Things to Do in Montenegro
Working its way inland from Montenegro’s Adriatic Coast, the fjord-like Bay of Kotor—known locally as Boca—is one of Europe’s great natural beauties. Backed by rugged mountain peaks, scattered with sparkling blue coves, and dotted with medieval waterfront villages, this glittering inlet reveals a postcard-perfect scene at every turn.
Tucked deep into a finger of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast, the photogenic town of Kotor started life back in Roman times as a port and was protected by fortified walls that were finally completed by the Venetians in the 14th century. Butted up against the rugged cliffs of St John’s Hill, its biggest draws are its spectacular geographical setting and the delightful Old Town (Stari Grad), which is wrapped in a protective mantle of sturdy walls and was built between the 12th and 14th centuries; over the years it has been occupied by the Venetians, the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, Napoleon and – more latterly – the Italians and Serbians. Today it is increasingly popular as a stopover on Mediterranean cruises and, thanks to its eclectic past – showcased in its architecture – the town was granted UNESCO status in 1979.
Although Kotor Old Town gets rammed with visitors in high summer, it remains a charming respite from the modern-day town, built on a grid of narrow alleyways and marble-paved, fountain-filled piazzas backed by soft sandstone town houses lined with cafés and shops. Entered through a series of gates in the walls, it is home to the twin-spired Cathedral of Saint Tryphon (Sveti Tripun), constructed in the 12th century in honor of the patron saint of Kotor, plus several Romanesque churches, the 17th-century Prince’s Palace and a theater commissioned by Napoleon in 1810 (now part of a hotel). That’s also a small historical museum but the laid-back charm of Kotor Old Town is best appreciated while simply wandering around its tangle of streets.
Perched on one of two small islands in the Bay of Kotor, just off the coast of Perast, the 17th-century Our Lady of the Rocks church is a majestic sight. Framed by mountain peaks and cobalt blue waters, the church appears to float on the water’s surface, and has fast become one of Montenegro’s most photographed landmarks.
One of only two Roman Catholic cathedrals in Montenegro, the Romanesque twin-towered cathedral of St. Tryphon (Sveti Tripun) is found in the delightful alleyways of Kotor Old Town and dedicated to the patron saint of the town. Standing on the site of an older church built in the seventh century by Andrija Saracenis to house the relics of Tryphon, the cathedral was consecrated in 1166 but thanks to a series of earthquakes, it has had several incarnations down the centuries. Today’s façade dates from 1667, when the Baroque bell towers were added, but the interior still remains an homage to Romanesque architecture. The vaulted roof is criss-crossed with tiny bricks and supported by pink brick pillars as well as marble columns, forming a three-aisle nave. There are 14th-century frescoes on the walls of the cathedral and a wooden crucifix in the reliquary chapel dates from 1288; here lie the relics of several saints, including Tryphon’s hand encased in silver. The cathedral’s biggest draw, however, is the silver-and-gold screen featuring a range of saints that covers the main altar; this is considered the most precious religious artifact in Montenegro and is topped with a stone carving depicting the life of St. Tryphon.
Built in 1602, the clock tower in the center of Kotor is the focal point of the town. Standing three stories tall with two clock faces, it is one of the first things people see as they enter the town through the main sea gate. Combining elements of both Baroque and Gothic architecture, the tower is made of gray stone and features a coat of arms on the front of the building that belonged to the family of a Montenegrin prince from the era when it was built. On the ground level is a watchmaker’s shop that is said to have been there since the 17th century. In front of the tower is a small pyramid shaped stone that served as a pillar of shame where local criminals were once tied as punishment.
Sitting on the edge of an inlet that wends inland from the sea, the Montenegrin town of Kotor has its origins back in Roman times; as an important Adriatic port it was fortified from the ninth century onwards, with the Venetian occupiers of the town eventually finishing the ramparts in the 14th century, Extending three miles (4.5 km) around Kotor Old Town, the walls rise steeply out of the sea at their base and extend steeply up the slopes of St John’s Hill behind the Old Town. Made of grey limestone, at points the walls measure several meters and can be circumnavigated on foot for fine views of the red-roofed stone townhouses and for panoramas across the emerald waters of the Bay of Kotor. Along the cobbled, circular pathway are several fortresses and churches, including those dedicated to St Ivan and Our Lady of the Remedy, leading up to the crumbling ruins of the Fortress of St John, which is about 850 feet (260 meters) above sea level. The entrance to the walk is through the North Gate of Kotor Old Town’s fortified walls and the route takes about two hours to complete; in summer the walls are wonderfully illuminated at night, glittering like a halo around the town.
