“Travel manifests many faces; It can be a Mystique, it can be Dynamic, it can be Spirited, sometimes Speechless, and for some Exhilarating.” – An Eternal Escape.
Every traveler feels a different connect with his quest. Every journey enriches us, presents us with a new story, and makes us an inch closer to complete than we were before. But one thing that doesn’t change is its element of Surprise. Be it a good or a bad one, this constant in travel-world tickles the experiences of a tripper and makes it an ESCAPADE.
A similar experience was waiting for us, while we were traveling through Croatia. During our Five-day stay in Dubrovnik, we decided to devote one day to the nearby small coastal-country of Montenegro. Of what meant to be a filler in our itinerary, unfurled itself to be an everlasting memory, which was exceedingly stimulating; especially for a single day’s expedition.
A small insight into Montenegro:
For those of you a bit unfamiliar with Montenegro; it’s a tiny country bordering the eastern Adriatic coast-line, sharing its boundary with Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Albania, Serbia, and Kosovo.
Lying between the Middle East & the Eastern Europe, Montenegro is a country of great diversity, be it natural or geographic, Cultural or linguistic, religious or architectonic; it’s a region that is unique and unlike many countries.
A country which was always under the rules of foreign nations (Byzantine, Venetian, Hungarian, French, Austrian), with diverse beliefs and religions; shaped itself through its various phases of occupation. With a population of only 600,000, they have almost five different ethnic groups (Montenegrin, Serbs, Croats, Albanian & Bosnians), speaking five different languages (Montenegrin, Serbian, Croatian, Albanian & Bosnian) and exhibit a unique blend of religions with a co-existence between Muslims, Christian Catholics and Greek Orthodox populations.
The Journey sometimes is more captivating than the destination:
Just 23 miles south of Dubrovnik, the first leg of our journey started where the Croatian border meets the Montenegrin. Here, an inlet of the Adriatic Sea piercing its way through the steep green mountains forms a winding bay, famously known as the Bay of Kotor or Boka Bay (As the Venetians liked to call it).
Unarguably, the Bay of Kotor is the most beautiful part of Montenegro. Driving along this Bay takes you through many picturesque and Elysian strings of gulfs, each of which nestles small and charming little towns. Gigantic and enormous Balkan Mountains (at some points rising 7000 feet above the edge of the water) on either side of the Bay form the southernmost and the only warm fjords of Europe.
Driving through those valleys was a thrilling and gripping experience. The meandering roads unraveled its beauty at each turn and every bend. Sometimes the mountains looked so ginormous; it was physically impossible to capture them in one shot.
The early morning drive through the Bay unveiled soft rays of sunlight deflecting its course as they hit the high mountain tips; a subtle hue of beige was getting mixed with the bright green of the dense forests. Soft misty fog hovering above the water gave a dreamy appearance to the whole Fjord.
Every click of my camera was failing to immortalize the real essence and the vastness that those valleys displayed. Maybe I was more inclined towards capturing my ecstasy, rather than the panorama in front, which was making me dissatisfied with every 2D form of it. I reluctantly assured myself that maybe sometimes nature cannot just be framed.
Soon the mist and the fog became a little less dense, and we could see the small and quaint Balkan towns snuggled between the mountains. They looked like little havens in the midst of nature and too angelic to be true. The town that made us gasp in awe was the small town of Perast; our first stopover in the Bay of Kotor and the topic of this blog.
The Beauty of Perast:
My First impression of Perast was that it looked as though a small chunk of Venice has chipped off, floated down the Adriatic, entered the Bay and got stuck here.
Carefully assembled stone buildings terraced on the foothills of Mount St. Elijah, surrounded by steep mountains of the Fjord and the tranquil waters, makes the beauty of Perast uncanny and unmatched.
Even the vegetation in the Bay of Kotor is a spectacle in itself; while we could see Alpine vegetation covering the snow-capped mountains, Mediterranean vegetation like Palms, Olives, Pomegranates, roses, and mimosa bordered its mountain base & valleys.
