28 May 2019－I was in Kotor, a small coastal town in Montenegro, all of 36 hours. So much as I'd like, I won't be giving you an in-depth Kotor travel guide. What I will do is provide you with all the Kotor tips you'll need to inspire you before you get here.
I'd heard so much about Kotor but I tried to manage my expectations - no place is perfect, right?
So I went with an open mind - and instantly fell in love. But like all loves, once in a while it can be rocky...
As I drove into Kotor from the south, it unfurled, first the outskirts (never an attractive part of town), then the walls of Kotor old town, and then out the other end, along the bluest, calmest of waters, on a small, nearly car-free road bordered by glorious Italianate villas and... I'm getting carried away.
The exquisite Bay of Kotor unfurls in front of you, behind you, almost everywhere you look. There are hidden nooks and crannies and stairways heading up the mountain, many of them hidden under ancient vines or behind lush flowers.
Kotor has been blessed with a an environment that is striking at worst, sublime at best.
First, a disclosure if you will... I did NOT climb up this myself.
I sat in a café in the Old Town sipping a macchiato (at the San Giovanni, if you must know) and watched the brave and hardy trudge up the more than 1350 steps towards St John Fortress. They began their climb with a spring but, as they advanced, they began to slow, once (I'm guessing) the full realization of their ambition caught up with them.
This hike isn't for the untrained.
Certainly it wasn't for me, but oh, those views...
It rained the entire time I was in Kotor and a test of a place's attractiveness is how you see it when water is pouring down the streets, off your umbrella and, eventually, onto your head. (If you seek refuge under one of those large protective umbrellas used by restaurants, note this: do not sit where two umbrellas join; when it pours, the water can fall between those cracks and onto your unfortunate head, bag and pasta...)
But once you give up on the pasta and start walking around, nothing, not even the rain, will dampen your enthusiasm. (I do seem to attract the rain, though - on a recent trip to Milan, I struggled to find some sun too...)
Plenty of cities have cat cafés but Kotor has raised its feline veneration to loftier heights: no cat cafe here, but an entire Cats Museum.
Because Kotor is full of cats... but how did they get here?
According to informed popular belief, the cats probably arrived on ships - Kotor is a port, after all - and they stayed and multiplied, feasting on the city's mice and snakes (Kotor is surrounded by mountains, so wildlife is plentiful).
As I sat drinking my macchiato, a cat sauntered by, took a bored look at me, and kept going. What? No begging? No rolling around being cute in the hope of a pastry morsel? Not in the least.
And then it happened again, with another cat. These cats weren't hungry. On the contrary, they seemed chop-licking smug and satisfied, well-fed and content.
Homage to these cats is paid by the Cats Museum, a tiny but delightful collection of feline paraphernalia, ranging from cat bingo cards to antique etchings - and a souvenir shop (yes, I bought two cat fridge magnets). The museum also helps feed the town's cats, so don't forget to donate!
Not up for cats? Head to one the Maritime Museum or the Palace of Living History while waiting for the rain to stop.
Usually this refers to the best time of year but for Kotor, it's all about the best time of day.
Kotor is not a well-kept secret. According to the World Data Atlas, 112,789 tourists visited Kotor in 2017, up from 54,241 in 2013, an average annual growth rate of 27.90 %. Walking through the old town at high noon, even in the rain, I felt as though I could reach out and touch every single one of those tourists.
In some of the narrower alleys, I had to wait for long lines to pass through, in single file (umbrellas didn't help) and listen as tour guides tried to outdo one another in volume and explanations.
BUT - not all is lost. You can avoid the crowds in Kotor.
The first thing is to visit outside rush hour. From what I can gather, the larger groups begin in earnest at around 10am and pedestrian traffic (the entire old town is car-free) thins out around 5pm so if you avoid those peak hours, you won't have the place to yourself, but you won't risk losing an eye to an umbrella or elbow.
My other tip is to burrow into the smaller alleys - and there are plenty. Most tour groups stick to the main squares and the larger alleyways, so don't hesitate to dart off into the more neglected side streets. You'll be delighted!
There be ships. Huge ships. Kotor is a cruise port... And a mind-boggling number of visitors disembark each day, making a beeline for the old town. During my visit, two such ships were berthed, and it wasn't even high season.
I was told to eat fish and seafood, and being the obedient type I headed straight for a plate of fried calamari; my next meal was a pasta with shrimp; and my final meal was a giant pot of steamed mussels.
