In the mountains high above Montenegro's Bay of Kotor, I arrived at Cetinje, which the road sign proclaimed as the “Old Royal Capital.” I'm nostalgic about this town, a classic mountain kingdom established as the capital in the 15th century. Cetinje was taken by the Ottomans several times. The rampaging Ottomans would generally move in and enjoy a little raping, pillaging, and plundering. But, quickly realizing there was little hedonism to enjoy in Cetinje, they basically just destroyed the place and moved out. With the way clear, the rugged and proud residents filtered back into the ruins of their town and rebuilt.
Today Cetinje is a workaday, two-story town with barely a hint of its old royal status. The museums are generally closed. The economy is flat. A shoe factory and a refrigerator factory were abandoned with Yugoslavia's break-up. (They were part of Tito's economic vision for Yugoslavia — where, in the name of efficiency, individual products were made in one place in huge quantities to supply the entire country.) Kids on bikes rolled like tumbleweeds down the main street past old-timers with hard memories.
At the edge of town is the St. Peter of Cetinje Orthodox monastery — the still-beating spiritual heart of the country. I stepped in. An Orthodox monk — black robe and beard halfway to his waist — nodded a welcome. A service was in progress. Flames flickered on gilded icons, incense created an otherworldly ambience, and the chanting was almost hypnotic.
I stood (as everyone does in Orthodox worship) in the back. People — mostly teenagers in sporty track suits — were trickling in...kissing everything in sight. Seeing these rough and casual teens bending respectfully at the waist as they kissed icons, bibles, and the hands of monks was mesmerizing. If you saw them on the streets, you'd never dream that they'd be here standing through a long Orthodox service.
For the first time I understood what the iconostasis (called a "rood screen" in Western Europe) is all about. Used long ago in Catholic churches, and still today in Orthodox churches, the screen separates the common worshippers from the zone where the priests do all the religious "heavy lifting." Behind the screen — which, like a holy lattice, provides privacy but still lets you peek through — I could see busy priests in fancy robes, and above it all the outstretched arms of Jesus. I knew he was on the cross, but I only saw his arms. As the candlelight flickered, I felt they were happy arms...wanting and eager to give everyone present a big, Slavic bear hug.
Standing through an Eastern Orthodox service there, in a humble church in the forgotten historic capital of a mountain kingdom, I was thankful I had zigzagged to that remote corner of Europe. All those switchbacks on the road up from the coast had earned me the chance to witness a vibrant and time-honored tradition surviving the storms of globalization and modernization.
About This Entry
You are reading "Cetinje: Monks and Track Suits", an entry posted on 15 July 2009 by Rick Steves.