Kotor Fortress: Climbing up to Castle of San Giovanni

We left the cobbled streets of Budva’s Old Town behind and strolled along the marina, marvelling at the luxury yachts lining the waterfront. We headed down the town’s main street and past hotels and shopping malls before making our way towards Budva’s bus station.

After checking the timetable, we walked up to the window and asked for a ticket to Kotor. I wanted to show my friend the beautiful Old Town and also spend a little more time exploring than I did on my first visit in 2014.  I also really wanted to tackle a climb to Castle of San Giovanni – a fortress overlooking the town and the beautiful Bay of Kotor.

Bus timetable
Bus timetable at Budva bus station

Budva’s unofficial zoo

We had some time to kill before the bus so walked around the bus station. It seemed relatively non-descript until we stumbled upon the zoo. Yes, that’s right. Budva station has a zoo. Ok, a zoo is a strong word – it was more of a garden with a few water features. Within it, however, were goats, black swans, tortoises, deer and other animals strolling, crawling and jumping around. You could even grab a seat on the terrace of the restaurant and watch the animals play for a while. It was a bit random, to say the least!

Goats
The goats at Budva’s bus station

On the road to Kotor

We soon got on the bus and tried to find our seats – which proved to be futile as no one sat in their allocated seats. We ended up being split up as I managed to squeeze myself at the back of the bus. A group of American backpackers weren’t so lucky and had to stand in the emergency exit stairwell. I am pretty sure the bus was overbooked – it definitely wasn’t designed for standing!

There wasn’t a lot of leg room but we still managed to fall asleep – the late night dancing away at the Sea Dance Festival clearly took its toll! The ride took longer than the advertised hour as the bus kept making unscheduled stops to let people off and then got stuck in traffic on the approach to Kotor.

Budva bus station
Budva bus station

Kotor Old Town

We did get there eventually and made our way towards Kotor’s city walls and the Old Town. It was cloudy but at least it wasn’t cold! Soon, we found ourselves in front of the Sea Gate, the main entrance to the Old Town.

We walked through to the impressive Arms Square, with its 17th century clock tower and Rector’s Palace which used to be a theatre. Café tables lined the square and tourists milled about taking photos. We decided to leave the sightseeing for later as we headed straight for the fortress, perched high up on St. John’s Hill.

Arms Square
Arms Square
Clock Tower
17th century clock tower

Heading up

We navigated the narrow streets of the Old Town and walked past the Serbian Orthodox St. Nicholas Church and the 13th century Church of St. Mary Collegiate. We walked up the steps and paid an entrance fee (€3) before starting our climb to the top. The stairs wound their way above the rooftops and there were a few platforms from which we admired the views of the town and the Bay of Kotor beyond it.

St. Nicholas Church
St. Nicholas Church
Kotor
View of Kotor and the bay

Kotor has a very rich history. It was ruled by the Illyrians before being conquered by the Romans in the 2nd century BC.  Over the centuries, the town changed hands multiple times so the fortifications, built between 9th and 18th centuries, have seen their fair share of action.

We zigzagged our way up along the fortifications, dodging people on their way down. Soon, The Church of Our Lady of Remedy came into view, its belltower rising high above the viewing platform. It has watched over Kotor since the 16th century. We took a break to take on some water before continuing our climb.

Church of Our Lady of Remedy
View from the climb with the Church of Our Lady of Remedy on the right
Church of Our Lady of Remedy
Church of Our Lady of Remedy

There were quite a few people making the ascent despite it being overcast and humid. The fortifications are one of the top attractions in Kotor and we were lucky it wasn’t busier! Kotor is a popular stop on cruise itineraries and the town is teeming with tourists when a ship is in port. We were pleased that the dock was empty today!

Path to Castle of San Giovanni
Winding path to the top

Castle of San Giovanni

We reached the lower part of Castle of San Giovanni and took a detour up narrow stone steps. The ruins here were overgrown with plants and wild flowers and signs warned visitors of danger – we had to watch our footing as the stones were uneven and there were gaping holes in some of the structures.

Castle of San Giovanni
Kotor Fortifications

After a while we finally reached the fortress, the Montenegrin flag flying above the ruins. We wandered around and took in stunning views of Kotor and the bay stretching out into the distance on one side and imposing mountains rising high above on the other. This was definitely worth a 1350 step scramble!

Castle of San Giovanni
Castle of San Giovanni and the stunning views of the Bay of Kotor
Castle of San Giovanni
Mountains on the other side of the fortifications

A detour to Chapel of St. Ivan and Spiljari village

It started to rain so we decided to head down before we got soaked. After descending the first set of steps we noticed a doorway which led away from the main path to the other side of the fortifications. Even though the path was only metres away from the main route to the fortress, hardly anyone took any notice of it.

We decided to be adventurous and climbed through the opening. We clambered over rocks to a narrow path which led down into the valley. The rain was getting heavier so we headed for the small church that nestled in a clearing below which turned out to be the Chapel of St. Ivan.

Chapel of St. Ivan
Chapel of St, Ivan

The clouds opened up just as we reached the entrance. There were already a few people inside the crumbling chapel and we huddled together in the tiny space and listened to the sound of rain falling all around us.

Soon a couple of older guys joined us and started lighting candles in the church, illuminating the faded frescos on the walls and ceiling.  I managed to have a broken conversation with them (I speak Russian which has some similarities to Montenegrin) and learned that they were caretakers for the fortress and the surrounding area and negotiated the climb from the town a few times a day!

When the rain subsided, I took the caretakers’ tip and walked through ruins of a village called Spiljari nearby. I wandered among the stones and watched as mountain goats huddled together to escape the rain on a series of narrow ledges below. The church looked particularly striking against the landscape from this angle and I patiently waited for a shot without any people in it.

