by Darlene Clarke, world traveler and guest blogger
Welcome to our guest blogger, Darlene Clarke! Darlene is a Pacific Northwest native who has been traveling the world for over 50 years. After reading the article below, you may guess where I get my love for travel! We’re hoping she will be a frequent guest blogger at Under An Orange Sky.
Ever thought about going to Montenegro? Although I’ve always wanted to go to Croatia, Montenegro had been nothing but a vague notion for someone who wasn’t entirely sure of the geography of the region. Montenegro is a small country on the Adriatic in Southeastern Europe, bordered by Bosnia and Herzegovina (which is actually one country) on the Northeast, Serbia and Kosovo to the East and Croatia and Albania to the West. It’s about the size of Connecticut with a population of about 620,000 tall people. Do you know how some countries have reputations (like Canadians are presumed to be one of the kindest people)? Montenegrins have two claims to fame – they’re tall and they’re lazy. Jokes abound about Montenegrins lack of energy. One relates the story of two men standing on the shore watching another poor fellow flailing and thrashing about in the water. One of them says to the other “My goodness, here we stand and that poor fellow out there is drowning”. The other replies: “You’re absolutely right, we should sit”. Our tour guide, well aware of his country’s reputation, advises that it’s not true – they’re not lazy, they’re just extremely motivated to do nothing. My granddaughter and I happened on this marvelous little gem as part of a Gate 1 tour to Croatia and Slovenia last December and found it delightful, amazing, beautiful and charming (dig out the thesaurus here!). I had previously done Gate 1 trips to Iceland and the Galapagos, and just recently enjoyed traveling with them to South Africa. They never disappoint!
Our first stop in Montenegro was Perast, a sleepy little fishing village about an hour and a half drive from Dubrovnik. If you make this drive, be sure to stop at the pull out for a look-back at the beautiful walled town of Dubrovnik. We were told that it’s sometimes hazy in the summer, but in December it was pristinely clear.
As we come upon Perast, there’s a “yikes” moment – is that a church floating in the bay?
It’s the amazing Our Lady of the Rocks Chapel on an artificial islet in the Bay of Kotor created by the sinking of rocks and old ships. For centuries, the lives of the people living on the Bay of Kotor have been inextricably entwined with the sea but pirates, storms and conflicts made being a sailor a risky business. It’s said that on a hot July day in 1452, two brothers returned from a risky journey and upon entering the harbor spotted an icon of the Virgin Mary and Child on a rocky outcrop. They vowed to create a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary at that location, despite the fact that it was in the middle of the bay. Thus started the 178 year process of creating an island. They and other sailors started dropping rocks on the spot as they headed out to sea in hopes of being protected while away and when they returned as thanks for a safe voyage. The original chapel was constructed in 1630 but most of the present church was reconstructed after the great earthquake of 1667.
There’s a charming walk-around area surrounding the chapel of Our Lady of the Rocks with amazing views in all directions. The walls and ceiling on the interior of the chapel contain 68 frescos painted by 17th century local artist Tripo Kokolja. Upon entering, your eyes are immediately drawn to the large, amazing marble altar under which the original icon is buried.
Another amazing view is one from the 2nd floor museum towards the nearby islet, Sveti Djordje (also known as Isle of the Dead), containing a 7th Benedictine monastery and a cemetery. It’s sometimes referred to as the male island with Our Lady of the Rocks being its female companion.
Of particular note in the museum is a hand embroidered tapestry by Hijacinte Kunic-Mijovic, who began working on it when her husband set sail. She used silver and gold threads, but also her own hair. You’ll see the hair starts out brown but gradually turns to gray as she worked on this tapestry for 25 years, gradually going blind as she waited in vain for the return of her husband. It’s one of the chapel’s most prized treasurers.
These islets are still growing. Every year on July 22nd, the festival of Fasinada occurs and the locals hop in their boats to circle the islets, dropping more stones as they round.
We arrived with a tour group with costs included, but if you’re arriving by rental car, be aware Perast is a pedestrian only town. You can park at either end of the town for 2 euros and since the town from one end to the other is less than a mile, this is an easy solution. Boat rides to the island cost 5 euros. There is a 30 minute presentation at the chapel so ask the boatman for at least 45 minutes there.
