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Our Lady of the Rocks is one of Montenegro's top attractions and there are many legends surrounding this pretty island. Find out everything you need to know about visiting Gospa od Skrpjela, including what not to do.
Image: Deposit photos
I’ll never forget my first trip to Our Lady of the Rocks.
I went with two Swiss friends who were visiting at the end of July. Needless to say, it was very hot. We’d stopped for a swim and a drink at Pirate Beach which is at the north end of Perast. Then we got a ride out to Our Lady of The Rocks with a young guy in his little motor boat. We arranged for him to come back for us in 45 minutes. That would give us enough time to see the island and take some pictures.
We stepped onto the island and were looking around. At this stage I’d only been in Montenegro a couple of months and I had no idea what was here. I’d been told it was a museum.
All of a sudden we hear someone yelling. And it becomes apparent he’s yelling at us!
"Majica! Majica! Majica!"
Luckily I knew this word. He was yelling "T-shirt! T-shirt! T-shirt!" at us as we stood there still wet from the beach in our shorts and bikini tops.
I did feel relieved later when I saw a bikini-clad Italian woman getting the same treatment. Entertainingly, she didn’t quickly cover up while mumbling apologies like we did. No, she yelled back at him in Italian. So we stood there listening to this hilarious half Italian, half Montenegrin yelling match going on in front of the church.
Ahhh…. Southern Europe and its hot blood!
Had we known that this was a Catholic church, we might have thought twice about arriving in bikini tops. But it's also uncommon to have to cover up outside of a church/mosque/temple, and that's what trips up a lot of visitors here.
So, apply the church's dress code to the whole island to get your visit off on the right foot. Shorts and t-shirts (including sleeveless) are fine. Swimwear is not!
The people of Bay of Kotor and their lives have always been inextricably intertwined with the sea. Fortunes were made and lost, as were lives, by the grace of God and the tides.
The town of Perast was where the bay's power and wealth was concentrated, as you can see by the stone palaces lining the shore of the town. You can also tell by the number of churches in this town that that's only 1km from end to end. With seven churches in town and two on the islands just offshore to support, it's easy to see that God and the tides smiled on the seafarers of Perast.
But storms, pirates and constant conflict meant being a seafarer was a risky lifestyle. Many sailors came back injured or never came back at all. Which leads us to the legend of Our Lady of the Rocks.
The legend of Our Lady of the Rocks goes back more than five centuries. Legend has it that on a hot summer's day on 22 July, 1452, two brothers were heading home to Perast from a dangerous voyage. One of them had an injured leg.
As they passed St George, the 12th century monastery built on the natural island in front of the town, they saw something caught on a rocky outcrop. When they went to see what it was, they found an icon of the Virgin Mary and Child.
The brothers went home and took the icon with them. The next day a miracle had occurred; the injured brother's leg was healed. They took this as an omen and vowed to build a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary on the rock where they found the icon.
Of course, there wasn't enough rock to build a church on at the time. So they started to drop boatloads of rocks and scuttle old boats around the spot. Other sailors also began to drop rocks on the spot as they headed out to sea, in hopes of being protected while they were away. By 1484, 32 years after they found they icon, there was an island with a chapel on it.
The chapel lost a lot of its treasure on 22nd June 1624 when pirates from Tunisia and Carthage attacked Perast, destroyed the churches and took most of the population into slavery. But by 1630, almost 200 years after the project started, it was rebuilt by the Venetians as we see it today.
Next to Our Lady of the Rocks you'll see another island with a traditional-style church and large cypress trees. This is Sveti Djordje, also known as the 'Islet of the Dead.'
There's a 7th century Benedictine monastery on the island and a cemetery, where many prominent people from Perast were buried.
But the island is most famous for the tragic story of Ante and Katica.
During the Napoleonic invasion in October 1813, the men of Perast had holed up in the Tower of Sveti Kriz above Perast.
The French retreated to Sveti Djordje (St George), the natural island that lies adjacent to Our Lady of the Rocks.
One of the soldiers in the French army, Ante Slovic, was from Cres, an island in northern Croatia. And he was betrothed to a girl called Katica from Perast.
Under orders, the French soldiers set up their canons and opened fire on Sveti Kriz.
But one of the cannonballs fell short and and hit Katica's house instead.
She was killed and buried on the island of Sveti Djordje.
Poor Ante was devastated. When the French left the Bay of Kotor he became a hermit. He stayed on Sveti Djordje and became a monk in the monastery, where he rang the church bell.
He died in 1821 and was buried next to Katica.
