Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. But seriously, what is it? I’m fascinated by the walls of medieval cities: keeping the town in and the world out, with gates to mediate the two. Plenty of extant towns—like Delft-–were enclosed by walls in earlier centuries, but had their walls demolished as either the town grew or the structures crumbled. (Near us, the Oostpoort (“east gate”) stands as remnant.)
If you’ve never seen an old city wall, one of the key points for imagination is that they were intentionally so thick that guards could walk them, from tower to gate and around.
Last summer on our travels, we were able to walk two magnificent city walls: those of Dubrovnik, Croatia; and Kotor, Montenegro.
I have heard that travelers, like us, often visit both these cities and have a strong preference for one. Although it’s considered the more “touristy,” I loved Dubrovnik. This city’s had walls of one sort or another since around the seventh (seventh.) century, and present construction dates primarily to around the fifteenth. Most cities that still have their walls can’t claim to have had recent need of them for defense, but Dubrovnik was legitimately protected by its historic walls during its siege in 1991-92. The siege (by the Yugoslav army) lasted eight months after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. I was too young during the Yugoslavia fallout to remember much of the history when we were there (constant guidebook consultation ensues), but it made an impression on me to see evidence of war still so fresh: buildings bombed out that haven’t been rebuilt; the memorial room to the so-dubbed Dubrovnik Defenders; the bright-orange new roof-tiles visible from the walls, signaling those that had been replaced after the bombing. Somehow Dubrovnik manages to wear its recent past still within a beautiful postcard-perfect shell. It’s quite a combination.
The walls are a mile and a quarter around (perfect views the entire way in any direction), and they can get crowded. We were wisely advised to avoid the late morning, when the cruise ships unload (ugh); and the second surge in the late afternoon. We were also well aware that this walk was going to be HOT. I mean, hot. August in Dubrovnik is a situation of constant hydration and the wearing of hats. We tried to get going early to beat both the crowds and the heat. We brought giant water bottles, and I still bought a Fanta at one of the (two, maybe?) little stands partway around, because it was cold and my water was no longer.
The walk wouldn’t be that strenuous if the sun wasn’t roasting you. There were a few points where you could choose to go up an additional set of stairs for a view from a tower, and by two-thirds around, I was declining those and waiting while Tim went up.
On to Montenegro we went, and this “increased risk zone” sign felt fairly apt. We attempted our transit by public bus. The bus was loaded with tourists and felt safe… enough… as it careened around mountain corners (road travel in this area overall took a few years off my life). We stopped on each side of the border for about a half hour while passports were collected and checked. One guy had to get off. Then, just across the border on the Montenegrin side, we stopped at a little rest area and the driver announced a twenty-minute break. Forty-five minutes passed, and the driver (smoking and having a soda) showed no inclination to reboard the bus. Travelers of myriad languages were milling around when the driver finally announced that this bus was “no longer going to Kotor.” Everyone should find a new bus. Luggage was being hauled from the compartments, chaos was unfolding, and we said, forget this, and hailed a cab the rest of the way.
The Bay of Kotor is stunningly beautiful. Even now when I reflect on it, I just feel blessed to have had the opportunity to see such a wonder. It took my breath away, not just on first sight, but repeatedly.
The town of Kotor itself, I did not have such strong feelings about. It is a massive cruise-ship drop. Every morning ridiculously over-size boats haul up and unload—I don’t know— a thousand, it seems like, people, who stay for most of the day and then their ridiculously over-size boats haul slowly out of the bay. And while I did not love this feature, I think the cruise-ship people had about the right amount of time for seeing the town itself (not the scenery. You could contemplate the scenery indefinitely).
Kotor was on my travel bucket-list, ever since I saw this photo in Travel & Leisure some years ago (the term “secret” does not seem right; “difficult to reach” might be better). The day we arrived, Tim wasn’t feeling well and so I walked into the town by myself. We were staying one mile outside, because we’d heard the town is noisy at night with nightclubs. Montenegro had the feel overall of a place where public services are still getting sorted out: things like trash pick-up, prevention of graffiti, etc. It felt like a place that has found itself spotlighted on the tourist map, but with its infrastructure lagging behind. I felt sad because I’d read there are significant human trafficking problems in the country. Basically, it felt messier. I felt a little more cautious walking around. Not unsafe, in the middle of the day, but just more cautious.
After visiting a couple beautiful Orthodox churches, and a little aimless wandering, I wasn’t really sure what else there was to “see” on an afternoon in Kotor. The town is quite small and, to me, did not exude the same “just stay and relax” vibe that Dubrovnik did. As a result, we spent most of our other days swimming and lounging at our (not air-conditioned, weird-vibe) hotel (I know, that sounds so rough)… except for when we climbed the walls.
As our Rick Steves book says, “If there’s a more elaborate city wall in Europe, I haven’t seen it.” The original span of the walls (which were built, added onto, built between the ninth and nineteenth centuries) is a three-mile arch. Today you can start at a point (oriented off the photo above) near the bottom left of the walls, with entry via the back of the old town.
This is, make no mistake, an actual climb. You want water, and you want sneakers. Again, we started early in the day to beat the heat, and we passed several people we felt concerned for based on their attire, shoes, and apparent levels of fatigue.
Parts of the hike were paved or semi-paved. Other parts were quite rugged. At one point we passed an ancient chapel, apparently associated with healings. The oldest bits of the walls are the uppermost, with the St. John’s Fortress as the turn-around point.
The view from the top was lovely, but our favorite view was from our hotel across the bay, the nightly sight of the walls being lit in the darkness, portion by portion coming aglow.
If you’ve been missing the travel posts, fear not: spring is coming.