10 July 2012

Castle Hunting: Kotor

Behind the last rise, the hot and arid medieval lands of the Serbs and Bosniacs stretched. Later, the Ottomans controlled this expanse of mountains and plains, running as far as old Hungary.  A caravan trail - a mule track in the dust - ran from the interior to the very edge of the sea, coming just to the point where land and water meet.  The black mountain that gives Montenegro its name rises there, at the edge, part of a long horseshoe of peaks that encloses Kotor bay.  Down its side, crossing in hundreds of switchbacks, the ancient trade route trickled down to a busy port.  Named in antiquity, this "ladder of Cattaro" is still visible in outline, there are still some paving stones in the yellow grass.  Before it, at the entrance to the Adriatic, the Venetians built one of their grandest and most ambitious castles - Cattaro (now called Kotor) was the ancient gateway that held shut the back way to Montenegro's heart.
The landscape isn't much changed - scrub and tinder-dry grass.  As we hiked in the peaks around Kotor we came across a man collecting dead wood for his fireplace.  The views are amazing, the heat was overwhelming.  The upper part of Kotor's fortifications are impressive, but not all that well preserved or interesting.  From below, they blend into the mountains, the towers having been leveled by earthquakes.  But sometimes, a castle can be evocative just because of where it is - and there are few castles we've been to with this kind of setting.
Until 1879, the "ladder" (note that it's not actually a ladder, just a very steep path) was the only way in or out of Cattaro by land - which the people of Montenegro liked.  Essentially, the shores of the Bay of Cattaro (now Kotor Bay) were like an island in the Mediterranean, cut off and sheltered from the turmoil of the mainland but readily accessible by boat.  The bay is the deepest-cut and steepest-sided of the Adriatic.  The water here is dead still, protected from the storms and winds of the wider sea - perfect for a port.  Everyone coveted it, from the Romans to the Ottomans, but it was the Venetians that ruled it for the longest in recent history, and who shaped the castle's fortifications the most.
Kotor's defenses are much more than just a keep and walls - there are two main parts, an upper castle and a lower sea fort, built mostly at the same time, during the 1430's-90's.
The real "castle" part of Kotor's fortifications is really called the Fortress of St. John, or San Giovanni, and is more than 900 feet higher than the old town (there is a myth that the castle is 1,200 meters above the sea, which would be spectacular if it were true).  It's situated perfectly on a high crag, between the bay and the slope where the ladder of Cattaro weaves its way down.  Behind it, out of sight from Kotor itself, is a steep cliff, forming a nice, natural wall between the landward side and the fortifications.  Reaching from the citadel, cascading down the rock, are two long walls that cut off any entry towards the town from behind, sealing in the slope between the fortress and the city.  The walls didn't need to be very tall, they topped nearly-sheer drops.
Originally built in the 15th century, the fortification was (somewhat humorously) re-fitted with snippets of modern defenses during communism, so there are bunkerlike chambers within the ramparts.  These parts are now crumbling more noticeably than the stone walls around them.
Venice expanded its empire hugely during the fifteenth century.  This was the early stages of gunboat warfare, and the little seafaring nation proved to be the naval superpower of its day.  The Venetians, with thousands of boats but not many men, staked out a scattered and narrow curtain of holdings around the northern shore of the Mediterranean, capturing everything from Peloponnesus to Cyprus (we already looked at a great fortress in Kyrenia, from roughly the same period, and a later example, in Nafplio, Greece).  It was a short-lived empire in the outer regions, as the Ottomans proved stronger and more determined in the East.
But closer to home, in what was called "Venetian Albania," the empire held on for longer.  Here, they had carved a catholic slice of coast from its Serbian neighbors and were able to provide the ships and guns to keep it.  The bay of Kotor was one of the last remnants of Venice's holdings because it was such a watery town.  The Ottomans had a hard time fighting at sea, despite massive fleets and overpowering forces - while land to the east became dominated by the Turks, Kotor bay remained part of the sea, and Venice held on from 1420 until 1797, when it ceded the land to the Habsburgs in a treaty.
The Ottomans did capture Kotor on two occasions, but never through direct force.  The problem with Cattaro's defenses were that they were almost too complete - it was easy to cut off supplies and lay seige.  In two instances - between 1538 – 1571 and 1657 – 1699 - the Ottomans were able to successfully take the city, during periods when their navy was in better control of that stretch of coastline.  Without supplies from the sea, Cattaro was unable to survive.  As Venice's fleet ebbed and strengthened, so did the fortunes of the fortifications.
The old Montenegrin lands, and Kotor in general, thrived because of shipping.  Venetian Albania was an important trading and shipbuilding center for the empire, but Cattaro had been a major port for centuries beforehand, despite not having much access inland.  But, if there wasn't a good overland route here, there has always been the sea - and the second main part of Kotor's defense has been primarily naval.
In an overwhelmingly Venetian way, the small triangle of land that constitutes Kotor's walled town was protected by a series of low bastions and thick walls.  Essentially, the Venetians were applying what their military did best - naval gunpowder units - to a solid framework.  This is familiar from places like Kyrenia, but on a smaller scale here.  The low walls were fronted by moats on two sides and faced outward - like a wedge - into the harbor.
Earthquakes have thrice damaged Kotor's defensed - most recently in 1979 - but the lower walls were solid and low enough to survive mostly intact.  There is little room at the end of Kotor bay for a ship to maneuver away from the fortifications which was important for one significant reason.  Because they needed to fire at very close quarters, attacking fleets were required to shoot very directly at the walls, and were unable to loft any missiles inside, to attack the town directly.  Therefore, the walls could be made in an almost ideal way for protection - blunt, thick and squat.
In essence, the idea goes like this: a more open wall, where fleets could square up at a distance, was vulnerable because it was a large and easy target - a ship some distance away was difficult to hit with old cannons, while walls weren't.  In addition, a cannon firing from distance could attack the entirety of the fortress, not just the blunt outer wall, by angling its missile to clear the wall but fall inside, which meant that a lot of seaside fortresses needed to have higher walls than they would have liked.
In an enclosed space, like the bay, the ships lost all of this advantage.  They needed to be close up, and so were just as easily bombarded as the walls.  And, because they needed to fire on a level in order to hit anything, a stout outer wall was more than enough protection.  After all, several meters of stonework holds up better than a few inches of woodwork when trading direct blows.  If Kotor's lower defenses don't look impressive, it's because they don't need to be - the bastions had only to be as high as a ship's gunnels.
Coming into Kotor from the sea or the newer, lower road, one could be forgiven for missing the upper castle in daylight.  There's a lot to see in town, the best views are out into the bay to the other mountains.  In the bright July light, the rock and scrub above town blend into hazy gray.  It's not until evening that the castle's true outline, traced in long strands of lights, stands out.
But standing on the old ladder way, the castle is tremendous.  It looks like something out of a general's fantasy, a melding of rock and cliff that seems even more massive than it is.  It's telling that Kotor's Venetian defenses were never directly overpowered, holding up against centuries of hostile neighbors and frothing sea warfare.
We got sunburned and dried out, wandering through the ruins.  Kotor is a castle of staircases, so be prepared to get out of breath.  It's also a castle of views, as though the real thing the Italian architects coveted wasn't the bay, but the vista out over it.

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