View of Kotor on the way down from St. John's Fortress.

During my last few days in Dubrovnik I dragged my feet deciding what city I should visit next; Bosnia was a short trip to the north, Montenegro to the south, and just beyond lie Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania - so many choices! I wanted to visit them all, but the beautiful coastline of Croatia called to me like a seductive siren's song, luring me to stay just a little longer. The enchanting spell Croatia casted on me was difficult to break, and making plans for what country to visit next meant accepting that that I was intentionally leaving this wondrous landscape - a thought I couldn't bear. While I never planned to visit Montenegro, I crossed paths with two Finnish cyclists, Aarni and Tommy, who were both tired of the droves of tourists in Dubrovnik and were heading south to the towns of Kotor and Tivat. All it took them to convince me to tag along was a promotional flyer for 33% off a hostel in Tivat.

All I needed was an excuse; otherwise, I'd never leave Croatia.

View of the mountains from along the Gulf of Kotor.

Kotor is 90km southeast of Dubrovnik, but for some absurd reason the ride is twice as expensive as my trip from Split that is 230km northeast of town. Nevertheless, I was happy to leave Dubrovnik and the entire ride to Kotor was remarkably scenic. The windy coastal roads kept me in a perpetual state of nausea, but the stunning landscape just outside my window more than made up for the queasy feeling. For my money, the best part of the ride was from Herceg Novi around the Gulf of Kotor. I have no idea why there isn’t a bridge or tunnel connecting the cities of Lepetane and Kamenari, but as I rounded the Gulf of Kotor the massive, behemoth-like mountains amazed me. The giant natural edifices soared in the sky creating an arid rock wall around the gentle turquoise-green water just below. It doesn’t matter how many times I see such wonderful mountainous landscapes I can never get enough.

It must be the result of my mountain-less upbringing back home in Texas.

Once in Kotor, I loitered around at the bus station for a few minutes for my transfer to Tivat and the moment my bus arrived I had flashbacks of Ukraine. The poor little vehicle they called a “bus” coughed and wheezed like an old chain smoker as it pulled into the station. The driver was covered in dirt and looked as if he just finished repairing the transmission of the very bus he was driving. He did not so much as smile or acknowledge my presence as I boarded the vehicle; and instead, mindless tore my ticket with his dark, nicotine-encrusted hands as he took a deep puff of the cigarette hanging from his lips. The chairs onboard were covered with an eclectic variety of upholstery (none of which matched) and the whole carriage vibrated uncontrollably the moment the engine started. This sorry excuse for a bus had definitely seen better days and thanks to the rusty old shock absorbers, it felt like the bus was about to fall apart with every bump we passed over. 

The entire contraption felt like a go-kart retrofitted to be a bus.

Wanderings along the old Kotor city walls.

I eventually met up with Aarni and Tommy at the hostel for dinner and spent the evening chatting over my go-to drink for the past month - the ubiquitous two-liter bottle of Ožujsko beer. The hostel, while fairly new, appeared either shoddily constructed or in the middle of renovations, I couldn't tell. The main room had large gaps in the walls that let cold air in, next to no insulation, and I wasn't allowed to use the heater, but for less than $10 a night I can’t complain too much - they at least had hot showers. The hostel has a general hippy vibe to it and while I imagine it is a great spot to meet people during the high season, in late October the only occupants of this 40-person hostel were the Finnish duo, a dog, a horribly annoying parakeet, and me. 

Never in my life have I wanted to inflict so much pain on such a little creature… I will NEVER own a parakeet. 

The following day, Aarni and I made it our goal to hike to Kotor from Tivat. Online, the trails looked straightforward and there appeared to be several ways to reach Kotor from Tivat. I’ve done a fair number of hikes so far on this trip, so after a quickly glancing at the map we agreed to just figure it out as we went. It should be simple enough: head east across the peninsula until we hit Kotor.

This was not the case.

While we weren't able to make it to Kotor we at least got a fantastic view of Tivat.

I don’t know what the hell happened to the trails between Tivat and Kotor, but they were a mess. The paths frequently splintered off into three or four different directions and somehow all of them lead to dead ends. Aarni and I spent hours hiking, back-tracking, and guessing which direction we were supposed to go. Over the course of the day we climbed up a dried riverbed, bushwhacked our way through sections of the forest we felt should be trails, and even flat out scaled the side of a mountain. In retrospect, we should have brought climbing equipment for our ascent, but we were determined to at least reach the top of something.

The mountain was not going to win.