Back onshore, prepare to be enchanted by the lovely village of Perast. One of the reasons I love Europe is for its abundance of delightful myths. The legend of how Perast was founded is one of these. Apparently two travelers were wandering along and came upon a stone with a message printed on it, advising them to dig in a certain spot to find a chest. When opened, the magical chest would grant them a wish. The first wished for a stone house and a beautiful wife. Sure enough, the next morning there appeared a stone house and a lovely lady. The 2nd fellow wished for the same and was also rewarded the next morning with a stone house and a wife. It’s said the stone houses surrounding the bay are the original stone houses wished for by the travelers.
Our next stop was a 20 minute ride to Kotor, further along on the Gulf of Kotor. Kotor’s origins are shrouded in pre-history, but it’s said a fairy named Alkima told Emperor Stefan to settle there, as the sea was essential to all life. Another charming Venetian legend lists Kotor as a stop for Jason and the Argonauts, on their return home with the Golden Fleece. The old town is a walled city located on a triangular stretch of land with water on 2 sides and a steep mountain on the 3rd. It’s surrounded by a wall up to 60 feet high in some places and anywhere between 6 and 50 feet wide. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been home to, or conquered by, nearly everyone in the region. Originally it’s believed to have been founded by the Greeks; then came the Illyrians and Romans. It was destroyed by the Visigoths in the 5th century, then ruled by the Byzantines, Boka, Slovenians, Serbians and then the Venetians from 1420 to 1797. Most of the architecture reflects the influence of Venice and many of the buildings carry the lion symbol of St Mark. After the Venetians came the Austrians, Russians, French and then Austrians again and it was even occupied by the Germans in World War II. The area became part of Yugoslavia in the beginning of the 20th century and became independent in 2006.
In the central square is the famous clock tower. Underneath it, you see the shadow of a triangular structure. Back in the day, if you were convicted of one of the lesser crimes (like stealing a loaf of bread), you might be strapped to this Pillar of Shame and the local populace would let you know how they felt about you by pelting you with over-ripe produce or eggs.
The city is an intentional maze – so much so that even the locals sometimes get lost. It’s designed this way to foil the attempts of any invaders, and they’ve had many, should they actually get past the walls. As you wander, you’ll go from narrow lanes to open squares, which were originally named for the products available there, like Wood Square, Milk Square and even Salad Square.
This well, called the Karampana, also served the local populace as a gathering spot (the original water cooler?). Remember the fairy Alkima? Supposedly she was angered by Emperor Stefan’s bragging and poisoned all the water in the town. He profusely apologized and she then graciously allowed this one and only pure source of water. Mostly dry now and not in use since 1917, it still serves one of its original purposes as a gathering place to catch up on the local gossip.
Of the several churches located in Old Town, the most prominent is the Cathedral of St Typhon, the patron saint of Kotor. Its unequal pillars attest to the fact that this is a very seismically active area. You’ll note the 2 dates on the spires, 809 and 2009. These reflect the 1,200th anniversary of a yearly parade of the relics of St Typhon through the city – how’s that for an uninterrupted yearly event? On the hill behind this church you’ll find the ruins of the previous patron saint, St John, about 650 meters up. Although I didn’t climb them, I’m told there are 1350 steps to the top, which served as a very effective lookout for centuries. Halfway up the path is a chapel to Our Lady of the Remedies, who is said to have helped them considerably during the black plague.
The city abounds with charming shops, dining establishments and, most especially, charming people. We were there on December 25th, a normal day for Montenegrins since their Christmas Day is on January 7th. The weather was sunny and in the mid- to high 50s. Indoor and outdoor restaurants were everywhere with some in our group taking advantage of the crisp sunny day with open air dining and outdoor heaters.
So take a chance, go see Montenegro! If you’ve been there, post a comment and let me know if you agree with me that this is one needs to be on everyone’s bucket list.
For further information about getting around and what to do, check out Wikitravel:
For further information on Gate 1 Travel:
For more about Perast: