I stood at the window of our apartment in Perast, on the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, and gazed at the serene bay, sparkling in the winter sun. Framed by the hills beyond, and little fishing boats bobbing in the bay, it was breathtakingly beautiful. That was the moment I lost my heart to Perast.
We had landed in Podgorica (erstwhile Titograd), capital of Montenegro, on a cold November morning, and rented a car to drive down to Perast, two hours away. The road snaked around to the sparkling Boka Kotorska or the Bay of Kotor of the Adriatic Sea, towns around which, like Kotor and Perast, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
We arrived in Perast, a one-street town hugging the bay, and was it crowded! Tourists, mostly from Dubrovnik and Kotor, visit between 12 noon and 3 pm. After 3 pm, it is near deafening, but blissful silence.
On our first morning, we walked to the store near Skolje restaurant, to buy bread, milk, and cold cuts for a hearty breakfast. Wearing our warm jackets, we breathed in the crisp air, while the local fishermen motored off in their boats, and we befriended the stray cats.
Returning to our apartment, I put together our breakfast, taking pleasure in spending time in the quaint kitchen, which had its own, tiny cellar.
The apartment was a tastefully done up place, where we lingered for hours. Its stone floors, and old world charm had us completely captivated.The chair swing creaked alarmingly, yet provided a cosy, soporific perch, from which to contemplate life in all its swirling insanity. Utterly charmed by the view from the apartment, I spent many hours in the window seat, looking out to the bay, thinking many thoughts, occasionally reading a book.
Later, we walked through town, taking in its baroque stone palaces, and churches. The street is just a mile long, but is interspersed with lively outdoor cafes, piers with white fishing boats, and locals going about their lives. The Bay of Kotor has been occupied since antiquity, and it shows in the beautiful churches and monasteries that dot the land. The most prominent in Perast is the Church of St. Nicholas with its 55-metre tall bell tower, where the busts of Perast’s famous sailors like Marko Martinvic, adorn the rectangular courtyard. We headed for the museum opposite the pier. Located in the 17thcentury Bujovic Palace, the museum tells the story of the town’s maritime history, with swords and daggers, uniforms, and models of ships, on display.
Afternoon arrived, and we chose Café Armonia in the centre of Perast, for lunch, and relaxed in its outdoors seating, watching the sea gulls land for tidbits, the resident cat scrounging under our table for crumbs.
Seafood is popular, with every restaurant offering fish, shrimp, calamari, squid, octopus, and clams. We had lovely sea food salads and squid ink pasta, and marvelled at the sheer freshness of the produce. The locals are rather proud of their produce, its freshness and organic origins.
We hired a boat and its laconic boatman Mirko for 5 euros per person, to take us to the island of the Lady of the Rocks or the Gospa od Skrpjela, about 10 minutes away. Legend has it that local seamen used to lay stones at this spot when returning from a successful voyage, and on the island thus created, a chapel was built in 1630, later enlarged into a church.
We returned from the island, and chose to walk the length of Perast.
Night falls early, and with some abruptness, in Perast’s winter. Sitting at the pier, we saw a well-lit cruise ship crossing the bay in front of Perast, startlingly close, and realised that this was a shipping channel, of course! The serene, placid bay hides its secrets well.
After spending a few blissful days in the cocoon of our new-found love for Perast, we decided to stir ourselves and visit the medieval town of Kotor, less than half an hour away. The San Giovanni Castle or St. John’s Castle whose ramparts circle the old town, was built between the 9th and 19th centuries, and beckoned us. Located 250 m above sea level, with 1,350 steps leading up to it, we had heard it was a steep, but an easy climb, and cost 8 euros per head.
A local insistently pointed to another path snaking up, which we took, rather puzzled. This turned out to be a serendipitous choice, as the gently sloping path was easier than the steep steps, and more picturesque. Lined with pomegranate bushes, the path took us past the ruins of the St. George Church, while providing us with jaw-dropping views of the Bay of Kotor.
Soon we climbed through a large opening in the castle wall, and looked down at the Bay of Kotor, caught in a breathtaking tapestry of sunlight, shadows, and a white cruise ship docked in the stunning blue of the bay. The hike had taken us about an hour and a half.
We descended the steep steps to the old town of Kotor, whose cobbled paths, carved gates, terracotta tiled roofs, and narrow alleyways, are redolent of its medieval past. Kotor’s old town is a warren of narrow alleys with many squares named after their use in the times gone by – Square of Weapons, Square of Flour, Square of Milk, et al.
The main landmarks are the Cathedral of St. Tryphon with its frescoes dating to the 14thcentury, St. Luke’s Church, which has survived earthquakes, and has two altars, the Maritime Museum, and the Pimo Palace.
Impatient to get back to Perast, we waved goodbye to Kotor. We stopped at the legendary, and charming Konoba Catovica Mlini restaurant in Morinj for dinner. A cosy restaurant, it has hosted the likes of actor Ralph Fiennes (a huge favourite of mine), and the famous tennis player from neighbouring Croatia, Novak Djokovic, we were chuffed to note.
In the pitch dark night, we returned home to an utterly still Perast. I realised that I had never felt such peace and serenity. I thought this yearning for peace was a mid-life marker, till I heard my 12-year-old declaring Perast as his most favourite place in the world. How could a young boy have found his heart’s yearning in Perast, I wondered, bemused. Yet, I got him. Perast is stunning, and as poet Lord Byron put it, the Kotor bay is indeed “the most beautiful encounter of land and sea”, in which Perast is still a largely unknown gem in the Adriatic Sea. I wished with all my heart that I could claim a small part of this paradise for myself, forever. In my heart, I had.
How to get there
You can fly into Montenegro’s Podgorica or Tivat airports from any European city, or fly Turkish Airlines into Podgorica. From Podgorica and Tivat, you can rent a car or take the bus into Kotor and Perast. We rented a car for the duration of our stay in Montenegro.