If you admire old antique towns, ancient fortress walls and palaces, churches and exceptional panoramic views, boundless sea slick, which changes its hue depending on the mood of the sun, seaside restaurants and taverns, lush nature, you are in the right place, in the Bay of Kotor, or how locals like to call it dearly - “Boka”.
Also known as Boka Kotorska, it is located on the south side of the Adriatic Sea and is a part (one of the most beautiful one) of a tiny Balkan country, Montenegro. From a bird's eye view “Boka” reminds you two butterflies flying next to each other, whose winds form separate little gulf. There are four of them in the Bay of Kotor, and each has its own name: Kotor Bay, the bay of Tivat, Risan gulf, and the bay of Herceg Novi.
This absolutely marvelous showcase of nature cuts into the mainland by approximately 28 kilometers and contains absolutely everything what’s needed for a perfect vacation: a coastline dotted by photogenic stone villages, secluded villas and petite settlements on the mountains which can be reached only by a serpentine causeway. All this looks like a well-conserved medieval fairy tale.
Yachting gurus often say this part of Montenegro has the vibe of Saint-Tropez back in the forties of the last century adding that it’s quite a unique atmosphere to find nowadays in the Mediterranean.
As you’re going to sail along soaring mountain range which “grows” out of the blues of water and touches the sky, covered with olive groves and majestic cypress trees which are scattered on the limestone slopes, the feeling that all this is preternatural, that it’s too beautiful to be true won’t be leaving you for a while.
In many travel guides and written articles about the Bay of Kotor you’ll read that it’s Europe’s southernmost fjord, others will disagree and prove that this unique place is actually a submerged river canyon. Let the guides, travelers, and scientists enjoy their arguments. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter whether technically it’s a fjord or no. All that’s important is that you enjoy this massively impressive place which makes you think from time to time that you’re not in Montenegro, but somewhere in Alaska or Scandinavia.
You will decide how much of your time you wish to dedicate to this magical fjordish bay which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Over the course of a day or two you can see everything what’s Boka Kotorska has to offer you. The highlights of a winding riviera are Kotor, two little islands with churches, a super luxury yacht marina Porto Montenegro in Tivat, and a town called Perast. Perhaps you could make a stop in one or two cute fisherman villages or swim in the abandoned real submarine tunnels which were used by Yugoslav army back in the times. As this bay is yet far from being crowded even in high season, you have all the chances to sail your boat freely among its tranquil water. Then after an unhurried cruise you may continue your luxury charter vacation up north in the direction of Croatia.
The architecture of each town or a village in the Bay of Kotor has been influenced by different epochs. Cathedrals, churches, monasteries, palaces took in the best from Venetian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian times.
While sailing in the Bay of Kotor you’ll encounter hundred feet long steel ultra-luxury behemoths which belong to the wealthiest of this world, motor-sailing yachts of all shapes and sizes, cruise ships which look dramatic being anchored among imposing mountains and quaint seaside villages.
You’ll probably get to know “Boka” from Tivat town as it’s becoming a favorite port of call for many yacht charterers. Here you have an international airport just 15 minutes away from Porto Montenegro – exclusive oasis for yacht owners and travelers from all over the world, a world class marina in Tivat. Before becoming a miniature Monte-Carlo, for more than a century there was an Austro-Hungarian and then Yugoslavian naval base here. Right now a port is a place where berths are filled quite rapidly with the most expensive yachts in the world, bars, A-class restaurants and hotels, luxury stores, apartment complexes. It’s very pleasant to take a walk in this genuine luxury lodge for yachtsmen and millionaires.
Speaking of the wealthy, there is a very beautiful town of Perast located in the heart of Boka Kotorska. It is a beautiful tetris of grey stone houses and red tile roofs, diluted with abandoned or decaying churches and palaces of Venetian epoch. As many of its neighboring villages and settlements, Perast seafaring life was booming here centuries ago. Right now it’s more like a living museum under sky. Local guides call it “a town of millionaires”, as it’s always been a favorite place of rich Montenegrins to spend their holidays here. They say that a house in Perast even if it’s abandoned, as long as it’s located by the sea, costs more than a million euro. We didn’t check but it can be quite true.
Kotor town located the deepest in the inlet is something very special and extraordinary. It is the salt of the Bay. It surely deserves a special attention and a separate article about it. For now, we’ll just say that it is a medieval gem which is clutched by the curtain of almost vertical mountains and the blue sparkling waters of the bay. Every stone of its old town, every church, a square, or narrow street will leave you stunned. Every time you’ll be standing inside of the town surrounded by Kotor’s towers, citadels, medieval walls, and looking up at the hills you’ll keep asking yourself whether all this is real or it’s some kind of magic. It is real, it is. And for even more breathtaking experience, literally and figuratively speaking, you’ll need to go up to the castle of St. John from where you’ll see how a bay looks from a bird’s eye with its alluring views. And if you happen to see a grand cruise ship or two standing in the bay, it will look even more scenic. Just be careful as the path up and down is very difficult and requires a lot of strength. If you decide to take it, you’ll probably sound like Bernard Shaw who visited mountains located near Kotor. When he reached the top, he asked: “Am I in paradise or on the moon?’ It’s the first variant, for sure.
