The City Walls, Fortifications and Fortresses of Kotor

There are many things to do in the lovely bay-side city of Kotor, but one highlight is to visit Kotor’s encompassing city walls and formidable fortifications. Another is to climb 1364 steps to the fortresses that are perched at an elevation of nearly 300 metres above the city and Kotor Bay.

The picturesque city of Kotor is in Montenegro, a small country bordered by Croatia (North East), Bosnia-Herzegovina (North), Serbia (North West), Kosovo (West) and Albania (South).

The history of Kotor Old Town is one of invasion, cultural development and restoration. The city walls with ramparts and bastions that encircled Kotor Old Town included fortresses that were placed high on the mountain behind Kotor to protect the town from assault from any direction. But Kotor was not only protected by its limestone fortifications and city walls. Kotor Old Town was also protected, in part, by its position on the expansive Bay of Kotor which is itself encircled by seemingly vertical mountains, their green-less appearance made more intimidating due to their composition of limestone and dolomite.

The mountains surrounding Kotor Old Town form a natural fortification and appear more intimidating due to their composition
The mountains surrounding Kotor Old Town form a natural fortification

When you visit Kotor you will see a variety of defensive fortifications including the natural fortifications in the form of Kotor Bay and mountains; the city wall of Kotor; and the fortresses located 1364 steps up the mountain of St John.

Menu for Kotor Fortifications

Kotor’s Natural Fortifications – The Bay of Kotor and the Surrounding Mountains

The Bay of Kotor is exceptionally beautiful and resulted from a non-glacial rise in sea level that caused the inundation of pre-existing river valleys. Kotor Bay would have served as a natural obstacle to an invasion of Kotor Old Town.

Kotor Bay is the most inland of four bays that are formed by the
Gulf of Kotor,
situated to the east of a narrow neck in the Gulf. The Gulf of Kotor is a substantial body of water and is one of two locations where the Adriatic Sea penetrates the Montenegrin coastline. The other is on Montenegro’s border with Albania where the two countries share
Skadar Lake
(or Lake Scutari).

An approach towards Kotor along the bay would have been extremely visible to guards stationed on the ramparts of the elevated forts, and would have occurred at a pace that would have allowed ample time for the Kotor garrison to organise a defence.

The mountains that surround the bay also provided a very real physical barricade in that they restricted the directions from which an assault could occur. Kotor Bay is enclosed in the north-east by the
Dinaric Alps,
one of the harshest ranges in Europe. It would be reasonable to infer that any approach by enemies from north of Kotor Bay would be extremely difficult because the block of the Dinaric range that extends to Montenegro contains some of the range’s highest peaks.

An attempt to invade from behind Kotor Old Town, the east, would have meant having to contend with the imposing 1700 metre
Mt Lovcen
and the karst wilderness that extends beyond it. Nevertheless, as difficult and inconvenient the route was, it may have been possible because today there is a popular hiking trail up St John ’s Mountain from the Old Town to the fortress, and then on to the Lovcen National Park. There is also a white-knuckle serpentine road up to Mt Lovcen that could have been used by aggressors to place them above the city.

The western shore of Kotor Bay was bordered by the 780 metre barricade known as
Mt Vrmac,
and it is difficult to see any strategic or physical advantage from approaching Kotor Old Town across the Vrmac range. The slope of the mountain on the bay side would almost certainly precluded any attempt to descend it and the advance would have been easily seen by the Kotor guards. The effort required to transport equipment and weapons over the range would have left the army exhausted.

The fourth option to engage Kotor was from the south. The port of Tivat is located on the shores of a bay on the opposite side of the Vrmac Range. It would not have been out of the question to disembark at Tivat, march around the lower slopes of the Vrmac range and approach Kotor along the
river valley
south of the city. The issue, again, would have been visibility – the advance would have been seen by the guards situated on the mountainside positions.

These natural barricades meant that assault was most likely going to be a watery one and so by having boats permanently positioned in the bay and by bolstering fortifications around the city, particularly in the most likely direction from which the maritime assault would come, Kotor Old Town was defended as best it could be.

