This morning we were up early to catch our tour to one of the holiest sites in Christian Orthodoxy – Ostrog Monastery. We booked our tour through Viator, which we had done many times before generally with a lot of success. We were used to a personable guide loading is into a comfortable van or small bus with 6 – 20 other people, everything we were doing clearly communicated and us well aware of what was expected of us. This was not the case today.
Today we waited roadside with a surly Russian couple, our transportation coming from Budva to pick us up. The bus that arrived was an enormous tour bus, already pretty much full. The surly Russians got on first, then promptly got off. Then Ma, Pa and myself were escorted on and lead to the very back of the bus where there were three seats. Surly Russian dude was yelling something at the tour operator, I would imagine about there being no seats. The operator asked a lady if she would be willing to move seats so surly Russian and his wife could sit together (god knows why his wife would want to sit with him). With that all settled, we were on our way.
From the description of their website, we were under the impression that we would be driving to the monastery, free time at said monastery, back on the bus, lunch, home. When we looked up how long it takes to drive from Petrovac to Ostrog, the internet told us two hours.
Driving up out of the bay was a sight to behold – you could see the whole bay, the beach, difficult to discern where the blue sea met the blue sky. We drove more into the mountains, roads spotted with stone houses, monuments, roadside watermelon and honey stands. We even had to briefly stop at one point as a man was trying to corral his herd of goats off the road.
Two hours in we were not at the monastery but at some sort of roadside market, with a restaurant, market, honey stand, and obligatory tchotchke shop. One thing we noticed as the deeper we went into the mountains, the more things were written in Cyrillic. We were told to hop off the bus and grab breakfast, but the combination of bus ride, heat and overwhelming smell of body odour had kicked my motion sickness into high gear, so instead I took a nap. Ma and Pa had attempted to order breakfast, but nothing materialized, so they came back to the bus empty handed.
Finally we were on the road again, driving past Lake Skadar (which we will be visiting later on the trip), through the nation’s capital Podgorica (which we were gonna visit later on the trip but have since decided that we don’t need to), then started up another narrow mountain road, punctuated by switchback after switchback. Eventually we ended up at a parking lot with a few other big tour buses, and thought “well this is it, time to hike up!” Instead, our tour director said to us “now we taxi”. I laughed out loud to Ma and Pa and exclaimed “what the fuck is going on??” We climbed off the big bus and into some sort of soviet era van with dubious seating, curtains, and a fan screwed to the ceiling. Clinging to the seat in front of me for dear life, we zipped up even more switchbacks, honking at other cars trying to come down the mountain.
And finally, at noon, we were there – Ostrog Monastery. Built in the 17th century by the Bishop of Herzegovina to the glory of Saint Basil, it’s carved into the side of the mountain, which frescoes and icons painted on the rock itself.
Our tour guide shepherded us into a line up for what I thought was the entrance to the monastery. We watched devout women in long skirts, their hair covered by scarves, touch the shrines and icons and cross themselves.
The line moved forward slowly, and pretty soon we were in one of the church caves. You had to duck through a little doorway, with a worker ushering people in and out. Soon I noticed there was an end to the line at the end of the church cave, and I thought I saw people kissing a small painting of an icon before turning away. When I got to the front of the line, I watched the woman in front of me kiss the painting, cross herself, turned to the orthodox priest who was standing there and I had failed to notice, who waved a cross at her and she left.
Then it was my turn. I looked at the painting. I noticed it was in front of an open casket holding the skeletal remains of the founder of the monastery covered in a tapestry. I panicked. I’m not at all religious, so I didn’t want to disrespect the priest by kissing the painting when it meant nothing.
I looked at the painting.
Then at the priest.
The back at the painting.
Then again at the priest. He made a motion to me to kiss the painting. I said a quick I’M SORRYYY to the priest before scrambling out of the cave.
Ma came out of the cave not too long after me and said “don’t worry. I wasn’t about to kiss the painting either. Think of the germs”. We then wandered into part of the monastery and honestly there wasn’t a lot to see – the majesty of the place I think comes from the church caves and the stunning sight of the exterior. There was also a huge gift shop (got some obligatory fridge magnets) and soon we sat in the sunny courtyard, laughing about how much of a shit show the day had been.
When it was time, we piled back into the “taxi”, and barrelled down the switchbacks to the lower lot, where instead of getting back on the big bus, we went to another monastery, this one called Ostrog Donji.
We walked around the grounds and climbed on the big bus, which was supposed to leave at 1400hrs, which it was. By 1420hrs the bus still hadn’t left, and the tour director had gone off to find the one unaccounted for tourist. Surly Russian then got off the bus to vape, followed by a bunch of others who smoked. FINALLY the tour operator returned and got into some sort of verbal altercation with surly Russian, and since I know only about 30 words in Russian, I’m not sure what they were fighting about, but from my limited Russian I’m positive it wasn’t about eating cheese pizza.
FINALLY, we were all loaded on the bus, on our way back to Petrovac…
…or so I thought. We went back down the rest of the switchbacks, past Podgorica, past the pelicans of Lake Skadar, and back to restaurant where we attempted breakfast. Ma and I decided to stop by the honey stand, where we were greeted by the delightful shop keep who didn’t speak English, but were able to communicate with thanks to Ma’s basic German. He let us sample some honey, which is made 8km away in the Durmitor Mountains and is part of Montenegro’s “honey trail”. We said our goodbyes to the nice man and headed back to the restaurant to meet with dad for a pint and some time to relax out of the sun.
After the hour we were given, we headed back into the bus, and back towards Petrovac. For real this time.