Arriving into Kotor by night, dizzy from sharp turns around the shores of the narrow, fjord-like bay that winds inland from the Adriatic, I was puzzled to see a yellow halo hanging overhead. At daybreak, the mystery was soon solved: the ‘halo’ became gravity-defying fortifications slung down the steep mountainside behind town from a small castle perched on its peak. This struck me as a highly ambitious twist on the more typical medieval fortifications encircling towns on flatter ground. So, who were these builders and why should they complicate their lives so? Naturally, I could not resist exploring this enigma.

The path zigzagged upwards tracking the fortifications and affording ever-more spectacular views over Kotor’s red-tiled roofs and up the mountain-lined bay until those emerald waters disappeared in an abrupt dogleg under some snow-capped peaks. I passed crumbling ramparts, gates, forts and watchtowers, as well as the enigmatic Church of our Lady of Remedy built by survivors of the plague in 1518. After a lung-busting 1350 stairs, I reached the ruined castle of San Giovanni, the apex of an intricate system of fortifications encapsulating both mountain and town, where the bright red and gold of the Montenegrin flag fluttered proudly. From there I could fully appreciate a feat of medieval engineering that somehow blended seamlessly into the stunning landscape.

I pondered what they were defending up on that mountain and from who. For a curious soul such questions usually prompt a swift return to wi-fi connectivity to research answers, but this time I let the mystery linger while the setting sun washed over the scene in hues of orange and red.

Mishaps narrowly avoided on a dash back down ill-maintained stairs in fading light, I soon discovered that various builders had fortified the mountain since antiquity including the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and the Venetians who built the current defensive structures during their rule (1420 to 1797). And the sanity of these builders not only finds safety in numbers but also in the experience of battle. The threat was great for the town tended to find itself sandwiched between warring empires who coveted its strategic port. As such, it was attacked numerous times throughout the ages including by the Mongols under Genghis Khan’s brother who set fire to it and by the Ottomans who besieged it twice without success.

The British attacked with greater success in 1814 (by which time Kotor was under Napoleon’s rule) and in the process demonstrated why control, and therefore defence, of the mountain was of such strategic importance. They managed to haul naval 18-pounder guns from a ship in the bay up the same mountainside that had caused me to huff and puff with just a small rucksack and station them above the San Giovanni castle. (And, incidentally, the ship only got into position in the first place because residents along the shore pulled it into position with ropes because there was no wind that day!) The twin threat of fire from above and from the bay forced the French garrison to surrender.

Of course, by then medieval walls were no match for artillery anyway, but the incident nevertheless serves to demonstrate the strategic logic behind fortifying the mountain in the first place. Visitors may rejoice in that fact as they enjoy one of the most interesting and picturesque hikes in the region. 

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