Kotor’s Constructed Fortifications Including City Walls and Fortresses

A Brief History of Kotor’s Fortifications

The defences that enclose Kotor Old Town were developed over centuries of occupation.

The Roman Occupation of Kotor

The original settlement that became Kotor is thought to have been Roman and was named Acruvium. The start of the Roman occupation has been dated to 168 BC when the Romans defeated the last King of Illyria. This places the start of the occupation of Kotor after the Roman conquest of Greece in 196 BC and before its punishment of Corinth in 146 BC. The fortifications were established by the Illryians, including a fortress on the top of Mt St John at the rear of today’s citadel. Roman emperor Justinian restored the fortress during the 6th Century.

The Early Medieval (476 AD to 1000 AD)

The Roman Empire fell in 476 AD immediately after which Kotor was ruled primarily by Byzantium (later Constantinople and Istanbul). The city temporarily became Serbian by 1042 when its Illyrian population was absorbed by Slavic migration.

The High Medieval Period (1000 AD – 1250 AD)

Byzantium resumed rule of Kotor in 1143 until its loss to Serbia in 1185. During this period the fortifications of St John remained as previously restored by Justinian. This situation continued until the late Medieval even though Kotor made significant cultural and economic progress under the Serbian Nemanjic dynasty from 1185 to 1371.

The Late Medieval Period (1250 AD to 1500 AD)

The ramparts surrounding Kotor Old Town were strengthened during Serbia’s governance by the beginning of the work on the Kampana Tower and the Gurdic Bastion and Gate.
The 20 years that followed the Serb decline in 1371 saw Kotor ruled by Hungary, Venice and Bosnia. Kotor then became an independent republic after 1395 until its Venetian period from 1420 to 1797.

The Venetian Period (circa 1400 to 1797)

The Venetian rule over Kotor lasted nearly 400 years and was a rich architectural period during which every aspect of the Kotor Old Town received attention and improvement. These years of Venetian rule were punctuated by both Ottoman invasion and earthquakes, both of which occurred in the 16th and 17th Centuries and both of which caused damage to Kotor Old Town. The fortifications of Kotor familiar to us now were then constructed. The strengthening the defences included the building of the Gurdic Bastion (1470), the Riva Bastion (1516), River Gate, North Gate (1540), Bembo Bastion (1540), Sea Gate, West Gate (1555, Valier Bastion (16th-17th C), Korner Bastion (16th-17th C), civic works such as the Arsenal, arms storage (from 1420) and the Town Clock Tower ( 1602).
The Habsburg Monarchy assumed control of Kotor in 1797 after which its occupation fell to the French between 1807 and 1814. Austria gained dominion over Kotor in 1814 until the new political outcomes of 1918.

The fortifications of Kotor looking north east from town level
The fortifications along the western wall of Kotor Old Town
The Kampana Tower in the foreground constrasts with the rugged mountainside fortifications at Kotor
The fortifications at Kotor extend up Mt St John behind the Kotor citadel

The City Walls of Kotor

The general layout of Kotor’s fortifications is not dissimilar to another extensive mountainside defence located at Mali Ston and
Ston
on the Peljesac Peninsula of Croatia. Limestone fortifications enclose the Old Town at town level in two directions (North and West) while fortifications in the two remaining directions (South and East) extend up the mountain at the rear of the town.
The value that Kotor offers its visitors is that the fortifications still survive and are in excellent condition, even accounting for restoration works that followed the earthquake that occurred in 1979.


The defensive wall with ramparts that encloses the Old Town at Kotor was extended progressively over 4.5 kilometres between the 9th and 19th century. The walls were in some places extremely thick, as can be seen when entering the
Sea Gate
. The width at this location is about 15 metres such that space could be utilised within the wall. The walls may be only 2 metres wide in other positions, depending on use. The height of the walls also varied, being up to 20 metres along the most fortified section of the wall that faced the port.

