Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Montenegro: Sea and Mountains in Kotor

Streets such as this make walking around Kotor a delight -- at least when
they're as free of tourists as this one was at this moment.
Kotor is a small, walled town of fewer than 15,000 people on what is called the Gulf of Kotor, a fijord-like snake of water connecting the town to the Adriatic Sea. Most of its walls and other fortifications date to the 1400s, when the area was under the control of Venice, which dominated the Adriatic and much of the Mediterranean at the time.

For us, the attraction was that it was in Montenegro, a country we knew little about other than its appearance in "Casino Royale," the 2006 James Bond film. And it is the homeland of Rex Stout's fictional detective Nero Wolfe. Our 2019 trip to the Balkans started in Greece, but Croatia was always the primary destination. Montenegro was a stop between Thessaloniki, Greece, and Dubrovnik, Croatia.

For our Balkans itinerary and hotel information, click HERE.
For our visit to Athens, click HEREDelphi, HERE
Santorini, HEREHeraklion, HERE. Chania, HERE
Hydra, HERE. Thessaloniki, HERE
Dubrovnik, HERE. Hvar, HERE. Split, HERE.
Zagreb, HERE. Ljubljana, HERE. Piran, HERE. Trieste, HERE. Venice, HERE.

We flew to Tivat, Montenegro, via Belgrade on Air Serbia. From Tivat it was a short taxi ride to one of Kotor's medieval gates. Our taxi driver could take us no farther, so we dragged our suitcases along the stone street to our hotel, Hippocampus, which it turned out was pretty much a straight shot from the gate.

Kotor has much the same charm as Chania and other medieval walled towns. Narrow, strone-paved pedestrian streets, often with flights of stairs; sidewalk restaurants; plazas that allow a sudden blast of sunlight; and shops designed for tourists, not residents. Like most of the places we visited in Greece, there were a lot of cats, tolerated and even catered to, we think, because they keep the towns free of rodents. What makes Kotor special, though, is its location, squeezed almost literally between mountains and the Gulf of Kotor. Whenever you look up, there's a mountain.

As for the gulf, it is deep enough for cruise ships large and small to visit. Indeed, we were told that most visitors come by water. We got out on the water once, taking a boat up to the Church of Our Lady of the Rocks. Supposedly, a sailor centuries ago found a rock in the sea with an image of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Sailors then began depositing rocks in that place as they returned safely from sea. Eventually, the rocks created an island, which now has this church on it. It's a popular excursion from Kotor, along with diving and snorkeling trips. On the way back we stopped to walk around the little waterfront town of Perast, which looks like a place for people who want something akin to Kotor but without the tourists.

Here are some photos.

Our room at Hippocampus had windows on three sides.
This view of a neighborhood pub was taken from our room.

Another view from our room shows a different
street. The semi-circular roof is part of a church.

Looking through the West Gate. The harbor is just beyond the parked car.

Part of the harbor has been permanently partitioned for swimming. Notice the
giant cruise ship in the background.

Smaller vessels crowd the southern end of the harbor.

A relatively small cruise ship.

Incense rises inside a Kotor church.

Walking in Kotor often involves stairs.

The city wall and the 13th-century Kampana Tower.

The Church of Our Lady of the Rocks attracts boatloads of tourists.

The interior of Out Lady of the Rocks.

The ceiling of Our Lady of the Rocks.

Seaside dining in the little town of Perast, just up from Kotor on the Gulf of Kotor.

Even though the country is Montenegro, the mountains
look white. Montebianco, maybe?

The walls that go up the mountain are illuminated at night, making them
more visible than during the day. 

Greece: The Quiet Charm of Thessaloniki

The waterfront of Thessaloniki stretches southeast along Leoforos Nikis Street,
seen here from the city pier. Sidewalk and open-air restaurants fill the
ground floors of the residential buildings.

With more than a million people, Thessaloniki has about a third the population of Athens, but it's still Greece's second-largest city.  Its long history has seen it conquered and ruled by Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Turks and the unified nation of Greece.

Each wave of conquest saw much of what existed before it destroyed, and an enormous fire in 1917 destroyed much of what had made it into the 20th century. But the fire also caused a rebirth of sorts, allowing the city to be redesigned, with many streets laid out in an orderly modern grid.

For our Balkans itinerary and hotel information, click HERE.
For our visit to Athens, click HEREDelphi, HERE
Santorini, HEREHeraklion, HERE. Chania, HERE
Hydra, HERE. Kotor, HERE.
Dubrovnik, HERE. Hvar, HERE. Split, HERE.
Zagreb, HERE. Ljubljana, HERE. Piran, HERE. Trieste, HERE. Venice, HERE.

That's not to imply that the past is invisible. There are Roman, medieval, Ottoman and other ruins scattered about, but what's missing are the hordes of tourists that clamber up the Parthenon in Athens and flood the Forum in Rome. Instead, here the streets are filled with young locals, many of them students at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece's largest university. You'll find young crowds, too, at the bars, restaurants and dance clubs in the Ladadika drinking district and in cafes along the waterfront and on the city pier.

A high school friend of mine, who was a visiting professor here a decade or two ago, said she was happy Jane and I had visited this usually overlooked city. I'm glad we did, too.

Here are some photos.

The White Tower dates to the 1400s and was one of several such towers that, in
conjunction with walls and seawalls, once defended the city. It was once a prison
and known as Blood Tower. It got its current name in 1896 when it was whitewashed.
The whitewash was removed in a 1980s renovation. Today, its six floors house
part of the Museum of Byzantine Culture and focus on the city's history.
A winding stair/ramp connects floors within the
White Tower. Windows offer views of the waterfront.

Aristotelous (Aristotle Square), seen here looking north from the waterfront,
is the city's main plaza, complete with dockless electric scooters.

Reading one's phone while at a table with other people is not just an
American habit. This is at a bar on the city pier.

The Arch of Galerius on Egnatia Street (an ancient Roman road) was built
 around 305 by the Roman Emperor Galerius to celebrate the Roman
 victory over Persia in 297. 

Carvings on the arch depict scenes from
the campaign against Persia.

The ceiling of an old Ottoman-era bathhouse. The circles are
holes that let in light. Today this bathhouse is used as
an art exhibition space. 

The Ayia Sofia church is thought to date to 325, just after the Council of Nicea,
which would make it older than the more famous Hagia (Ayia) Sofia in Istanbul,
which was completed in 537. Architecture experts say this church isn't even
that old, that it was built in the late 700s.

The rather small remains of a rather small Roman
amphitheater coexist with modern apartment buildings
a few blocks north of Aristotle Square.

The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki does more than present ancient objects. It tries
to make visitors think about them in new ways. In this display of  ancient copies of a sculpture by
the Greek Praxiteles, the museum asks what the figure is doing. Is she touching a hem
of her garment to conceal her body or is she about to reveal her body? And why was
this work so popular that copies have been found all over the classical world? 

The view from our room at Antigon Urban Chic Hotel,
just a few blocks north of the waterfront and within
walking distance of bars, restaurants and other attractions.
Everything, from espresso makers to fresh octopus and pork to clothing and shoes,
can be purchased along the covered market streets near Athonos Square.