The church bells were calling as I sailed into Kotor. I had entered a fairytale. The soft light of dawn danced across the Adriatic. Rugged mountains rose from the water, the stretch of lush land at their feet peppered with quaint villages and the spires of churches. I expected to see a horse and carriage trotting along under the morning light.
The Gulf of Kotor, Montenegro, is a fjord. Limestone cliffs plunge into a water coloured the blue of minerals. No wind ruffled the surface, as if the bay lay magically protected. When a soft rain fell the place became even more beautiful.
The ship glided past Our Lady of the Rock, an islet off the coast opposite the small town of Perast. Legends holds how some shipwrecked fisherman found an icon of the Madonna on a rock. They vowed to build a church here, dedicated to Our Lady, the protector of all who sail the water. Whenever they returned from a voyage fishermen and sailors would place a rock here in thanks for their safe return. Slowly the islet rose from the waters, and the present church Gospa od Skrpjela (Our Lady of the Rock) was built in 1632. Every year during the Festival of Fašinada, locals still sail out at sunset to place more stones.
I entered the Old Town via the Sea Gate. Built in 1555, it is a stout gate in a stout wall, which stretches, via towers and bastions, to the Castel of St. John Fortress high in the hills above the town. (Just looking at the Castel gave me chest pain. Any invading army would be exhausted before making it halfway.) For the brave, these walls offer amazing views. By comparison the walls of Dubrovnik are a gentle stroll. Montenegro means Black Mountain, and Kotor sits where one these giants rises from the sea, with her walls clambering over the mountain’s feet.
By the Sea Gate stands a winged Lion of Venice, his paw resting on an open book (and so reflecting a time of peace – should the book be closed, Venice was at war when the carving was made). In the vaulted passage, half-hidden by the gloom, is a gothic relief of the Virgin and Child, with St Tryphon holding the town, and St Bernard looking on.
Inside the Old Town
Once inside the Old Town, winding streets become cobbled squares, many with a name reflecting the trade once done here (such as Milk Square and Salad Square). The Sea Gate opens onto Trg od Oruzja (Arms Square), dominated by the former Rector’s Palace and Town Hall, but it is the clock tower which is the most recognisable landmark of Kotor. It stands slightly askew from the many earthquakes which have struck the town.
A narrow alley led from Arms Square to Trg od Brasna (Flour Square), now lined with 18th C mansions. From here, another passaageway led to Trg Sv Tripuna. Here stands St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, which dates from 1166. St. Tryphon became Kotor’s patron saint in 890, when a passing merchant ship sold the head of the hapless saint (who had died 500 years earlier) to the town fathers.
The cathedral is a beautiful example of Romanesque-Gothic architecture and art. On one side a flight of stairs leads up to the Treasury, where the relics of St. Tryphon rest in a silver chest. There is also a magnificent collection of votives, sculptures and ecclesiastical paintings.
On Giving Up on the Map
After St. Typhon’s Cathedral, I gave up with the map. The language has a distinct lack of vowels, there were few road names, mysterious alleyways kept appearing, and most of the time I had no idea where I was. Yet, like Venice, the old town of Kotor is car free, and perfect for ambling along. So I simply wandered. Eventually I ended up at one of the gates in the wall, re-established my bearings, and begin again.
Kotor is a town with either an Orthodox or Christian church on every corner. I came across one entirely enclosed by the surrounding buildings, and looking old enough to date back to the Crusades. With its walls of striped faded pink and white limestone, it just beckoned to be visited, but the bronze door was firmly closed. I found out later this was the Church of Crkva Sv Marisa (Church of St Maria), built in 1221 in memory of the Blessed Ozana, a local nun who galvanised the people of Kotor into repelling an invasion by Barbarossa.
The church adjoins Trg od Drva (Wood Square) which leads to the North or River Gate (dating back to 1540). Just outside a bridge crosses the river to the ruined Monastery of St. Nicolas. The sound of running water filled the air.
Back within the town, in the Trg Sv Luke, the Church of St. Luke and the orthodox Church of St. Nicholas stand almost opposite one another. Outside St. Nicholas an elderly Orthodox priest in full regalia warmly greeted all who entered. Unusually for Kotor, this church was built in the early 20th C. Its interior is dominated by four oversized paintings of the Evangelists, done by the Russian School of Art. The works are simply monumental, the figures larger than life, solid in stature, and painted in vivid colours. They come straight from the propaganda machine of the 1950s, needing only a hammer and sickle to complete the imagery, or the strong arms of a woman ploughing the fields.
By comparison, St Luke’s required an entrance fee. The interior is quite bare, adorned only with some remnants of medieval frescoes. Upstairs, more frescoes give hints of a bygone world, along with relics encased in crystal, silver and gold, the bones exposed for veneration.
In a forgotten alleyway my husband had his hair cut by a lady who spoke no English, and emerged shorn of his wild locks and with his beard trimmed. Afterwards we sat at one of the many cafes with a coffee and a platter of local white cheese, salami and olives. From nearby came the sound of dancers performing for the tourists who were now flooding the town. Yet where I sat, in a quite square shaded with grape vines, was still the world of my fairy-tale.
The Literary Traveller
Kotor and her history is a world away from my experience, although this part of the
Balkans has shaped so much of modern history. In The Full Monte, Paul Dishamn describes his experience as he works as a professor in the country. His grandfather was born here, and the journey becomes both history and personal, but always heartwarming and unexpected.
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