It is less than three hours from Dubrovnik, in Croatia, to Kotor, in the neighboring country of Montenegro. I left Dubrovnik early in the morning on a group day tour organized by Amico Tours, guided by a friendly driver called Gabriel, who picked us up at the gates of the Old Town. While driving us southward on a scenic road along the Adriatic Sea towards Montenegro, he stirred our anticipation about what we would see in the Bay of Kotor, our destination. The sun was shining bright and the sky was a cloudless blue. As we approached the border of Montenegro and the passport control post, the views became increasingly more dramatic: rugged mountains, cobalt-blue waters and quaint medieval villages perched upon steep hills dotted the landscape. By the time I got hungry for breakfast we were making a stop at a bar on the Bay of Kotor.
A winding bay with many coves and inlets and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Bay of Kotor is one of Europe’s great natural beauties. It is surrounded by towering dark green mountains that look more like fjords, as they abruptly end in the water. Visibly pristine and unspoiled, the Bay of Kotor is actually a ria, a submerged river valley made up of four connected bays. But whatever the right denomination is for it, it is an absolutely stunning place.
Truth be told, I didn’t know much about Montenegro, and had never even dreamed of visiting it. But since I was in Dubrovnik, so close to the Croatia-Montenegro border, I decided to extend my trip a little further and venture into a new country. Some well-traveled friends had recommended Kotor, saying that it is considered the prettiest and best-preserved town in Montenegro. They added that, “people are very handsome there.”
Kotor is called ‘mini Dubrovnik’ for a reason. It also sits on the Adriatic Sea and enjoys the same kind of privileged geographical location, permanently basking in the sun. Imposing stone walls surround the town, just like in Dubrovnik, and in Kotor these fortifications reach twenty meters in height in some parts. Inside the walls, a majority of the original medieval buildings remain, and for this reason Kotor has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
Montenegro is not part of the European Unit, like Croatia, but, nevertheless, the country has adopted the Euro as its currency (unlike Croatia, where the money is the Croatian Kuna). In spite of that, Montenegro is a very affordable country; everything costs less than in Croatia, something I noticed right away, after paying only three Euros for a full breakfast at our stop on the road.
Under the shade in Kotor – avoiding being baked by the already strong morning sun – while waiting for our Montenegrin tour guide to show up, I noticed how tall people are. An average Montenegrin is 5 feet 7 inches tall, which makes them the third tallest people in the world. Most people have blond hair and very light skin; noticeably absent were overweight people – not a single one! Could it be the Mediterranean diet? The women had beautiful figures, stunning smiles and perfect skin, while the men were very fit and exuded masculinity. They reminded me of two Montenegrin men I once met in New York, both very tall and handsome and with piercing blue eyes.
“Interesting place,” I commented to Gabriel, attentively watching the people passing by. He, a Croat, smiled at me and added, “Indeed.” He didn’t mention the rivalries between the two countries caused by what the Croatians call “Homeland War” of 1991-1995 – when Montenegro and Serbia bombarded his beloved Dubrovnik – but the subject seems to still be on everybody’s mind in that part of the world.
Our group was small: a young American couple from Chicago, a female nurse from Washington DC – taking a break after some intense months of Covid-related work in her hospital -, Gabriel, and myself. We all had many questions about Montenegro; just like me, no one seemed to know much about it, and Gabriel patiently answered our questions.
First of all, what kind of country is Montenegro? What language do they speak? What religion do they follow? And – by the way – where is it?
Montenegro is located in Southeastern Europe and is part of the region called the Balkans. It was under communist rule for over forty years as part of the former Yugoslavia (which means ‘the land of the Southern Slavs’), a union made up of six ethnic groups of semi-autonomous Balkan republics (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia). After the end of World War II, Yugoslavia started to be ruled by iron-fist General Joseph Tito, who remained in power until his death in 1980. Surprisingly, some elders that I met claim that he was a good leader and expressed missing the dismantled Yugoslavia.
With Tito gone, the union broke up along its republics’ borders, leading to the Yugoslav Wars (the same one called the Homeland War in Croatia). A rise of nationalism followed the breakup, and in 1991 the region was engulfed in many separate and bloody conflicts. The last of the republics that held on to Yugoslavia were Serbia and Montenegro, but in 2006 Montenegro became independent from Serbia and declared itself a separate country.
