Standing on the walls of old town Kotor, I eyed the pathway from town to the top of the nearby hill and San Giovanni Castle, aka Kotor Castle on top . Towering over the bay it promised beautiful panoramic views and, if I left in about an hour, I knew I could be up there for sunset. I was exhausted after a full day of travel and was debating a nap, but sunset over Boka Bay with Kotor below and mountains all around sounded pretty magical. Deciding that this is how I would spend the next couple of hours I climbed back down to street level and headed to my hostel to switch my flip-flops for runners and grab what I’m sure would be my much needed water bottle.
San Giovanni, also called St. John’s Castle or Kotor Castle, is perched 1200m high on the hill of St. John. The fortifications date back as far as 532 when Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had the fort built. Since it’s creation, the fort has under seen plenty of changes and battles under Venetian, Russian, and French rule. It’s been bombed by British Naval armies, occupied during World War II, and even survived three separate earthquakes. Without a doubt the fortifications of San Giovanni have seen their fare share of action throughout time. And with all that history, there was no way this wanna-be Indiana Jones was going to leave Montenegro without seeing it for herself.
Equipped with better shoes and a water bottle I set out to conquer the 1350+ stairs to the top of Kotor Castle. I headed to the entrance I saw earlier and after waiting around about 10 minutes for the gate keeper to come give me my ticket (he was in a nearby cafe/bar) I began what would quickly become the sweatiest and most gruelling ascent of my life so far.
From below, the climb didn’t look too bad. Yes, 1350+ stairs was a lot but although I may not be the fittest person around I walk everywhere so didn’t think too much of it. What I didn’t account for is that as old as the Kotor Castle is, so are the stairs. While some were in good shape, most were crumbling apart; pock-marked and missing corners. A couple of stairs actually slid and shifted as I stood on them. Not to mention their unevenness; some so tiny they couldn’t fit your entire foot, some as high as two normal stairs. On top of the difficult stairs, I was climbing the hill in full sunlight on a 36C degree day. Hot and sweaty, I quickly understood why my hostel suggested I climb to the fort early in the morning.
I reached the top of Kotor Castle about 1.5 hours after I started. Originally I figured it would take me an hour with photo stops, but was glad I had allowed for extra time. Even then I made it just in time to grab a seat on one of the walls and watch the sunset, which was as amazing as I thought it would be.
I sat on the walls for about an hour; cooling down and watching the sun sink below the mountains across the bay. The sky changed from orangey-pink to purple to navy blue as the light faded and Old Town Kotor lit up below. It was as I watched all those lights twinkle on that I realized another reason why my hostel told me to climb up to Kotor Castle during the morning; there was no lighting on the way down.
I quickly jumped up and headed for the path down, making the most of the disappearing light before it was gone. But it was too late and what was a demanding climb up quickly turned into treacherous climb down. I used my cell phone as a flashlight for both myself and some other climbers as we slowly and carefully maneuvered our way downhill. There were a few slips on my part and one women fell, but after nearly two hours we made it. Which meant it was finally time for a shower, food, and some much needed sleep.
Tips for Climbing to Kotor Fortress
-Consider going in the morning, as is suggested. Although the sunset was amazing, getting down sucked. Also, if you are a photographer, lighting is much better earlier in the day.
-If you do go for sunset, bring a flashlight.
-Wear good shoes, and bring plenty of water. There is water for sale along the way if needed.
-You do need to pay in advance (3 euro in September 2015)
-There are some paths that are dangerous or unsafe; ask your accommodation ahead of time which areas to avoid. They may be able to provide you with a map.
-There’s plenty of interesting things to see along the way, consider doing a bit of research on the fort ahead of time to get the most from this experience.