Often referred to as the Grand Canyon of Europe and running a course of 150 km (93.75 miles), the truly spectacular Tara River Canyon is one of the longest gorges in Europe and at its deepest cuts more than 1,300 meters (4,300 feet) through the Durmitor National Park in Montenegro. Running northwards and feeding into the Drina River, which rises in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Sutjeska National Park, the Tara is fed in its turn by five tributaries and its canyon is blessed with more than 40 cascading waterfalls bringing crystal-clear water from the Dinaric Alps.
Along the canyon’s limestone walls are numerous cave complexes; at the foot of its sheer cliffs are pebble-sized beaches, rocky viewpoints and vast boulders dumped by the force of the river; and at its highest point rises the peak of Ćurevac, which looms 1,625 meters (5,331 feet) over the river. Since plans to dam and flood the Tara river canyon were shelved in 2005, the river has become the most challenging and popular white-water rafting attraction in the country thanks to its bubbling rapids, emerald water and awesome canyon scenery, lined with lush, overhanging forest. A variety of river-borne adventures are available, dependent on experience, from one-day to four-day packages; rafting tours can also be combined with jeep safaris or several days’ hiking into the national parks.
Located on Montenegro’s Lustica Peninsula, the Blue Cave is one of the country’s most popular attractions. Also known as the Blue Grotto, it derives its name from the iridescent blue water that is reflected throughout the cave. The largest of several caves on the peninsula, the Blue Cave features clear, warm water about five meters deep that is great for swimming or snorkeling. Indeed, many say you need to see the water underneath the surface to truly appreciate it. With a ceiling about nine meters high, the cave is a popular stop for tour boats, most of which will give you about 10-15 minutes to take a quick swim.
Covering 62 square kilometers in southwestern Montenegro, Lovcen National Park is home to Mount Lovcen, the black mountain that gave Montenegro its name. Located between the sea and the mainland, the park and the mountain feature a mix of Mediterranean and Continental climates and, thus, a wide variety of flora and fauna. The most notable monument in the park is the mausoleum of Petar Petrovic Njegos, a prince-bishop of Montenegro, poet and philosopher. On the summit of Jezerski Peak, the mausoleum is at the end of a 461-step path and offers views as far as Albania and Croatia on clear days.
The park is also home to the Ivanova Korita resort on the eastern slope of Jezerski Peak. There, you can find restaurants and hotels, as well as a small ski slope in the winter. The most popular activities in the park are hiking in the summer and Nordic skiing in the winter.
The Church of St. Luke in Kotor is one of the oldest churches in Montenegro. Originally built in 1195 as a Catholic church, the modest single nave building features both Romanesque and Byzantine architectural elements. Only fragments of the original 12th century frescoes remain today. The iconostasis dates to the 17th century and the floor is made of tomb panels as citizens of Kotor were buried underneath the church through the 19th century. The church is particularly unique due to the existence of Catholic and Orthodox altars standing side by side and from 1657 to 1812, services for both religions took place. Miraculously, the church was the only building in Kotor that did not suffer major damage during a 1979 earthquake.
More Things to Do in Montenegro
The most visited pilgrimage destination in Montenegro, the Ostrog Monastery is also one of the most popular Christian sites in the world. The 17th-century Serbian Orthodox monastery is carved into a mountain cliff 2,953 feet (900 m) above the Zeta Valley, and is dedicated to Saint Basil of Ostrog, who is buried there. The upper section of the monastery contains the Church of the Presentation, home to Saint Basil’s relics and 17th-century frescoes, as well as the Church of the Holy Cross, a small cave church. The lower monastery holds the Church of the Holy Trinity and the monks' residences.
Tradition dictates that pilgrims walk the three kilometers from the lower to upper monastery barefoot. Spectacular views of the Bjelopavlici plain await at the top.
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