Warm summer days spent swimming and enjoying the endless waters of the Adriatic, are now giving way to more active afternoons spent exploring the majestic mountains that encircle the emerald sea.
The UNESCO world heritage Old Town of Kotor offers quite probably the most spectacular views across the bay and over the city below – well, that’s if you manage to climb to the top of the Old Town, namely to the fortress of Sveti Ivan (St John’s). There are precisely 11 300 steps which wind their way precariously to the top, but the effort and slog is entirely worth it once the summit is reached.
A source of immense pride to Montenegrins, the strenuous, but satisfying climb acts as a semi-ritual for locals, who enjoy chatting to their friends while the breathtaking views envelop them on the way up. The steps to the top blend in with the striking shouldering mountains by day, but it is at night that they truly come alive. For each step is lit up by a minute light every evening after sunset, and the full effect of these twinkling amber spotlights, from afar, is enchanting. Not only that, but when the stretch of steps is lit up consecutively, the reflection in the water below – as if by pure magic – forms a near-perfect heart. This is why the Old Town of Kotor has over the years acquired its moniker, ‘The Heart of Montenegro’.
The popular walk starts near the North Gate. Visitors enter through an archway and meander their way through several small alleyways, before the uphill trail – which reaches 260m above sea level – truly begins. The zig-zag-like path is made up of rough, broken cobbles – but there are steps and occasional handrails for ease.
A third of the way up – where, admittedly, some people halt their journeys altogether – is where Our Lady of Remedy, a beautiful self-contained church, is located. Built in 1518 by survivors of the 14th century plague, it became a site of pilgrimage. Here you can stop to catch your breath as you take in the arresting views over the myriad of terracotta roofs in Kotor below.
Climbing to the top of Kotor is best avoided during the searing heat of the summer months, but the milder autumnal temperatures that are now moving in across the country, are making hikes up the steps a little more palatable.
The walk down is often considered harder, not least because of the aching thighs and muscles that will have taken you to the top. But the views that accompany you make the exertion worthwhile. There are two options, too: either the path which led you up, or others sometimes opt to go via St. George Church, following the ‘Ladder of Kotor’ trail along the outer side of the city walls on the northern side of the moat.
From May – September, a €3 entrance fee is needed to climb the city walls, payable from 8am to 8pm, but the trail is free out of peak season. The total average time to hike the trail is two hours, so remember to bring a bottle of water to stay hydrated and wear comfortable shoes to avoid the incredible views being ruined by sore feet.