After hours of trekking, we finally stumbled across a promising trail that took us up to the top one of the smaller mountains. While the view was impressive, there was still another mountain between Kotor and us! Since the sun was beginning to set and we didn't want to risk being lost in the forest at night we returned home defeated. What took us over three hours to climb up required only 30 minutes back down because we finally found the official trail. We popped out of the forest on the other side of town just two kilometers away from where we started our first ascent. 

All it took was one wrong turn to throw off the entire trip.

Kotor Cathedral in the center of the old town.

After our failed hiking excursion, Aarni and I wisely shelled out for a bus to Kotor the following day. Kotor is a great little town very similar to Dubrovnik in terms of architecture and the preserved city walls, but Kotor in my opinion has a much better scenic vista than Dubrovnik. The center of town is well kept, but there are a few buildings in the interior that are completely boarded up, missing roofs, or in a horrible state of disrepair. Generally the city has a great feel and even though it is full of souvenir shops and upscale restaurants, if you navigate away from the main entrance, you can find all sorts of hidden treasures.

Surrounding Kotor is a network of walls, posts, ramparts, and towers built directly into the side of St. John Mountain that are collectively known (unsurprisingly) as the "Fortifications of Kotor". There are two sets of walls zigzagging down the side of the mountain from St. John Fortress and each protects one side of the city of Kotor. Aarni and I strolled around town and stumbled across an old staircase covered in vines on the southern side of town that appeared to go up the mountain. We knew the northern wall charged visitors three Euros to climb up a well-manicured stairway to the St. John Fortress, but we were curious if these dilapidated old steps led to the same destination (without the three Euro charge). Considering we scaled the side of a mountain the previous day, Aarni and I kept with tradition and chose the path less traveled.

Looks safe, doesn't it? Just one problem, where are the stairs?

Up we went.

For what it’s worth the climb up was remarkably entertaining. Many of the large stones were broken, askew, or otherwise covered in thorny bushes and moss. The only visible trails came in the form of either unmaintained, archaic stone staircases protruding from the ground or paths of flattened grass. By the looks of it, dozens of other people had climbed up the very same path, but our trek still felt like we were exploring an old abandoned outpost.  We continued our climb up the steep incline across uneven stairs, narrow cliff edges, and thorn-covered passages - this was definitely not safe for your average vacationing tourist. Aarni and I were continually rewarded with great views of the Gulf of Kotor, but we kept expecting we’d hit a dead end… surely the abandoned trail doesn’t actually lead all the way to the top. After hiking for the better part of an hour, we finally arrived at the St. John Fortress. Aarni and I were thrilled the path lead all the way to the top and even if they forced us to pay the three-Euro entry fee, our hike up was far more interesting that the well-manicured stairway. 

The mountains didn't stop once we reached St. John's Fortress. They just kept going and going and going.

St. John Fortress was abandoned back in 1918 and the entryway is marked with a sign that reads “Enter at Your Own risk”. Such warnings now act as an incentive for me to enter rather than a deterrent and once inside we were free to explore the winding walkways and darkened tunnels to our hearts content. Eventually Aarni and I wandered around the backside of the fortress and discovered a small cafe selling homemade goat cheese, snacks, and beer. We stopped off for a beer and, while there wasn't anything special about the restaurant, the view from their patio was stunning. We could see all the way down the Gulf of Kotor to the mountains and the old city of Kotor down below. It is amazing to think that even with all of our modern technology you can still see the effects nature has on humanity. With the exception of the fortress complex - which likely took generations to build -all major developments, buildings, and roads around Kotor are squeezed into a narrow strip of land between the water and the mountains. The two of us sat on the patio sipping beers, enjoying the sunset, and playing with a group kittens that kept us company. There are few cafe patios in the world with this kind of stellar view.

View of Kotor from St. John's Fortress.

The only thing I was missing was a cigar and scotch.

Maybe I should have recommended that to the owners.

My time in Montenegro was fantastic and was just the kind of off-the-beaten-path trek I was looking for. I'd like to give a special thanks to Aarni for being such great company during our exploration of Tivat and Kotor. Now that fall is in full force, I notice the sun setting earlier and the temperatures are getting increasingly colder. As I sit in the common room of my hostel writing and shivering uncontrollably, I'm seriously considering cutting out some cities in the region - I need to get to a warmer climate before winter arrive. Sadly it looks like summer is officially over and I must finally part ways with the gorgeous Adriatic coastline. I am so immensely thankful to have spent a month and a half enjoying this wonderful part of the world, but when all is said and done I have only one wish...

Please make this damn parakeet drop dead so I can have one moment of silence!