Sveti Djordje is a still a Benedictine monastery today. It's not open to visitors but you'll get good views of it if you take a boat trip to Our Lady of the Rocks from Kotor.
Entrance to the church and museum includes a guided tour through both. The guide will tell you all about the history and the artifacts in the church, and the tour takes about 30 minutes.
It can be a tight fit when there are large groups, but it helps that you enter through one side and then exit through another door on the first floor. There are stairs, so it’s not suitable for people in wheelchairs.
There’s a little store on the island with souvenirs and ice creams. Once you finish the tour you’ll definitely want to take some pictures and enjoy the views of the Bay and Perast.
When you enter the church, your eye is drawn to the huge, ornate altar. This was sculpted by Antonio Capellano from Genoa and erected in the church in 1796. The painting at the centre of the altar was painted by Lovro Marinov Dobricevic in 1452.
The walls and the ceiling of the church are decorated with 68 frescoes by local artist Tripo Kokolja (1661 – 1713), a well-known local baroque painter from Kotor.
Between these, the walls are lined with over 2,500 silver votives, which were donated by local families. Families would have a silver or gold votive made to protect their sailors at sea. You'll also see votives in the shapes of legs or arms. A sick or injured person would donate one of these in the hope their prayers would be answered and they’d be cured.
The museum covers two floors of the building next to the church and you'll enter it from inside the church. The entrance fee covers entry to both the church and the museum.
The museum has a really interesting collection of items from this area, which range from the Illyrians to the modern day.
In the lapidarium (rock collection) you'll see rocks with Illyriian inscriptions and you'll also see a collection of Neolithic objects, like arrowheads, found in Spilja Cave above Perast.
There are collections of weapons, traditional dress, modern art and paintings of ships battling storms or pirates - themes that dominated life for the people of Perast for hundreds of years.
Of special note here is the tapestry by Hijacinte Kunic-Mijovic who waited 25 years for her husband to return from sea.
While waiting, she sewed this intricate tapestry until she couldn’t see anymore. It’s got threads of gold and silver through it, but not just those. She used her own hair for the angels’ hair. You'll see the hair starts out brown and gradually turns grey.
This is one of the museum's most treasured pieces.
Address: Our Lady of the Rocks, Perast, Montenegro
Hours: 9am to 6pm daily
Dress code: minimum shorts and t-shirt (sleveless is ok). This applies to the whole island, not just inside the church
Our Lady of the Rocks floats just off the shore in Perast. If you have your own rental car, you can park in Perast and get a boat over to the island. Perast is pedestrian only, but there are parking lots at either end of the town and parking costs €2 per day.
Boat rides to the island cost around €5 per person return. Usually you'll be taken over to the island and the driver will come back for you in 30-45 minutes.
The best way to visit Our Lady of the Rocks from Kotor is by boat. You'll skip the traffic and zip along the water instead. And what is a beautiful drive by car becomes a stunning trip by boat. You'll see the stone palaces lining shore with the dramatic mountains shooting up either side of you. This is the vista that brings so many people to the Bay of Kotor, and you can really only appreciate it fully from the water.
Boat tours depart from Kotor City Park, just 200m from Kotor port and old town, so they're ideal for people staying in the old town or visiting Kotor on cruise ships.
If you’d like to stay in this area of the bay, Perast is a beautiful and popular place to stay. It’s got gorgeous hotels, wonderful restaurants and an authentic Mediterranean fishing village feel.
The gorgeous ambiance has been retained because the town’s stone architecture has been protected so there are no modern buildings. All buildings in the town are from local stone. The town is car-free from May to September every year, but this doesn’t inconvenience visitors. There are parking lots at either side of the town that cost just €2 per day and there’s a buggy to take you and your luggage to your hotel or apartment.
The only thing Perast doesn't have is beaches. There's only one beach, at one end of the town. If you like to laze on the beach, another town in the bay or a hotel like HUMA Kotor Bay (formerly Allure Palazzi Kotor Bay) would suit you better. Or you can stay at the Iberstaro Grand (see below), which has free speed boat transfers to a beach club.
Perast is also very busy with tourists during the day, but generally quiet at night.
Every year on 22nd July, a procession of boats from Perast head out to the island at sunset. They throw rocks into the sea around the island to commemorate the foundation of the island. The celebrations start around 6.30pm, but arrive early to get a spot. The best place to be is at one of the waterside restaurants like Conte where you can get a good view of the proceedings.
As a functioning Catholic church, weddings can also be held on the island.
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