A church on an island built by local seamen dropping rocks at the same spot every time they return safely from a voyage? A tapestry woven using the weaver’s own hair? These are the captivating stories from the village of Perast in Montenegero. Nestled at the foot of St Elijah Hill on the Gulf of Kotor, you only have to be distracted by your phone for a few seconds and you would have driven past this idyllic sea-faring town.
Petar, our guide of course, made sure we missed nothing of it. Stopping our van suddenly in what seemed like just the side of the main road, he marshalled us down some 20-30 stone steps before we reached what seemed like a square facing the bay. Then from here, there are boats that will more than happily ferry you across the bay to the only man-made island in the Adriatic.
So, what’s with the island? Well, legend has it that in the 15th century, two Venetian sailors from Perast discovered a painting of the Virgin Mary and Child on a crag jutting out from the ocean after a long journey at sea. Seeing it as a sign, they dropped some rocks over board at the spot where they found the painting. It came to pass then that whenever seamen returned safely from months at sea, they would do the same. Over time, this little crag became an islet whereby subsequently the first church was built in 1452. Today, the little islet has become the island Our Lady of the Rocks due to the efforts and generosity of these seamen and inhabitants of Perast.
(True to form, this folklore has more to it which our guide happily added. It seems when the Venetian sailors found the painting, they dutifully returned it to the church in Perast. But the next day it would disappear from the church and reappear on the crag! This happened three times before the sailors understood that this is where the painting wanted to be. Hence, the beginning of their efforts to build an island for it.)
To commemorate this, every year on July 22nd, the town of Perast celebrates Fasinada. This is a festival unique to Perast, where locals, many of them descendants of famous seafarers and prominent citizens, sail out to the island in boats garlanded with poplar branches and loaded with rocks. They set out at sunset tied together in a convoy. Upon arriving at the island, they then drop their rocks around the island to honour the vows of their ancestors. Fittingly, there is also a regatta on the day and everyone competes in their sailboats for a chance to inscribe their names onto a plaque that is situated on the lighthouse at the island.
Now what about the tapestry? Well, this remarkable gift starts with Jacinta Kunic from Perast. Whilst waiting for her husband to return, she started a tapestry which eventually took her 25 years to complete. As she used her own hair in the embroidery, the end result traces this amazing timeline as you can see her hair turning gray then white in the work itself! Gifted to the church in 1828, this is one of the iconic pieces housed here. Did her husband return? The guide didn’t exactly say but we prefer to believe that he did!