There’s one more pretty old town in the Bay of Kotor which is called Herceg Novi. It stands just at the entrance of the gulf and is usually overlooked by foreign travelers. It’s a very interesting and beautiful place, where you can find a combination of the Oriental and Byzantine architectural styles. You will also see here many exotic plants which don’t usually grow in this area. They appeared here centuries ago after the town’s governor had issued an order for all seamen traveling far to bring back home with them some exotic plants. There are several well preserved fortresses which you can visit in Herceg Novi, churches and residences of famous people. Just near the town you can also see famous villa “Galeb” which belonged to Josip Broz Tito - one of the most important historical figures in the Balkan region, who was a lifetime president of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Perhaps you could also be interested to visit a house where famous French novelist Pierre Loti, the author of “Madame Chrysantheme” (a piece of art which inspired Puccini to write his renowned opera “Madama Butterfly”). The building looks like a ruin but you’d enjoy the views which once touched the creative heart of the French officer. Here he wrote a short story about how he had come to this site and fallen in love. The place we talk about is Baošići located east of Herceg Novi.
The Bay of Kotor has been always attracting very famous artists not only to rest their creative minds, but also to start businesses here. Last year a legendary actor Robert De Niro opened a restaurant Nobu in Sveti Stefan. World-renowned Serbian film director Emir Kusturica converted a train station into a very province style hotel which is located at the seaside in Herceg Novi.
The word about Boka Kotorska’s allure spreads fast. The interest is abetted with the help of the news about luxury hotel and restaurant openings, by travel devotees who are in a constant search of new paths, and those who got here by chance. 19-century poet Lord Byron once said about the Adriatic coast of Montenegro that it is “the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea”. And who would disagree with that?
In the Bay of Kotor not only the steer mountains arise out of the blue, but also several very tiny islands. They deserve a special attention from travelers because seeing something like Saint George island covered with cypress trees and monastery or a man-made island where the Church of Our Lady of the Rocks stands is a genuine lifetime experience. You simply don’t see such stunning views on a daily basis unless you are a local living here.
There are seven islands in the Bay of Kotor. You won’t need to see all and know all the names, but there are some which definitely are worth taking a look at. Two of them are located just in front of Perast and very close to Kotor town. When you see islets looming against the imposing mountains, you think it’s some kind of mirage.
One is the island where the Abbey of St. George is located. It’s surrounded by stone walls and tall cypress trees. The island looks mysterious as if it hides some kind of a secret. The Benedictine monastery was built here in the 12th century. Even though looking beautifully this island has never been a place of happiness. It is surrounded by many sad stories and legends.
Just across Saint George island there lies another tiny piece of land which is created not by nature. It carries completely other destiny and atmosphere, unlike its lonesome neighbor. Gospa od Škrpjela, or Our Lady of the Rocks (in English) is an island-church. More than five centuries ago there was only a rock instead of the islet. Two sailors found a shelter here during the storm. While they were waiting for tempest to calm down, they noticed an icon of the Madonna and the Child on that rock. Men took this as a sign from God, and decided to build a church here with a help of other people. For decades locals were dropping stones and sinking ships around the rock. And thus a small islet was created. Later a chapel was built on top of its surface, which was turned into a blue-domed church in the seventeenth century. This island is a true symbol of life. Sailors and local people still have a tradition of dropping stones here in the water. It is called Fašinada, and the ceremony takes place every year on the 22nd of July.
The obvious advantage of travelling with a yacht in this bay is that you can see one more interesting island, which is located at the entrance of “Boka”. It’s called Mamula, and it reminds famous French Fort Boyard. Now Mamula is a national cultural monument with its 19th century fortress. Soon it will be converted in a luxurious beach resort. But during the World War II this was a concentration camp.
The last but not least which you should be introduced to is local cuisine if you want a real Byronic encounter. It is a mug’s game to write about local dishes. There’s a chance that both a writer and a reader can’t help but dribble while writing and reading about a cuisine influenced by Montenegro’s Balkan neighbors, the Greeks and the Turks. Yet we’ll try as it’s a real table adventure. The definite highlights of local cuisine are black risotto, fresh and sappy vegetables, swordfish, or freshly caught calamari sprinkled with delicious local olive oil, all kinds of cheese including sheep’s salty white cheese, and of course wine, like the one from Orthodox Savina Monastery vineyards located just near Herceg Novi.
You can also ask locals to cook Pljeskavica (pron. Plyes-ka-vee-tsa) or in more simple words – “Balkan burger”, which contains not only one kind of meat, but a grill mix of many. It is served inside pita, which is cut horizontally in half. But before you actually order it, you must know that this burger is a size of a cake.
Now you understand why every travel magazine and guide speaks of “Boka”. This wonderful place becomes one of the most tempting travel destinations in Europe. It is well said once by a British travel journalist Gary Edwards that the Bay of Kotor is “like a glorious marriage between the fjords of northern Europe and a more rustic version of the Italian lakes.”
Montenegro charts a confident course towards its five-star future to become a luxury travel mecca of the Mediterranean.