After a major earthquake hit the Montenegrin coast in 1979, causing great damage to the Old Town of Kotor, the city was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which helped the ensure the reconstruction of this beautiful historical port. The Yugoslav wars of the Nineties caused havoc in the tourist industry along the Adriatic coast, and the ancient gems of Dalmatia such as Dubrovnik, Split and Kotor practically disappeared from the tourist map. Now, though, they are coming into their own again with all the glory of their rich cultural legacy and their stunning natural setting.
A small and accessible town, Kotor is an absolute delight to explore. With its labyrinth of shady cobbled streets, peaceful squares and graceful old buildings, its medieval tiles, moss-covered sculptures, dark alleyways and ancient friezes, it's like a scene from a fairytale. And there is no shortage of cosy cafes, unusual craft shops and boutiques to tempt the visitor. .
Set on the Bay of Kotor, a submerged river canyon that winds some thirty kilometres inland from the Adriatic Sea, and with tall mountains rising at its back, the city appears to boast the protection of nature. Sadly, history shows that this protection has not been sufficient. The earliest fortifications date to the sixth century AD, but the town has changed hands time and again and there's no part of European history that is not represented somewhere in Kotor.
The city's Italian heritage – the great city wall was built when the port was part of the Republic of Venice – is evident in the elegant Baroque mansions, and the Turkish and Mediterranean influence is clear in the warmth of the local people, who are eager to welcome visitors and make their stay unforgettable.
The Old Town, with its main square – the Square of Arms – is home to such architectural gems as the twelfth century Cathedral of Saint Tryphon and the thirteenth century Church of St. Luke as well as a number of fine mansions which show the former economic importance of the city. Look out for Grubonja Palace, dating from 1326, Drago Palace with its fine Gothic windows, the Prima Palace and the Bizanti Palace with their combination of Renaissance and Baroque architectural elements, the Ducal Palace and the nineteenth-century Napoleon Theatre.
From the romantic Baroque town of Perast, farther round the Bay of Kotor, boat trips are available to the two tiny islets, Gospa od Skrpijela, with its interesting church full of mosaics, and Sveti Djordje with its Benedictine monastery. The Adriatic coast of Montenegro also offers beautiful beaches such as Budva – where the tourism and nightlife have earned the area the name of the Budva Riviera – and, farther south, the more affordable Sutomore and Ulcinj, almost on the border with Albania.
Montenegro has two international airports at Podgorica and Tivat. Just across the Croatian border is Dubrovnik's Cilipi airport. Renting a car at the airport will make touring the picturesque towns and villages along the Bay of Kotor and the Montenegrin coast simple.
Where to stay
Three kilometres from the centre of Kotor, Forza Mare is a sophisticated boutique hotel with splendid views over the bay. The exquisite and unusual Palazzo Radomiri, dates from the eighteenth-century and even has its own dock, from which short cruises are available. In Kotor's Old Town, the Vardar hotel offers a refined and elegant option.
Where to eat:
Unsurprisingly, given the country's history, Montenegrin cuisine shows evidence of multi-cultural influences from Italian and Mediterranean to Turkish and Hungarian. One of the best known restaurants in Kotor, Ellas (+ 382 (0) 82 322 025) is a good place to sample the local specialities. The large terrace overlooking the sea and the romantic décor make the Galion, at the Vardar hotel, an attractive option, as do the excellent meat dishes. In the heart of Kotor's Old Town, Bastion (+ 382 (0) 82 322 116), boasts a fine wine cellar and serves regional specialties, while Crsarica (+382 (0) 69 049 733) is an ideal place to sample local fish.