When it comes to islands, most people think of Croatia first: there are so many, from the mythical Mljet to the sun-drenched Hvar (and all within a short cruise of Porto Montenegro). But there is one island in the Bay of Kotor with a story that may eclipse all others.
It begins on 22 July 1452: two sailors, returning to Perast from a difficult voyage, discovered an icon of the Madonna and Child resting on a rock in a shallow part of the Bay. Considering the find a miracle, and representative of a divine hand having brought them home, the sailors pledged an oath to honour their find with a worthy sanctuary.
The sailors dropped stones around the spot where the icon was found, slowly created an islet and built a small chapel. It soon became a tradition for sailors to drop stones in the water around the chapel before a voyage, to contribute to the strength of its foundations and to ask the Virgin Mother to bring them safely home.
The chapel was expanded to the present church in 1632. It was called Chiesa della Madonna dello Scarpello.In the local language it is called “Gospa od Škrpjela” and has been translated to English as “Our Lady of the Rocks.”
At the height of the Venetian Republic, Perast was an important trading centre with a fleet of about one hundred merchant ships. Before departing on a voyage, captains would leave silver votive offerings on the walls of the church in the belief that, in this way, Our Lady would protect them. Thousands of these silver “plaques” now adorn its walls.
The church also contains 68 paintings ordered by the nobility of Perast and painted by one of the region’s greatest baroque artists, Tripo Kokolja. But its most prized and holy possession is the original icon, installed over the main alter.
The tradition of dropping stones at the site remains alive today and forms an integral part of one of Europe’s oldest sailing regattas: the Fašinada. At sunset on 22 July, countless local boats are decorated with garlands and sail out into the Bay to drop a stone around the island.
As Montenegro is rediscovered, international interest in this centuries old tradition has also grown. In the last few years, the Yachting Association of Montenegro has introduced some structure in the form of a two-day sailing regatta called the Fašinada Cup. If you have a sail boat, why not take part next year? (and be sure to bring your own rock.)