She Said, She Said: Kotor
by Geri Bain & Jenny Keroack
Five years after their first blogged adventure (She Said She Said London) Jenny Keroack, now 23 years old, and her mom, travel writer Geri Bain, set off on a new journey. This trip centered on three great societies: the Ancient Greeks, the Ottomans, and the Venetians. Starting in Athens, they set sail on a Windstar Cruise to Venice, tracing the interwoven histories of these superpowers. After the cruise, they headed to the Dolomites for a few days of hiking. As with their last adventure, they recorded their impressions and favorite finds along the way. Jenny’s are in italics; Geri’s are in regular type. The following is their fourth installment, logged from Kotor.
Rough seas delayed our arrival in Kotor by a few hours but fortunately we had until 11 p.m. and while we had to tender ashore, Star Breeze was docked just outside the main gate to the walled city for our return.
The Southernmost Fjords. As we sailed through the dramatic “fjords” on our approach to Kotor, cameras began snapping and fellow passengers pointed to a brilliant white clifftop church here, a small village nestled into a cove at the base of steep mountains there. Known as the Southern-most fjords, the dramatic, mountain-framed fingers of water that claw into the coastline were geologically not fjords, but a “ria,” a submerged river canyon, our “voyage leader” Marius had explained. Turning a final bend, we passed a tiny island with a single church and then, straight ahead, was the fortified city of Kotor, with ramparts that encircled the city and then hairpin-turned their way up to a mountaintop fort. If we hadn’t approached Kotor from the sea, it would have been worth taking a boat ride just to see all this.
Maritime Perast. We had arranged to explore Kotor, Montenegro with a recommended private guide, Gojko Samardzic, who suggested we make Perast our first stop. Just five minutes by car from Kotor, Perast was once a rich maritime village. Sitting and sipping strong Montenegran coffee in a seaside cafe as we admired the Baroque architecture that lines the shore, Gojko told us that most of the palatial buildings and churches, many now in various states of disrepair or restoration, date to the prosperous 17th and 18th centuries when the men of Perast sailed under the Venetian flag and were so skilled that Peter the Great sent his officers to school here. In fact, Perast was so important in those days that the remains of Saint Nicolas supposedly sent to Bari in Italy were originally going to be housed in Perast. (Ironically, Perast didn’t lose anything, because it is now believed that Bari didn’t get his remains either!)
Our Lady of the Rocks. A two-minute boat ride out of Perast brings you to Our Lady of the Rocks, a striking powder-blue dome-topped Catholic Church, sitting on a manmade island in the Bay of Kotor. One legend says that the artificial island was created because a 15th century man with a lame leg was cured by an idol of the Virgin Mary he found at the bottom of the bay. This led the town to build an artificial island over the spot where he found the idol so that they could have a place to worship the Virgin Mary. Today, the island holds both the Catholic Church and an attached museum. Sailors believe the Virgin protects them at sea, and both the museum and church have hundreds of paintings and offerings commissioned by grateful sailors depicting the Virgin protecting them. While many are from centuries ago, a few are from modern cruise ship captains, and in a long-standing tradition, every July 22, sailors fill their boats with rocks and add them to the island. Both through the idols and through the church’s onion dome, it is easy to see the influence of the Eastern Orthodox Church on the Catholicism in the region.
The Walled City of Kotor. We loved that the entire walled Old City of Kotor is a pedestrian zone and deservedly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its maze-like twisting medieval streets with descriptive names like the tiny alley called “let me pass” and the surprise of narrow streets opening onto pretty plazas make it fun to explore. It’s also easy to navigate, since all roads lead to the main plaza, Arms Square, with its iconic Clock Tower, or the square of the Cathedral of St. Tryphon, which was consecrated in 1166. The town actually traces its history back to Roman times and was part of the Byzantine Empire from the 5th to 12th centuries. Its cultural blending is visible in the small 12th century Church of St. Luke, which has both Orthodox and Catholic altars. But it was the Venetians who made this one of the best fortified cities in the Adriatic and whose architectural legacy is strongest. We loved spotting the Winged Lion of St. Mark, the symbol of the Republic of Venice, around the city. The Venetian influence also lives on in the city’s well-preserved Baroque and Renaissance style palaces and the pizza, pasta and risotto featured on menus of sidewalk cafes throughout the town.
Climbing to the Church of Our Lady of Remedy. A stairway in Kotor’s Old Town leads through the Northern Gate to a winding path up the mountain which will take you to the Church of Our Lady of Remedy and, if you wish to go even further up, to the San Giovanni Castle that sits high above the city. The whole thing should take 30 to 40 minutes to climb at a good pace if you don’t stop. We only made it the Church of Our Lady of Remedy before it started getting dark so I can’t speak to the fort, but I will tell you that the views from the church are incredible. From above, Kotor’s red-roofed Venetian homes looks something like a small Dubrovnik, albeit with fewer tourists on the streets. The climb is gorgeous both for the views and because a few cats and even more kittens have made the steps their home. People clearly feed them because they are very friendly. After I carried one kitten for a moment, she followed us all the way down the hill. My greatest regret from this trip is not having brought food to give that kitten, so come prepared and don’t make my mistake. And if any Kotor citizens are reading this, I think you can make a lot of money with a cat food store somewhere on that hill.
Next stop: Tonight we set sail for Dubrovnic.
Geri Bain, a widely published travel writer and editor, has written about more than 65 countries. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away. She is a past president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editorial director of Endless Vacation magazine.
23-year-old Jenny Keroack, a recent graduate from University of Chicago, has written for The Gate, Observer Tribune and other publications and is now a Senior Analyst at National Journal’s Network Science Initiative.