Church on Sunday: Saint Nicholas in Perast, Montenegro
When we first entered the Bay of Kotor, I felt a pang of disappointment. I hadn’t had time to research on the city, and the high-rise buildings and oil drilling equipment didn’t exactly match the descriptions of “amazing” and “unique” that I had heard from Balkan friends. Twenty minutes later, I understood the hype. Concrete monstrosities gave way to tiny seaside villages and Venetian architecture. As we drove past a church on a tiny island off of Perast, I knew. I knew the way you know about a good melon. It would be my next Church on Sunday.
Perast is a small town on the coast of the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. The Bay is a semi-circular strip of small towns that were once under the sway of the Venetian Republic and the bane of the Ottomans, who tried to take the Bay (and Perast) numerous times. Perast reached its zenith in the 18th Century, when it boasted four shipyards and a sailing academy. Sailors are superstitious; in Perast they were superstitious and religious. The result is a town you can drive through in five minutes but has 16 churches, including Saint Nicholas church.
Even in church-filled Perast, Saint Nicholas stands out. It’s also known as Lady of the Rock, since the church was built after two Perast sailors found an icon of the Virgin Mary on a rock just off the coast on July 22, 1452. As legend (or at least our tour guide) has it, the men carried the icon to a sick sailor onshore, who was instantly healed. The sailors decided to build a church around the rock to commemorate the miracle. With pebbles, sunken ships and a whole lot of patience, the island and church was built around the rock. The island is still being “built” to this day: every July 22, local male residents throw rocks near the island to buffer it from the incoming sea.
We walked along the coast of Perast and negotiated a boat ride to the church. It was just as pretty up close as it was from the coastline. St. Nicholas’ Madonna icon is at the front of the altar, but the church’s biggest impact is the vivid paintings by Perast artist Tripo Kokolja.
The walls hold thousands of silver tablets donated by sailors. It’s thought that a donation will bring sailors luck. Like I said, superstitious. Doors by the church altar feature bouquets donated by brides who were married in the church. At first glance I thought these were garters, and had a totally different impression of what kind of church this was. Alas, I was wrong.
Before we left the church, we walked behind the altar and touched the original rock the church was built around. You have to stick your hand in the hole, touch the rock, and make a wish. It reminded me of Flash Gordon. Remember that movie? It was terrible. I loved it.
Fortunately, my hand returned unscathed, and we returned safely to shore. I figured some extra luck couldn’t hurt, but the truth was, we were already lucky to be in such a beautiful country.