One of the most popular hiking tours on the Montenegrin Coast is the so-called Ladder of Kotor, also called Ladder of Cattaro. It is a descent (or ascent for the more vigorous hikers!) from the 940 meters high Krstac pass to Kotor, following an old horse trail with more than 70 U-turns and magnificent views of the whole Bay. Photo 1 shows a view of the Ladder from the opposite Vrmac peninsula; as you can see, the trail starts on the left side behind the old town and zig-zags almost in a straight line to the top of the mountain.
But let me tell you something about the history of this path from Kotor to Cetinje that was described by many travel writers and other visitors of Montenegro in the 19th century as being very steep and rough. It was built by the Austrians as a military road up to the frontier with Montenegro. The road also served as a supply line for essential provisions – and moreover, the legendary billiard table ordered by Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, prince bishop of Montenegro, from Vienna, was transported by mules and donkeys over this trail from Kotor to Cetinje; of course, with huge efforts. The “Montenegrin market” was held outside the eastern gate of Kotor and that was the place where Montenegrin women sold smoked fish from Skadar Lake, but also ham, cheese, honey and wine. At the same market, they bought olive oil, salt, petrol and clothes for their own needs.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Henri van der Mandere, a Dutch travel writer, mentioned the Ladder of Cattaro in his travel book “Montenegro”. He wrote: “From Kotor to Cetinje there are two roads; one built in 1863 that is used by post and other vehicles, and another one that was built in 1822. The last one is a very steep and dangerous mountain trail, and only born Montenegrins are capable of climbing this path without visible efforts. It is true that this horse trail is much shorter than the other one: it leads directly uphill to the Krstac pass in Njeguši, where it joins the other road to Cetinje. On this old path you can see small groups in picturesque dress, climbing the steep and rocky trail with heavy burdens, accompanied by mules or horses. A foreigner only needs to see one of such groups to become aware of the position of women in Montenegro! The man proudly steps ahead, riding the only horse or mule and protecting himself against the blazing sun with his umbrella; the women, carrying heavy loads, walk behind him, sometimes at a greater distance. Their faces show the traces of a hard life, as we can see in many countries, where women are no more than pack animals. In our country, women were treated like that in the period of the Batavians, two thousand years ago!”
Several Montenegrin agencies for outdoor tourism organize this tour with guide and transport to the starting point, but we did it by ourselves. Of course, we took the easy way out and made the descent from Krstac to Kotor, which took us around four hours, including photo stops. We parked our car in Kotor and took a taxi cab to Krstac, following the “new Ladder”, a narrow asphalt road with 26 serpentines, until the place where the trail starts. The price? Around 15 euro!
The mountain pass of Krstac is situated at an altitude of 940 meters and the view of the Bay of Kotor is magnificent from that point (photo 2). The trail – no. 759 – is clean, well-marked and equipped with signposts. It starts downhill from the asphalt road, near the cave, and leads through dense forests downhill (photo 3). The first part is an easy hike, provided that the fallen leaves and needles on the path are not too slippery by the rain. After a while, the forests stop and the views become more and more picturesque.
From the beginning, we passed an endless series of U-turns, at first through the forest. But when we got out in the open, we could enjoy stunning vistas (photo 4). At some places the trail was damaged by the 1979 earthquake and we had to find our way through boulders and loose rocks. It took us around two hours to reach the almost deserted village of Špiljari. Here we made a short detour (5 minutes) to an old church that could be seen in a clearing on the left side, the St. George’s church (photo 5). Unfortunately, the chapel was dilapidated and when we entered we could only see some faded frescoes and a stone altar at the end.
At this place we had two possibilities: to walk back to Špiljari and continue zig-zagging downhill or to climb through a – well-marked – hole in the wall of the St. John’s fortress and then follow the stairways downhill along the city walls, which would be 30 minutes shorter. We decided to take the old military road. Also from here, the view was breathtaking (photo 6). After an endless series of switchbacks (photo 7), we reached the old water power plant, continued walking along the Škurda river and then crossed the old stone bridge. And so we ended the hike at the northern gate of the old town, thirsty and tired, but deeply impressed by the fantastic scenery.
And finally a few warnings for hikers: this is a rather easy trekking tour, but I would certainly recommend the use of hiking sticks and good hiking shoes, as descending 940 meters puts a lot of strain onto your knees! And don’t forget to take enough water with you, in particular during the hot summer months!