Castle of San Giovanni (St. John)

The castle of San Giovanni (St. John) is a fortification located on a hill at an altitude of 280 meters above Kotor and is one of the most visited tourist sites in Montenegro.

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The fortification complex includes walls, ramparts, towers, citadels, forts and other structures. The total length of the walls is about 4.5 km, and the height reaches 20 meters. Many cultures and peoples had a hand in their construction, including Illyria, Byzantium, Venice, Austria and others.

Since 1979, the castle, together with the Old Town, has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Castle history

According to a number of sources, the top of the hill above modern Kotor was fortified back in the Illyrian period — the Romans began to build it in 168 BC.

In 535, after the next expulsion of the Goth tribes from these lands, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ordered to fortify the town and build a fortress over it. It is believed that it is from this year that the history of the walls of San Giovanni begins.

However, this did not save it from numerous raids by various nomadic tribes, including the Saracens, who sacked it in 840.

After that, the city, like the fortress, had almost 500 years of unrest: changed hands, declared independence, and were raided. And in the XV century, fearing the capture by the Ottoman Empire, Kotor became part of the possessions of the Venetian Republic.

Interesting fact! Kotor was among the cities that suffered from the raid of the Tatar-Mongol Horde. In 1241, he was burned by the troops of the grandson of Genghis Khan — Kadan.

Venetian era

In 1420, Kotor, and with it the Castle of San Giovanni, became part of the province of Albania Veneta. It is worth noting that the Italians accepted the city into their composition only after the eighth request from the Cattaro authorities. At the same time, the Venetians decided to strengthen it by investing an impressive amount of money in the construction of fortifications. They have come down to us through the ages.

Interesting fact! The amount of investment in the walls of Kotor was so impressive that an expression appeared in Venice that is used to this day when they talk about an overly pretentious lover: «Te me costi come i muri de Cattaro.» In translation, this means: «You cost me like the walls of Cattaro»

One of the reasons why the Italians decided to fortify the walls was the proximity of the border of the Ottoman Empire, which was only a couple of hours away.

The second reason — the possession of Kotor allowed controlling the entire bay.

Not surprisingly, throughout the existence of this neighborhood, the Turks tried to capture the city. However, the constructed walls, reinforced by a battery of 38 guns, successfully coped with the task — the town was never taken.

In 1539, Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa, at the head of a flotilla of 70 ships and 30,000 soldiers, laid siege to the fortress, but retreated 4 days later.

In 1571, the Turkish troops of Ali Pasha Muezzin-Zadeh made a second attempt, besieging the city from 9 to 16 August, but also were unsuccessful and retreated.

In 1657, during the Candian War between the Ottoman Empire and the Venetian Republic, the most powerful attempt was made: the 5,000-strong army of Mehmed Pasha Varlats from Shkoder besieged Kotor with 1,000 defenders for two months. However, also unsuccessfully, the walls survived, but the legend has been preserved among the people from that time.

When the city was besieged by the Turks, the inhabitants of Kotor and the surrounding territories saved themselves in the citadel and, either out of stupidity or out of patriotic impulses, as a sign that the city did not plan to surrender, they closed the city from the inside, and the key to the gate was thrown into the sea. The Turks, after futile attempts to take the city, left, but then it turned out that the only key to the keyhole was in the sea, and without it, it was absolutely impossible to open the gate. In fact, people were locked up in their own fortress with no way out. Fortunately, they had water (now this place is the «Karampan Well»), and the returned Venetians threw catapults at food.

This went on for 10 years until in 1667 an earthquake wiped out ⅔ of the city and created a crack through which the inhabitants got out.

France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today

Since 1797, after the fall of the Venetian Republic, Kotor went to the Habsburg monarchy under the Treaty of Campoformion. However, already in 1805, he passed into the possession of the satellite state of the First French Empire — the Kingdom of Italy. Not for long, in March 1806, the city was handed over by Russian troops led by Admiral Dmitry Senyavin, but on July 25, 1807, the royal order was received to «surrender the province and the city of Boco di Cattaro» to the French. Thus, on August 14, 1807, Kotor was returned to the French Empire under the Treaty of Tilsit.

In 1813-1814 the fortress was attacked by the British fleet led by Captain William Hoste. As a result of the siege, the French surrendered.

After the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and for 100 years, the fortress passed into the possession of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that was ended only after the First World War. The First World War was the last time that San Giovanni was used as a defensive structure, even though it was later occupied by the Axis.

After the Second World War, the fortress passed into the ownership of Yugoslavia, and since 2006 — Montenegro.

Fortress gates

According to all tourist materials, three gates lead to Old Kotor and San Giovanni — the Sea Gate (main gate), River Gate(northern gate), and Gurdich Gate. However, there is still a little-known gate in the east, which can only be discovered by climbing the mountain. So, first things first.

Gurdich Gate

Gate Gurdich — the most «age» gate of Old Kotor, which helped travelers from Budva to get to the town faster. Initially, it was the only entrance to the city, and the Sea and River Gates were built later. They got their name in honor of the Gurdich River, which flows out of the rock nearby and goes around the fortress from this side.

This river has an interesting feature — it does not have a permanent channel — during the rainy season, a powerful stream of water breaks out of the cave and flows into the bay, and in summer, during dry times, the river dries up and seawater fills its channel.

