Why Perast was the first place in Montenegro that we chose to visit together
“It was a crazy time, you didn’t know what could happen. Nothing was certain”, Marko’s mother, Karmela said with a pained expression. “No one should have to experience that”. In 1992, tensions were rising up and up and up in Bosnia. A series of harrowing events took place, indicating that trouble was brewing.
While on a lunch break with colleagues, she bumped into a soldier who was very big and frightening. He had long hair and a huge beard. He was wearing an identifiable hat, two belts full of bullets across his chest, a belt full of grenades and he had an automatic rifle. Before this, she had only seen people like him in movies. He was Serbian Paramilitary. She stopped dead in her tracks, startled and he looked at her strangely for her reaction. Muslim people who she knew started crossing the street when they saw her, a simple ‘hello’ left people in fear of retribution. Then bombings started happening in a nearby village.
Eventually, they were sleeping on the floor of their ground floor apartment. Their bedding was used as a shield, covering their windows to protect them from aimless bullets that flew through their street. Then the food shortages began. At this time you could be at risk simply because of your name or birthplace. Marko and his mother were in danger because they were born in other Balkan countries, Marko’s mum was particularly in danger simply for having a Croatian name. People were paying to get smuggled out of the country. Later on, it was the only option for anyone who was from a minority religion or nationality.
The civil war was beginning, a war where people were persecuted for their nationalities and religions, it had a reputation for being brutal, with mass rape and murder taking place. “I cried after we passed through the borders when it hit me, what was going on. My favourite part of my life, the most beautiful part was in Bosnia. With university, work, friends, family, everything. All gone.”
Marko and his family sought refuge in Perast
On the 1st of May 1992, 1.5-year-old Marko was sent to live with his grandparents in Montenegro, in a town called Perast. Soon after his mother followed and then his father. They often lived without electricity and relied on food donations. Marko’s cousin, Dusica, who also lived in Perast at the time explained to me that their family was not embroiled in the nationalistic hatred that some others were and that they were sheltered from this. Sirens were going off, warning people to seek shelter. “We just played all the time. It was wartime but kids had fun,” she said.
Marko’s reactions to Perast made me want to spend time there
Every time we drive through Perast, I see the child in Marko come to life. He points out “this is where I grew up”, “a basketball court used to be here”, “my cousins lived here” while driving slowly and proudly pointing out these locations. He does this every single time without a fail. It is as though, in his excitement he forgets that he has told me this about 10-15 times. It makes sense that we chose Perast to be one of the first destinations that we explored together in Montenegro.
The fjord-like landscape with the mountains enclosing the bay, along with the very aesthetically pleasing, uniform white stone buildings, make a visit to Perast difficult to resist. When we first wandered the streets together in Perast, we were greeted by a seemingly neverending procession of welcoming cats. The cats in Perast are clearly well-loved, this was evident when we came across some creative contraptions designed to feed them.
The glow of sunset painted the old town golden. We stayed in an amazing 17th-century house, made with handmade bricks with large windows framing expansive views of the sea. Sitting by the window, I would watch the boats bobbing up and down, hypnotically.
The bay is the lifeblood of the people in this region
For centuries, the Boka Bay (or The Bay of Kotor) has provided sustenance for the people living on its shores in places like Perast. Fishing, sailing and tourism are at the forefront of everyday life for local people. The bay is so intertwined into their lives that it becomes a part of their identities.
Perast was once world famous for its naval school and students were sent there from abroad (notably Russian military trained there) to receive a top education in sailing. A lot of knowledge and techniques relating to sea-faring was developed in Perast. In the present day, sailing is a popular profession for those living around the bay as it is one of the most lucrative careers available and it has a lot of opportunity for career progression.
When you arrive in Perast you will see the bay dotted with boats, mostly small fishing vessels. Some fishermen sell their catches to restaurants and others just bring them home to their families. Squids are one of the most sought after catches. Fishermen head out into the darkness with lamps to draw them to surface, you will see their lights shining across the bay at night. The bay especially nourished Marko’s family during the civil war because they could catch fish to supplement their bland and sometimes unpalatable rations.
Tourism and when to visit
Perast started to become seriously popular with international tourists about 5 years ago and its popularity has only seemed to grow rapidly since. During high season it is more like a resort rather than a town, traffic is forbidden on the main road making way for the many tourists who ascend on the town daily. Tourists come by tour buses every season except for a small part of January. Perast can be enjoyed all year round.