The Long history that survives:
This little town of Perast has been inhabited since Antiquities. A paradise for poets and painters; this peaceful and placid town had its fair share of lovers since yesteryear. Like Lord Byron once said,
“When the pearls of nature were sown, handfuls of them were cast on this soil.”
Despite its continuous inhabitancy by many empires, the one that stands out and forms the architectural framework of the city are the La Serenissima aka The Venetians. Ruling between the years from 1420 till 1797, the Republic of Venice made Perast a flourishing, rich and an integral part of its trading system.
In the Middle Ages, this natural harbor on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro was an important artistic and commercial center with its famous schools of architecture, masonry, and iconography. It had four active shipyards and a fleet of hundreds of ships (for a population of just 1000 residents) and soon became a town filled with wealthy aristocrats, captains and ship owners.
As you reach Perast either by road or by the water route, the first things you notice are the several towers that peer out and form a network around the township. A city wall did not cover this medieval city rather it was guarded by these nine strategically placed towers, which safeguarded its beauty and prevented invasions.
The Natural and Culturo-Historical contribution of Perast to the Adriatic coast of Montenegro is outstanding and has universal values, because of which, today it is part of and protected by the UNESCO World Heritage.
Things to See in Perast:
Perast has a bunch of beautifully preserved medieval palaces stacked together and arranged so that each one of them is duly visible and makes an aesthetic mark in the bouquet of architecture and town planning.
For a small town like Perast with just a few hundred residents and a single road passing by it, it has a staggering sixteen Baroque-styled Mansions, seventeen Catholic and two Orthodox churches; all of them built during the Venetian rule.
Admirers of history can keep themselves occupied for days, discovering its myriad churches and palaces. Most of the town’s architecture is Baroque and built in the 17th &18th century. Some notable examples are:
- Viskovic Palace; from the 18th-century
- Zmajevic Palace; built-in the 17th-century renaissance style
- Smekja Palace; erected in the 18th-century
- Bujovic Palace; the most beautiful example of the baroque architecture in Perast, established in the 17th- century
- Balovic Palace; erected in the 18th-century
- St.Nichola’s Church; situated in the central town square, built in the 17th-century
- The church of St. Ana; situated on the hill above Perast
- The church of St. Antun with a monastery, built in the 17th-century.
- The church of St.Ivan the Baptist, built in the 16th-century.
But the two most famous and visited attractions of Perast are located off the mainland. These are the two floating islands in front of it called the Sveti Juraj or Sveti Đorđi (St. George) and the other Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks).
The island of Sveti Juraj is a natural islet and contains Saint George Benedictine monastery from the 12th century and an old graveyard for the nobility from Perast. While this island is closed for the visitors, nevertheless it looks beautiful surrounded by the tall green cypress trees and you can catch a glimpse of it en route to the other more famous island.
Just a five minutes boat ride away from the town’s quay, this islet is associated with many local legends and is a result of generations of faith and devotion. It’s an elegant and a rather small church made even more beautiful by its setting. You might have seen your share of splendid and majestic churches, but visiting this church will guarantee you with a unique and unparalleled experience. The view of the surrounding soaring mountains with the backdrop of beautiful towns from the church premises itself is worth the boat ride to the island.
The island consists of Our Lady of the Rocks church and a small museum dedicated to all the stone, ceramic, and silver artifacts donated to the church by the locals and visiting sailors over the centuries in return for a safe journey and good health.
Some Interesting Tales of Perast:
The Island of Faith
The island with Our Lady of the Rocks church is a tale in itself. Of many stories that go behind the construction of the Our Lady of the Rocks church, this is the one that our local guide told us. According to legend, on July 22, 1452, two sailors returning from a difficult quest discovered an icon of the Madonna and Child resting on a rock in a shallow part of the Bay. Considering this a miracle, they pledged to build a church on the very spot and started dropping stones at the place where the icon was found. Soon it became a tradition, and every sailor and local started putting stones, boulders, even ship wreckage on the spot, believing it to protect them and the reef slowly begun to take the form of an island and a church was built on it after 300 years of constant efforts.
