Switchback Heaven: Climbing the Ladder of Kotor in Montenegro

Date: November 26, 2019
Vagabonding Day: 57
Location: Kotor, Montenegro

Located in the stunningly beautiful Bay of Kotor, the fortified city of Kotor is framed with a backdrop of mountains that rise dramatically from the Adriatic Sea. Most visitors to Kotor climb the 1355 steps to St. John’s Fortress (also called San Giovanni Fortress) perched above the town, but I was after the bigger challenge. I decided to hike the Ladder of Kotor instead, a trail which climbs the same hill in parallel and continues past the fortifications up to Krstac Pass.

The Ladder of Kotor Trail.

Also called the “Ladder of Cattaro”, the trail used to be the only available route to connect Kotor with Njegusi village and Cetinje further inland. A road now meanders up the mountains via a much longer serpentine route to connect the villages. I planned to hike up to Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana, located on this same road, and then turn around. For those who want to hike only half of the distance, a one-way hike to or from this point is another option (assuming transportation can be arranged).

Another variation on the hike is to ascend or descend a portion of the trail via the steps to the Kotor fortifications. About halfway to the top of the ridge along the Ladder of Kotor, a path cuts over to the fortress – enabling visitors to hike both the Ladder of Kotor and the fortifications in a loop. The only issue is that this access point is *technically* forbidden as it avoids the 8 Euro entrance fee. According to my research, a guard is sometimes posted to prevent access. I really wanted to take this variation but I was a little worried about getting into the fortress through this secret back door. I’m lousy at breaking rules. I guess I would have to see when I got up there.

St. John’s Fortress as viewed from the Ladder of Kotor.

Ladder of Kotor

Elevation Gain: 3300 feet / 1000 meters
Distance: 8 miles round-trip / 13 km

My route hiking the Ladder of Kotor trail.
A close-up of the switchbacks on the Ladder of Kotor.

The trail starts just outside of Old Town opposite the north channel of the Scurda river. Since Daniel and I were staying in Old Town, I exited via the North Gate and then crossed the two bridges spanning both channels of the river. After the second bridge, I turned right at Bastion 3 restaurant (this restaurant is great by the way – we ate there twice). The trail begins by a power station and crosses back over the river before climbing uphill.

The north channel of the Scurda River was dry for this hike, but was full of water after the rains the following day.
The Trailhead for the Ladder of Kotor.

The infamous switchbacks begin almost immediately after crossing the bridge. Apparently there are over 70 switchbacks on the Ladder of Kotor trail. I was just about hopping up and down with excitement as I gazed uphill at the magnificent switchbacks beckoning me from above. Most people don’t really like switchbacks all that much but not me. I LOVE switchbacks.

Let the switchbacks begin!
Looking down on the first set of switchbacks.
This goat is munching on some pomegranate trees.
The goat regards the Bay of Kotor.

After passing some goats (hello, goats!), I continued up the hill until I passed a couple of stone cottages. Both advertised food and refreshments although neither seemed to be open at the moment. It was clear that people lived in these cottages as laundry flapped lazily in the breeze.

Looking up towards the fortifications at the beginning of the hike.
This cottage sells drinks and snacks to hikers.
Another view of St. John’s Fortress.

At this point, a path veered off to the fortress and I could see a ladder propped up against the back to allow entry via a small window. I wondered if I’d be able to get in on my way back down.

The forbidden back door entrance to the fortifications.
Obligatory selfie in front of the Kotor Fortress.

I ignored the side trail and continued up the switchbacks towards a ridge which I assumed to be the top. I was sadly disappointed – the trail angled south for a bit and then zig-zagged uphill towards a different ridge face.

That ridge up ahead has to be the top of the switchbacks, right?
Approaching the top of the ridge.
Nope – not the top. The switchbacks continue!
The view of Kotor and the fortress from near the top of the ridge. Enormous cruise ships pull into the bay right next to town.

Finally I reached the top of the ridge and the path levelled off for a bit, heading east through some trees. Soon, I reached a trail junction. I looked at my map (well, the map app on my phone) for a minute, considering. Should I go right or left? I headed left and put my map away, confident in my excellent navigation skills.

Hiking through the trees after reaching the top of the ridge.
Trail Junction!

The path continued through some trees, paralleling a stream below. “Ahh,” I thought to myself, “This is the life. The sun is shining, the woods are inviting, and the stream sounds lovely…wait a minute – why am I following a stream? That can’t be right!”

So I pulled out my map again and ascertained that I had, indeed, taken a wrong turn at the junction. I had gone over a kilometer in the wrong direction. *Groan* So I promptly turned around and hotfooted it back, this time taking the right fork. This path was much steeper than the other one. Before too long, however, I reached the road and – voila! – there was Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana.

The end is in sight!
Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana.

The restaurant was closed for the season but I had been expecting as much and had packed a lunch just in case. I perched on the restaurant’s patio and looked at the amazing view of Kotor Bay below me as I ate my sandwich. Sometimes referred to at Europe’s southernmost “fjord”, the Bay of Kotor is comprised of a bay inside a bay. I could see all the way past the innermost part of the bay to the bay beyond it. Absolutely stunning.

The Bay of Kotor as viewed from Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana.
The Bay of Kotor as viewed from Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana.
The Bay of Kotor as viewed from Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana.

I checked the time and realized I had better hurry if I didn’t want to get caught in the dark. The sun sets around 4:30 pm in these parts and my detour had put me behind schedule a bit. As I hurried downhill, I ran into another hiker named Julian from Australia. We chatted for a minute and decided to hike the rest of the way down together. We were both hiking solo today and glad of the company.

Heading back down towards Kotor.
Only the innermost section of the Bay of Kotor is visible from this vantage point.
Hello, cow!
Approaching the fortress.

Julian also wanted to check out the fortress on the way back to town, so we headed there together. After passing the crumbling remains of St. John’s Church, we followed the trail to the fortress’s back wall where a ladder led to a window. Lucky for us, a guard was not posted to prevent access (probably due to it being low season). So we scrambled through and began exploring the old fortress remains.

St. John’s Church.
The fortress as viewed from St. John’s Church.
A hiker debates whether to climb the ladder to the fortress back door.
Julian climbs the fortress steps.
St. John’s Fortress!

The sun was just beginning to set as we reached the top of the fortress. We sat down for a moment, enjoying the view. One of Kotor’s many stray cats made itself comfortable, sitting first in Julian’s lap and then mine. But it was getting late and we still had 1355 steps to descend, so we got up to go.

Sunset from the top of St. John’s Fortress.
This was a very cuddly cat.
The Bay of Kotor at sunset.
We befriend another cat.

Dusk settled in as we began the climb down the fortress steps. I was very glad that I had a hiking buddy with me as it was starting to get rather dark. We had just enough ambient light to see, however, without having to use our flashlights.

Descending the steps from the Kotor Fortress at dusk.
Church of our Lady of Remedy.

Soon we were back in Old Town and I bid goodbye to my new friend. Now that was a hike that I won’t soon forget. What an amazing day.

More information

Where are we now?

We are in Kotor, Montenegro.

View the map here: Kotor, Montenegro

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