On a cruise stopover in Kotor, Carol Smith finds the view from the top is worth the climb. The medieval Balkan town and hilltop fortress is one port of call on a magical trip around the Mediterranean.
The gatekeeper shading himself under the umbrella in Kotor gives me a wry smile as another €6 ($9) crosses his palm.
My husband and I have queued to pay for what is going to be a test of our endurance.
Tourists are crazy - we see some old city walls leading up to a fortress at the top of an incredibly high clifftop so, naturally, we have to climb them. The word masochist must have been coined by a shepherd on his way up St John's Hill to the fortress at the top, 260m above sea level.
The official brochure says there are about 1350 stairs, but other guide books say 1500. By the end, it will feel like 5000.
As we start to ascend Montenegro's medieval fortifications, built between the 9th and 19th centuries to form a continuous 4.5km belt around the ancient metropolis, our bodies become slick with sweat under the searing sun.
There's plenty to see on the walk up St John's Hill to the fortress. Photo / Carol Smith
The rocky steps are high and not made for small people to climb easily.
The alternative is to walk up the slope next to the stairs, but it's slippery on the loose rocks and not a sensible option.
After 10 minutes, as muscles we didn't realise we had start to burn, we hope it won't take more than an hour to get to the top.
We pass small bastions of relief and a lovely church. The path continues and reaches the so-called Little Fortress. A small door leads to the village of Spiljari, set in a deep canyon and previously the gateway of a horse and pedestrian route to the country's interior.
When we are halfway up we wonder if we are climbing a stairway to heaven - the scenery is to die for - or hell.
We keep going. When we are three-quarters of the way up we notice a number of men - not all of whom are in great shape - lying at the side of the path, their discarded shirts beside them.
We give serious thought to joining them. Other walkers have thrown in the towel and are sitting admiring the view before heading down.
But we Kiwis aren't quitters.
From the Little Fortress there are two ascending routes to reach the Castle of St John - it doesn't matter which one you choose, you'll be buggered.
One leads over the fortifications Battaglia, Renier and Soranzo (17th and 18th century) and the other over the lunette Magno, and then by broken staircase to the ruined castle.
We are too tired to flip a coin, so follow those in front.
There are a number of silly people walking towards us who have been to the top wearing inappropriate footwear, including high-heeled cowboy boots, jandals and flimsy bling fashion sandals.
They look hot and bothered.
When we reach the top we understand the concept of pleasure from pain. We are breathless, but not just from climbing. In front of us is the beautiful panorama of the Bay of Kotor, its jewel-like waters twinkling far below. Our cruise liner looks tiny.
The views from the top make the climb worth the effort. Photo / Carol Smith
We've made it up the craggy path in about 45 minutes and burnt off a couple of thousand calories (there's always a silver lining).
A smart man is hawking a bucketful of soft drinks resting in ice. No one cares what he charges.
We are captivated by the sheer mountains plunging into the Adriatic. Everyone from the Romans to the Ottomans wanted to control Kotor, but the Venetians - who did the most to fortify it - held it from 1420 until 1797.
No one had the energy to climb the ramparts to take it from them.
A local guide tells us the dowry for a man in Kotor used to be that he had to plant 100 olive trees on his prospective father-in-law's hilly land. This sorted the men from the boys and the brides' canny fathers then started olive businesses.
As we make our way down the steep fortifications, satisfied we have seen one of the most stunning places of natural beauty in Europe, some red-faced Brits ascending ask: "I hope we get a T-shirt when we get to the top. Is it worth it?"
"Yes, it is," we reply, smiling. "Not far to go."
Would we do this butt-busting walk again?
In a heartbeat.
Getting there: For details on a range of Holland America cruises aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam and other ships in the fleet, see hollandamerica.com.
Carol Smith travelled to Kotor with Holland America Line.