Ruins of Spiljari
Ruins of Spiljari
Chapel of St. Ivan
Chapel of St. Ivan

A Montenegrin welcome

We started heading back but spotted a small sign pointing to a path leading up the hill and advertising “Homemade Fresh Goat Cheese”. Intrigued, we decided to follow it and a few minutes later emerged at a small cottage with a terrace area overlooking Kotor. The owner greeted us warmly and invited us to sit down as he let us try some of his goat cheese and homemade rakiya.

A small sign pointing to a path towards the house
A small sign pointing to a path towards the house

Soon after the skies opened up and we witnessed a huge storm, thunder rolling across the sky. We watched on from the safety of the terrace with our cheese and warm mugs of tea. Kittens playfully rolled around the floor next to us.  There were a few other intrepid travellers hiding from the rain and we all chatted amongst ourselves. The owner’s daughter spoke fluent English and we learned a lot about the family and their life here.

Kittens sleeping
Kittens sleeping
Terrace of the house
Terrace of the house

When the storm subsided, a fog started rolling in ominously and seemed to stop only metres from us, enveloping everything in its path. Combined with the stunning views below, the great food and hospitality of the locals, we found it hard to leave this idyllic spot. Oh and maybe because of the pouring rain too.

Fog rolling in over Kotor
Fog rolling in over Kotor

Heading back

We eventually decided to make a break for it and said our goodbyes to the lovely owner and his family. Just as we headed back down the path, the rain returned with a vengeance. We had to dash back to the chapel and wait it out before continuing back down the hill to Kotor.

We made it back and wandered the beautiful cobbled streets. The rain drove the tourists back to their hotels and the narrow alleyways were quiet. We came out to a big square and checked out the towers of the St. Tryphon’s Cathedral which reminded me a bit of Notre Dame. We had a tasty dinner of salmon steak by the square and then explored the beautiful Old Town some more. It was getting pretty late and cold by that point so we decided to head back to the bus station.

DSC_2834
Cobbled alleyways of Kotor
St. Tryphon's Cathedral
St. Tryphon’s Cathedral

As we left the Old Town, we paused to look back and saw the fortifications bathed in the glow of a setting sun. It was as if they were rising straight out of the cliffs, the ramparts appearing like jagged teeth of an ancient beast. We gazed at the imposing mountains beyond and vowed to come back here for a longer hike someday, visiting our Montenegrin friends and having some more of that amazing cheese.

Admiring the Bay of Kotor
Admiring the Bay of Kotor
IMG_6670
Bay of Kotor
A doorway in Kotor's Old Town
A doorway in Kotor’s Old Town
Castle of San Giovanni
A window in the ruins
A cross on the back of the Church of Our Lady of Remedy
A cross on the back of the Church of Our Lady of Remedy

IMG_6679

 


The Trip

What: Kotor is a charming town in Montenegro on the shores of beautiful Bay of Kotor and is a popular daytrip destination. There is a walled Old Town with many churches, museums and courtyards.

Where: The nearest airport to Kotor is in Tivat.  Various airlines, including EasyJet have flights from the UK (from £57). Alternatively Dubrovnik is only a couple of hours drive away with transfers easily arranged with travel agencies and hotels.

Getting There: We headed to Kotor from Budva by a public bus, with multiple departures throughout the day (about €3 one-way). This website is great for booking tickets for travel in Montenegro. From Dubrovnik, take a public bus or visit on a day tour.

19 thoughts on “Kotor Fortress: Climbing up to Castle of San Giovanni

  1. Angie (FeetDoTravel) says:

    I love old buildings and ruins, there is so much history and I always wonder “if walls could talk, what stories would they tell”. Your walk sounds perfect – a stroll that involved a bit of danger to the summit and fantastic views (I make it sound like a mountain lol). Love this adventure!

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Angie, I know what you mean. I always pause and think “who’s been here and what were they doing?” So glad I got to do the climb on this trip!

  2. Lisa says:

    You always visit the coolest places! I love this, I could get lost here for awhile roaming the town, castle, or hiking those mountains. Nice pictures too!

  3. Garth says:

    Budva looks like a great place to visit! I’m not sure I would get Phil to climb up all that way without the promise of beer and wine at the top! Cheese sounds good tho! Epic views too! have added it to my bookmarks, great read as always.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Haha, Garth, we can tell him there is a bar at the top! Would he be upset if we lied? Thanks, I really loved the walk and taking photos here!

  4. David says:

    Ah, allocated bus seating in the Balkans. 80% of people don’t care, but you only need one who does for everyone to to get uprooted. I just adore Kotor (and Budva) and the views from the fortress are insane! I went up on a blisteringly hot June afternoon and had it almost to myself. I didn’t see any signs to a cottage, although I definitely had to buy a drink from one of the guys sitting in the shade with a cooler. Your photos do it justice Lex.

    • Travel Lexx says:

      David, thanks. I’m glad I managed to capture it well – you’re my go-to expert on Balkans and Eastern Europe so that means a lot!

  5. Jenn says:

    I love the church and chapel! The craftsmanship is remarkable and I love how much history a place like this holds! I wish we were in Europe sometimes so we could more easily explore these amazing places!!

  6. Barry says:

    Looks like a great place for exploring old streets and buildings. I love walking around and judging by your pictures, could easily imagine myself spending a day or two wandering around this place. Great photos

    • Travel Lexx says:

      Thanks, Barry. Kotor is very walkable and there are some beautiful buildings around. There’s plenty to do in the surrounding area too!

  7. Vyjay says:

    It is quite an epic trip. It has all the elements and drama of a great adventure. loved your account and the visual narrative through your pictures.

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