During the low season, you might not be able to work on your tan or go for a swim without risking hypothermia but you get a true glimpse of Boka life and get an experience that not many other tourists will have. In this time, it comes across as a serene seaside town, seemingly untouched by tourism. You will see locals having coffee which is an important ritual of Montenegrin social lives, fishing, going for strolls along the shore. Follow suit, by taking joy in the little things in this small town.
The Highlights of Perast
Our Lady of The Rocks
There are 27 churches in Perast and the star of Perast that attracts visitors from all around the globe is ‘Our Lady of the Rocks’ (Montenegrin: Gospa od Skrpjela), which is considered to be ‘The Jewel of Boka’. It is unique because it sits on an island and can only be visited by boat or by swimming if you’re game. When you enter Perast you will instantly see the church sitting pretty on the bay, it is extremely captivating.
According to legend, in 1452 two brothers were fishing late at night and stumbled across a painting of Virgin Mary and child. They bought this painting back to their home and this lead to the miraculous recovery from illness of someone in their household. This miracle inspired the brothers to build a church to honour Our Lady. The church was built in 1452 with fine stone from Korcula, a Croatian island. The church actually sits on an artificial island which formed from the heaping up of stones.
Two nuns named Sofija and Rosamunda lived on this island for decades. They taught local people and visitors about the church. When civil war broke out, they left out of fear after hearing about the rapes and murders, they were worried that it could happen to them. Eventually, people who left Boka Bay out of fear came back when they realised Montenegro was safe from the chaos but the nuns never returned.
Every year in July, they have a tradition called Fašinada, where a procession of boats carries rocks to put around the island. They believe that by doing this it will ensure that they have this church forever.
Ornate Baroque frescoes
The interiors of the church are overwhelmingly beautiful, filled with ornate frescoes by the Baroque master Tripo Kokolja. The walls are also covered with silver plates from ships that successfully made it back to shore after experiencing turmoil at sea.
Embroidery that is so fine that people have disputed that it was handmade
Upstairs in the connected museum, you will find an incredibly intricate small embroidery by Jacinta Kunic-Mijovic.
Kunic-Mijovic embroidered the piece over a period of 25 years while she waited for her husband to come back from the sea. She used strands of her own hair, the change of colour from light-brown to grey emphasise that a long amount of time had elapsed. Her husband never came back and no one knows what happened to him. By the time she completed this masterpiece, she lost her vision and was completely blind. This embroidery was once on display in the Louvre and was analysed by Japanese scientists with X-ray because they couldn’t fathom that it was handmade.
St. George Island
Adjacent to Our Lady of The Rocks is the lesser known natural island called ‘St. George’. The buildings on this island are almost completely camouflaged by overgrown Cyprus trees and other vegetation. Behind its walls are a cemetery, a 12th century Benedictine Abby and a church. Priests used to live on this island, now religious organisations use the island as a kind of camp for members of the clergy. Casual visitors are not permitted beyond the walls.
Experiencing the bay by boat
A few days into our visit, we borrowed Marko’s uncle’s boat. We chose to row to the islands because we thought it would be romantic; it was. When I first visited Montenegro, I was urged by many Montenegrin’s to take a boat trip on the bay. Admittedly, I was a bit too busy falling in love to think about sightseeing at that point.
Perast is the place to experience Boka Bay.
A quick guide and tips for visiting Perast.
Perast is a very popular destination to day trip to from Kotor.
We stayed in Sunny Port Apartments and Rooms. As I mentioned earlier, this accommodation is in a historical building that dates back to the 17th century. Its old charm combined with its modern amenities makes it a perfectly cosy place to stay. The location is also excellent, exploring the area by foot from the apartment is effortless. I highly recommend staying here.
Want more? We also made a video about Perast.
Where to visit nearby
Kotor is world-renowned for its well-preserved UNESCO listed, medieval old town and fortress. It is incredibly charming and picturesque. In some parts, buildings are delightfully weathered and there are street cats everywhere. Kotor is the oldest town in Montenegro with archaeologists estimating its beginnings going as far back as 700-400BC!
Visible from Perast, Lovcen is the second highest mountain in Montenegro. At the peak of the mountain is the mausoleum of the Montenegrin prince, bishop, ruler, poet and philosopher (yes, all these titles belong to one person!), Petar II Petrović-Njegoš. The mountain itself is an awe-inspiring natural wonder and the mausoleum is truly a work of art.
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