Once upon a time there was a magical place, hidden from the world, forgotten by time. It was nestled under high mountains, tucked away at the end of a long Bay, the entrance of which was concealed through a narrow strait. Up and down the coast, ships passed by, never knowing that if they turned and navigated through a few tight turns, they would reach a place that was so enchanting they might never want to leave.
The place hadn’t always been forgotten, of course. It had found itself a pawn in the battles of large nations and kingdoms. But as the world returned to peace, it returned to peace too, and slipped from the memories of the rest of the world.
The centre of this magical land was a small town in the Bay of Kotor, a stretch of water often called the southernmost fjord. The town, also named Kotor, was tucked away at the very end of the Bay, tucked in under high hills. The citizens wanted to guard their privacy, so a moat and a centuries-old wall circled the town, bordering the bay and scaling the hills behind, a fortress at the top providing further protection from both land or sea.
Inside the walls, the people lived a tranquil life. They worshipped at beautiful churches; as they lifted their eyes to the Lord, they were rewarded by the grandeur of the mountains.
They built a church half-way up the mountain to the fortress, and from there they marvelled at the beauty of their home, the calm waters that supplied them with succulent fish, and the long bay and high hills that guaranteed them their tranquility.
Whispers and secrets of this magical land got out, and the occasional intrepid traveller or pilgrim found their way through the straits, across the water, or over the rugged mountains to the town. And once there, they rarely left. But as the years past, someone, somehow got out and spread the word. And so it came that one day, in the early morning, a ship on a Quest made its way through the narrow straits. Two of its passengers – who had heard about this place, and were excited by the prospect of seeing it – rose early in the dim light, and stood on the deck, wrapped up against the cool wind.
As the sky lightened the ship slowed, the strait seeming barely wide enough for the ship to fit through. The two passengers were by now joined by others on deck.
They were all silent, in awe as the ship turned sharply, then turned again through another narrow channel, finally making it into the sound. Two island churches sat in the middle of the bay, deceptively coaxing ships to turn north towards them.
But the captain of the Quest had done his homework, and knew that he would be rewarded if he veered south. And as the ship glided silently through the waters, the sun rose, and in the early morning, the settlements along the banks came to life. Dogs barked, roosters crowed, and – at 7 am – church bells chimed the hour.
Finally the ship docked, and the locals waved their welcome. The passengers and crew, knowing they had come with peace and love in their hearts, were happy that they were greeted with friendship. And now relaxed, they breakfasted in the sun on the deck before setting off to explore this ancient place. Some energetic visitors set off in kayaks to explore the bay, their paddles twinkling in the morning sun.
Other enthusiastic visitors set off to climb to the fortress; after all, it looked temptingly close from the ship. They walked through cobbled streets, past churches and perfectly named guest houses and taverns.
They heard joy in the voices of the citizens, celebrating their good fortune in living there, in the prosperity come from new friends. The band played, and boys from rival settlements, there to compete in a sports event, careened madly around a courtyard, tossing weapons at each other, laughing as the eggs broke harmlessly on the courtyard stones. The visitors laughed too.
Slowly, in no rush, they found their way to the stairs to the fortress. At first the climb was easy, with wide steps, the hillside sloping away gently. But soon the stairs began to crumble. Kotor was peaceful now, and the citizens were more relaxed about maintaining their stairway to the fortress than they had once been. The walls to the stairs had collapsed in places, and the slope was now steep, the fall more dangerous. The visitors stopped at the church, joining pilgrims and travellers in resting a while, and in the rising heat of the day, took sips of water while admiring the view.
Continuing on, the way grew steeper and more difficult, and by the time they reached half-way, the woman became fearful of the steep drops, and her husband was sent to make the climb to the fortress alone. The way was hard, but he returned with evidence that it was worth it.
The descent was easier, and they were rewarded at the bottom by a splash of cold water at a well in a small square, followed up by a cool beer and lunch at one of the taverns.
They explored the rest of the town, charmed by the warren of alleyways and courtyards and squares, of houses and churches and public buildings, full of visitors and locals and priests, and the occasional weary dog.
They appreciated the narrow streets for their shade in the heat of the day, and enjoyed gelato from one of the many ice-cream stores scattered through the town.
And they sailed away that evening, waving a sad farewell to Kotor, but happy that – for now – it remained a secret from most of the world.