The beautiful Bay of Kotor – or Boka Kotorska – is often called Europe’s most southernmost fjord. It certainly looks like one, with towering peaks surrounding a rocky coastline dotted with pretty waterside towns. Add in a few cruise ships in the bright blue waters and you could almost be in Norway. But both the water and the climate here are much more Mediterranean than Scandinavian. The bay’s not actually a fjord either, but rather a ria – a submerged river valley that’s made up of four connected bays which look like a butterfly shape as they stretch inland from the coast. That’s all just definition though, the scenery here is as stunning as any ‘proper’ fjord. And when you add in bags of history and culture then you can see why UNESCO have listed the Bay of Kotor as one of their World Heritage sites.
The Bay of Kotor’s most famous town is Kotor itself, at the far end of the bay. It looks like a normal waterside town until you get up close and see that it’s surrounded by city walls, built by the Venetians to protect it from invaders. These five-kilometre-long stone walls run right up into the steep hillside above the town and you can climb up them for a panoramic view across the bay. Inside the city gates is a medieval town made up of narrow cobbled alleyways lined with honey-coloured stone buildings.
The jumble of streets mean you immediately get lost but that’s part of the attraction as you never know what you might come across – a Venetian-style church, a piazza full of restaurants, a flight of steps leading up into the hills, a doorway surrounded by colourful pots of flowers. Kotor isn’t exactly undiscovered and on days when the cruise ships dock you might have to share the old town with a few thousand people. But you can usually find a quiet corner or a tucked-away café to hide away in.
Further around the bay is the town of Perast, looking like a mini Venice with its Italian-style churches and palaces. In its heyday it was a prosperous shipbuilding town full of rich merchants living in the grand palazzos that overlook the water. A lot of the buildings are crumbling and deserted now and there are only about 360 people left living here – that’s less than 20 people for each church. But it’s still got its grand air and a beautiful setting with a strip of sandy beach running along the edge of the bay.
Out in the bay from Perast are the twin islands of St George and Our Lady of the Rocks. Both are religious pilgrimage sites but Our Lady of the Rocks is a man-made island. The legend goes that sailors spotted an image of the Virgin Mary on a rock here. So each time they had a successful voyage they added another rock as an offering as they passed. Eventually so many were added that an island emerged and the church was built on top of it. The villagers here still add rocks once a year as part of a festival called fašinada. And the rest of the time you can take a boat trip out into the bay to visit the church.
As you follow the winding road along the edge of the bay you pass lots of other little towns and villages. Even in the smallest you’ll usually find something interesting to stop and see. Like Dobrota, with its long waterfront boardwalk where you can watch the sun set behind the mountains. Or Prčanj, where there’s a deserted rusty ship moored up which looks like it’s been there since the end of the Balkan War.
Or there’s the biggest of the lot, Herceg Novi at the entrance to the bay. The outskirts are all modern high-rises but towards the water is the old town or Stari Grad with its ornate churches and city walls. It’s also the best place for adventurous activities if you fancy kayaking the bay or walking and mountain biking up in the hills behind. Destinations are always being marketed as the ‘new Venice’ or the ‘new Dubrovnik’ but the Bay of Kotor really does feel like someone’s taken a bit of each of them and mixed them up along with the scenery of Bergen to make this the fjords, Mediterranean style.
Getting there and around: The nearest airport is in Tivat, about 8km away from the bay, or there are more flights into Dubrovnik in Croatia, 73km away. If you’re driving from Dubrovnik the narrow windy road around the bay is beautiful but can be painfully slow, especially in summer. To make it quicker you can take a car ferry between Lepetane and Kamenari at the narrowest point of the bay (takes about 5 mins, costs €4 per car and runs every 15–30 mins of whenever it’s full). It’s useful to have a car to explore the bay, but there are also frequent local buses and plenty of boat trips to see it from the water.
Accommodation: There are a few hotels in each of the main towns and a couple of hostels in Kotor. One of the best ways to stay in the bay though is in an apartment rental. There are some in traditional buildings in the towns and a lot of newer apartment blocks in the surrounding areas with shared pools and balconies with great views across the bay. Our two-bed, two-bathroom apartment in the Kotor Vista development in Muo was a 15-minute walk into Kotor and cost £400 for a week in May.