Woven into the cultural fabric of Montenegro
Nestled on a fjord-like bay along Montenegro's Adriatic coast, the town of Kotor is a time capsule. With its medieval Old Town area, overlooked by a hilltop castle fortress, the city accounts for a significant percentage of Montenegro's cultural heritage sites. Its Cathedral of St. Tryphon is one of Europe's oldest (it's older than Notre Dame in Paris). The town's narrow lanes include one of the narrowest in the world, barely wide enough for two people to pass each other. And all of the Old Town is enclosed by walls as high as 65 feet that zigzag from the coast and up the cliff that rises imposingly behind the town.
"When you come inside the walls, there are no cars," explains Aleksandra Ivanović, a member of the Rotary Club of Kotor. "You have this feeling that you are living in the past."
After a 1979 earthquake destroyed much of the town, the Kotor region was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The buildings were repaired, following strict rules to preserve the town's heritage. Today, tourists flock to see the cultural sites and enjoy the coastline.
The Rotary Club of Kotor celebrates this history and cultural heritage through its fundraisers and projects, which have supported everything from the town's orchestra to a traditional maritime organization. There are only seven Rotary clubs in Montenegro, and the organization is not yet well known, Ivanović explains. "We need to do a lot of promotion, talk about Rotary and what it does," she says. "For us it was very important to make this connection with the local community, and through Rotary promote the local values, the cultural heritage."
The club, chartered in 2017, remains the youngest one in Montenegro, which shares District 2483 with Serbia. Ivanović, who works for the country's coastal zone management agency, learned about Rotary while studying in the United States. She initially joined the Rotary Club of Budva in 2004 and then became a charter member of the Kotor club.
A RICH HERITAGE
The Rotary Club of Kotor, Montenegro, draws members in by supporting and celebrating the medieval town's cultural heritage. Here's a look at some of Kotor's top cultural attractions:
Old Town of Kotor: See the city walls and architecture of one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the Mediterranean.
Trg od Oružja (Square of Arms): The square is the primary gathering place for the town.
Sveti Ivan (San Giovanni) Fortress: Zigzag up a trail to the fortress castle located above the Old Town's city walls.
Church of Sveti Luka (St. Luke): The church is a rare building in town not significantly damaged in the 1979 earthquake.
Cathedral of Sveti Tripun (St. Tryphon): The 12th century cathedral is dedicated to the town's protector, whose relics were brought to Kotor in 809.
From its start, the club decided to support Kotor's cultural initiatives. The Venetian Republic ruled the town for centuries, and aside from the fortifications and churches, it left a 500-year tradition of carnival festivities. The Kotor club contributes to the merrymaking by hosting an annual masquerade ball, drawing Rotary members from all over the region. For the past several years, the ball has raised money for equipment for local hospitals. "More and more people from Kotor, not related to Rotarians, are coming to our events to support us," Ivanović says.
During the summer, the club organizes an annual fundraising boat tour of the Bay of Kotor. The club puts on a concert at one of the small islets and uses the tour to promote communities along the bay. (One of the club's members was a yacht captain; while he died in November 2021, club members and his family have continued the fundraiser.)
The money raised from the tour has gone to various cultural organizations. In 2021, the club used 3,500 euros (about $4,100 at the time) to buy a horn for the town orchestra. Last summer, the club collected money to pay for aquarium tickets for more than 7,000 local children.
The club also plans to buy two new hand-sewn uniforms for the Boka Navy, a more than 1,200-year-old maritime organization and folkloric dance group that performs the traditional kolo circle dance during town celebrations and is on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. (In Montenegrin, the Bay of Kotor is known as Boka Kotorska.)
The club is small, with fewer than 20 members. About 60 percent are women. Leaders aim to have one activity or project a month to allow participation by those who can't make it to meetings. In September, for example, the group collected 250 books for two elementary schools.
With its impressive history, the town swells with tourists in the warm summer months, and the club hosts visiting Rotary members nearly every week. "Every second day, I'm having coffee with some Rotarians," says Club President Janko Racković, general manager at the Cattaro Hotel.
David Alexander, Rotary's chief communications officer, is one of the many who have enjoyed the Kotor club's hospitality, encountering the group while on vacation there with his family in June. His wife was browsing through the Cattaro Hotel when she noticed a Rotary wheel. That led her to Racković and an invitation to the club meeting the next night.
Even the club's meeting space has a unique history. The French built a theater in 1810 after gaining control of Kotor. Napoleon's Theater was among the first theater buildings in the Balkans; later, it served as the town hall, and today it is part of the Cattaro Hotel — and where the club meets.
The meetings take place in the evenings and are followed by dinner on a small terrace overlooking the main entrance to the walled city. "There was a band playing below," Alexander recalls. "The hospitality just blew us both away. They really welcomed us in and wanted to show us what Montenegrin culture was all about."
"We are a great hub for Rotarians from all around the world," Ivanović says. "We are waiting for you."
This story originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.