Old Town Kotor, Montenegro

Montenegro. Just saying it out loud sounds like a place somewhere in Africa. It is not. It’s a new country located south of Croatia in what was part of the old Yugoslavia.

A view of Old Town Kotor from St. John’s Fortress

Our port of call was Kotor, located on the Bay of Kotor. Although Montenegro is a relatively new country (only 11 years old), it is steeped with history. To learn more, we booked a 90-minute walking tour of the Old City. Our guide, Yelena explained Montenegro’s turbulent history. It was ruled by Rome, Serbia, Hungary, Bosnia and a few others until becoming part of the Venetian Republic in 1420. It stayed that way for almost 400 years.

The Austrians took it over in 1797 and basically held on to it (except for a few years when Russian and France had control) until the formation of Yugoslavia in 1918. Even after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Montenegro went through several changes until they finally gained independence in 2006 from Serbia-Montenegro.

On top of all that political turmoil, Montenegro has been rocked (no pun intended) by major earthquakes in 1563, 1667 and 1979. After the one in 1667, over half of the town was destroyed. The clock tower, built in 1602, now has a slight lean to it and the bell towers at St. Tryphon’s Cathedreal had to be rebuilt.

Cathedral of St. Tryphon

 

Our first stop was inside the Cathedral of St. Tryphon. Built in 1166, it is considered one of the oldest Romanesque cathedrals on the Adriatic coast. St Tryphon became the patron saint of Kotor when Venetians carrying his body were caught in a storm and had to stop in the city. The townspeople felt it was meant for St. Tryphon’s body to stay in city. Every February, Montenegrins celebrate St. Tryphon’s Day.

 

Although the interior is somewhat bare compared to the lavish cathedrals in larger European cities, St. Tryphon’s boasts a reliquary on the second floor. Also called the Treasury museum, it features beautiful icons, relics and church vestments through the ages. Additionally, we walked out onto a balcony with a view of the main St. Tryphon’s square.

We walked into the Church of St. Nicholas. Whereas St. Tryphon’s is Catholic; St. Nicholas is an Eastern Orthodox church. Yelena, now in her twenties and Eastern Orthodox, explained that the young people of Kotor don’t go to church much anymore. The service is very time-consuming at at least 90 minutes long. Additionally, worshipers stand the entire time.

While the Church of St. Nicholas is somewhat tucked away, it makes up for it with it’s lavish interior.

Yelina urged us to order a strong, red wine made from local grapes at one of the restaurants. We tried the Vranic and I loved it – so much so that we ordered a case once we got back to the States.

As our tour concluded, we walked by the “Pillar of Shame” near the gate of the Old City. At one time, criminals were publicly humiliated by being tied to the structure for a period of time. For second offenses, criminals couldn’t enter the city gates. Below, my in-laws pretend to be tied up to the monument.

For more information about Kotor, click here. Also, read about hiking up to St. John’s Fortress – it is not to be missed!

 

 


Hiking up to San Giovanni Castle in Kotor, Montenegro

The word Montenegro, which means “Black Mountains,” aptly describes this enchanted area south of Croatia. As our ship traveled through the Bay of Kotor, the captain recommended we get up early to watch the majestic mountains loom on both sides of the ship.

Since we were up early to watch the sunrise, I decided to disembark as soon as we docked. I wanted to take the hike to San Giovanni Castle (or St. John’s Fortress) before it got hot and crowded.

As I walked through Old Town Kotor, I felt I had most of the place to myself. Quiet. Empty restaurants and shuttered souvenir shops greeted me as I meandered through the stone streets to the hike. Once there, I paid the fee of a couple of Euros and began the ascent to the top.

Words can’t describe the hike. It was long and often ardous with gravel lined paths and 1,300 stone steps, but the views of the mountain, the bay and the town below were breathtaking.

The Church of the Lady of Remedy dates back to 1518

About a third of the way up sits a small church built almost inside the mountain. For those not able to continue the hike, this is a great spot to sit, take in the views and head back down.

