Saturday, November 2, 2013


One of my favorite places of our entire jaunt through the Balkans, the Kotor Fortress on top of the Mountain of St. John in Montenegro, deserves a post of its own. 

These walls and buildings have a history that would tie anyone's brain in knots. The original fortification was built by the ancient Illyrians, perhaps as early as 100 B.C. Then the Byzantine Emperor Justinian reconstructed the fortress in the 6th century. Venetians took over in the 15th century for the next 377 years and added many of the present-day fortifications, but during their rule the Ottomans managed to steal it twice for short periods of time. In 1797 the area passed to the Habsburgs as part of a treaty, was assigned to the Napoleonic State of Italy for governance, and was occupied by Russian troops until it became part of the French Illyrian Provinces in 1807. Britain conquered Kotor in 1814 and returned the region to the Austrian Empire in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna. After their defeat in World War I, Austria withdrew from the fortress and it was left unmanned until Axis forces moved in during World War II. Finally, the fortress was liberated on November 21, 1944, and has been controlled by its own people since that time.
The date of liberation is inscribed above the Sea Gate, the main entrance into the walled city. A quote from Marshal Tito is chiseled into the stone above the lintel: "We do not need other people's things, and we do not give our own." Photo from here.
As a result of changing hands so many times, the fortifications are a delightfully jumbled mishmash of building styles--no master plan here--and recent improvements to the path up the mountain have made all of it accessible.
View from below. Photo taken with a telephoto lens.
The zig-zagging walls creep back and forth along the craggy mountain spine for almost three miles.

On the day of our climb to the castle on top of the mountain, we got an early start, hoping to beat the crowds that would disembark from the large cruise ship that we could see pulling into the harbor.
Steeply climbing pathways include 1,350 steps lead to the top of the mountain, an elevation gain of over 1200 feet in about .8 miles. [Note: I have seen in several places the ascent listed as 1200 METERS, or almost 4,000 feet. This cannot be correct.]  We were quickly rewarded with calendar-worthy photo opportunities, however, that gave us a chance to slow down  and catch our breath.
Here is a good view of that cruise ship whose passengers we weren't too anxious to rub shoulders with:

Part-way up the mountain, we were treated to a bell concert, the tintinnabulations ringing in a new day and inviting everyone to come join us on the mountaintop.
Some of the meter-thick protective walls along the way have openings once used for cannon fire but now providing a souvenir view of a peaceful, hardly moving vista.
As we ascended, we passed quite a number of interesting structures that testified of the many men who had occupied this mountain. This one could have been some kind of storage unit, or a kitchen, or a bedroom, or just a place to get out of the rain.

Up, up, up!
Anyone would be tempted to stop for a prayer at this lonely shrine just below the church perched on the rocks above:

A gasp-worthy photo, don't you think? No photoshopping here--all natural. The Bay of Kotor reaches its silky fingers 17 miles from the open sea to this harbor, the glassy turquoise surface providing a wonderful backdrop for the red, white, and green of the city.

Looking up .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  and down:

Dozens (hundreds?) of metal brads have been pounded into old stones to keep the halves from parting ways.
St. John's (aka San Giovanni's) Castle is the biggest structure on the mountain and large enough that we could see it from our hotel far below:

I cannot say enough about the views from the fortress. It has to be one of the most spectacular "observation decks" I have ever seen:

A large Montenegrin flag waves proudly from the ramparts:

Looking over the top of the mountain to the backside, we could see the more ruins of what might have once been a village.
It was hard to miss this rather obvious reminder not to litter:

When we arrived on top, there were just a few people there ahead of us, but we knew the crowds were gathering below. After spending some time taking photos, we started on our descent.

If you have bad knees, this little walk may not be for you:
This is the iconic shot of Kotor. I have seen dozens just like it on the Web. In the foreground is the wonderfully named Church of Our Lady of Remedy, a Roman Catholic church completed in 1518. The appellation "Our Lady of Remedy" was given to Mary by St. John, for whom the Fortress is named. See more here.
The postcard views made me feel like we were Mary Poppins and Bert, having jumped into a painting of an imaginary world. It was almost too beautiful to be real.
Heading down, down, down.

We were just in time to avoid most of those cruisers starting to line up at the ticket booth.
A 7.0 earthquake in 1979 caused significant damage to the fortress, but the result was that UNESCO stepped in to help with restoration, making a lot of really great improvements that may not have been made otherwise while still preserving the ancient, untouched feel of the place. The souvenir stands and refreshment stops that would so annoy us when we walked  the walls of Dubrovnik a few days later have yet to find their way up this steep mountain path--for now. 


  1. With all off those treacherous path warnings, it's a wonder anyone attempts the climb. But what amazing views! I love these places that appear so uncommercialized.

  2. I agree that it was one of the highlights of the trip. I did work up a nice sweat that made me feel grungy the rest of the day. I love the video with the bells. Nice touch.