A Pilgrimage Into the Unknown: Ostrog Monastery, Montenegro
I arrived in Belgrade in early summer to visit relatives, and was soon to take a trip down south, towards Montenegro. My cousin was determined to take me on a special journey of bonding and discovery, together with her two teenage daughters. It was to be an all-girl trip to Ostrog Monastery, one of the remotest monasteries in the world. It sounded exciting, but I was nervous. I did not have time to prepare my usual information pack: a good map, some latest tips for travel in the region, unusual and interesting stops en-route. Especially considering the remoteness of the areas passed and visited, it would have been good to know at least the final destination. I was unprepared and unaware. Still, I do love the element of surprise.
As we got closer to Montenegro, the countryside changed; it became rugged, wild, haunting. I was mesmerised, quickly adding the area to my travel to-do list. To reach Podgorica, the capital of tiny Montenegro, a drop of altitude brought us into a city nestled at the foot of small hills on the Zeta plain. It was a contrast to the otherwise mountainous country. But there was no time to discover the city.
With nowhere to buy a map, no one to ask, the lack of signage was frustrating, but with my cousin recalling the instructions she had been told, we finally were on the right road: travel in the direction of Niksic until the exit for Danilovgrad, where you cross the river Zeta to reach Gorica. From here, it is relatively straightforward. When you don’t feel like you are travelling backwards, that is, due to the incredible hairpin bends in the road.
Suddenly, there was a light in the distance. A light hanging on a cliff. Getting closer, we could see a building taking shape, majestically settled between the rocks. Nature and humans interacting together to offer a unique sight and place of worship.
The next part of the journey resembled scenes straight from a horror film: driving through intense darkness, with only lights from our car and a steep rock face up on one side, as well as a drop into the abyss on the other. The narrow stony path suitable for goats and donkeys doubling as a road provided for a hair raising experience. After the narrowness came the serpentine twists: the tightest I have ever seen! Suddenly, there was a light in the distance. A light hanging on a cliff. Getting closer, we could see a building taking shape, majestically settled between the rocks. Nature and humans interacting together to offer a unique sight and place of worship: Ostrog Monastery.
As we arrived so late, aside from enjoying the peace and each others’ company, it was time to get some sleep. As an all-girl party, we felt safe in the calm and quiet surroundings.
As the morning sun tickled my face through the swaying tree branches the next day, my eyes opened to the beauty of Ostrog Monastery, a Serbian Orthodox Church and pilgrimage sight carved out of rock on the rock face of Ostroska Greda. It is a true jewel in the crown of Montenegrin spirituality. It was founded in the 17th century by Vasilije (St Basil), the Metropolitan Bishop of Herzegovina, now enshrined in the cave church. The site is one of the most visited Christian destinations on the planet, and it is so popular because many believe prayer by the side of St Basil helps cure ailments, or at least, eases life’s difficulties.
Summer is a busy time at the Monastery, so the queue to enter the church had already formed along the steps leading to the entrance. Many visitors had come from the whole Balkan region, but many had also travelled even further. Young and old. Families. Couples and solo travellers. Worldly diversity in one place, yet no quarrel or impatience.
What surprised me most was that incredible sense of calm and emotion that overwhelmed me, as well as my cousin and my two nieces. I cried tears of unknown joy, my eyes taking in the mountains from the Monastery balcony. We left uplifted and quietly happy.
Top image: Vladimir Varfolomeev (Creative Commons/Flickr)