The Bay of Kotor, MontenegroUnrivalled Scenery, Labyrinth Walled Old Towns, Shore-Skirting Drives & Marina Bling
”The spectacular topography of the 88 km² bay… means there isn’t a whole lot of room in which to squeeze those picturesque Medieval walled Old Towns. There’s even less room for roads. But roads there are and with a shoreline of some 110 kilometers that equates to over 100 kilometres of winding, one-lane, water-hugging driving delights while skirting the feet of steep mountains. It’s a geographical setting rivalled by very few places on earth, if any.”
Image || The Bay of Kotor‘s Gulf of Kotor as seen from the road to Lovcen National Park, Montenegro. April 20, 2017.
I won’t lie; first impressions of Montenegro were not good. It was bucketing down when taxiing to the terminal of Podgorica Airport. I almost didn’t want to subject myself to it. It was early. It was glum. It was cold & I was tired, a consequence of having spent the previous night trying – and failing miserably – to sleep in London’s Stansted Airport, the only way I deduced that I’d guarantee making the 06:55 Ryanair departure to the Montenegrin capital, one of the few direct flights from my corner of Europe to this corner of Europe at this time of the year. I had limited time in Montenegro so I was hoping the conditions would improve, and fast; with the scenery on show in these parts you really need good weather to do the country justice. The weather did improve – on and off – and I found myself leaving Montenegro some days later for neighbouring Kosovo wondering why it had taken me so long to point my camera at this particular Balkan gem.
Region – Southeastern Europe/The Balkans (dMb tag: The Balkans). Capital – Podgorica. Population – 680,000. Official Language – Montenegrin. Currency – €uro. GDP (nominal) per capita – US$6,630 (80th). Political System – Parliamentary republic. EU Member? – No (as of April 2017). UN Member? – Yes (admitted June 2006). G20 Member? – No. Size – 14,000 km² (Europe’s 10th smallest country, slightly larger than the US state of Connecticut, or about two-thirds the size of Wales). Topography – Varied. Mostly mountainous interior with a narrow coastal plain. Formation/Independence – 2006 (following the peaceful dissolution of the former State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, itself formed in 1992 following the breakup of Yugoslavia). UNESCO World Heritage sites – 4. Tourism Catchphrase/Slogans – Breathtaking Beauty; Wild Beauty. Famous For – Being Europe’s baby, its newest country; historic walled old towns, scenery; the azure Adriatic; partying. Highlights – The Bay of Kotor; the Adriatic coast; Durmitor National Park. Montenegro Titbits – Officially Crna Gora, Montenegro is the country’s better-know Italian name (which translates into English as ‘Black Mountain’); the country’s 294-kilometer-long azure Adriatic coastline boasts 117 beaches. Montenegro Observations – The roads are tight; as in most of the Balkans, unfinished construction projects are everywhere & blight the otherwise stunning landscape; most essentials – coffee, beer, meals out, a hostel bed, parking – are very economical, petrol not so much; everyone seems to smoke everywhere including in cafes & restaurants; the locals are, for the most part, very welcoming & friendly; you’re never far from a church or monastery (or from anything in tiny Montenegro); coffee is served with a straw. You don’t have to use it of course but it’s a somewhat bizarre accompaniment to an espresso.
Visits – 1 (April 2017). Where I went/What I saw – The Bay of Kotor (Perast, Kotor & Porto Montenegro); Lovcen National Park & the Njegos Mausoleum; The Adriatic Coast (Budva & The Budva Riviera (Sveti Stefan)); Lake Skadar National Park & Podgorica.
The Bay of Kotor || Perast, Kotor & Porto Montenegro
It was always going to be my first port of call and it didn’t take long to get there. A 90-kilometre drive from Podgorica Airport via Lake Skadar National Park and Budva & Sveti Stefan of the Adriatic Coast, obvious Montenegrin highlights I’d sample on the return journey, got me to the fringes of Montenegro’s UNESCO-listed Bay of Kotor, easily one of Europe’s most beautiful bays. Inhabited since antiquity and dotted with well-preserved Medieval walled Old Towns, the bay is a spectacular natural inlet from the Adriatic that resembles the fjord it isn’t (it’s actually a submerged river canyon). It’s also a staple on any Adriatic cruise ship itinerary, its numerous Orthodox and Catholic churches and monasteries making the region as equally popular with pilgrims as it is with tourists.
… The Outstanding Universal Value of the Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor is embodied in the quality of the architecture in its fortified and open cities, settlements, palaces and monastic ensembles, and their harmonious integration to the cultivated terraced landscape on the slopes of high rocky hills. The Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor bears unique testimony to the exceptionally important role that it played over centuries in the spreading of Mediterranean cultures into the Balkans.
– UNESCO commenting on the Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor
Water-Hugging Driving Delights
Steep mountains dropping from on high down to the water’s edge. That’s the Bay of Kotor. The spectacular topography of the 88 km² bay, which comprises 4 smaller gulfs – the gulfs of Herceg Novi, Tivat, Risan & Kotor – and which extends inland for some 30 kilometres, means there isn’t a whole lot of room in which to squeeze those picturesque Medieval walled Old Towns. There’s even less room for roads. But roads there are and with a shoreline of some 110 kilometers that equates to over 100 kilometres of winding, one-lane, water-hugging driving delights while skirting the feet of steep mountains. It’s a geographical setting rivalled by very few places on earth, if any.
