One cannot miss the Orthodox church of Saint Spiridon in centre of Peroj. It’s church tower rises high above the village and is seen from afar. It is here that we met Mr Nikola Škoko, secretary of the Peroj 1657 association. His knowledge about the place and history of his Montenegrin heritage is unavoidable in understanding this small enclave of Montenegrin people, far north from the homeland.
After the plague in 1561 completely destroyed the previous small settlement, the Venice authorities have been trying to revive it by the resuscitation of several families from Bologna and then by Greek families. In the third attempt, in 1657, several Montenegrin families settled from Crmnica, so this year is chosen for the foundation of today's Peroj. New immigrants were allowed to confess the Orthodox faith, so their ethnic identity has been largely maintained to date. Orthodox Parish Church of St. Spiridon, with the cemetery, was built on the site of the destroyed Catholic cloister of St. Jerolim, bought by Peroj people in 1788 and restored it for their religious needs.
We enter the church while talking – even singing a bit some Orthodox songs together with Mr Nikola who is leading singer in the church choir – and admiring the valuable inventory of the church, that includes iconostasis, ecclesiastical dress, ritual linen, liturgical pottery and books and icons from the XIV and XV centuries. The Montenegrin came to Istria led by priest Mihajlo Ljubotina, a native of Ljubotina in Crmnicka nahija. Historical sources mention first five Montenegrin families in Peroj: Brčela, Draković, Brajić, Vučeta and Ljubotina. They were after they joined by additional Montenegrin families between 1645-69. After 1677 there were altogether 25 Montenegrin families in Peroj and Nikola shows us all of them, including their own family, on the cemetery surrounding the church.
At the time of their resettlement in Istria, Montengrins, as members of the Greek eastern ritual, were formally under the jurisdiction of the Cetinje bishop, but at the end of the 18th century, due to the rule of the territorial church, arrangements and distances from the homeland were the first part of Šibenik, and then the Zadar Serbian Orthodox eparchy. Until then the Serbian Orthodox Church did not officially operate in Istria, although Peroj people maintained close ties with the faith centres in Plaški and Gomirje. The foundation of independent parochial community was approved probably at the end of the 18th century, since 1784 the parish records have been kept in order. The liturgy began probably in the church of St. Jerome, built in the 16th century, just at the time when Peroj was in a demographic crisis. This church was restored from about 1788, and finally it was reconstructed in 1834, and dedicated to St. Spiridon.
Nikola took us through the narrow streets of Peroj, showing us the old stone houses of the Montenegrin families and priests. While we walk around, we wonder if they preserved any of the old Montenegrin meals. Nikola laughs and says that most food they brought from Montenegro had been eaten within weeks upon arrival to Peroj. Sadly for our curiosity, Peroj’s cuisine is same to Vodnjan’s region and generally Istrian culinary heritage. The narrow alleys bring us to a small square with a Montenegrin library and ethnographic museum. It is in fact a collection of memories separated by main Montenegrin families. We saw items for everyday use, with lots of old pictures and memorabilia collected by Škoko’s own family and others in Peroj. It is a very nice place to visit as it gives back a sense of life in this small place.
The cultural life of Montenegrins, however, evolves around their culture home. Entering it is like entering a Njegoš universe, as every bit of space is dedicated to this greatest hero of Montenegrin politics, society and culture. Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, commonly referred to simply as Njegoš, was a Prince-Bishop (vladika) of Montenegro, poet and philosopher whose works are widely considered some of the most important in Montenegrin literature. Njegoš was born in the village of Njeguši, near Montenegro's then-capital Cetinje. He was educated at several Montenegrin monasteries, and became the country's spiritual and political leader following the death of his uncle Petar I. Njegoš also introduced modern political concepts to Montenegro. Venerated as a poet and philosopher, Njegoš is well known for his epic poem Gorski vijenac (The Mountain Wreath), which is considered a masterpiece of Serb and South Slavic literature, and the national epic of Montenegro, Serbia, and Yugoslavia. Njegoš saw himself as an exclusively Serbian writer, and has remained influential in Montenegro and Serbia, as well in neighbouring countries, and his works have influenced a number of disparate groups, including Serbian, Montenegrin and South Slav nationalists, as well as monarchists and communists. Nikola shows us some hundred issues of The Mountain Wreath in various languages which the Montenegrin community collected during the years.
Last, but not least, Nikola takes us to see possibly the oldest standing building in Peroj – the medieval pre-Romanesque church of St. Stephen. After decades of decay, in 1945 this church was transformed in a stable. It wasn’t the official doing of Yugoslav communist government, but usual habit like in many other places in the Mediterranean. As an abandoned church, it wasn’t a holy place in people’s minds, but a simple building which can be used for building material, a stable or a warehouse. However, on the walls of the building many antique, early Christian and pre-Romanesque pieces of art were found, including the pictures of saints which are barely recognisable. The place still carries an aura of holiness and old times, and it is very worth a visit.
Every summer, Montenegrins from Croatia and Montenegro gather together in Peroj and celebrate their culture in the Peroj festival (Perojska fešta). Whole place, the church and the beautiful seaside turn red and black, the traditional Montenegrin colours. The priest leads a liturgy in the church and folk dances and songs from homeland and Peroj are shown in its best to the guests and locals alike. Indeed a very special place in Istria!
Gallery - The Church of Saint Spiridon
Gallery - Ethnographic Museum Peroj
Gallery - Montenegrin house
Galley - Church of St. Stephen