Destinations, Montenegro

Settlers of Kotor: Climbing Ancient Fortifications (and Scheming Up Board Game Expansion Packs)

July 12, 2012

High atop the Mountain of St. John, ancient stonework fortifications dating back to Emperor Justinian’s 6th century construction projects overlook Stari Grad, the old town of Kotor, Montenegro. The secured land is prime real estate located directly above the valuable eastern European port city on the Bay of Kotor at one of the farthest inland points of the Adriatic Sea.

If the spot was on the Settlers of Catan game board, I’d claim it on my first turn. A sea port with mountain access, and industries of art, gold, masonry, iconography, and architecture? Yes, please.

“[Kotor’s] art, goldsmithing and architecture schools had a profound and durable influence on the arts of the coast. It is among the most characteristic examples of a type of structure representing important cultural, social and artistic values. It is considered to possess outstanding universal value by the quality of its architecture, the successful integration of its cities to the Gulf of Kotor and by its unique testimony to the exceptionally important role that it played in the diffusion of Mediterranean culture in the Balkan lands…[developing] in the Middle Ages into an important commercial and artistic centre…”
UNESCO World Heritage Site – Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor

Kotor has weathered changes of shifting political climates since Roman days. The sheltered spot on the bay that once harbored ancient sailors and massive fleets of WWI battleships now hosts cruise liners and yachts coming in from the open waters of the Adriatic.

The city’s complex history, visible clearly in layers of architecture throughout the old town, waterfront, and suburbs, may be seen most impressively in the massive ruins crowning the rugged cliff sides and stone tops of the surrounding mountains. Though damaged in earthquakes, war, and storms of time, the area remains open to the public for climbing and exploration, and Ted and I took an afternoon to hike up in the hot sun and take in the views.

The fortifications are a living medieval architectural history exhibit complete with ramparts, towers, citadels, gates, bastions, forts, cisterns, and castle, built up over the centuries according to the military architecture styles of Illyricum, Byzantium, Venice, and Austria.

What better opportunity to scamper around ancient ruins, imagine medieval fortress life, and admire the remnant architecture from ages past?

We arrived by bus from Dubrovnik, and after a night’s rest, we laced up our hiking boots and prepared to take a climb to admire the incredible setting and ancient construction.

First, we had to navigate the cooked streets and find the entry path. It was just up this little alleyway, tucked at the far back side of the old city, in between stone buildings and laundry lines.

We came upon a little table with a change box, an umbrella, and a toll-collector sitting in the shade who took our coins and wished us well. With that, we were on our own.

My favorite spottings along the way?

Wildflowers and wildly-pink colored trash bags hanging from metal loops.

There’s a concept for you: make trash collection in public places an art installation rather than an eyesore. Introduce a little whimsy.

Depending on the weather and the soles of your shoes, 1,350 steps may sound like a lot or a little, and depending on your travel budget, hiking at the cost of €3 a pop may sounds like a rip-off or junk change. In any case, we can make a few recommendations based on our little trek:

Choose sturdy footwear. The steps and terrain are uneven, and having laced tightened and thick rubber beneath your toes will give you the confidence to enjoy the climb without checking your footing the entire time. We were both glad to have our boots on. I didn’t envy the women in heels (yes, true!).

Take a water bottle. It’s farther to the top and hotter in the sun than it looks, and the people who cart up a cooler full of plastic bottles and ice and sell the liquid at exorbitant prices are making tons of money from ill-prepared adventurers fresh off the cruise ships. We finished off our own canteen and ended up springing for plastic screw-top at the tip of the mountain. Worth it, but it would’ve been just as easy to throw our second bottle in the bag.

Save a few pennies. If you’re not shy about early mornings or late nights, you can avoid the €3 fee by taking the sunrise or sunset hike. The gatekeeper told us they usually begin manning the fee table around 8am and stop collecting around 7pm. Go before or after and you can walk right up. We decided to take the afternoon route. In retrospect, with the midday heat locked up in the bowl between the mountains, it might have been nice to take the morning route and enjoy cooler temperatures and spend the euros on a thermos of coffee. (Then again, when we were doing the cold weather and hot thermos route, we might have been glad for hot, bright sunshine. Six of one, half dozen of the other.)

