The Old Town of Kotor lay in the shadows of the fearsome St. John’s Hill and the walls protecting this town are a fortification masterpiece at up to 15 meters wide and 20 meters high each. These walls are skillfully crafted into the natural steep slopes of the hill and the view of this town on approach is one of the amazing sights, not only of the Mediterranean, but of the world.
A person’s first look at Kotor, whether from the sea or from the road, always leaves a strong impression. Kotor is unique for several reasons. It is located on the only natural fjord of its kind in the world and in a bay that has made the list of Most Beautiful Bays in the World. But visiting Kotor is about more than beautiful views—it’s also about experiencing the cultural heritage of Boka Kotorska Bay.
While there is no accurate information regarding the founding of Kotor, archaeologists believe that it rose on the foundations of the ancient city of Acruvium. Legend has it that Alkima, a fairy, advised the Serbian king, Stefan Dusan, not to build his town in the hills “where boats don’t have a harbor and where horses run about”, but to instead build near the sea. In Phoenician myth, the town was founded after Argonauts’ conquest for the Golden Fleece.
Whichever story might be correct, it is believed that the roots of Kotor stretch back before Homer (10-12 BCE), a time when Phoenicians ruled the Mediterranean. This means that Kotor is an ancient city, as old as the sea trade in the Adriatic.
Kotor has been known under many names throughout history—among them Katareo, followed by Dekatera, Dekaderon and Katarum, among others. Archaeologists have confirmed that between the 7th and 4th centuries BCE, the first settlers to Kotor were Greek, followed by Illyrians and then Romans, who ruled the area for 650 years. The town was demolished by the Visigoths in the 5th century AD and later became a part of the Byzantine Empire in 476 AD, and remained under this power for more than 400 years. Kotor became the capital of Boka Kotorska Bay in the 7th century AD after the former capital at Risan fell to attacks by the Slovenian tribes. The Slovenian tribes also dominated Kotor around the 10th and 11th centuries AD when the area was ruled by Doklea and Zeta.
Kotor was at its most prosperous as a Serbian state during the Nemanjić dynasty of 1185-1371. During this time, Kotor was an independent state that lived by its own bylaw. The Serbian ruler, Stefan Nemanja established a palace in the town.
When the turks defeated Nemanja, Kotor fell into crisis as the people recognized three different rulers: the Hungarian king, the Venetian Republic and the Bosnian King Tvrtko. And from 1391 to 1420, Kotor was once again an independent state, with a duke serving as its head master.
The town changed head masters several times before accepting Venetian rule in 1420—the Venetians ruled Kotor until 1797. This relationship proved mutually beneficial because the Venetians provided protection to Kotor, but during the Ottoman raid, Kotor provided protection to the Venetians with its high walls.
From 1797 to 1814, Kotor fell into another period of transition, with Austria taking over in 1797, followed by Russia in 1806 and France from 1808 to 1813. When the French rule collapsed in 1813, Metropolitan Petar I Petrovic unified Boka Kotorska with Montenegro, although the area spent much of the next 100 years under Austrian rule. In 1918, Boka Kotorska and Montenegro became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
There are three entrances to the Old Town, including the Sea Gate of 1555 which serves as the main door. Huddled underneath the rocks of Mt Lovćen, bordered from the north by a short but violent river Škurda and to the west by an underwater spring Gurdić, Kotor (after the earthquake in 1667) has all the features of a Baroque town.
The layers of history prove that construction of palaces and dwellings was not the only skill in this town. Seafaring, as well as artistry, weaponry and goldsmithing were equally popular trades in Kotor. Even the Bishop of Montenegro Njegoš mentioned Kotor in his famous poem “The Mountain Wreath” when he wrote “… at sea lots of craftsmen…”
Today, Kotor is on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sights due to its yield of historic figures including Fra Vito—the architect of the Monastery Dečani, Lovro Marinov Dobričević—icon painter, as well as countless sea captains, diplomats, publishers and poets. In addition, this town preserves another unique feature—it is the only town where the tradition of seafaring unity prevailed and continues on! The Bokeljska mornarica (Navy of Boka Kotorska Bay) has been active for more than twelve centuries and still uses its original traditional admiral, clothing, dance and ceremonies.
Kotor is also unique because it is the only town on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea to be located by name in historic and strategic maps. Old Kotor was built like a maze for protective purposes and it is very easy to get lost here. In fact, even the locals get lost. Take on wrong turn and you will wind up far from your destination. This can happen even with a town map in hand. However, looking for landmarks, such as the 12th century St. Tryphon Cathedral, will help—and these landmarks are listed on nearly every tourist map. What can be more difficult is finding places like the Maritime Museum, which is located inside the Grgurina Palace, or finding public squares with funny names such as the Lattice Square, Flour Square, Milk Square and Cinema Square.
For tourists, Kotor should be more than simply a one-day visit. However, if you’re pressed for time, the best way to see as much of the town as possible is to start at the main gate and work clockwise. From the main Arms Square, you will go right across the Flour Square to the Cathedral, then left to the Maritime Museum, straight on to the square housing the Churches of St. Luka and St. Nikola and then left, which will lead you back to where you started from.