Conquering Montenegro’s Kotor Fortress
When night falls over the rugged mountains cradling Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor, it becomes very clear why the country’s native name, Crna Gora, means ‘black mountain’.
As the sun is snuffed out each night, the mountains make like a chameleon, going from steel grey to a black silhouette. Eventually, the water of the mighty bay transforms into a shiny onyx. In the historic city of Kotor, the buttery-yellow lights of the buildings in the town’s center are enhanced by the city’s centuries-old, illuminated ramparts, which encircle the city like a ring of fire. Seeing this nocturnal spectacle for the first time, I thought that the UNESCO World Heritage-listed area must be most striking by night, but after hiking to Kotor’s fortress by day, I concluded that both were incredible times to observe this historical site.
Kotor’s fortifications are situated on steep slopes, but when viewed from below, they almost look more delicate than formidable – like a 4.5 km (3 mile) ribbon woven through the mountainside. Their crowning element is the Fortress of St. John (also known as the Castle of San Giovanni / St. Ivan), which sits roughly 250 meters (820 feet) above sea level. To get to the top, you must conquer about 1,350 stairs.
History of Kotor & its Fortifications
Built between the 9th and 19th centuries, the fortification’s walls didn’t actually create a continuous ring around Kotor’s Old Town until the 13th or 14th century. As military technology changed, so did the architecture. After firearms were invented, for example, new walls were constructed in front of the old ramparts.
While the Venetians were responsible for the bulk of the fortification’s components, the Illyrians, Byzantines, and Austrians also left their marks. In the last 500 years, powerful earthquakes have rocked the area three times, damaging the Old Town and the fortifications. The most recent earthquake occurred in 1979.
In 2006, Montenegro became an independent nation, following a referendum that asked voters to decide whether or not to continue a state union with Serbia. Prior to that, Montenegro had been one of six republics making up the country of Yugoslavia.
Human Daredevils, Mountain Goats, & Magnificent Views
We began our climb in the early-afternoon hours of a blue-sky day peppered with a few wispy clouds. The path started us off past locals tending to the flowers in their terraced gardens, and soon we were looking down upon Kotor’s terracotta rooftops. Continuing on, we reached the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, which was built in 1518. Its wrought-iron door was locked, but we peeked inside, glimpsing its whitewashed walls and modest religious decorations.
A quintet of Montenegrin teenagers passed us as we again hit the pathway. As if emulating the training scenes in a Rocky movie, the young shirtless men jogged up the inclined paths, sometimes running on top of the narrow wall as if it was a balancing beam. Up at the fortress ruins we’d eventually catch up to them, though by now the young men were performing daredevil stunts – leaping from stone wall to wall. We exchanged greetings and Facebook information, and they posed for a group shot, signaling an enthusiastic thumbs up.
By the time we reached the fortress, the light on our side of the mountain was glorious, bathing everything in a golden glow. Knowing that the sun would soon be setting behind the opposite mountain, we reluctantly started making our way down.
Eager to explore a picturesque scene we’d glimpsed on the way up, we diverted from the path we’d taken to climb to the fortress. Now heading towards a sign marked ‘Chapel of Saint Ivan’, we found a rusty gate swinging from the wall. Opening it, we saw a picturesque vista vastly different from the blues of the twinkling bay, and the fire-orange rooftops of Old Town Kotor that we encountered on the way up. On this eastern side of the mountain was a narrow crushed stone path snaking towards a petite stone chapel, along with a still-inhabited home and its outbuildings. Walking along the path, we spotted the ruins of the village of Špiljari, which was previously on a horse and pedestrian route that linked inland Montenegro with its coastline.
This back side of the mountain had already fallen into shadows so we knew we’d have to walk at a quicker pace. Still, I longed to walk among the ruined buildings and to sit on the wall while watching the mountain goats off in the distance.
And so we reluctantly continued our descent, encountering switchback after switchback, pondering how many people had come before us, what they had carried, and what had brought them to this path.