The town below got smaller and smaller as I continued the 3,900 foot climb uphill. Soon, I saw the castle walls. Built over numerous centuries, I could see why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Every time I thought I was at the top, there was more to see. I kept climbing until finally reached it. I had to ask someone to take my picture in front of the flag to prove I had completed the hike.

At the top of St. John’s Fortress

You would think the view would be the same on the way down. It was not. I saw things I had missed on the way up. I spent most of my time on the descent, appreciating the surrounding beauty since the hardest part of the hike was behind me. Everywhere I turned, there was another great photo opportunity.

The sun rose higher above the town and more people were coming against me on the trail.

I wanted to stay up there the rest of the day, but I had to meet up with my family to take our tour  As I entered the Old Town again, it was bustling with activity. My recommendation is to do the hike first thing in the morning. It will be less crowded and you’ll have cooler temperatures.

For more information on Kotor, click here.


24 Hours (or less) in Venice, Italy

Water, water everywhere is what most people think about Venice. However, our experience was more like people, people everywhere.

Venice in peak travel season

It’s true. Roughly 30 million tourists flock annually to the area which is no more than 160 square miles. If it’s summertime (peak tourist season) and you don’t like crowds, you may want to only spend a day or two in the famous city of canals.

Another thing to think about is this: Venice is not ADA compliant. If your hotel isn’t on a canal, a water taxi will do you no good. Instead, you will have to carry your luggage through the tiny street and over bridges which consist of steps, not ramps.

Since our cruise departed Venice and my spouse and kids had never been, we stayed overnight and saw many sites in the limited time.

We arrived around 3 pm via the direct public bus from the airport to the Piazzale Roma – the last place cars can go on the island. It was only about a half-mile walk to our hotel but it was difficult due to having to cross several canals twice. It wasn’t the walking that was hard, but the carrying our luggage up and down the steps on the bridges. Once we got settled and met up with my in-laws, we walked back to Piazzale Roma to take the vaporetto for the Grand Canal cruise.

Now to enjoy Venice! We downloaded the Rick Steves free audio guide of the Grand Canal cruise on two of our phones. We split the ear buds between one of us and one of our children. By getting on the vaporetto (public water bus) at Piazzale Roma, we were the first ones on the boat and got seats at the very front. The  audio tour starts at the next stop, which is the train station.

On the Grand Canal Cruise

Our boat careened around the corner and palatial buildings greeted us on the way. The Grand Canal is wide – considered the major throughway of the city. Boats, gondolas and other vaporetti swam near us. Next thing we knew, we stopped at a dock where more people got on board. The tour was informative and explained various points of interest including both the Rialto Bridge and the Accademia Bridge, as well as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the hotel where George Clooney was married. Everything looked Venetian – that is Roman with a Byzantine influence. At the end of the 45 minute ride, we got off and walked back to St. Mark’s Square, passing by the Bridge of Sighs.

Lorenzo Quinn’s sculpture “Support” rises out of the Grand Canal in front of the Ca’Segredo Hotel

Throngs of people walked past us as we headed past the Doge’s Palace and to the church and tower. It was an Italian holiday and we watch military solders carry the flag. Then, we purchased some of the best gelato!

Doge’s Palace

Walking back to the hotel was another experience. Instead of wide open waterways, we zig-zagged among alleyways and pedestrian-only streets. We crossed over the Rialto Bridge which was filled with shops along both side. I took a time-lapse video of the experience. A few times, we got turned around and the streets are so close together that our cell phone navigation system couldn’t find us. After about 25 minutes, we got back to the hotel and went to the Campo Santa Margherita for dinner.

Venice is full of small alleys and squares

After dinner, we walked back to St. Mark’s Square because that’s what Rick Steves suggested. In the evenings, many of the day-trippers have gone home and the crowds thin considerably. This was my favorite time. As dusk approached, we enjoyed crossing the Accademia Bridge where a man strummed his mandolin. Near St. Mark’s we window shopped at the many high-end retailers – Gucci, Chanel, Ferragamo and more.

