Kotor, Montenegro. A city I’d never heard of a year ago in a country I knew nothing about. Kotor has a unique geography and lays in an inland bay from the Adriatic Sea opposite Italy. The bay was fortuitous for the founders as it was easy to defend and allowed for calm waters. The plan was to arrive in the city at seven in the morning and make the hike up the stairs to the peak of San Giovanni’s Castle. The staircase zig zagged up the near vertical hillside, perhaps cliff is a more apt word, behind Kotor’s old town. And how did I decide to prepare for the morning’s trek? Why by drinking double digits of beer, wine, and whiskey of course. It was either excitement or alcohol not yet processed by my liver but when I woke at five I was ready to go.
We arrived at the dock by a shuttle boat, a hundred feet from the old city gate where we met our tour guide with a name full of consonants. He said we could just call him ‘Vana.’ He led us through the gates and into old town Kotor. A quaint, beautiful ancient village with old white bricked buildings and red tiled roofs. Clean villa squares of brick held numerous umbrella covered patios. We entered a small alley, stray cats lounged in the shade. The alley opened and the mountain fortress loomed nearly ninety-degrees up above us. Droplets of sweat were already beading at my brow and the familiar hangover began to creep in my stomach. Perhaps I was too cocky to think this would be a walk in the park. It was going to be a near vertical, dehydrated, head thumping, possibly vomit inducing march. Too late to turn back now. Too late to spend a month getting in shape on the Stairmaster. More present in my mind at the time, it was too late to stop after drink number four.
Vana’s long legs led us up the steps. He explained breathlessly how the fortress wall had begun being built in the 9th century but had not been completed until the 19th century. It was a reverse time machine as we climbed. Graciously pausing in front of the Church Of Our Lady Remedy, Vana paused for stragglers. Surprisingly I was not one of them. I hoped that the Lady’s Remedy was a Bloody Mary. Even in my stupor, or perhaps because of it, I found the small chapel beautiful. Established in 1518 the church’s dark gray stone base and bell tower had aged to the point where it had become part of the landscape, matching the mountain stone surrounding it. A peek inside showed what you would expect, a simple chapel with modest podium and wooden benches.
We continued on. The sun began to pour over the mountain above us, the comforting shade giving way to the soul crushing sun. My body wanted to be in a dark cave somewhere sleeping off the last whisky shot. I had to reach the top. I could sleep later, Kotor was here now. The stairs continued up and up. My thighs ached and Vana arrogantly strode along effortlessly above us. Finally the path plateaued out and we reached the fortress.
The castle was, in some ways, less impressive than I had hoped. Then again, could you blame the builders having to carry stone and mortar up that cliff? I couldn’t. Still though it was a beautiful overlook of the city. Kotor sat nestled almost directly below us. The red tiles now in full sunlight. Much of the group could be seen still below us making their way up. I approached Vana as he looked out at his city and asked simply if the city had ever been under siege or attacked. Apparently it had been under siege many times but had never fallen, the particular event Vana explained to me was the Siege of Shkodra in 1474 when the Ottoman’s had flooded the Kotor bay with hundreds of ships and thousands of soldiers. It was a scene my imagination had difficulty concocting. Kotor’s unique geographic position is what had been their salvation. The old city walls were built directly on the water leaving little to no room for staging an attack. A small stream along the city had provided them with fresh water and the added benefit of creating a current in front of the city which prevented sieging vessels from laying anchor, keeping them in continuous motion. Vana assured me that had the Ottoman’s wanted to they could have starved the city but it had become too costly for their Venetian backers to support and so they withdrew, onto an easier city to plunder. Exploring the castle more we came across dark, dungeon like rooms, stunning overlooks and goats grazing along the cliff side. Our time on the fortress exhausted Vana led the trek back down. I kept up with him asking him about Montenegro, Kotor, and how he liked being a tour guide, a job that had some appeal to me.
Back down in the city streets Vana lead us around pointing out various structures and churches, in my ever increasing state of withdrawal the names and significance escaped me, I’m sure they were fascinating. We came to a halt in a square where Vana thanked us and pointed us in the direction of food, drink, and shopping. Vana left us and we decided to eat. I couldn’t disagree. We wandered for a bit before settling on a perfectly shaded little restaurant-inn combination. I had a beer although curing this hangover by hair of dog methods was fruitless. Surprisingly here in Kotor was one of the best meals I’d had in Europe. I ordered a chicken sandwich with provolone cheese on some sort of ciabatta bread, singed black from the oven. Other’s ordered Nutella pancakes or a sort of charcuterie full of meats and spiced cheeses. We shared food and drank and as my companion’s conversations drowned into a murmur I fell asleep, finally, in my chair at the table. I don’t know how long I slept, but I know I slept well.