The attractive walled town of Kotor in Montenegro, beautifully located between an alluring fjord and brooding mountains, is an absolute joy. Get there now, before the tourist hordes discover it
Following its peaceful, if not entirely amicable, split with Serbia in mid-2006, Montenegro is one of Europe’s tiniest and newest countries. At the moment it offers excellent value for money, and its picturesque coastal towns, great variety of flora and fauna, and dramatic mountain backbone make it an extremely attractive destination.
The country is full of hardly-known gems, the pick of which is arguably medieval Kotor, situated at the head of the deepest inland fjord south of Scandinavia.Think of Dubrovnik or Prague before they featured on every tourist’s itinerary – uncrowded, slow-paced and hassle-free. Expect some company during July and August but apart from the peak months, you can find yourself virtually alone with very little effort.
Kotor really has a fantastic setting, the honey-coloured walls of the old town backed up by the imposing fortress atop the jagged Mountain of St John and fronted by the deep blue waters of Kotorski Zaliv.
Old town and fort
Take a leisurely stroll around the compact old town, ducking down narrow alleys and through stone arches, popping into small shops selling local produce and crafts such as puppets and colourful woollen hats, and stopping for a strong espresso on one of the town’s shady cobbled squares. Take refuge in the superb gothic cathedral of St Tryphon, with its baroque steeples, 14th-century frescoes and intricate series of vaulted roofs. At night there is an ethereal atmosphere in the town, the shadowy mountains standing like giants over the tastefully illuminated walls and buildings.
By day, leave through the southern gate for an invigorating climb up the 1,500 steps to the mountainside fortifications – you will be glad you did. The route to the top is well signposted and not too strenuous, although it is best to avoid the midday sun. As you climb, the view becomes more and more stunning.To start with, you can just see an assortment of terracotta roofs mixed with the cathedral towers and the steeples of the churches of St Luke, St Mary and St Nicholas, but as you ascend the winding path, the fjord stretches out into the distance like a deep blue ribbon before curling left behind the hillside. You can pick out the old town walls and the grid-like layout of buildings.
At the summit, it is easy to see why the fort held such a strategic position against would-be marauders. Flanked by impenetrable mountains and with views for miles around, it would surely be impossible for invaders to arrive unseen. After an unhurried ramble around the ramparts, take the path back down and reward yourself with lunch al fresco in one of many pizzerias that line the central piazzas.
Food and drink
Kotor offers an excellent and varied choice for dinner – opt for Bastion or Kantun, both rustic in décor and good value for money, with a decent meal with wine costing about €10. Kantun is down Pjaca od mlijeka, a small street in the old town. It is an intimate venue with wooden beams, white stone walls, wooden tables and bench seats, and the food is cooked in an open kitchen looking over the diners. Dishes are chalked up on blackboards, with traditional local specialities such as grilled sausages and fried cheese on offer and, in keeping with the restaurant's maritime theme, tasty fresh fish. It is popular with locals as well as visitors, so book ahead on 082 325757.
Bastion is near the northern gate on the edge of the old town, next to St Mary’s church. On warm evenings, you can sit outside on the pleasant terrace. Fish is again a speciality and there are also good vegetarian dishes and salads. Call ahead on 082 322116.
There are several lively bars inside the walled old town (Stari Grad). It was amusing to see everybody puffing away sat below the 'no smoking' signs in Cesare, Kotor’s hippest joint. Happily, the warm evening was conducive to the doors being left open to let in free air conditioning as we drank our local beer and listened to disco-beat music.
You can catch a bus a few miles along the coast to Budva, another lovely walled town with narrow cobbled streets and an array of eateries and interesting shops. There are even a couple of good beaches if you are that way inclined. Herceg Novi, close to Croatia, is also worth a visit to take in its landscaped gardens with rare plants and trees. Dubrovnik in Croatia is less than 40 miles away - you will need to get there early though, to beat all the cruise ships and their thousands of passengers who pour into the place.
Where to stay
We stayed at Hotel Marija, a very comfortable, clean lodging in the old town costing €60 (the Euro is Montenegro’s official currency) per night for a twin/double room with breakfast. The hotel is wood-panelled throughout and is right in the thick of the action – ask for a room at the back if you intend to have an early night, as the locals do like to make a noise!
The cheapest way to get to Kotor is to fly into Dubrovnik (Thomson do budget flights from Luton) and either hire a car or catch one of the regular buses, which take about 90 minutes.