Entering St. Mark’s Square at night was a completely different experience as an orchestra played near by. Walking around, we could enjoy the beauty of the magnificent architecture. We could have listened to the St. Mark’s Square audio guide, but I was toured out. Instead, we found a sidewalk cafe and ordered wine and tiramisu.

St. Mark’s Square at Night

The next morning we breakfasted at our hotel and set out for the Frari Church. Located near the Piazzole Roma (and further from St. Mark’s Square), this cathedral was less crowded. Tintoretto, Titian and others’ paintings graced the walls of the caverness holy space. I felt I was in a museum, but no – this is an active cathedral and these paintings and sculptures were commissioned to be here. We did download the Rick Steves’ Frari Church audio guide and it helped tremendously.

Inside Frari Church

Passing through the Campo Santa Margherita again, we stopped for pizza and went back to the hotel to gather our luggage for the cruise. Once on the boat, we had amazing views of the skyline. All in all, I felt we had enough time in Venice. The only thing I regret is not buying a leather purse along the way.

Last view of Venice from the cruise ship

 


City of Walls – Dubrovnik, Croatia

Picture a coastline with mountains. That’s the Dalmation Coast and home to our first stop on the cruise – Dubrovnik.

When I toured it back in 1985, it was part of the now-defunct Yugoslavia. I was so taken with the area that I did a large college project on Yugoslavia in my International Business class. However, the Croatian War of Independence began in the early 1990’s and I feared that Dubrovnik as I knew it was gone forever. Nobody expected this UNESCO World Heritage Site to be shelled — but it was.

My husband took a walking tour of the city walls. They are so thick that for 20 Euros, you can walk all the way around the city on top of them. It took him about 90 minutes and he said it was worth every minute of it! Below are pictures he took on top of the city walls.

We booked a private tour and met our guide, Bojhadar at the Pile Gate. Immediately, we transcended to a different era. The pedestrian-only area reminded me of Venice with nooks, crannies and alleyways. The only difference was everything was white – kind of a marble material. The main street is called the Stradun. It is wide from it streets go uphill on both sides. Bo gave us a history of the country started way back to the time of the Ragusas. He walked us past a church where Game of Thrones had been filmed and then to the other side of the Old Town farthest from the Pile Gate at the waterfront. We could see St. John’s Fortress and the marina.

 

Bo mentioned that if you ask where locals eat, the answer is nowhere. There are no locals in Old Town anymore. People who lived here have now rented out the bottom floor for restaurants and the top floors for hotels or b&B’s. Tourism is their major industry. As we walked, I saw people rolling suitcases along the limestone streets. If I thought Venice was hard, this would be super hard to navigate a suitcase!

The other thing was that the streets were slick in places. Bo explained that because so many people walk on the streets every day, they get worn down and slick. Every once in a while, I saw a plaque that showed a picture of what the area looked like when shelled. I had to ask Bo about his story. After the tour concluded, he shared with us what happened to him in 1991.

 

Bo told us he was 10 years old when war broke out. One day, a military aircraft flew overhead. Since they didn’t have any military aircraft, it had to be from the enemy. The next day, school was closed and shortly thereafter the shelling began. They had no power or water. Many would go to the Onofrio fountain to get water. At home, Bo had a 10-month old brother. there were no diapers, no formula. The mom would leave bo at home with the baby brother while she went to get water. Sometimes, the shelling started when she was gone and he was afraid she wouldn’t come home. She did. They finally decided to flee and he said living as a refugee for six months was awful. “I can’t describe it, but it was the worst thing ever.” In fact, things were so bad, they returned to their home in Dubrovnik before the siege was completely over. Everyone from his family was okay, but his grandmother’s house in the country was raided and burned to the ground.

After the tour, we had a quick snack and headed back to our ship.