Read, Write, Run, Roam


Church on Sunday: Ostrog “Cave” Monastery

After a hot morning spent hiking around Montenegro, a big lunch behind us and a long drive ahead, Muz and I thought we’d skip the trip to Ostrog cemetery. Sure, we knew it was the biggest pilgramage site in Montenegro. We’d heard it was one of the holiest places in the Balkans. But we were just…tired.

Then, a nagging voice popped into my head: What if you never return to Montenegro? It could be amazing! It could be the best Church on Sunday ever! What if there’s a travel show contest being hosted there RIGHT NOW?

I hate that voice. But I love that it told me to go.

We thought it wouldn’t take a long time to go from Cetinje (West Montenegro) to Ostroška Greda in the center, but we didn’t account for a winding mountainside road with no guardrails. No wonder this was a holy place–drivers are constantly praying that another car won’t come careening around the corner.

Two churches comprise Ostrog: the smaller “lower chuch” and the cave-set upper church. We were running low on energy, so we drove past the smaller church and kept winding up the highway. The upper church monastery remained fairly hidden from the road until the final turn into the parking lot. When we finally saw it up close, I couldn’t believe how large it was.

The monastery fits perfectly in and with the cave; one does not outshine the other. The monastery was first built in the 17th century, but the current building was constructed after a fire in the 1920s. The building houses two small chapels and scores of monks. There’s a strict no-photo policy at Ostrog, but photos probably wouldn’t do the place justice anyway.

The building felt much smaller from the inside. We walked up narrow staircases lined with mosaic images of saints and past heavy brass doors that depicted biblical scenes.  On an upper floor, the tiny chapel of the Holy Cross is built directly in a cave. Beautifully preserved frescos are directly painted onto the rock walls and ceiling. It’s a primitive setting for such lush iconography. The atmosphere is exactly what I would expect from a monastery: quiet and reflective. People speak in hushed tones when they’re not kissing icons or gently shushing children.

The trip was a bit harrowing, but we were glad we battled our fatigue and crazy roads to come to Ostrog. It’s fascinating to see so many people gather in a post-socialist country to worship, to understand their history, and to find peace. We didn’t find a travel show contest while we were there, but we found something much more interesting.

Besides, I probably would have lost any tv show contest to this worshipper:

Balkan girls have all the legs, I mean, luck…


Spendthrift Serenity in Sveti Stefan

When people talk about Montenegro’s beaches, they usually refer to Budva. If Montenegro’s beaches were Archie Comic Books, Budva would be Veronica: popular, sexy, and flashy. In Budva, women in tiny bikinis walk past the walled old town and pass hyperdeveloped streets to reach a busy beach. At night, they party until dawn. Budva is fun, but we drove past the high-rise buildings and never looked back. We wanted the Betty of beaches: serene, sweet, and a bit neglected on a Saturday night. Sveti Stefan fit the bill perfectly.

Sveti Stefan is on the southern end of the Bay of Kotor. The area is named after the islet just off the shoreline. In the 1970s, this island was the site of a resort that catered to the likes of Liz Taylor and Sofia Loren. After a period of disrepair, the island resort reopened under the name Aman Sveti Stefan, with an even more exclusive guest list. We were told that each person who enters the resort must commit to spending 25 Euro. After seeing the walled city of Kotor (for free!) we decided that the view from our balcony was probably the best one anyway. It certainly was cheaper.

Twenty minutes after we arrived, we found ourselves at the beach. Despite high season there was plenty of space. Two padded lounge chairs with an umbrella were available for 15 Euro a day. This was the kind of splurge we could handle. Muz announced, “We shouldn’t go anywhere. I’m getting my 7.5 Euros worth out of this chair.”  Slažem se, dear. After just a few hours, we decided one day wasn’t enough. We cancelled the next day’s reservation and planned another day of playing lizard.

We continued our low-budget royalty lifestyle by buying fresh corn and raspberries from vendors parading the beach. Their cries of “Strudlice, maline, kukurus…” against ocean waves was one of the most relaxing sounds I’ve known. We made dinner plans at a local pizza restaurant and snacked on fruit sold out of cars by the beach. For dessert, we walked to a convenience store for my drug of choice, Magnum Ice Cream bars. I’m sure the folks in Budva were more energized. I’ll bet the people at Sveti Stefan Aman were having something more exotic. And I guarantee they weren’t having more fun. That poor Archie…he really didn’t know what he was missing.

A Most Memorable Memorial: Mount Lovcen, Montenegro

How would you like to be remembered? Please check one:

  1. Loving friend/spouse
  2. Corporate titan
  3. National hero immortalized as a giant marble statue, protected by a large eagle, on top of your nation’s biggest mountain

If you checked #3, prepare to be jealous. Find inspiration at Njegos’ tomb at Mount Lovcen in Montenegro.

Mount Lovcen is Montenegro’s largest mountain and, in a way, the namesake of the country. Montenegro (aka Crna Gore) means black mountain, and Mt. Lovcen is the tallest mountain in a country known for its high rocky terrain.  At the summit of one of Mt. Lovcen’s peaks lies the tomb of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, the former Montenegrin ruler who I thought was the name behind the ham I wrote about on Friday.

The Njegoš memorial may be one of the most popular sights in Montenegro, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to reach. The road up the mountain is happily referred to as death valley—a one-lane (to be fair, sometimes one and a half lane) winding road with small guardrails and big scenery.

