Sveti Ivan is the proper Slavic name of the fortress that rises above Kotor but the many other derivations of the name aptly describe the region’s diverse history. Upon arriving here we knew nothing of this history but wanted to climb the stairs to the top of the fortress to enjoy the surreal views of the bay below.
Well protected in the furthest, most secluded part of the Bay of Kotor, the town of Kotor was a strategic location for navys and commercial trade for the various empires and kingdoms that have sought to rule the Dalmatian coast over the last two thousand years. However, though well protected from the sea, the town was still susceptible to invasion from the mountains that tower above it and so fortifications were built by the Illryian tribes who lived here first and improved with each succeeding conqueror until the modern era.
There are somewhere between 1300 and 1500 steps to the top of the fortress, but the stairs are crumbling and the terrain can be slightly difficult. It took us 45 minutes to climb to the top, stopping quite a bit to
catch our breath enjoy the views.
The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I built the first complete fortification system in the 6th century, most likely naming it St. Ioannis, the Greek form of the saint whose name is used for both the fortress and the hill it rises up to. Though a part of Montenegro in the modern era, historically Kotor was aligned with Dalmatia and the Republic of Ragusa which eventually came under Venetian rule giving the fortress the name San Giovanni. Venetian style and architecture is prevalent all over the Bay of Kotor (just as it is throughout Croatia’s coastline) but the Venetians also rebuilt the fortress to its current structure.
While climbing up the fortress it’s easy to spot the Old Ladder of Kotor to the north, a small footpath that weaves steeply up the side of the mountain that fostered trade and communication between the bay and the hill towns of Montenegro. To the south is the New Ladder of Kotor, a small road that allows vehicle traffic to white knuckle their way to the top of the hill around 25 steep switchbacks and blind corners.
The city fell to invading Ottomans several times but overall the Bay of Kotor and the hill tribes of Montenegro managed to fend off the Ottomans during most of their reign over the Balkans. The Austrian Empire assumed control of Kotor in 1797 and though there is no evidence they changed the name to St. Johannes Fortress, the Austrian flag surely did fly over the city. During the Napoleonic Wars, the town and fortress were occupied by the French, British and Russians with their flags raised over the city and I imagine discussions on altering the name again to St. Jean, St. John or St. Ivan. The great powers of Europe decided to give Kotor back to Austria after they got rid of that pesky Napoleon and the Austrian flag was again raised over the city until the end of World War I when the Austrian empire dissolved, the troops left town and the fortress was never to be manned again.
Looking down at the town one can see the many churches of Kotor, both Orthodox and Catholic, which stick out between the red roof tops of old town. While most of Dalmatia and Croatia came to be Catholic, Kotor was also influenced by the Serbian Orthodox Church that was prevalent throughout the rest of Montenegro. Today, it’s about half and half.
The Nazis were the last occupiers of Kotor and by that time the bay had come to be aligned with greater Montenegro rather than Dalmatia. So when Tito’s Partisan Army defeated the Nazi’s, Kotor would eventually become part of the Socialist Republic of Montenegro within the country of Yugoslavia.In the descriptions and informational signs on the walls and ramparts of the fortress, the official name is given as Sveti Ivan (in the Montenegrin language) and St. John (to appeal to the modern tourist). The locals, however, refer to it as the San Djovani Fortress, sounding just like the Italian derivation but spelled in the Slavic style, a perfect testament to the history of the Bay of Kotor.