Take the detour. While you can climb all the way to the top of the castle, up to the flying flag, make sure you take the cutoff at the half way point and walk the side-route to the old arched door in the wall and the views to the backside of the hills. It’s quiet and beautiful, and you can spy the mountain goats chomping away at the meadow grass.

A few young climbing companions met along the way…

Views back from the fortress down to the Bay of Kotor
The flag of Montenegro flying high atop the castle ruins

Lastly, enjoy the sense of scale. The construction and setting are awesome, in the truest sense of the word. The walls are anywhere from six to forty feet thick and in places over sixty feet high, and the outer circumference is over three miles long. The natural features of the landscape’s steep, plummeting hills and peaceful water below are simply gorgeous, and the quiet beats any iTunes playlist.

A site of protection and strength: used by thousands for battle and refuge; used by one for peace and calm

Another happy discovery along our unanticipated route through Eastern Europe: a hike through the epic, real life landscapes that board game design-dreams are made of.

Settlers of Catan: Fortifications of Kotor Expansion Pack.

It has a nice ring to it, no?

I might need to ask my ever-skilled brother Drew to create some custom game pieces. Maybe they’ll be done in time for a sibling reunion game when we return home next year? (Hint, hint?)

Wool, lumber, ore, wheat, bricks…and gold and art and skilled architects.

We could be on to something, here…

For more history, see Kotor’s UNESCO World Heritage Site Status and the Fortifications of Kotor; for more snapshots and tidbits, see our city walkabout and market olive score.

This post is part of a series on our “Choose Your Own Adventure” travel through Eastern Europe: Croatia through Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, and Cyprus on to Lebanon. Otherwise known as “junior high geography songs come to life.”

Thanks for following along on our journey! We love hearing from friends at home and readers around the world and travelers we’ve met along the way, and we’re always glad to have you drop by twoOregonians for a visit. Please keep in touch; depending on internet access, we’re around the web on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Snail mail’s mostly out, but you can always drop us a line at twoOregonians AT

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  • Reply Rhys Pasimio July 12, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    That’s an expansion pack I could get excited about… :) I love the look of this town and the mountains!

    • Reply twoOregonians July 13, 2012 at 6:22 pm

      Thanks, Rhys! Pretty cool to be able to take it all in… Fingers crossed that it’ll be coming to a coffee table near you someday soon ; )

  • Reply Andi of My Beautiful Adventures July 12, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    WOW! What a breathtakingly beautiful place for a hike!!!!

    • Reply twoOregonians July 13, 2012 at 6:27 pm

      Truly! We were fortunate to arrive for such lovely weather and wildflowers, too…

  • Reply Andrew Buck July 13, 2012 at 9:13 am

    I’ll see what I can do. Victory points will obviously be distributed to whoever has the most THITW establishments.

    As always (and this is probably even getting old to hear), I love the pictures and I enjoy hearing your voice inside my head as I read.

    I can promise you *some* sort of expansion if you promise that you will one day come back. :P

    • Reply twoOregonians July 13, 2012 at 6:32 pm

      YES! Okay, we can rig the Christmas name-drawing… Also, let’s figure out a way to replace the bogus “one free city upgrade” card. ; )

      I promise to come back.

      Also, I’m glad to know you love the pics and ramblings. I like to share them : )

      Love you!

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  • Reply Jennifer July 17, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    Thanks for the tips! We have been debating whether to skip Kotor to head straight to Sveti Stefan on our Croatia-Montenegro-Bosnia road trip next month. May have to stop and hike to the top of the fortress. It just looks so beautiful!

    • Reply twoOregonians July 18, 2012 at 2:35 pm

      If you have the time and flexibility (and if the weather isn’t too hot), I think it’d definitely be worth the stop. The Old Town can be really crowded when there’s a cruise ship in port, but if you hit it on a calmer day, the climb to the ruins can be such fun! : )

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