High above the medieval town of Kotor in Montenegro is one of the best views points over the Bay of Kotor – the city walls. In the daytime the grey stone of the walls blends in with the greyish-green of the mountains behind and it can be hard to pick them out on the hillside. But when the sun goes down they’re all lit up – we had a perfect view of them from where we were staying across the bay in Muo. When the bay’s calm, the lights reflect in the water of the fjord below and almost make it look like the walls form a circle.
The earliest Kotor city walls were built into steep, rocky cliffs back in the 9th century to protect the town from invaders. They were added to over the years by whoever ran the city at the time – everyone from the Byzantines to the Venetians – until the 15th century when they finally formed a full loop running up into the hillside. There’s a mixture of ramparts, gates, churches, forts and bastions mixed in with them, and despite the onslaught of time, invasion and earthquakes they’re still remarkably well-preserved. Today the climb to the top is one of the top things to do in Kotor – though you do have to work to earn those views.
We started our walk around the Kotor city walls from the entrance near the 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 washing. Through an archway at the bottom of the hill you’ll know you’re in the right place when you see a woman 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 1350ish steps. It was a cloudy cool day so perfect for walking, but in summer it can be a slow and thirsty slog to the top.
There was a Spanish cruise ship docked in Kotor on the day we climbed the walls, so we followed a steady 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 they widen 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 – and it’s a good idea to wear decent shoes. 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. It was built in the 15th century and supposedly healed people of the plague (though I’d expect the climb finished a few off before they got up there…). Now 100 metres up doesn’t sound all that much, but it definitely started to feel it when my slow and steady pace got overtaken by a Japanese pensioner and a Spanish woman doing the climb in three-inch heels. Once at 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 get to the very top – the Fortress of Sveti Ivan (St John). The original fortress was built by the Illyrians somewhere around the 5th century, but the one there now is a comparatively modern medieval replacement 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 the views for miles. And from here the only way is down, to a much-deserved beer back in the old town.
Admission to the Kotor city walls costs €3 between 8am and 8pm from May to September (technically they’re open 24 hours so you can go up before or after 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 down. Start early if you’re visiting during the summer as there’s not a lot of shade along the route. And take lots of water – though there are a few enterprising guys with coolboxes selling you cold drinks and beers on the way up.