– Lonely Planet who named Kotor the Number 1 Best in Travel City for 2016
The Bay of Kotor || Perast
Destination reached, Kotor was my introduction to the region, the most famous & the most visited by far of the bay’s many historic & picturesque settlements. But Kotor proper and its walled wonderments would have to wait. I initially drove through, passing the historic Old Town walls and continuing on for another 12 kilometres while skirting the Gulf of Kotor’s shoreline until I reached Perast, just another beautifully preserved Medieval town and the first place in which I was happy, the overcast conditions aside, to park the car, get out & explore. And for a split second after arrival I thought I was back in Venice.
At a key strategic location protecting both the bay & the settlement of Kotor, Perast has had many landlords who have tried to leave their mark on the town down through the years. The Byzantine Empire, the Hungarians, the French and the Austrians were all here at one stage or another, but it’s the Venetians who are largely responsible for how the region’s towns, including Perast, look today; the town’s best preserved architecture dates to the 17th and 18th centuries when Perast belonged to the Republic of Venice, the Venetians holding sway here for almost 4 centuries, from 1420 to 1797. It was during this period that wealthy maritime captains built an array of grand & typically-Venetian baroque palaces, many of which survive today as nothing more than a ruined remnant of a time when Perast was both rich & powerful. Still somewhat swish today, Perast is pitching itself as something of a high-end tourist destination, one full of tight explorable lanes & steep inclines, boutique accommodation in restored palazzos, museums, churches, cafes and restaurants.
The Bay of Kotor || Kotor – Day 1
It was still overcast by the time I got back from Perast to have a proper & first look around Kotor, the undisputed jewel in Montenegro’s crown. Wedged at the farthest-flung corner of the mountain-rimmed bay, the town has developed around its iconic fortified Stari Grad (Old Town), a compact and atmospheric jumble of cobblestone & marble alleyways, blindly navigating which is probably the best way to uncover the wealth of museums, ancient churches, secluded piazzas & restored baroque palaces you’ll invariably stumble upon when exploring this stuck-in-time Medieval walled labyrinth.
While they know that the city was Greek through approximately the 4th to 7th centuries BC, archaeologists don’t quite know when Kotor was founded, a long time ago being a safe guesstimate. Much like Preast, the town passed through many foreign hands, its appearance today strongly influenced by almost four centuries of Venetian rule (1420 to 1797). Most recently, a large number of the town’s monuments (including four Romanesque churches and the town walls) were seriously damaged by an earthquake in 1979, the same year the town was granted UNESCO World Heritage status. It has since been extensively restored, largely with UNESCO’s help, and is today open to all and, of course, eminently explorable.
The Bay of Kotor || Kotor – Day 2
It was an eventful start to day 2 in the Bay of Kotor region. I was out early exploring the maze of cobbled alleyways and secluded piazzas that is Kotor’s Stari Grad (Old Town). It was quiet, businesses just setting up for the day and doors & closed shutters sporadically swinging open as kids skipped past on the way to school. Shadows among the alleyways were prevalent, the clouds of the previous day having given way to glorious early morning sunshine. Yes, the sun was out on this beautiful Balkan morning, as were a few grumpy locals.
– UNESCO commenting on the Venetian Works of Defence between 15th and 17th centuries: Stato da Terra – western Stato da Mar, of which the Fortified city of Kotor is included.
Laid out by the Venetians for protective purposes as a disorientating rectangular-shaped urban maze of pedestrianised streets, getting lost while exploring Kotor’s Old Town is a given, at least initially; it’s small enough that you eventually find yourself covering old ground & thus getting your bearings. Plus, orientation is always aided by the reappearance of many a striking Old Town landmark.
The Bay of Kotor || Porto Montenegro
Things are a little different in Porto Montenegro. Very different actually. There are no restored Baroque palaces here, no ancient churches, no disorientating cobbled alleyways and certainly no snaking stone fortifications. Recent investment – mostly overseas investment – along this stretch of the Bay of Kotor shoreline has seen the water’s edge at the town of Tivat transformed into Montenegro’s Blingville, a full-service community of luxury apartments, hotels, shops, restaurants and other sports and entertainment amenities, all centered around a luxury marina where polished chrome & palm trees dominate. It’s very flash and a million miles removed from the antiquity of Kotor, a 10 kilometre drive away but geographically only some 5 kilometres as the crow flies.
– The Sunday Times commenting on Porto Montenegro.
There is no tourist tat here and very little riffraff, but there are a lot of clean lines, polished surfaces (chrome, one-way windows, yacht hulls, brass plates etc.), manicured bushes and money, the latter an obvious observation when snooping around here. Billed as a one of the best investment options in the region over the last 25 years, this is luxury packaged as attainable to all according to VisitMontenegro.com, they claiming that ‘affordable prices will surprise you in this luxurious complex’. The developers have certainly done their damndest, and they are not done yet – plans are afoot for even more luxury this and high-end that. Build it and they will come? Porto Montenegro certainly thinks/hopes so.