We had come seeking gorgeous views, and we found them – after conquering Montenegro’s Kotor Fortress.
Kotor’s fortifications snake up St. John’s Hill.
Look-out towers. The fortification’s walls range from 2-16 meters wide (6.5-52 feet). Some walls are 20 meters tall (65 feet).
In the photo on the right, you can make out the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, which you’ll pass on the way up to the fortress. It’s being dwarfed by this section of the region’s Dinaric Alps.
There are several paths that lead to the fortress. This sign, in Kotor’s Old Town, points out where you can buy tickets.
When we made the climb to the fortress, tickets cost 3 Euros. I loved that an old engraving of the fortress was emblazoned on the tickets.
Just a few steps removed from the Old Town, and we already had gorgeous views of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor, and the towers of the town’s Cathedral of Saint Tryphon.
In all, about 1,350 stairs to the top!
A prayer shrine and the magnificent bay.
Peeking through an opening in the ramparts (left) you can see the dome of the St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church.
About halfway up the hill is the Church of Our Lady of Remedy. It dates back to the 16th century.
Details of the church.
Some might be surprised to hear that it took us several hours to complete this climb, round-trip, but with views like this, we made regular stops!
A speedboat cuts through the water (left).
Kotor’s triangle-shaped core.
At the top, the ramparts are bathed in full sunshine.
Loose stones and some dilapidated floors and ceilings mean that one must proceed through the fortress with caution
These teenagers passed us on the way up. They were training by running up the steps and balancing on the walls. We’d meet again at the top, where Shawn and I were simultaneously awed and worried by their daredevil maneuvers!
Montenegro’s bold flag dances in the wind.
Though our side of the mountain was drenched in full sunlight, we knew we’d soon need to make our way down to avoid doing so in the dark. We decided to take a different path than the one we’d climbed on the way up.
Not far from the fortress, we saw a sign pointing us to the Chapel of Saint Ivan. To get there we had to open up this swinging metal door (right) and then pass through the wall. On the other side (right) a completely different world presented itself: serene and largely in shadow.
The other side of the mountain, as we look through the gate in the wall. Here you can see a still-inhabited stone cottage, and the switchbacks making up the pedestrian path leading to Montenegro’s hinterland, and to the ruins of the adjacent village of Špiljari.
Racing against the slumbering sun, we made our way down the pedestrian path to Kotor’s Old Town.
Mountain goats, dwarfed by the massive rocks around them, negotiate the rugged terrain.
The silhouette of the ramparts, by night.
Our Video of This Experience:
Where in the World?
- Kotor is 90 km (about 55 miles) from Dubrovnik, Croatia. We ultimately journeyed there by bus from Dubrovnik, making stops in Herceg Novi and pretty Perast. See the Kotor municipality website, or Montenegro National Tourist Organization for more details.
- If you want to climb to the fortress, known locally as the Tvrđave Kotora or Tvrđava Sveti Ivan, wear solid walking shoes because the path is rocky and can be disheveled at times.
- Bring adequate water, and perhaps a light snack. We enjoyed stopping and refueling with a mini picnic. We’d read that the climb can take anywhere from 2-3 hours, but in reality it took us much longer since we like soak up our surroundings slowly and stop to take pictures.
- During our visit, tickets cost 3 Euros per person. We accessed the paid path via Kotor’s Old Town. Locals will also be quick to tell you that you can access the fortifications for free – via the shepherd’s path on the north side of the fortress. Since we wanted to take in the views on the west side of the mountain too, we purchased tickets and went up that way instead. On the return trip, we descended to the Old Town via the shepherd’s path. We’re happy we took different paths, since this allowed us to see both sides of the mountain.
- 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.
- Looking for more fortresses and outdoor spots to see in the region? If you’ll be spending time in Croatia, here are posts about walking Dubrovnik’s walls, exploring the Klis Fortress near the city of Split, and taking in the beautiful views of the Adriatic from Mosor and Marjan.
- This index contains all my tales from Montenegro.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.