“That explains why few people from the USA or Europe traveled to Montenegro until recently,” I commented. “No one wants to visit a communist country or one at war,” I added. Gabriel agreed. I expect that to change soon, though – Montenegro has a lot to show for itself.
When our local guide Bojana arrived – a tall, friendly blonde with long hair, a broad smile and the palest skin I can remember – she took us through the narrow cobblestone alleyways of Kotor’s quaint Old Town. The place looked like a fairytale, a maze of tiny streets dating back many centuries with cats everywhere. The Old Town faces the Bay of Kotor on one side and on the other is surrounded by majestic peaks that tower over it. The view couldn’t be more dramatic.
We ambled with Bojana around the winding streets of her medieval town, passing by stone houses, quaint squares and Romanesque churches. On the way she told us a little bit of the history of Kotor, the oldest town in Montenegro and now a state-protected historical monument. Her English was flawless, which was very helpful, given that the main language in Montenegro, Montenegrin, is as difficult to understand as Croatian. Locals also speak Serbian, Albanian and Bosnian, but none of those would have helped me; Slavic languages are notoriously hard for foreigners to understand.
Kotor was founded by the Romans. In the tenth century, it was both a free city and part of Serbia. Later, the seafaring town came under Venetian and Hungarian rule for brief periods of time. It was an independent republic from 1395 to 1420, fell again to the Venetians after that, and suffered periodically from attacks by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. In 1807 it was conquered by Napoleon, and was submitted to French rule until 1814.
After the French came the Austrians, who ruled Kotor until 1918, when the town was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, a union that became part of Yugoslavia in 1929. With the fall of communism and the death of Tito – and after the bloody wars of independence that followed it in the 1990’s – Montenegro became a constitutional parliamentary republic. It’s a small country; only 665,000 people live in an area of 5,333 square miles. The capital and largest city, Podgorica, has 155,000 inhabitants.
Old Town Kotor is not big either, and after touring it with Bojana we visited Saint Tryphon’s Cathedral. It is one of only two Roman Catholic cathedrals in Montenegro (the majority of Montenegrins are Orthodox Christians) and Kotor’s most impressive building. It was consecrated in 1166, but reconstructed many times after several earthquakes, something that is not uncommon in the area. Inside, there is a silver gilded bas-relief altar screen considered a treasure by the Montenegrins. Relics from Saint Tryphon, an early martyr important to both Catholics and Orthodox Christians – as well as remains of Byzantine-style frescos – justify a visit to the beautiful Cathedral.
After walking around the village and visiting the church, I was very interested in lunch, and a place called Mon Bistro, next to the cathedral, looked perfect for that. My first impression proved to be right: the ‘Prosciutto di Parma’ with local olives and cheese was excellent, and the price was very reasonable. The extra bonus was people-watching while eating; the locals waiting in line for the post office nearby were all good looking and neatly dressed.
Later, we hiked up the hills with Gabriel on the famous Ladder of Kotor, a path that took us high up into the mountains around town and allowed spectacular views of the area. The climb to the top was 940 meters, and the trail was rocky and uneven. When I got tired and decided to stop before the top – at a chapel called Saint Ivan – while the younger members of the group went all the way up to the Castle of San Giovanni. Gabriel stayed in front of the chapel with me and we chatted about Kotor and Montenegro; he was a very knowledgeable guide, truly professional. The way back to town was much easier; on the way I passed by a monument dedicated to an American charity organization that helps restore buildings in Kotor. I felt proud.
We left before the end of the day, as we still had one more stop to make at Perast, a popular seaside town a few miles away. Before leaving Kotor I took pictures of restaurants and hotels that looked like good choices, in case I do go back. I mentioned to Gabriel that I would like to see more of Montenegro in the future, and he recommended a visit to a sea resort called Buva, a cruise around the Bay of Kotor, the famous Ostrog Monastery, and exploring the country’s hiking trails, considered the most pristine in Europe. It is all on my bucket list now; Montenegro truly deserves more time.