonder you miss it as soon as you leave and I’m sure your friendly faces are enjoyed by all who meet you and Shawn. Beautiful Kotor! Well deserving of its recognition for cultural and natural beauty. Thanks for taking me along.

    1. Lynne, perhaps a trip to the Balkans is in order for you two after your Cuban adventures? :)

      It’s funny how things work out. In 2007, I visited Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. En route from points a to b to c, I remember passing Kotor, seeing its splendid fortifications, and wanting desperately to stop there. There was not enough time, given an upcoming flight out of Dubrovnik though. Fast forward almost six years, and imagine my delight at getting to spend just under a week there. When you make it there, I hope it’s everything you expected it to be too.

  7. Wow! I certainly need to visit Kotor. Places that have been occupied by so many different people and cultures always have fascinating details. And the cheese! I’m just hungry hearing about it through your descriptions.

    1. Suzy, I’m still salivating just thinking about that cheese. Though we were a bit disappointed that the duo didn’t have a business card, or at least a booth # (so that we could refer other travelers there), their word-of-mouth advertising philosophy seems to work well for them. :) When you get to Kotor, just look for the largest spread of cheese, and you’ll know you’ve found the right pair.

    1. Hi Debbie, we’re still dreaming about those strawberries from here in Ohrid, Macedonia. Our current town has a lovely fresh fruit/veggie market, but the strawberries in Kotor were legendary.

      I see you specialize in European travel, so I’m off to explore your site. The Balkans would be a wonderful, more off-the-beaten-path destination to add to your list. :)

    1. Thanks, Ash. It’s a fascinating region indeed. Since we’ve been traveling by land the past 3 months, we’ve loved watching the landscape and cultures change as we shift geography – from Croatia, to Montenegro, Albania and now Macedonia. Still hoping to make it to Meteora as well. :)

    1. Hi Eden, funny, some of my fondest Kotor memories were created at that market during our morning visits. Dravid’s cheese varieties were especially impressive – no wonder the family’s been in the cheese-making business for so long!

      I hope you’ll get the chance to visit Kotor someday soon. The region, as a whole, has a delicious range of homemade treats.

    1. Hi Vonnie, thanks for dropping by! We were there in April, when it was a bit chilly, so I don’t remember seeing swimmers. Also, I’m not sure if the water in Kotor Bay is fresh enough to go swimming. Along the Adriatic Coast, which is not far away from Kotor, there are many swimming opportunities though. Are you headed to Montenegro or elsewhere in the Balkans soon? If you get to Kotor, consider a hike to the fortress; this was one of our highlights in the region: https://triciaannemitchell.com/2015/06/28/kotor-montenegro-fortress/

  8. Your article has brought back many memories of the summer 1979. I spent 3 months in Kotor. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the Old Town due to it’s destruction during the earthquake in April of that same year. Must return there some day.

    1. Sally, three months in Kotor? That must have been a fascinating time to have been there, given that the city was part of the former Yugoslavia then. What brought you to Kotor?

      I do hope you’ll get to return someday soon, now that the Old Town core has bounced back from such destruction. I do recall seeing the remnants of a structure in the nearby city of Herceg Novi. It was destroyed during the earthquake that you mentioned, and is now partially consumed by the waters of the Bay of Kotor.

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