It wasn’t sufficient that the wall was a physical barricade to invasion. The width of the wall also had to allow those who defended it to be mobile and to be able to transfer weapons.  The ramparts, in this respect, were broad and usable, with intervening bastions which projected outwards from the wall so defenders could oppose attempts to scale or penetrate it.

The ramparts are accessible for you to clamber over and to imagine their role in the defence of the citadel. You can identify the wall fortifications by using the map (hover your mouse over the icon or press if using a tablet).

Map of Kotor City Walls

Tap or mouse hover over the icons along the walls – those inside the citadel have been disabled for the following post

The Western Wall of Kotor

The western section of the wall faces the port which would have ensured it was the focus for invaders. The western fortifications included the Kampana Tower (13th to 14th Century), Valier Bastion (16th to 17th Century), Korner Bastion (16th to 17th Century) and the Gurdic Bastion (1470).

The western wall of the Kotor citadel is heavily reinforced because it faces the port
The western wall of the Kotor citadel faces the port with the Lovcen mountains behind

The Kampana Tower and the Valier Bastion protected the Sea Gate (1555) which was opposite the port. The rampart of the Kampana Tower was wide and circular, allowing defenders 360 degree protection of the citadel. Whereas most of the city wall was built on a foundation of the limestone bedrock, the Kampana Tower was probably constructed on softer sediments. The broad base of the tower would have added to its stability and perhaps deterred its focus as a point of attack.

The Sea Gate is decorated with the crest and an inscription from President Tito.

‘Tude Necemo Svooje Nedamo’
‘We will not give our own to others’
Kotor Sea Gate

The Korner and Gurdic Bastions protected the alternate West Gate, the latter also protecting its own southern or Gurdic Gate (13th – 18th Century).

The Gurdic Bastion at Kotor was located on the junction of the western and southern wall
The Gurdic Bastion at Kotor was another sizeable corner fortification

The Northern and Southern Walls of Kotor

The northern and southern walls of the Kotor citadel ascend up St. John Mountain to the Fortress of St John which is situated on the eastern wall at the fortification’s highest elevation. The following image shows the eastern wall at the elevation of the fortress but is difficult to distinguish because its limestone composition is the same as the rock that dominates the mountain.

The Kampana Tower in the foreground constrasts with the rugged mountainside fortifications at Kotor
The fortifications at Kotor extend up Mt St John behind the Kotor citadel

These mountain-side walls are complete with ramparts with intermediate bastions that strengthened defences. Guards had panoramic lookouts over the whole of the Bay of Kotor from their positions on the mountain and could also defend Kotor if an invasion was launched from the mountains at the rear of the city. These mountains are in the direction of the Lovcen National Park and walking tours are available to escort travellers beyond the fortress to the very top of the mountain that overlooks Kotor. The view is breath-taking.

The Northern Wall of Kotor

The fortifications along the northern wall included the Bembo Bastion (1540, now an open air theatre) which is situated at the centre of the wall at town level. The northern wall also included the Riva Bastion (1516), the point at which the northern wall started to ascend up the mountain of St. John where it merged with the eastern wall across the mountain side.

The Riva Bastion at Kotor was on the northern wall at the point where the wall started to ascend Mt St John
The Riva Bastion on the northern wall at Kotor

The northern wall also faced a water course but as there wasn’t a tract of land at the foot of the wall it was less vulnerable. The Riva Bastion and Bembo Bastion protected the River Gate (1540).

The Southern Wall of Kotor

The southern wall ascended away from the Gurdic Bastion and completed the enclosure around Kotor Old Town by joining up with the eastern wall that had fortified the elevated Fortress of St John.

The southern wall at Kotor started at the Gurdic Bastion and joined the eastern wall higher up Mt John
The southern wall at Kotor ascended away from town level up to the fortress

The Fortress of St John at Kotor and 1364 Steps

The Fortress of St John has a long history of invasion with fortifications dating from Illyrian occupation. The present form of the fortifications is characteristic of the Venetian period.

