Perched on the edge of a majestic bay, the medieval Old Town of Kotor is the undisputed jewel in Montenegro’s crown. Though no longer Europe’s best-kept secret, Kotor’s sudden elevation to the tour-bus league has failed to dim the timeless delights of its maze of cobbled alleyways and secluded piazzas. Enclosing cafés and churches galore, the town walls are peered down upon by a series of hulking peaks. Down below, a harbour now bustling with sleek yachts marks the end of the Bay of Kotor, made fjord-like by the thousand-metre cliffs that rise almost vertically from the serene waters.
First colonized by the Greeks, Kotor came to prominence in the twelfth century, then passed through Serb, Austro-Hungarian and Bosnian hands before fifteenth-century Ottoman conquests forced it under the protective wing of Venice. Its period under Venetian rule ended in 1797, the shape of today’s Kotor having been laid out in the intervening years.
Kotor’s charms are best appreciated by heading to the Old Town, sans map, and getting lost in the maze of streets. You’ll likely enter through the Sea Gate, next to the harbour, and emerge onto the main square, Trg od Oružja. Cafés spill out from glorious buildings, the most notable of which are the old Rector’s Palace, and a leaning clock tower. Burrow through the streets and before long you’ll end up at St Tryphon’s Cathedral, backed by a wall of mountains and perfect for photos; it’s well worth the entry fee for a peek inside. Elsewhere there are several churches worth looking at, as well as a fascinating Maritime Museum, a repository of nautical maps, and model ships.
The old fortress walls sit proudly above the town, and make for a rewarding climb. Allow at least ninety minutes for the round-trip to St Ivan’s Castle, from which you’ll have tremendous views of the fjord. On hot summer days it’s best to set off early or wait until evening, and note that the first building you come to, the Church of Our Lady of Health, is not even halfway up.
At all times of year, you’re likely to be approached by sobe-owners as you get off the bus. Alternatively, the tourist office can book rooms from €20/person. Rooms are mainly grouped in two areas: Škaljari, uphill from the industrial mess near the bus station, and the more pleasant area of Dobrota, on the bayside just north of the Old Town.
Given the Old Town’s status as a tourist magnet, its culinary scene is disappointing, especially for those on a budget – though you’ll find places serving slices of pizza for €1.50. Nightlife, however, can be surprisingly good, and there’s usually live music on weekends, which see the cobbled streets thumping until midnight.
Kotor’s festival year kicks off on February 1, with folk dances and church music on the day of St Tripun; this is closely followed by the Masked Ball, a colourful event that sees processions head through the Old Town. In April there’s the Montenegrin Dance Festival, which showcases pretty much every kind of dance, before theatrical and musical performances kick off the sunny months at the International Summer Carnival, held in late July/early August. Around the same time is Refresh (wwww.refreshfestival.com), a four-day music festival that ropes in some big-name DJs. All pale in comparison, however, to late August's Boka Nights, when boats fill the bay, fireworks electrify the sky and everyone goes just a little bit mad.