High above the town of Kotor are some of the best vantage points across the bay – the city walls. The walls date back to medieval times, started in the 9th century to protect Kotor from invaders. They were added to over the years by whoever ran the city at the time – from the Byzantines to the Venetians – until the 15th century when they finally formed a full loop up into the hillside. There’s a mixture of ramparts, gates, churches, forts and bastions built along them, and despite time, invasion and earthquakes over the years they’re still remarkably well-preserved. In the daytime their grey stone blends in with the greyish-green colour of the mountains behind and it can be hard to pick them out. But at night they’re all lit up and we had a perfect view of them from our apartment across the bay in Muo. When the bay was calm, the lights reflected in the water of the fjord below almost make it look like the walls formed a circle.
We started our walk up the walls near Kotor’s North Gate and St Mary’s Church. As you go into the depths of the old town the passageways get narrower, draped with telegraph wires and lines of drying washing. Through an archway at the bottom of the hill you’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot the girl who sits under an umbrella collecting the entry fee, and from there you just follow the walls upwards. A long way upwards – the climb to the fortress at the top is 1200 metres, or 1400ish in steps. It was a cloudy cool day so perfect for walking, but in summer it can be a tough and thirsty slog to the very top.
There was a Spanish cruise ship docked in Kotor on the day we went up so we followed a stream of Spaniards on their way up to the top. The walls vary in width as they zig-zag on their way up the hill – in some places they are just a couple of metres wide and in others the path widens out into a terrace. The path is made up of rough cobbles so the easiest place to walk is along the steps at the side. In late spring the banks were dotted with poppies and other wildflowers, the perfect excuse for me to stop and take some photos when my legs started protesting about the climb.
Our first destination was the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, up at 100 metres high. Built in the 15th century, it supposedly healed people of the plague (though I’d expect the climb finished a few off before they got here…). Now 100 metres up doesn’t sound all that much, but it definitely started to feel it when my trudging pace got overtaken by a Japanese pensioner and a Spanish woman doing the climb in three-inch heels. Once we made it to the church we stopped to catch our breath and to take in the views down onto the red roofs of Kotor below, the cruise ship in the harbour and across the whole Bay of Kotor.
From the church you’ve got another 155 metres of climbing to do to get to the very top – the Fortress of Sveti Ivan, or St John. The original fortress was built in Illyrian times but the one there now is a medieval replacement that where guards would watch over Kotor below. You can see why when you emerge at the top – the impenetrable mountains and panoramic views for miles around means there’s no way any invaders could creep up on you. The fortress is crumbling and ruined now but you can’t help but be impressed by the amount of manpower it must’ve taken to build it up here. And from here the only way is down, to a much-deserved beer and sit down back in the old town.
Admission to the city walls costs €3 between 8am and 8pm, May to September (technically they’re open 24 hours so you can go up before or after that for free). The main entrance is near Kotor’s North Gate. It takes about 90 minutes to two hours to do the journey up and back. Take lots of water – though there are a few enterprising guys with coolboxes who’ll sell you cold drinks and beers on the route up.