I first saw Perast while I was circling around the Boka Bay on my way to Herceg Novi. I saw its harmoniously juxtaposed red roofs with an occasional tower peeking among them, the olive green cypresses and a velvety-blue church rising from the inky shades of the sea. I was instantly drawn in by the mysteriousness of this small town and its two islands, which filled my soul with some blissful serenity.
Enthralled by the view, I felt the urge to stop by and explore this small town, but unfortunately i did not have time for such things either on that occasion nor years later. It was recently that I got a chance to get to know Perast better. It was in such an intense and detailed way as if the life itself had wanted to make up for the years of waiting and treat me to an overdose of the town. If an overdose is even possible when it comes to this place.
Although small, Perast is not a town you can grow tired of. I have the feeling that I will never learn all its secrets, because it is like an endless labyrinth, which constantly gives life to new pathways, which don’t lead anywhere precisely because they lead everywhere. Even now, I wish I could teleport to Perast because it would still be new and different to me.
I know it would hold some new and unfamiliar colours now. I know that this very ray of sunshine shining on me is under a different angle there, creating shades and reflections in the water like I’d never seen before. I know its trees are growing, proudly outstretching their branches towards the sea creating a frame through which you can glimpse the Lady of the Rocks. I know that at this very moment a ship is passing between its two islands and I know that its flailing sails would set that Arsen Dedic’s song off in my head, saying “Unaware that we were on the lost ship, we called for the land, looking at the sea”.
I know some cat could probably sneak around there and disappear in one of those sweet warm yards filled with cacti and oranges. I wish I could sneak among them too. Countless images are hidden in Perast, just waiting to be discovered. Their number is proportional to the likelihood of being caught as a thief in someone’s garden, because nobody would believe you were just chasing the cat with the camera in hand. And the cat would, of course, just dash into some other yard and leave you not only without the photo but the alibi as well. And without oranges too. The good news is that Perast only has about 350 inhabitants, so it’s more probable that you wouldn’t even find anyone home. Still, be careful when climbing over people’s fences.
Truth be told, Perast actually has only one street, which stretches along the sea, lined with mischievously scattered white houses that follow the hill up towards the St Ilija Hill, without any geometrically logical form. Mostly lighter colours dominate these constructions, with the time-worn textures and shades on their corners. These clumsily placed stone houses are even more charming because of the typical Mediterranean blinds on the windows.
My favourite part of exploring any city is trying to guess what’s going on in the lives behind its closed windows. Especially if they are hidden behind blinds such as these. They somehow give those lives an aesthetic spin. However, windows are mostly barred in Perast. Hardly ever can you see an old lady opening the windows to water her plants or hang the freshly knitted curtains. It’s a sad side to Perast, but oh well, it’s good as long as there are cats, oranges and cacti.
Tops of church and castle towers fill the spaces among the houses, alternating with them in their reach towards the sky. For a small town with only one street, Perast has 18 churches and 19 castles. They are mostly baroque, built in the 17th and 18th century. The highest church, whose bell tower proudly boasts the 55m of height and represents the most famous landmark of Perast is certainly the St Nicholas church, and the most imposing palace is the Bujovic castle, which is the seat of the town’s museum. The museum is full of evidence from the turbulent history, which I shall present in the following paragraphs.
After sightseeing the architectural and historical landmarks, you can get some rest in one of the restaurants along the beach with a wonderful view to the sea. These restaurants are mostly decorated with fishnets, shells and other sea-related symbols. After that, you can take a boat to the Lady of the Rocks and St George islands, where a whole new dimension will open to you.
The artificial island Lady of the Rocks was created by dumping boulders and sinking ships onto the underwater boulder. The people from Perast opted for this place as the perfect for the church because the sailors caught sight of the Madonna on July 22nd, 1452. A yearly memorial is held on this date and this is when people take boats to the island and throw new rocks into the sea, both for ritual and practical reasons, i.e. to make up for the ones that the sea carries away.
The church was built in 1630. and painted by the famous baroque artist Tripo Kokolja. In addition to his frescos, the church is decorated with 2000 silver panel, donated by the sailors as a token of gratitude to god for having protected them on their voyages. However, not all sailors reached their home safely. For instance, the fiancée of Jacinta Kunic, whom she had waited for her whole life. The symbol of their love is preserved in the gobelin Jacinta knitted in 1828 from her own hair. It can be seen how here hair had been growing lighter until it turned completely grey as the years passed.
The other island, close to the Lady is called St Yuriy or St George. There is a church on this island too. There used to be a town cemetery on this island, but it was moved to the northern part of the city in 1866. There was also a church from the 12th century on the island, but it was destroyed in the 1667 earthquake. Nowadays, there is a new church, built on the same place where the old one had stood.
This island had a defensive military function in history as it is at the heart of Boka, and closest to the narrowest part of the bay – Verige. It protected Perast and Risan from the attacks from the sea. This piece of information leads us to the story of Perast’s origins. Namely, the Illyrian people lived in the Boka region in the old era. The tribe Risoniti founded the town Risan, which reached its peak during the Queen Teutha’s reign, who the city of Tivat may have been named after. In order to protect the city, the queen sent the Piresta tribe to inhabit the town close to Risan and towards the St George Island to watch the entrance to the bay. The newly-founded town got its name from its tribe – Perast.
Later throughout history, the island was used by the Venetians, Austrians and the French as the defensive fortress, adding to its walls. Perast has another fortress just above the town of Kriz, which was built by the Venetians in 1570.
You can’t help but feel all of these historical legends silently trailing you and observing you through the genes of the town as you stroll down its streets. The winds of time howl among the towers and the events of the town’s history are embedded in its every stone.
This is why I love coming back to Perast – because its story is still unravelling. Ad infinitum. Even when I’m not in it, I love being on some point from where I can observe it – near the lighthouse in the Verige, or in Stoliv.
That’s when I daydream about Perast and its daily life. And if I can’t do even that, if I am in some remote places on the globe, then I rummage through the mental images of Perast or arrange the material ones as I relive the eternal nostalgia for the places we may have visited in our past lives.
I may have been an ancestor of some of those 350 citizens, or a member of the Piresta tribe or maybe Teutha herself. I may have been that cat that had shown me the way into the orange-filled yard, or maybe the orange itself. As Rilke said once “If I were a tree, I would stay there”.
Maybe I still am there.
Author: Mirjana Vasiljevic
Personal blog: http://www.miracle-travel.life/me-in-perast-perast-in-me/