The tradition of dropping stones at the site of the Our Lady of the Rocks church remains alive and forms an integral part of one of Europe’s oldest sailing regattas: the Fašinada. Even today, at sunset of every July 22nd, hundreds of local boats are decorated with garlands and sail out into the Bay to drop a stone around this island. It’s a sight to behold, and the best place to watch this beautiful tradition is by one of the many seaside cafes in Perast.
The Sailor’s Wife
Other than the famous Altarpiece inside the Our Lady of the Rocks church made by the renowned sculptor Antonio Capellano from Genoa, and the beautiful walls & the ceilings painted by the local artist Tripo Kokolja, one of the prized possessions of the church is a famous Tapestry of Virgin Mary and child, made by a local woman named Jacinta Kunic-Mijovic. The wife of a local sailor, she sewed this masterpiece until she could see no more, with the faith that this will bring her husband back safely; while waiting 25 years for him and finally died. The most beautiful part of the Tapestry is that it’s not only made with threads of gold and silver but she used her hair to sew the hair of the Angel. You can see the gradual change of color of her hair growing from brown to white. It was a very touching and a beautiful piece.
How and when to reach Perast:
We hired our rental car from Dubrovnik and visited all the places along the Bay of Kotor. Taking a car seemed to be the best decision of the day, as we could stop anywhere along the way at our will and allowed us to give the time we felt we needed to a particular place.
But you can use any other mode of transport to reach Perast:
1) By a cruise,
2) By Flight,
4) By Bus
Perast can be included very easily with other famous destinations in the Bay of Kotor (like Kotor, Budva, Tivat), and can be easily visited in a single day (if need be).
When to visit Perast is not a trick question either. Fjords look beautiful any time of the year; no matter they are covered with snow, spring flowers or lush green forests. It then either comes to your personal preference or your feasibility. My small piece of advice or tip for visiting geographically smaller places like Perast would be to pick a month just before or after the Peak season starts or ends, respectively. They are still warm and pleasant enough but lack the apparent hordes of day-trippers, which dampens the whole experience.
How we spent our day in Perast:
The obvious thing after reaching Perast seemed like visiting the islands first. We hired a private boat (Fare: 5E PP) which took us on a roundtrip of the islands and agreed to give us few extra minutes of ride around the sea (Perks of visiting in an off-season); Thus, giving us plenty of time to explore the place without any hurry and superb snaps of the city from the water.
After visiting the islands, we took a leisurely stroll along its promenade from one to end to the other. As it was an off-season, there was almost no one except the locals in the town and us. The seafront showcased manifold restaurants, cafes, and taverns with sitting-in or out options. Various olden quays which have lost their use in the modern times were now being used as water-side restaurants offering magnificent views. Several Kayaks were on offer for a ride across the sea or for visiting far off sides of the fjords.
We then decided to scale up the terraced town to see its treasures up-close. Entering into the town, we found stairs replacing streets which took us up into the mountain. We scaled from one cluster of palaces to the next. Most of these antique Baroque beauties had been carefully restored and now acted as comfortable tourist abodes.
There were so many things to admire that day during our walk; the sea-side cafes with their outdoor seating; the open floating restaurants clinging tightly to the edge of the water; the series of boats and kayaks safely anchored to the shore; the slightly misty water over the Adriatic; the whitish tips of the Balkan mountains; the greenery of the surrounding. Even the friendly chitter-chatter between the boatmen and the other locals seemed so calm and poised.
The only thing we did after was sitting down on the pier, somewhere along the coast, hanging our feet in the water and enjoyed a drink or two. It was not rushed. It was not planned. We let our hearts decide when to stop. Sitting by the quay, and looking at those spectacular and imposing fjords, one thing became clear that sometimes travel is meant to be plan-free and itinerary-independent & some destinations dictate the pace of your visit.
When we felt we had sunk in the whole Perast-experience to the core of our hearts, we set out for the next best thing on the Bay of Kotor – “Kotor.”