Bay of Kotor

A Fjord in Montenegro

tl;dr The bay of Kotor looks a mix of a norwegian fjord and a north-italian lake, but has its very own appeal; and to get there you get to drive one of the most beautiful roads imaginable.

 

After a short and rather disappointing detour to Budva we head for Kotor. Instead of taking the direct route we elect to detour via Cetinje and Lovcen National Park to enjoy – as the the lonely planet would have us believe – one of the great rides of the world. Turns out they didn’t exaggerate. After a short shower, it’s late afternoon when the sun finally breaks open a dramatic sky, the wet road glistening like polished copper in the slanting rays. The bay of Kotor lies beneath us, looking more like a north Italian lake like anything else and we dive into a series of dozens of switchbacks each of them rewarding us with a new spectacular view. Our timing is perfect and we keep stopping the car to take it in and fill the memory cards of our phones.

After an afternoon rain shower the road to Kotor gleams golden in the setting sun.

After an afternoon rain shower the road to Kotor gleams golden in the setting sun.

The sun dips behind steep mountains as we pass through Kotor and take to the narrow road that leads along the bay to get to our appartment. It still looks much more like a lake, the road maybe half a meter above the waterline and just wide enough for two cars to pass, with centimeters to spare. The last 10 km to Donji Stoliv take much longer than anticipated and Judith, who’s driving today is pretty stressed our when I finally call our airbnb landlord. Everything up to this point was communicated in simple yet good English. Imagine my surprise when the woman picking up the phone does not speak English at all – Not.A.Single.Word. And no other of the half dozen languages I tried. If we wouldn’t have had Aleks with us we would’ve been pretty much fucked at this point. Actually things like that happened more than once, and I guess Bosnia and Montenegro both would do much better in the tourism sector, if more people knew foreign languages. Long story short, we find our appartment and after some back-and-forth we box in our car for the time being and are rewarded with the best place we stayed in so far. Two bedrooms, a giant living-room/kitchen and a terrace as big as my condo in Berlin. Of course it comes with a view on the bay and all that for a modest 45 € a day. We decide to stay a day longer longer before we even unpack our bags. Our hostess turns out to be quite helpful and there is a decent restaurant just 5 a minutes walk from our place, that serves a mean grilled pulpo.

Swimmers take a dip in the bay of Kotor that looks more like a giant lake than anything else.

Swimmers take a dip in the bay of Kotor that looks more like a giant lake than anything else.

The bay of Kotor is a pretty unique formation -at least in the mediterranean. Mountains rising a couple of 100 m from the sea are nothing special everywhere around the coast, but where normally stony beaches with protected harbours are formed, an inlet is formed. At it’s mouth it is maybe some hundred meters wide, after that it widens again, twists and turnes until at the very end the town of Kotor sits in a cul-de-sac, it’s fortress snaking this way and that all the way up the mountain, commandeering the whole bay from a superior position of power – military tactic-wise that is. Looking at a map you could be forgiven for calling it Europe’s southern-most fjord while in fact it is a submerged river canyon.  Protected from the open sea the water is really, even after a violent storm with thunder and flying debris the waves don’t even reach half a meter, it’s about as dramatic as the movement caused by one of the tourist ferries, passing every other hour. To collect passengers, there is a guy in a dingy cruising along the fjord and advertising the tours through a megafone. Even though I don’t understand a single word, I really want to do the tour because he sounds so energetic and convincing that it just HAS to be good.

An approaching thunderstorm seperates the bay of Kotor in light- and darkness

An approaching thunderstorm seperates the bay of Kotor in light- and darkness

Originally a Roman settlement and part of the provinc Dalmatia, it’s unique strategic location made Kotor a regular target of diverse conquerors trying to dominate trade in the mediterranean. It was first fortified by Emperor Justinian, later sacked by the Saracens, before it was part of Bulgaria and Serbia. Just like Ragusa/Dubrovnik they had to defer to Venice at one point. After that the construction of the fortress got in gear seriously.

