Trying to peek over the heads of the others in the line (though not too high as to hit the ceiling of the tiny cave), JR spotted a robed figure holding an ornate cross. So far, not so strange, not for being in a monastery anyway. “And now…they’re making the sign of the cross and are kissing something.” OK, that’s a little different, kissing what exactly? Now less than two heads away from the front, we could finally see the target of the kissing. Some kind of wrapped cloth. Not too harmless.
Thrust in the front of the queue, it was my chance to make my very first sign of the cross (and in front of a Montenegrin monk no less!) followed by an awkward bow-kiss to the wrapped fabric. Scuttling back down the narrow passageway, we made wide eyes at each other and wondered what we had just done. We later found out that the wrapped cloth contained the bones of St. Basil, a Serbian Orthodox bishop who died in 1671.
Into the caves of Ostrog Monastery
We were visiting Ostrog Monastery, the most important holy place in Montenegro for Orthodox Christians. The complex consists of the upper and lower monasteries, separated by a distance of two kilometres. The upper monastery is usually the one tourists visit for; it is seemingly built directly into the rock behind it. It looks out 900m above the Zeta valley. It is, as you may imagine, incredible impressive.
Our encounter with the monk (and St. Basil’s remains) was the consequence of doing a very British thing and joining an unsigned queue outside Ostrog’s upper monastery. We had presumed the line would lead to the entrance and were proved correct as we stepped under a low doorway into a pathway carved out of rock. We got suspicious however as we noticed people squeezing past us, on their way back from the front of the queue.
Lit only by candles, the passageway was dark, restricted and a bit claustrophobic. It was deathly quiet. We both started to get worried (read as panicked in my case) by what lay ahead; were we meant to bring some kind of offering? will we be turned away not being religious? would God smite us down?
But God did not smite us down. The rest of our experience within the upper monastery and Ostrog as a whole was more how I imagined. We admired beautiful stained glass windows and vivid frescos. We marvelled at how the structure was built into the rock. We explored the picturesque gardens and exclaimed at the stunning view of the Zeta valley. It got a bit strange again in the lower monastery when we noticed a pair of petrified hands for display under glass. No mandatory kissing required here though.
Overdressed and on an uphill trek
People watching around Ostrog was fascinating, with the monastery attracting such a mix of visitors and pilgrims. From the very young to the very old, families, couples and singles swarmed everywhere, some with gifts, others with nothing. We had both dressed relatively conservatively (full trousers and a shirt for JR, maxi dress and shoulder cover up for me) thinking it was appropriate for such a religious place. We had also thought it was interesting to do the 2km walk from the lower monastery to the upper monastery, something we had read ‘most’ pilgrims choose to do.
Clothes-wise, we felt vastly overdressed. Shorts, skirts, vest tops and shiny trainers were all the rage amongst Ostrog pilgrims that day. As for the pilgrimage, we were two of a handful of people who seemed to be doing it. While the lower car park had been half full, the upper one was overflowing. Still, it was a nice (if steep) walk.
Visiting Ostrog monastery was quite simply the most unusual and unique experience we had during our three month road trip in Europe. It was my first experience of Orthodox Christianity and was definitely a bit of an eye-opener. After all, it’s not every day you get to kiss three hundred year old (saintly) bones. Plus, the water from the natural spring behind the monastery was really very good.
We had been in Montenegro less than 24 hours and it had been a confusing time in general. Alongside Ostrog, we had somehow missed seeing Kotor fjord (Montenegro’s biggest tourist attraction!), got blocked in at some Roman mosaics, visited a beach with a 50 Euro price tag and slept in a stranger’s vineyard. But the rest is a story for another time.
Ostrog Monastery is about an hours drive away from the capital of Montenegro, Podgorica. The last 8km of the road is steep, windy and narrow. A great test for pilgrims but difficult for cars too.
Have you ever had an interesting religious experience on your travels? Let us know!