A weekend in...Montenegro
Staggering landscapes, Venetian treasures and a UNESCO-preserved walled town. Andrew Day tests the water in Montenegro and is swept away by the Bay of Kotor, a small region with a big future
View across Bay of Kotor and Church of Our Lady of Health (Image: Andrew Day)
It could be an eighteenth-century painting – commanding cliffs on either side of the bay seem empty of human life, except for a quaint Baroque town embedded in the hillside. A wooden trading ketch, with magnificent white sails breezes past, continuing the illusion. As we drift onward towards the shore, Venetian-style palaces, striking defensive towers and opulent merchant homes reveal themselves, recalling the town’s glorious maritime past. Cradled on the butterfly-shaped Bay of Kotor – the grandest of Montenegro’s fjord-like bays – the old port of Perast invites us in.
If the name Montenegro doesn’t ring any bells, you shouldn’t feel bad. Largely ignored by the holiday hordes, it's a grossly under-appreciated country; as beautiful as neighbouring Croatia and across-the-Adriatic Italy, but without a seasoned department of tourism. However, thanks to the arrival of budget flights to Tivat on Montenegro’s sparkling Bay of Kotor, things are changing, and fast. That seemed the perfect excuse to swoop in and fall under the country’s spell.
A strong Montenegrin forearm grabs me, and pulls me ashore. Gojko – my English-speaking guide – leads me down Perast’s only waterfront street, lined with 16 churches and 17 Venetian palaces, mostly built by wealthy sea captains. For such a small town, it’s an impressive number of grand buildings, “You know how it goes; you build a nice home, your neighbour builds a nicer one,” says Gojko with a smile. In the mid-18th-century, Perast was the seafaring capital of the Adriatic, holding forth against repeated Ottoman attacks when the rest of the Gulf had fallen. Today, it’s lost none of its defensive nature, resisting the invasion of high-rise hotels and souvenir shops. We reach Sv Nikole (St Nicholas), a small square dwarfed by one of the most eye-catching structures along the coast: a 55-metre-high belfry, blending Romanesque and Renaissance architecture. The square oozes charm, and displays bronze busts of Perast’s most revered citizens; including Marko Martinovic (1663-1716), a legendary sea captain and founder of the town’s illustrious Nautical School. “Sailors came from all corners to learn the skills of our seafarers,” Gojko tells me as his chest swells with pride. Indeed, even Peter the Great, determined to build a Russian fleet, dispatched sixteen princes for tutelage under the famed Martinovic.
Perast prospered for a further 200 years, becoming fabulously wealthy until, with the decline of the Venetian Republic, lost its importance and faded into the peeling Baroque playground we find today. Back at the dock, a handful of water taxis wait to shuttle passengers to the postcard-perfect islands in the middle of the bay (or ‘Boka’ as it’s known). I reboard to find my fellow commuters playing cards and dozing. They've seen it all before. Those who haven't – myself, and a bowled-over couple from Yorkshire – are on the bow ready to experience a sacred Montenegrin pilgrimage.
Our Lady of the Rocks
Minutes later we reach Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks), a man-made island dominated by a striking blue-domed chapel. “To trace the chapel’s origins you must first know the legend,” Gojko reveals. Here, it’s said on July 22nd 1452, two sailors stumbled upon a miraculous icon of the Virgin and Child resting on a small rocky crag in the bay. Thereafter, each successful sea voyage would lead sailors to place rocks in the same spot, until a small island rose and a chapel could be built to honour the Virgin Mary. “The ritual is very much alive,” Gojko continues, and each year on July 22nd, Our Lady becomes the focus of a grand procession – the Fašinada – in which a flotilla of ships scatter rocks into the surrounding waters.
Our Lady of the Rocks (Image: National Tourist Board, Montenegro)
I step inside the chapel to find a riot of Baroque-inspired artwork by Tripo Kokolja (1661-1713), a gifted Perastian whose bust stands next to Martinovic on the mainland. Despite its diminutive size, there is much else to admire, not least the icon of the Virgin and Child itself, held in an altarpiece of enormous value: for the green Italian marble the equal weight of silver was paid. Not a man to mince his words, Gojko orders me to, “Step behind the altar and touch the rock.” Through a small, knee-level hole lies the original rock where the “miraculous” Virgin and Child icon was discovered. I duly agree, but not without consequence, “OK, now you’re stuck to Our Lady and must marry here,” declares Gojko.
Next door, the tiny but compelling museum is a bona fide treasure trove, amassed from shipwrecks and gifts to the church. For me, the standout piece was hung in the sacristy. Jacinta Kunić-Mijović, a local woman, spent 25 years intricately weaving the icon whilst waiting for her love to return from sea. Using exquisite Japanese and Chinese silk, the artist also weaved-in strands of her hair, dark brown in youth and grey-to-white in old age. Sadly, her love didn’t return. However, two centuries later, Kunić-Mijović’s work is admired from travellers all across the world.
Later, seated outside a Perast café, we stop for the favourite of all Montenegrin activities: long chats over small cups of coffee. Montenegro is a country that prides itself on being lazy, ‘Man has trouble being born, and should spend the rest of his life relaxing,’ is one saying. Our waiters’ devotion to the laissez-faire life is amusing. I watch as he keeps a cigarette burning for a good half hour, tending to it as lovingly as he did his customers.
I thank Gojko for a fascinating tour before heading to Palazzo Drusko, a 15th-century house formerly owned by Montenegrin nobility, and my base for the weekend. At first, I saw little more than a stone cube but quickly realized this was a special place to stay. The interior is a delight, boasting exposed stonework, traditional window shutters and quirky objects like antique weapons and maritime contracts. Feeling tired, I climb the stairs to my creaky but comfortable ‘Captain’s Room’ and drift off to the radio, rigged to play traditional Montenegrin music.
Next morning, I’m faced with a decision: mountains or more bay?
This article is from the Winter 2016 issue of Timeless Travels magazine.
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