If you are in good physical condition you will enjoy the climb from the rear of the Old Town up the cliff to the ruins of the two Kotor Fortresses. The climb consists of a serpentine track of 1364 steps that have been cut into the limestone cliff face. The actual vertical ascent is about 280 metres which would be equivalent to climbing a vertically inclined ladder to a height of about three football fields.

The serpentine track up Mt St John from the town to the fortress at Kotor
The ascent from the citadel at Kotor to the fortress is a challenge for most
Locate the entrance to the steps by cutting across the
Square of Arms
, onto Ulica 1 (Istok-Zapad), past the Church of St Mary Collegiate to the north-eastern corner of the Old Town.

We recommend during the warmer months you start the climb either before mid-morning or later in the afternoon. Before mid-morning you will be spared the full heat of the sun because it won’t have peeked over the cliff top and the steps will remain in shade. But once the sun hits the steps it’s not only the sun’s direct heat that has to be tolerated by also the reflected heat off the limestone.

The first target is to ascend to the Church of Our Lady of Remedy (1518), the site of an annual pilgrimage by the religious community in Kotor.

The Church of Our Lady is a venue for annual worship for citizens of Kotor
The Church of Our Lady of Remedy (1518), the site of an annual pilgrimage
The Church of Our Lady of Remedy would have been important to guardians in the defensive positions
The small Church of Our Lady of Remedy

We noticed after we had peeked inside the Church of Our Lady and resumed our ascent that some climbers were not carrying any fluids and wisely chose not to continue. This is a strenuous climb if not fit or prepared – particularly on a hot day. Even if you are in good shape you will appreciate the occasional time out to take in the view and pretended not to be in pain. Finally, you will reach the first of the two fortresses, the smaller one, and the panorama will be stunning.

The ruins of the smaller fort were intermediate along the eastern wall and was designed to protect any advance from the lower elevations of Mt St John.

The smaller fort on Mt St John at Kotor was intermediate along the eastern wall
The smaller fort at Kotor was intermediate along the eastern wall
Small fort at Kotor
Small fort at Kotor
The descent at Kotor towards the small fort
The descent towards the smaller fort at Kotor

The serpentine path continues inexorably upwards with the eastern defences to the left until first sighting of the entrance to the principal fortress. Even the fortress, now dilapidated and crumbling, looks even better because it marks the end of the challenge.

The entrance to the principal fortress on Mt St John at Kotor
The entrance to the principal fortress at Kotor

It will be satisfying to reach the ruins of the fortress but you will find that practically everywhere you will be in direct sunlight so scrounge around and find somewhere that even pretends to be shady.

‘“It is quiet time now; that time after achievement or whatever to just veg out and enjoy what the eyes fall on and what the mind conjures.”’

It is now time to return to the Old Town. Oh, how everyone loves gravity when going in the right direction, and as you make your way down you will have a sense of what you have climbed.

The descent from the fortress at Kotor must have made it a challenge in times of invasion
The descent from the fortress at Kotor provides a panorama of Kotor Bay
When we re-entered the city in the vicinity of some very
old urban dwellings
there was a small
fountain
which discharges lovely, fresh cold water. Many gathered around it before seeking out one of the outdoor restaurants with the intention of drinking it dry.

The climb to the fortress takes about 21/2 hours. Take sufficient water to keep hydrated, although temporary stalls that sell water in small bottles may be located along the track. Even so, when the sun shines it will feel as though a hot iron is being pressed on the back of your neck.
If you enjoy the climb up to the Fort you might like to consider taking the hike from Kotor that goes past the Fort and then over the top of the mountains to the Lovcen National Park. Of course, if you are planning to visit Lovcen anyway, then may common sense prevail and spare yourselves the unnecessary pain.

Final Thoughts on the Kotor Fortifications

Kotor’s walled defences and associated fortifications and fortress are in themselves sufficient reason to visit Kotor. The defences and other period buildings maintain the city’s historical narrative as well as provide a venue for active and enjoyable exploration. Should you be interested in fortified Old Towns, check out the fortifications and Old Town of nearby Budva. If you are driving to Kotor from Bosnia or driving to Kotor from Croatia you might like to check out the linked posts.