We breathed a sigh of relief once we reached the parking area, but the trek was far from over. A series of steps—461 to be precise—led through a tunnel and to the memorial statue.

 The chapel is the creation of Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, who supposedly worked for a fee of Njeguški cheese and ham. (It’s that good, people.)
 The chapel is flanked by two caryatids that must be over 20 feet high. Caryatids are statutes that function as columns. Am I a font of useless information, or what?

 The main sculpture, a 28-ton representation of Njegoš in the arms of an eagle, was made from a single block of granite. The archway above it is covered with 200,000 gold-plated tiles. Subtle it ain’t.

 Behind the statue is the tomb of Njegoš, a simple but dramatically lit sarcophagus.*

As dramatic as the chapel is, it can’t compare to the lookout point behind the tomb showing a panoramic view of Montenegro and, on a clear day, Italy.

It’s one of the most impressive memorials I’ve seen, but it’s also one of the most controversial. It seems that Njegos didn’t want such a large, flashy tomb. He built his own chapel (left) on the top of Mt Lovcen in 1845, but it was destroyed in WWI. The current chapel was commissioned under protest by Yugoslav figures and the Serbian Orthodox church. It may not be how Njegos wanted to be remembered–but the crowds seem to disagree.


*I’ve wanted to legitimately use this word since high school, sorry.

Njegos Prsut: When a ham by any name is NOT the same

In the Balkans, people take their poetry and prosciutto seriously. So when we learned that there was a Montenegro prsut (prosciutto) named after a poet, we knew it had to be good.

We were right.

Njegoš prsut is named after Petar II Petrović-Njegoš. (Try to say that three times, fast.) Njegoš wrote famous epic poems, including The Mountain Wreath. For non-Balkanites, he’s what Shakespeare is to England. The Mountain Wreath is Balkan’s Hamlet. If I polled 10 Serbians on the street, I’d bet at least 7 of them could recite lines from his poems.

He wasn’t merely a poet, however. He was born into local royalty during the Ottoman hold over Montenegro. Eventually, he was made Bishop and helped form the various clans in Montenegro into a unified state. He’s seen as a benevolent king and has more likes on his Facebook page than I do. (Though so do most people…)

The Man Behind the Ham

Best of all, he’s the namesake behind the smoked, dried ham pictured above. It’s sliced thin-to-medium thickness and doesn’t taste overly salty. The smoke flavor is there, but barely. It didn’t melt in our mouth but it did offer a delicate texture and hearty flavor. The secret is supposedly the grazing lands in Montenegro, though I’d imagine that many butchers have a special technique or two during the aging process. Whatever the secret is, it’s safe with Montenegrins, who assured (taunted?) us that we couldn’t get this kind of prsut anywhere else. Oh well. Njegos’ words may roll off the toungue, but his prsut rolls right on in.

UPDATE: a kind reader told me the following: It’s not named after (Petar II Petrović) Njegoš, it’s named after a village Njeguši (after which is Njegoš dynasty named too), nearby Cetinje, Montenegro. Njeguški pršut, not Njegošev pršut.

Darn it.I thought our waiter told us that it was named after the King, not the King’s hometown. I’m keeping the post though since I have more to say about Njegos tomorrow. As always, thanks for clarifying!

Protecting Montenegro’s worst-kept secret: the Fort of Kotor

Our Lonely Planet guide to the Western Balkans* suggested we go “off the beaten path” with a trip to Kotor, Montenegro.

(Pause to hear all the Balkan readers laugh.)

Kotor’s been “on the path” since the Middle Ages, when Illyrians, Slavs and Venetians flocked to the spot along the Bay of Kotor. Today Kotor is one of the most popular destinations in Montenegro, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a stopping point for cruises and yachts working their way down the Adriatic. It’s more backless dresses than backpackers, but there’s at least one Kotor destination that moves visitors away from it all: the fort on the mountain of St. John.

Since my attraction to ice cream bars has become a full-blown addiction, I thought it would be a good idea to tackle the 1350-1500 steps up to the fortifications that overlook Kotor’s walled city. It was more of a hike than a stroll; 5 centuries of use, 80 years of neglect and several earthquakes later, there were times when it was easier to walk along an improvised dirt trail than to tackle the loose, worn stairs. It’s not for the timid or the acrophobic.

The fortifications were first built by the Byzantine Empire in the 6th Century. The Venetians expanded them in the 1400s, and they were all but deserted by the 1800s. It still felt a bit deserted when we were there. We explored the fort’s viewpoints to get a good look at the town below.

Kotor was still a sleepy coastal town at 8am, at least from 280 meters above. The cafes were just setting out umbrellas. Dance music hadn’t started pumping from outside speakers. Cruise ship groups were still enjoying their breakfast. It was easy to picture Kotor as a so-called undiscovered city in the 1800s, with nothing but fisherman, innumerable churches, and pretty views.

Yet as we descended, we were grateful it wasn’t. If had been the 1800s, there would have been no man with a cooler selling cold water on the path. Also, if it was the 1800s I would have no property rights and I never would have sailed all the way to Montenegro. The churches are still there, the fishermen now sell to great restaurants, and a Housewife can reward herself with an ice cream bar. Montenegro isn’t a secret destination, but it’s the best disappointment I could ask for.

All kidding aside, I do recommend LP-Western Balkans if you’re touring around the area. LP has the most practical information about border crossings and time tables. Bradt also does a great job with these facts, particularly for Serbia. 

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.

Facinada image source

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.