Kotor Bay is known as the Mediterranean’s most beautiful fjord. The fact that the Mediterranean doesn’t have fjords is apparently irrelevant as is the fact that Kotor Bay is not a fjord. But it looks like a fjord, it acts like a fjord and it is startlingly beautiful, so let’s not be too picky.
The mouth of the “fjord” is governed by a narrow strait, just 1/3rd of a mile wide yet deep enough to accommodate the largest of ships
It takes the best part of an hour for the ship to reach the town of Kotor at the end of the fjord, and the scenery on the way is breathtaking. The fjord is lined by two mountain ranges. Instead of the thick pines of the Norwegian fjords, these pale limestone mountains are dotted with cypress and oak trees. Tiny villages perch on the mountainside, some accessible only by foot, struggling to survive in this modern world. The one in the photograph is such a village with just 12 inhabitants remaining
Lower down, small towns huddle by the water’s edge where the land is not so steep, their red tile roofs bearing the brunt of the Mediterranean sun.
There are just two islands in the fjord. Both are tiny but both dominate the area by reputation if not by stature .
One is natural (the one with trees) and is home to a 12th century Benedictine Monastery. No tourists are allowed on this island
The other is man-made and tourists flock to it, as much as “flocking” is possible with the few small tour boats that are available.
It began life as a small pile of rocks in the bay ignored by everyone until two fishermen discovered an image of the Virgin Mary there on July 22nd, 1452. There is some confusion over what that image was. Some say it was an actual icon, others that it was just an image on the rocks, still others claim it was a vision. No one mentions the intake of alcohol. Whatever the truth, legends are made of such stories, and any story featuring the Virgin Mary is always a winner. This was no exception.
The local fishermen took the story into their hearts and a tradition started. Every time a fisherman took his boat out he would take a rock and add it to the pile. There were many fishermen and they would go out every day. So the island grew. It didn’t take long before it was large enough for a tiny chapel to be built on it. The tradition continued and the island kept growing until in 1632 a somewhat larger church was built, with the wonderfully evocative name of Our Lady of the Rocks.
The romance of the story appeals as much today as it did six hundred years ago and so the tradition continues. Now at sunset on the 22nd of July every year the citizens of the local town take their boats out to the island and throw more rocks into the sea. The custom is known as fasinada, and the island keeps growing. Soon there will be a Four Seasons Hotel!
At the end of the fjord lies Kotor, a medieval walled city squashed in between sheer cliff walls and the sparking blue waters of the bay.
It has survived against invaders for centuries thanks to some truly imposing fortifications
with an imposing city wall that zigzags up the mountain behind it.
With a population of just 13,000, 3,000 of whom live within the old city walls, it is a treat to visit after some of the densely populated overcrowded places we have been to.
Many call it a small Dubrovnik, but it isn’t. It doesn’t have the ambitions of Dubrovnik, preferring to play it low-key. It feels lived in which Dubrovnik doesn’t, and this gives it a very different charm. It is perfect for a stroll, there are a few cafes, none of them busy, a few small shops, a couple of churches, some family washing hanging from the windows and lots of narrow cobbled streets to explore, all without the glitz and glamour of its famous neighbour
It is tailor-made for a cruise ship. We dock just a hundred yards or so from the old city walls. If you want to be energetic, you can climb the hundreds of steps zigzagging up the mountain side to view a monastery somehow clinging to the rock face. But don’t expect me to join you. If you want to see more of the fjord you can take the hop on, hop off bus. This is not the hop on/hop off bus of other cities. There is not much in the way of historical sights or famous places for you to hop on or off. Instead it winds its way along the staggeringly beautiful coast of the fjord, driving through the charming little towns and actually waiting for you while you visit the small museum, or local church. It is so civilized and so easy. If it served bubbles on the way it would be perfect. After the bus tour, a light lunch sitting outside a charming cafe within the city walls sounds wonderful, and I could even manage a glass or two of something light and refreshing, then a stroll round the town and back on the ship. A perfect day.
It sounds lovely, and indeed it is. But if dear reader, you like me have never heard of Kotor and are wondering where exactly we are I shall tell you. We are in Montenegro, once part of Serbia and before that part of Yugoslavia, with strong ties to Russia and communism. Not a country known for its human rights. It is one of the smallest European Countries (it is half the size of Vermont with a population of 600,000) and one of the poorest, while its long term president is known as one of the wealthiest rulers in the world. There is some discussion as to how Milo Dukanovic earned his wealth most of which centers around the country’s recent shady past, rumoured to be a safe haven for mafia mobsters and a place where authorities guaranteed the passage of illicitly traded goods. But supposedly that is all in the past, or is that just another rumour. Today the government is trying to clean up its act and gain entry into the EU.
Well off the tourist map, partly because of its history, it is only recently that the rest of the world is becoming aware that this tiny country has one of the most appealing coastlines in Europe, backed by starkly beautiful mountains, charming villages, reasonable prices and all of it remaining relatively unspoiled. There is no doubt that the newly found tourism industry is having a positive effect on the little towns lining the fjord. Small apartment buildings are going up everywhere. They are stylish and smart and can only be afforded by the well off. Financially, things are looking up for Montenegro. But sadly the promised democracy the people thought they were getting in 2006 is slowly being eroded with a regime of declining civil and political rights, while its media becomes increasingly stifled.
One of the advantages of cruising is that we get to see places we might never have visited and then we get to decide if we would like to return for a longer visit.
I want to return to this beautiful country but I am not sure that I should.