A plaza dominated by a basilica in Kotor, in the background one can see the walls of the fortress guarding the bay.

A plaza dominated by a basilica in Kotor, in the background one can see the walls of the fortress guarding the bay.

Even after Dubrovnik the old town of Kotor with her 4,5 km of city walls around the city proper is among the most impressive medieval architecture I have seen so far and I haven’t even started telling you about the “real” fortress. Not far from the city centre with the cathedral of Saint Tryphon that is something of a national monument for Montenegro, a stair snakes up the mountain almost all the way to the top. But really, calling this structure a stair is a bit like calling the Burj Dubai “a rather large building”. Half a dozen seperate yet interconnecting wall cover more or less the whole mountainside. Some parts are off-limit to the public, because they are not safe, but after paying a nominal fee and thanks to international help with the reconstruction, you can climb all the way to the top of San Giovanni – name of the fortress and the mountain. So climb we did – all 1.800 steps! Totally worth it though, the view is breathtaking and after all the grilled meat we can use some exercise. We rest a bit, exploring the fortress, taking a short timelapse and generally just enjoying the show as dark clouds gather in the west. The squall line approaches leisurely seperating the world in light and dark. Needless to say we get drenched on our way down again and have to reward ourselves with some alcoholic beverages to strengthen our resolve and body for the hike back.

Nearly 2.000 steps lead to the top of the mountain backing the town of Kotor crowned with a venetian fortress guarding the bay and it's entrance.

Nearly 2.000 steps lead to the top of the mountain backing the town of Kotor crowned with a venetian fortress guarding the bay and it’s entrance.

In the end we embark on a bus halfway back to our place. I still think these guys must be some supernatural aliens, to be able to navigate these narrow roads. Just looking at it every sane person would probably say its wide enough for a bobby car and a bike – if you are real careful and don’t speed. Turns out, it’s not only wide enough for one but two busses and absolutely wide enough to go 60, if you keep honking. Being totally batshit crazy does help as well I guess. Naturally Aleks chats up the guy; “Wow, really impressive driving, you sure got this thing figured out, ey?” “Sure I have, just imagine what a good driver I could be, if I had a drivers license.”

An abandoned military landing craft rots away on the outskirts of the town of Kotor.

An abandoned military landing craft rots away on the outskirts of the town of Kotor.

What sounds funny and movie-like and is a really good story (that might not be true), is in fact a stark reminder of the all-encompassing corruption that has large chunks of Eastern Europe in it’s grasp. The driver had a deal with the local force – greasing their hands – and they leave him alone as long as he stays on certain routes that they control and as long as nothing happens. The moment the guy crashes, these gentlemen will of course pretend they didn’t know anything.

Tipp: take something to drink if you’re going up the fortress, the climate in summer is hot and humid and the guys selling water at strategically chosen spots on the ascend charge a kingdom and a half for hydration. Generally the area is not exactly cheap especially compared to inland Bosnia, but still a lot cheaper than say Italy.

The cathedral of Saint Tryphon with it's assymetrical twin towers is something of a national monument for Montenegro and one of the main attractions in Kotor.

The cathedral of Saint Tryphon with it’s assymetrical twin towers is something of a national monument for Montenegro and one of the main attractions in Kotor.

This is the conclusion of our roadtrip through Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro. It was my first time in Eastern Europe but definetely not the last. It’s a part of the world where travelling still feels a little adventorous. We have seen amazing landscapes, jaw-dropping architecture and met a few really interesting people and I even picked up a couple of new words in a foreign language. Really looking forward to go exploring there again; hopefully I can convinve my travel buddies to include Albania next time.

I just love lens-flares if they're as colourful as this one.

I just love lens-flares if they’re as colourful as this one.

A huge and heartfelt Thank You to Judith, Carmen and Aleks – it was a blast and I really hope there will be more trips with the four of us.

This is part of a six-issue series from a roadtrip through Bosnia and Montenegro in August 2016:

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