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You will be rewarded if you set your alarm for an early start at Kotor, Montenegro, because part of the fun is entering the Bay of Kotor and gliding for an hour through the mountains on a 17-mile waterway that some people call Europe's southernmost fjord. It's not actually a fjord, as fjords are caused by glacial activity, and the Bay of Kotor is the result of an old river running from the interior to the Adriatic Sea. Still, the views are fjord-like, with mountains rising on both sides of a long, thin bay that leads to the old walled town of Kotor. Cruise ships often begin the bay journey as early as 6:15 a.m. to arrive at Kotor by 8 a.m.
The Old City of Kotor is an ancient trade center, due to its fortified entrance to the sea. It's also a UNESCO World Natural and Historical Heritage Site and Montenegro's most famous town. The Old Town is a well-preserved collection of buildings, churches, squares and stone streets that date back to the Middle Ages. The car-free, walled town is just across the street from the city's cruise-ship dock.
Kotor is full of shops and little restaurants for coffee, beer or lunch, mostly eaten outside on tables placed in one of the city squares. Pick a square, order a coffee, and gaze at churches from the 12th through the 15th centuries. If you're reading about each of these churches from a guidebook, sitting in Kotor's midmorning sun with your coffee, you'll be onto your second cup before you get through the chapter.
Looking for great views? Put on your walking shoes for a hike. The city walls climb the mountain behind the town, and it's about 90 minutes up to the fortress at the crown (at 853 feet) and back down.
If your ship is in port for just a few hours, you may want to concentrate only on exploring the Old Town. If you have all day, consider excursions that head into the mountains for sightseeing and stops at seaside resorts on the Adriatic.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Athens (Piraeus) • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete (Heraklion) • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon (Olympia) • Koper • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Odessa • Positano (Amalfi) • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Yalta • Zadar
As you explore the Old Town, you'll see more than a dozen shops with locally made woolen goods, wood carvings, lace, embroidery and hand-painted pottery, all of which make fine gifts and souvenirs. I liked the little, handmade, woven wool slippers as gifts for the women in my family. I found my booties at a shop called Cilim.
The official language is Montenegrin, which evolved from the ancient Slavic and shares the same origin as languages of the nearby Croats, Serbs and Bosnians. A proud Montenegrin pointed out that his language contains 33 letters, while the Serbs and Croats each have only 30.
Just about everybody in Kotor also speaks English, and those who don't tend to understand it.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Kotor and all the rest of Montenegro use the euro as local currency. (Check www.xe.com for the latest exchange rates.) There are ATM machines in town.
Where You're Docked
The cruise ship dock is just across the street from the Old City's Sea Gate, built in 1555. It's a walk of maybe 50 yards from the pier to the Old Town.
You'll find souvenir shopping opportunities, coffee and snacks, money exchange capabilities and inexpensive Internet connectivity, both wired and wireless, near the Old Town entrance.
Walking is the only way to move around the Old Town, which is fairly small. Nonetheless, your extra steps will be rewarded if you head as deep into the village as possible. As the streets get skinnier, the shops get more interesting.
Local drivers will meet you at the ship and try to sell you tours of the countryside, at a cost of about 60 euros an hour for the car. Make sure you want to go where they want to take you, and do a little English test with the driver so you know he can speaks well enough for you to understand him. I heard positive stories from travelers who said they booked rewarding taxi tours, but I also heard from others who said they liked the scenery but didn't understand much of the tour.
Watch Out For
It's easy to feel lost in the maze of the Old Town, but it doesn't really matter. You're never far from the Sea Gate, and anybody you ask can tell you where to go. If you do walk the city walls, wear a sturdy pair of shoes to protect you from loose rocks and uneven steps.
Scenery of the Bay of Kotor: One reason to get up early, when your cruise ship is entering the Bay from the west is to see two tiny islands at the mouth of the bay. They pick up the early morning glow as the rising sun first peeks above the peaks of the mountains of Montenegro to the east. The green island is Our Lady of the Reef, a diving site. The other is St. George, home to a Benedictine monastery that dates from the 12th century.
Maritime Museum: Revel in the past of the old port on Kotor Bay. The navy that defended the bay has been active for more than 12 centuries. It's called Bokeljska momarica and still uses its traditional clothing and ceremonies. If you want to know more, check out the Maritime Museum, located inside Grgurina Palace, which offers a good picture of the proud history of sailors who worked and explored the seas from Kotor. (Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to noon.)
Churches: In the Old Town, you can't miss the churches, which stand out and over the other buildings of Kotor's many squares. Among the 12th- and 13th-century churches are St. Tryphon Cathedral (Sveti Tripun), with its Romanesque-Gothic architecture, and the Basilica of St. Luke (Luka), with original frescoes inside. St. Luke is also noted for having two altars -- one Catholic, one Orthodox -- which locals say shows Kotor's religious tolerance.
Cafe Scene: For people-watching, sip a coffee or beer in any of the squares that get smaller as you walk deeper into the Old Town.
City Wall: For 2 euros, you can walk the city wall. Begin at one of several points on the street levels. Beware of loose stones and uneven steps. Climbers are rewarded with views at a resting -- and perhaps turnaround -- spot about half way up at the Chapel of Our Lady (or, depending on the translation, the Healing Mother of God (Gaspe od Zdravlja)), built in 1572 by the survivors of a plague. At the top is an even better view of the town and bay. A long stairway leads to a citadel built on the site of an ancient fortress. Total time: about 90 minutes.
Been There, Done That
Active Travel: For kayaking in Kotor Bay or day-hiking into the mountains, Adventure Montenegro offers day-tours.
Wine-Tasting: Montenegro has a Wine Road. Best known are those wines produced by Plantaze Vineyards. The Plantaze Sipcanik Wine Cellar was opened at the end of 2007 in accordance with the principle of French chateaus -- cellars are dug in the middle of vineyards, in the same ground and the same rock from which the vines grow. The cellar is about 90 feet under the ground, shaped like a tunnel. You will need about seven to eight hours, as the drive from Kotor to Podgorica and the Plantaze Vineyards of Cemovo is about two hours. If you'd prefer a guided tour, try Globtour Montenegro.
Highly recommended: Kayak Montenegro
Pizza and pasta head the menus of most of the small restaurants that spill out onto Kotor's squares. The cuisine of this coastal region also features seafood and vegetables that are marinated, sautéed or baked in olive oil.
Lunch in the middle of Old Town at La Pasteria (Pjaca Tripun St., in the center of town) will provide people-watching, pizza and pasta. Also, try the Konoba Catovic Mlini for its tavern and seafood, as recommended by a resident of Kotor.
For something a little finer, try lunch in the Astoria (Stari Grad, +382 32 30 27 20), a boutique hotel within the city walls, in a building that dates back to the 14th century. It's worth a stop just to wander the halls. There's a restaurant on the roof with views of the water, as well as a bar with wine and spirits. The menu there features local specialties, such as octopus salad, rice with fish, thick fish soup and grilled squid.
For More Information
On the Web:
National Tourism Organisation of Montenegro
Kotor Tourist Organization, Stari grad 328, +382 32 325 952
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Other Mediterranean Ports Forums
The Independent Traveler: Eastern Europe Forum
--by David G. Molyneaux, blogger and editor at TheTravelMavens.com