Conquering the Castle of San Giovanni in Kotor Montenegro
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
"Water,” my daughter croaked, as she swept the sweat from her brow in a somewhat exaggerated fashion. “I need water.”
Those words would be a frequent refrain on a steamy hot August afternoon in the cobbled dreamy town of Kotor Montenegro.
Our mission? Conquering the 1350 step rugged vertical hike to the aerie of the Castle of San Giovanni overlooking the Bay of Kotor. The Castle is also known as St. Johns Castle or the Kotor Fortress. The hiking trail is also known as the "Huff and Puff Trail," for obvious reasons. Despite that, the hike is one of the best things to do in Kotor.
Kotor's UNESCO Fortifications
Kotor’s fortifications, which are part of it's UNESCO classification, are built on and into the steep limestone Lovcen Mountains. From below, they look more delicate than formidable. From above, you'll be fortified by the spectacular views of the city walls, medieval Kotor, and the fjord-like Bay of Kotor, which the locals call Boka.
The fortress was built in 531 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Then it was invaded, attacked, and re-built by a succession of Venetians, Illyrians, and Nazis. It wasn’t until the 13th or 14th century that the fortification’s walls made a continuous loop around the old town.
We departed from Dubrovnik, with a stunning drive around the Bay of Kotor and a seaside alfresco lunch.
As we took in the spectacular views, a gregarious Montenegrin saw us, smiled broadly, and exclaimed, "It's beautiful isn't it? Do you like my country?" Naturally, we nodded our heads in agreement. "Enjoy your visit, he called as he walked away. "We like American tourists."
That sounded promising. But I had to wonder, exactly why did he like Americans?
The Stereotype of American Tourists
As we spun down the road toward Kotor, I let out a tiny sigh and rolled over the nonchalant comment in my head. How had he known, on sight, that we were Americans? Wasn't I at least in in semi disguise?
To be sure, I was wearing shorts and a sleeveless top, often a giveaway. But, in my defense, it was blisteringly hot.
Still, there was no telltale baggy American sweatshirt or North Face fleece that could explain my instant identification as "American." I wasn't obnoxiously taking intrusive photos of locals or ostentatiously dangling a map and outsize camera on my arm. I did not have a fanny pack, a gross invention of the 1970s, unfashionably attached to my body. I wasn't shouting loudly, fat, drunk, or otherwise drawing undue attention to myself.
Hmm ... Was I a self deluding dupe?
Food for thought, most definitely.
Chasing the Peak
We arrived in our decidedly un-America manual transmission Peugot and parked outside Sea Gate. The town motto is proudly displayed: “What belongs to others we don’t want, what is ours we will never surrender.” We made our way through Stari Grad, past lines of laundry, cats, and a streamer filled main square to the trailhead at the back of the city.
In the summer, the admission price was 8 euros.
Is it American of me to report the entry price?
And so we began to chase the peak, climbing gingerly up and over the time worn marble stones and gulping down the remains of our water bottles. Foolishly, in a clear planning error, we had brought just one apiece.
It is a fairly easy hike, just a bit slippery and uneven. Rather quickly, the scenery improves and you look down on Kotor’s fetching fire-orange terra cotta rooftops.
Midway Point: The Healing Church
Continuing on, we arrived at the 16th century Church of Our Lady of Remedy, which is approximately midway. The church was built for survivors of the plague. Now, it is simply a votive church. Locals and tourists alike wander in and out, depositing their offerings or lighting candles.
Everything in Kotor is steeped in mythology and the church is no exception. It is believed to have miraculous healing powers. Perhaps this is true as, enveloped in the stunning natural splendor, I did feel peaceful and quite geographically cured.
At the church, you can rest, soak in the therapeutic views and, most importantly, buy more water. Instinctively, I checked my wallet to ensure I had plenty of change as the southern sun bore relentlessly down on us.
With some astonishment, I noticed a young woman in a flame red dress and high heels making her way over the craggy uneven stone steps. An Instagrammer, I wondered? A mountain goat in heels? I shook my head wondering why someone, anyone, would don high heels for a hike over craggy uneven rocks.
And yet I had to admit that I was slipping and sliding a bit in own my flip flops, another wholly inappropriate planning choice in retrospect. I might have used a walking stick, if I had had the common sense to acquire one.
And I had to wonder, was my quick judgment of the high heeled vixen an American vice? Was my own sartorial choice stupidly American?
The healing church is also a potential point of derailment, the spot where many hikers turn back, satisfied enough with what they've seen. To some, a sun-baked hike in the arid land of a thousand steps may now seem like a terrible, terrible idea.
My daughter was among them.
Hot and thirsty, conditions from which a cantankerous mood often descends, she announced, “Well, the views are great here. Do we need to hike any further? How much better can they be?”
I stopped in my tracks and looked at her with alarm. She did look a little exhausted and squinty, the heat and the altitude taking their ineluctable toll. It had on me as well.
But wasn't catching a quick glimpse of something and retreating somehow inauthentic and even downright lazy? I mean, she was a healthy young woman; it didn't seem like she would die of step overdose.
Besides, I was on a quest for on-top-of-the-world views and a splash of ancient magic with my now warm water. I wasn’t going to be denied; I was too psychologically invested. I cajoled or perhaps shamed my daughter into continuing with our herculean task. After all, one doesn't want to be out-performed by one's mother.
I reminded her that were were on a geographical cure, and should take full advantage. “The tourists heading back down are going to miss something special. Stick-with-it-ness is good for you,” I opined. "Sure, Mom," was her only rejoinder. I could almost feel an eye roll about my Type A personality.
But she trundled on, amiably enough, exhibiting the flexibility which I lacked.
The Price of Water for Views
We continued to zig zag up the mountain side. On the way, we encountered more local traders hawking water and we dug out our coins and greedily gulped down the cool water, even splashing some on our head to cool off.
Normally, the presence of vendors detracts from the experience. This time, I was extremely happy to see them.
As you ascend, so too does the price of their water. This, I think, is the crux of why Montenegrins like Americans: we are absolutely 100% willing to pay for expensive water.
Happily, there was the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The views from the top were, as advertised, even more stunning, a rare glimpse of nature unfiltered and untouched: commanding cliffs, sparkling straights, a shimmering cobalt blue cove. You can see why Lonely Planet named Kotor the #1 city to visit in the world in 2016. It will blow you away.
While some travel memories may blur, no one could forget the views, no matter where one hails from. Further praise would simply exhaust the sentiment.
The Ruined Castle Fortress
The fortress itself is an abandoned ruin with shelled out rooms and crumbling walls, as one might expect from its tumultuous history. You can explore inside unhindered. From the back side of the mountain, you can see the Ladder of Kotor (another hiking path) snake down. It presents a different scene with cows, goats and cats spread across the landscape.
At the nearly 2000 meter summit, we celebrated our water-fueled arrival, rested, and took in the gorgeous panoramic views.
Then, reluctantly (at least for me), we began our sweat-drenched descent, stopping for yet more water, navigating the swtichbacks, pondering how many people had come before us.
We had come, as Americans, seeking gorgeous views and found them. Now we needed more water. And a shower.
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