I don’t wanna stop
‘Till I reach the top.
--Prince, Baby I’m A Star
I recently spent a week living inside the walled-in citadel of old Kotor, a medieval town—and current UNESCO World Heritage Site—that was protected by a fortification system containing all the things you’d expect to see in such a place: ramparts, towers, bastions, gates, a moat, and a big castle-fortress sitting atop a mountain high above the city’s walls.
The mountain is named for St. John, and was first fortified by the Illyrians, a group of tribes that inhabited part of the western Balkans in antiquity. Kotor changed hands many times over the centuries, at times falling under the rule of the Byzantines, the Venetians, and the Ottomans. Various sieges by the French, Russians, and British occurred over the years, until finally Kotor was returned to Austria under the Congress of Vienna. The fortress was abandoned following Austria’s loss in the first World War, and was thereafter occupied by the Axis powers during the second. It was eventually liberated in November 1944. Today it is part of Montenegro.
I found the architectural and military aspects of Kotor fascinating. But from my own traveler’s standpoint, what all this meant was, I had another fortress on the horizon to climb. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the Kotor Fortress is, in essence, a straight shot up to the sky. I couldn’t even imagine myself going up there.
In Kotor I stayed in a hostel with a crowd of young, fit backpackers. Each evening I would meet another fellow traveler who had climbed to the top of the Kotor Fortress earlier that day. I’d ask him or her how it went, knowing soon it would be my turn.
“It was murder,” one girl told me through a British accent. I watched her as she got up and walked across the common room into the kitchen to make some tea, and couldn’t help but notice her pretty-defined calf muscles. “Murder” was not what I wanted to hear from this particular girl.
Day after day I put off the climb. Finally my last night in Kotor arrived, and I knew the next morning it would be time. I passed the evening organizing my backpack for the next day’s move to the next town, and also spent time making a special mix of music from my I-tunes library, specifically for the fortress climb.
I got up early and headed over to the entrance where I found two men packing mules with heavy stones to bring up the mountain. I had heard that the stone stairway had crumbled in parts, and was currently being repaired. I passed by the mules, paid the 3 Euro entrance fee, stuck in my I-tunes, and began the ascent up the stone pathway.
Now, here’s the thing. I’m no spring chicken. And I’ve been in better shape in my life. But to me, the climb wasn’t nearly as punishing as it was made out to be. It was a hike, to be sure. But to me, it felt good. May I dare say it was even easy?
I think it was the music. I just happened to pick just the right backbeats and chord progressions and baselines that pushed me all the way to the top of the mountain no problem, and barely even noticing the physical burn. Rather than grueling, I found the whole experience exhilarating.
And so, for those who will have occasion to face the Kotor-Fortress challenge, may I suggest what I call:
The Essential Kotor-Fortress Climb Mix
Jai-Ho, A.R. Rahman, S. Singh, T. Shah & V. Prakash (Slumdog Millionaire)
Sexy Bitch, David Guetta (featuring Akon)
All the Small Things, Blink-182
Short Skirt/Long Jacket, Cake
American Girl, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Semi-Charmed Life, Third Eye Blind
Greased Lightning, John Travolta (Grease)
S & M, Rhianna
Lady Madonna, The Beatles
Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Queen
Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Queen
Hash Pipe, Weezer
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Michael Jackson
Baby I’m A Star, Prince (Note: absolutely essential toward the end.)
And last but not least. When you get to within 100 meters of the base of the castle, and you see the tattered Montenegrin flag within striking distance, pause for a moment, put on Gonna Fly Now (the theme from Rocky) and push on. You should get to the top just as the song reaches its dramatic end, in time to throw up your arms and jump around a bit just like Rocky did on those steps in Philadephia. It's the best.
Unfortunately I don’t have any good advice for the descent. My legs were like rubber and there was nothing I could do to stop them from shaking uncontrollably by the time I reached the bottom. Seriously, I don't know how those mules do it day after day.
And, finally, thanks to the men fixing the steps: