Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

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Europe Part 6: Montenegro & the Bay of Kotor

Panorama from the Ladder of Kotor. Top of the city walls are visible at left. Note wildfire smoke in background.

From Mljet we took the ferry back to Dubrovnik and the mainland. The return journey was slightly less comfortable, as the ferry was overbooked. The few seats available were next to people who appeared to be seasick, so we ended up sitting in the stairwell for the majority of the 90 minute journey. From here we were headed for Kotor, a few hours south of Dubrovnik across the border in Montenegro. The drive from Dubrovnik to Kotor was supposed to be incredibly scenic, so we had booked a tour that would allow us to sightsee en route. Unfortunately our tour guide cancelled on us just a few hours before departure, so on the morning we departed Mljet, we suddenly found ourselves sans transportation to our next destination. Fortunately it wasn’t a long drive, so we were able to find a relatively affordable “transfer service” (basically a taxi) on very short notice.

The scenery was just as beautiful as advertised. From Dubrovnik to Kotor, the highway follows the coast until the border between Croatia and Montenegro, then diverts inland to wind around the Bay of Kotor, a crazily-shaped inlet of the Adriatic Sea that cuts deep into the rugged mountains of Montenegro. We stopped in Herceg Novi (hometown of our wonderful driver, Dario) and Perast for about an hour each on the way. In Herceg Novi, we enjoyed a short walk around the old town, went up in the Ottoman-era fortress above town, and enjoyed a delicious lunch from a little bakery. In Perast, a smaller, more touristy town right on the bay, we saw some dolphins swimming in the bay (no photos sadly) and took a water taxi to “Our Lady of the Rocks” a small Catholic church on a tiny island a few hundred yards out into the bay.

Perast, Montenegro

The island and church are steeped in legend. Depending on the source, the story goes that, in 1452, some sailors were returning from a voyage, one of them with an injured leg. On their way home they discovered an icon of the Madonna and Child stuck in a coral reef or rock in the bay. They brought it to shore and the injured sailor was miraculously healed. As thanks, they vowed to build a church on the spot where they found the icon. They began dropping large rocks into the bay, and intentionally loading up boats with rocks to sink them, until a small island was formed. Eventually they built a church on the island and put the icon inside.

Two small islands in the Bay of Kotor. Our Lady of the Rocks on the right.

After a pleasant drive, we arrived in Kotor around dinner time to a somewhat ominous scene. The jagged mountains above Kotor are themselves quite imposing. Though made of the same limestone we saw earlier on the trip in the Julian Alps, here the rock is much darker, hence the name “Montenegro” (black mountain). There were also some pretty intense thunderstorms forming above the mountains, and to top it off there was a wildfire with large visible flames crawling up a mountain on the other side of the bay.

Arriving in Kotor to yellow, smoky skies and wildfire flames

With this backdrop, we checked into our lodging, one of the more unique places we stayed on the trip: an apartment in a 16th century stone villa just a few steps from the water. The grounds of the villa were quite interesting, with several courtyards, gardens and a great waterfront view. The apartment was about a twenty minute walk from the old town of Kotor, which is basically a mini-Dubrovnik with its fortified city walls, dramatically wedged in between the bay and the mountains. In fact, the city walls of Kotor go straight up the side of the mountains behind town. They blend in with the rocks quite well, and are sort of hard to see during the day, but at night parts of the walls are lit up, making for a spectacular scene:

Kotor city walls at night

The following morning, our goal was to hike up to the top of the city walls where there is an old fortress that looks out over the bay and the city below. The walls are not in great shape: they are crumbling in many places and there is a ton of trash everywhere. (Admission to the walls was 8 euros/person and the place was quite busy, so it seemed somewhat odd they wouldn’t have the means to control the trash situation.) The air was also quite smoky; we could still see the fire on the other side of the Bay plus there now seemed to be smoke from a separate fire coming down over the rim of the mountains much closer to us, which was a little alarming. As such, the walk up was a bit of an adventure, but the views just kept getting more and more incredible as we climbed.

Ascending the Kotor city walls

Rather than going back down the way we came, near the summit we exited via a rickety ladder propped up to one of the portals in the wall, and connected with a trail known as the “Ladder of Kotor,” a several thousand year-old route with over 70 switchbacks that leads from the Bay up and over the mountains into the Montenegrin interior. We quickly left the crowds behind and came across the ruins of an old church and village in a little basin tucked into the mountainside. We explored this area a little bit, and walked up the “Ladder” a little ways to look down on the upper portion of the city walls (see photo at top of post). Had we more time, we could have continued another several thousand feet uphill to the very top of the mountains overlooking the Bay of Kotor.

Looking through a portal in the city walls toward the Ladder of Kotor. The small building in the center is the small cafe mentioned below.
Sveti Juraj church and ruins, just outside the Kotor city walls

Heading back down, we stopped at a small cafe serving tasty homemade goat cheese, pomegranate juice, and cold beer (here in Part 6, it should go without saying that it was hot and humid) at a handful of tables under a little tin roof, with a beautiful view of the Bay and mountains. The proprietor was hilarious, bustling around and giving us fly swatters to use against the pack of stray cats that were camped out waiting for someone to drop a bit of cheese. We found the cats very entertaining until an orange one made a lunge for our cheese. Fortunately, my cat-like brain and reflexes anticipated the move just in time. Sorry kitties!

From the goat cheese cafe, we continued down the Ladder of Kotor back to town. With almost no other people around, a solid tread (as opposed to crumbling steps), and virtually no trash, we were happy to be headed down this route rather than the walls! Plus, it was cool to follow a historic route that has been in existence for so long and see all the stonework that went into building it over the centuries.

Kotor was another quick stop, and the next day it was already time to head to Albania, the final country on our trip through the western Balkans. Our route took us along the very scenic Montenegrin coastline, however the traffic was horrendous so what should have been a 2-3 hour drive took more like 4-5. Near the southern border of Montenegro, we turned off the coastal highway and started driving inland toward the Albanian border. The border crossing was a breeze…I’m honestly not sure they even looked at our passports!

Not long after crossing the border, we arrived in Shkodër, the fifth largest city in Albania. We didn’t have much time to explore Shkodër unfortunately, as our main goal for the rest of the day was to regroup, repack, and get some supplies for our upcoming journey into the Albanian Alps. We walked around the city center a bit, had a few good meals, and saw the gigantic mosque in the center of town, but that was about it. There didn’t seem to be many tourists around, and those we did see were almost all backpackers headed to the Alps…just like us!

Ebu Bekër Mosque, Shkodër, Albania