Gurdich is the most fortified gate and the only one equipped with a drawbridge. The fortification is based on the semicircular Gurdich bastion, which has been repeatedly repaired and strengthened during its existence. At the same time, the gates already have a triple system of locks:

  • The outer gate was constructed in the 18th century with a system of counterweights for the drawbridge that has survived to this day.
  • The middle gate is the oldest. They were built back in the 13th century during the temporary rule of the Serbs here. In the future, part of the Serbian walls became the basis for the Venetian ones.
  • The inner gates are the most powerful and, apparently, the legend speaks about them. They were built by the Venetians in the first half of the 16th century, and their author is the famous Italian fortification architect and engineer Michele Sanmichele.

Sea Gate

The Sea Gate is the main entrance to the old city, built-in 1555 by the Venetian governor Bernard Renier (the initials «BR» and the date in Roman numerals indicate this) north of the old gate, which was destroyed by an earthquake. At the time of construction, the water was close to them, so leaving the city, residents immediately found themselves near the water.

The gates are made in the Baroque style and consist of massive stone blocks. Inside, the arches of the gates are decorated with a Gothic relief, which depicts the Virgin Mary with the patron saint of the city - Tryphon and Saint Bernardino from Siena. Previously, above the gate, there was a relief of the symbol of Venice — the lion of St. Mark, but after the Second World War, the date of the liberation of the city from the occupation by the Axis (November 21, 1944) and a five-pointed star was carved instead.

River Gate

River or Northern Gate are located in the northern part of the walls of the Old City near the Shkudra River. They were laid down and implemented later than all: in 1539 after the victory over the Turkish admiral Khair-ed-Din Barbarossa. Today, the inscription on the pediment above the gate reminds of this battle.

The river itself was narrow but powerful. Nowadays, a stone bridge has been thrown across it. In the past, this bridge performed an important defensive function — it was covered on both sides by stone barriers with loopholes, which, unfortunately, were dismantled after the First World War. All that remains of them are two extensions in the form of a semicircle in the center of the bridge.


Entrance at Contarini tower

The last, least-known gates are located in the upper fortress walls from the side of Mount Lovcen in the Contarini tower. According to research, this is one of the most ancient fortifications in the Kotor fortress, which was built in the XIV century (before joining the Venetian Republic). Through them, Montenegrins from Njegushy got into the city for trade and exchange, and right in front of the gates, there was a small market for convenience.

The tower is a three-story building with Gothic masonry.

Interesting fact! The tower has no positions for artillery, which additionally indicates that it was built in the pre-fire era.

The entrance was well fortified: it is quite narrow, and above the portal there is a balcony with loopholes, where archers-defenders of the fortress could be located. Nowadays, this entrance is overgrown with plants, littered with stones and branches and has not been used for a long time. However, not far from it there is a hole in the wall through which you can get to the territory of the fortress of San Giovanni in a non-tourist way.


History remembers 5 major earthquakes that caused the destruction of the fortress, and, accordingly, a global restructuring:

  • 1537
  • 1563
  • April 6, 1667 — ⅔ of the buildings and walls were destroyed, and the governor, Alvise Foscarini, died.
  • 1729
  • April 15, 1979 — a powerful earthquake of 7 on the Richter scale with an epicenter between Bar and Ulcinj, which affected the entire coast of Montenegro.

It was after the last of them that the Old Town of Kotor was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. This, in turn, made it possible to receive comprehensive assistance and make a decision to rebuild the city in the form in which Austria-Hungary received it back in the 19th century.

Therefore, the current view of Kotor and the fortress is as close as possible to the Venetian era.

Church of Our Lady of Health

When climbing to the castle on the top of the hill, about halfway you will meet the Catholic Church. The first mention of it dates back to 1518 and at that moment it was called the Church of the Sleeping Our Lady. However, in 1630, after a plague in the city and as a sign of deliverance from a deadly scourge, she received a new name — the Church of Our Lady of Health.

Interesting fact! The location of the church was used for spiritual rites in the early Middle Ages. Archaeological studies have shown that as early as the 6th century there was an early Christian basilica here.

Next to the church there is the tomb of Kotor count Anton Lukovich, this is also evidenced by the coat of arms.

The entrance to the church, as well as the terrace, are made in the Gothic style, but the rest of the building, including the bell tower, is Baroque. Inside, a marble altar was preserved, made by the Venetian master Bernard Tabacco, around 1700. The altar is decorated with two sculptures — St. Tryphon, the patron saint of Kotor and St. Jerome, the patron saint of Herceg Novi and, in general, all of Dalmatia. Previously, the church also housed the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Health, which is currently located in the Cathedral of St. Tryphon


Along the road you will also come across miniature chapels, each dedicated to:

  1. Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  2. Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple
  3. Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  4. Ascension of the Most Holy Theotokos.

How to get

If you were able to get to Kotor, then it will be difficult for you not to notice the fortress towering over the city, respectively, it will not be difficult to see the direction of movement.

Having reached the Old City, you have 3 trails to choose from — 2 official and 1 secret:

  • from River Gate
  • from Pjaca od Salate
  • along the old mountain path on the side of the fortress

If the first 2 trails are officially touristic and you need to pay 8 euros per person for passing through them (indicated in green), then the third one is considered abandoned and the passage along it is free (blue).