Kotor lived up to its foodie reputation - three out of three, in my opinion.
The fried calamari were of a rare crispiness and so fresh I could almost inhale them. There was also fresh fish but it's priced per 100g. Without any notion of the weight of a fish (and being on my own to eat it) I hesitated, and stuck to seafood. If you do decide to go for fish, and it did look good, make sure you ask how much it weighs before you order it or you might be in for a surprise.
My single recommendation: Bonoba Akoustik, about 5 minutes out of the old town, towards the right, at the start of Dobrota, the section of Kotor that follows the shoreline. Some of the best Kotor restaurants are apparently inside the old town... I just can't recommend any because I stuck to Akoustik.
While I can understand the charm of staying in the old town - the entire region is protected as a World Heritage Site under UNESCO, by the way - I was thrilled to be staying in Dobrota (I found a cozy, reasonable hotel, the Vila Panonija). The seafront section of this "suburb" winds along the shore for several kilometers, and the homes that line it － elegant mansions, scattered churches and a few modern flats － are no more than a couple of meters from the water (many have been turned into summer rentals).
Tiny pebble beaches dot this part of town, which you can enjoy either in your bathing suit or from the comfort of one of the many restaurants that jut out to sea along the promenade. It doesn't get much better.
And it doesn't have to be costly. Yes, there are plenty of luxurious restaurants, but there are also perfectly affordable pizzerias and casual eateries.
I put 'try' in quotes because I tried and failed.
Being a solo traveler, finding a paying tour is expensive. Most are priced with 3-4 people in mind so the prices you see posted on any popular tour platform is the price you'll pay if there are several people on the tour. I did try, but each time I chose 1 person in the drop-down menu, the price snowballed and the initially reasonable prices that attracted me quickly disappeared.
So I tried the Kotor Free Walking Tour, which sounded quite promising - I've taken free walking tours in many cities and usually enjoyed them. I even paid €1 to reserve a Saturday tour online, a week ahead of time... and 55 minutes before it was supposed to start, as I was leaving my hotel, I received an email telling me I couldn't join because of "lack of availability". Perhaps I was the only person on the tour and it wouldn't have been worth it for the guide... or maybe they were spooked by the rain... either way, I was not destined to have a walking tour of Kotor.
That said, visiting Kotor on your own without a tour is perfectly fine. Just wander the streets of the old town, stroll along Dobrota, or head up to the fortress.
You'll be welcomed in restaurants (and no, you won't be seated behind the potted palm). I found it to be perfectly safe, certainly until after dinner. I walked quite far along the shore after supper and back - the boardwalk was crowded with families.
Not only did I fail to find a walking tour － but I was obviously not destined to have a tour of the bay, either... For €15, I signed up for a slow boat tour (there are plenty of speedboats but no thanks) and waited for the scheduled departure, along with half a dozen others. But then they told us a group was late and the tour would leave in three hours so, again, fail.
Still, please try to get out of Kotor town and travel along the Montenegro coast, even for an hour or two. A quick look at the photos below will show you why.
Yes, you read right. If you happen to be a Trekkie, or Star Wars fan, you may know Kotor as a video game based on the popular cinema franchise. So when I tried to research Kotor online before my trip, I kept finding Star Wars references - and that's because the game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, is also known as Kotor.
But no, nothing to do with the city... as far as I know, but then, I've never played it.
I saw plenty of police in Kotor, which I think were there to regulate the many tourists, buses and cars. They seem effective: I saw a pedestrian stopped for jaywalking, and other visitors report their cars being towed for parking in the wrong place so beware: if you're driving, make sure you head for the nearest parking lot.
I also observed quite a few abandoned buildings, whether unfinished or in disuse, so if you happen to be an urban explorer, it might be worth hunting some of these down.
And finally, in terms of getting to Kotor, you have plenty of choices. I flew into the capital, Podgorica, and hired a car and driver for €40 each way. You can't take the bus directly from Podgorica airport but you can take a taxi to the bus station and then hop a bus. Kotor itself has an airport, Tivat, so you could go there directly. Or if you happen to be in Dubrovnik, you can take a Dubrovnik to Kotor bus, or an organized day trip.
And that's my first impression of Kotor: stunning, delicious, and worth a bit of planning to avoid the crowds.
Because there are some things that apply to the entire country...
So... would I come back to Montenegro? In a flash, to revisit Kotor, of course, but also to see the rest of the country, which is at least as gorgeous. (I know this... I've been googling!)