At first glace, the plunging mountains and blue waters of the Bay of Kotor resemble some more northern landscape – a Norwegian fjord, perhaps. But look closer and you will see signs that mark this coastline out as uniquely Montenegrin. This stretch of the Adriatic shore is dotted with what the novelist Rebecca West called ‘the special Dalmatian glory’ – elegant Venetian gothic churches and palaces, many of which bear the unmistakable sign of the Lion of St Mark – the proud symbol of Venice herself.
These graceful buildings are evidence of the period from 1420 until 1797, when much of the Montenegrin coastline was under the rule of the Republic of Venice – in its prime, the greatest seafaring and trading power in Europe. The Venetians knew the Bay of Kotor as the Bocca di Cattoro, and the towns of Herceg Novi, Kotor, Budva and Perast were called by them Castelnovo, Cattaro, Budua, and Perasto, as this 16th-century Venetian map shows.
This land was highly prized by Venice because it lay on the Republic’s crucial trade routes between East and West, while the Bay of Kotor was an ideal natural harbor for a seafaring power. Venice’s rule left many marks on modern-day Montenegro, architectural and cultural, that can still be explored today.
Perhaps the most poignant place to visit for a sense of this power once so proudly wielded is the small and sleepy fishing village of Perast. Today, it has the feel of somewhere passed over by modernity, slumbering quietly at the water’s edge. At its peak, however, in the 17th
centuries, it was a bustling hive of industry, the centre of Venice’s shipbuilding projects and wonderfully wealthy, with its loyal citizens granted trading privileges that saw them grow rich. With their gold, the local noble families built grand palazzos and erected elegant churches. Many of these survive today, albeit with laundry fluttering on their weathered balconies, and flowering plants climbing up around their balustrades. Over doorways that once lead to aristocratic homes, the Lion of St Mark still stands guard, features weathered and faded by time.
Their fierce loyalty saw the citizens of Perast granted the right to guard the Venetian standard. When Venice finally fell to Napoleon in 1797, they were the last people to surrender to the French and lower the Republic’s standard. According to the town’s records, the citizens wept as Count Giuseppe Viscovich, Captain of Perasto, pronounced a farewell in the Venetian language:
For three hundred and seventy seven years
our bodies, our blood
our lives have always been
for You, St. Mark; and most faithful
we have always thought ourselves,
You with us, we with You,
And always with You on the sea
we have been illustrious and virtuous.
No one has seen us with You flee,
No one has seen us with You defeated and fearful!
The precious flag was buried under the altar of the town’s main church, and paintings still preserved here. Wandering the streets of Herceg Novi and Kotor will also reveal many signs of Montenegro’s time under Venetian rule, tumbled together with architecture and styles from other periods in the country’s rich history. Far less busy than Venice itself, this part of the world offers an exceptional opportunity to discover Venetian history off the beaten track.
Montenegrins are proud of their heritage, but they are just as proud of their peaceful modern-day independence, and happily, the two now coexist.
Read more about the city of Kotor