Perast, a fairytale on water in Montenegro

After soaking in the wonders of Kotor, Montenegro’s most popular destination, our group stopped at a scenic seaport called Perast, on the Bay of Kotor.  

I consider myself relatively well traveled, but I had never heard of Perast until that hot day, in June of 2021. The first view our group had of it was stunning: Perast sits on the shore of a blue bay surrounded by rugged green peaks that descend abruptly into the water. The day was sunny and clear, and looking down from the mountain road over the tower of the village’s church we could see two islands that appeared as if they were floating in the middle of the bay. The scene was right out of a fairytale. 

Perast, on the Bay of Kotor

The town, one of the oldest settlements in the vicinity of the Bay of Kotor, is a group of centuries old stone dwellings and imposing – mostly abandoned – Renaissance and Baroque-style mansions. It was built on a narrow stretch of land tucked in between the bay and the mountains, and is only a few blocks long. But what Perast lacks in size it more than compensates in beauty and historic significance. It was once the principal and richest port in Southern Dalmatia, the name given to the stretch of the Adriatic coast that starts in the south of Croatia and extends south to neighboring Montenegro. 

By 1336, Perast was a small fishing village that revolved around its harbor, commercial shipping boats and the local shipyard. A busy and lively place, it was the hangout of sailors and merchants, but it nevertheless managed to defend itself against many Turkish attacks, at a time when the rest of the Bay of Kotor had fallen to the Ottoman invaders. 

Perast viwed from the bay

For more than 500 years Perast continued to be a very important center. Its nautical school was where Venetian – and later Russian – sailors came to learn maritime skills from local seamen, cartographers and engineers. At the height of its power, in the mid 1700’s, Perast had four important shipyards and a fleet of around 1,000 ships based in its harbor. That’s when successful local captains built most of the ornate Venetian style palaces that we see empty today.   

The advent of the steam engine, in the 19th century, eventually caused the fleet of Perast to slowly dwindle, as did its wealth. The same happened to its population: from 1,643 inhabitants in its heyday, to only 360 souls today. Perast is in large part a ghost town during most of the year, but during the summertime this Unesco protected site comes back to life. It hosts festivities like the Fasinada, in July, and the Manifestation – a competition between singers of the region – every year in August. Tourists are starting to arrive, too; Perast is becoming fashionable, and some rentals by the water now fetch high prices. It has an air of secluded sophistication, not of a touristy destination. 

There are two islands off the coast of Perast: Saint George’s isle, a former cemetery not open to the public, and the man-made Our Lady of the Rocks, one of the highlights of any visit to the Bay of Kotor. We took a boat to go see it, and on the way – while rewarded by splendid views of Perast from the water – we passed by a somber looking Benedictine monastery. “That’s Saint George’s island,” informed our guide. “There’s a beautiful story about it.”

Saint George’s island

He went on to tell us that in the year 1813, French troops under Napoleon captured the Bay of Kotor and established their headquarters at an improvised military garrison on Saint George’s island, which had been both the local cemetery and an abbey of Benedictine monks since the 9th century.  As the story goes, among the French soldiers stationed there was a young man named Franz, who fell in love with a Montenegrin girl called Katia when he visited Perast for the first time. It is said that his love was reciprocated, and they soon began a romance filled with secret encounters, vows of love and plans of marriage.

While the romance was in full bloom, the inhabitants of Perast decided to rebel against the French occupation, and organized a protest to drive the enemy out of their land. At the French military post on Saint George’s island, Franz was ordered to immediately fire a cannon and disperse the protesting crowd on the shore. His one shot took the life of Katia, his beloved. 

The legend says that the inhabitants of Perast buried the young Katia on Saint George’s island, and that Franz decided to become a Benedictine monk, to always be close to her. It is also said that, from the day she was buried, he would light dozens of candles at her grave every night. 

Perast from the road

One night the people of Perast didn’t see the usual candles flickering on the island, and when they arrived there in the morning, they found the dead monk near the grave of his beloved. In his hand they found a note asking to be buried by her side. 

Passing by Saint George’s island on the boat centuries after all those events allegedly took place, I felt a certain melancholy air surrounding the beautiful and peaceful place. We were so near the islet that we could almost touch the tall cypress trees said to have been planted by Franz around Katia’s grave. The monastery is now a haven for retired Catholic priests, and is closed to the public. The locals say that every night the priests light candles for the two lovers, and that the flames can be seen from Perast and from the boats sailing past it. 

Our Lady of the Rocks

The small man-made islet where the church of Our Lady of the Rocks was built is an artificial islet created by a bulwark of rocks and by sinking old ships loaded with rocks. Its story also starts with a legend, as do many in that part of the world.  

According to this legend, there was once a severe storm on the Bay of Perast, and the ship of two brothers who were fishermen sank near the coast. They managed to escape drowning by swimming to a barrier reef, and when they recovered they allegedly saw an icon of the Madonna and Child on the ruins of their ship.

Our Lady of the Rocks

Attributing the miracle of having survived to the Virgin, the brothers took the icon with them and placed it in a church in Perast. When they returned the next day, it had disappeared. It is said that when they went back to the reef where they had originally found it, they were surprised to find it back there. They took it to the city again, and by the next morning it was back at the reef once more.

The legend continues that – after a while of this recurring – the brothers decided not to take the icon to the church in Perast anymore, but to build a temple for it on the reef where they first saw it. The problem was, the reef was too small for construction. They then decided to ask the townspeople for help. 

After that, every time a boat sailed out, the sailors would throw a stone onto the reef and wish for a safe trip. Over the next 200 years, a small islet started to be formed from all the rocks, until a chapel was built there in 1484. In 1630, the Venetians replaced it with the Catholic church that we see today. Right after its completion, the church became a holy place for local sailors, the site where they prayed before embarking on a new journey that some never came back from, as many ships were lost in storms or suffered from pirate attacks at the time.  The sailors made vows to donate treasures to the church if they returned safe and sound, usually votive tablets engraved with the motifs of the storms or sea battles they had survived. There are about 2,000 of them in the church of Our Lady of the Rocks now. 

The main street in Perast

The custom of throwing rocks into the sea is still alive today. Every year, on the evening of July 22nd – as part of an event called the Fasinada -, local residents take their boats to the islet and throw rocks into the sea, making the island larger. The museum next to the church now contains famous maritime paintings by local artists, a collection of silver votive tablets and a famous tapestry embroidered by Jacinta Kunić-Mijović, a woman from Perast. A very unusual item, she finished the tapestry over the course of 25 years, while she waited for her husband to return home from a long sea voyage. Eventually, she became blind, but kept weaving. She used golden and silver thread in her work, but what makes the tapestry so famous is the fact that she also embroidered her own hair into it, which became more and more gray as the years wore on.

By the end of that perfect day, the last rays of  sunlight started to color the Bay of Kotor with flattering hues, and the water’s surface looked like a mirror reflecting them.  The sunset was about to begin, and we left Our Lady of the Rocks to return to shore, as many other boats were doing.  

Pirate’s Bar

We had a snack in a beautiful bar by the water called… Pirates, of course. While waiting to be served, we watched the sun descend behind the mountains that surround the bay, until the two islands gradually disappeared into the darkness, becoming no more than distant lights. I noticed flickering lights at one of the islands. Could they be the candles lit at Saint George’s island for Kate and Franz? I will never know.

All I knew at that moment was that Montenegro is beautiful, and Perast feels like the setting of a fairy tale. It was a magical moment in an enchanted land. 

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