Situated 900 m above the Zeta Valley is the most sacred Orthodox site in Montenegro and among the most significant in the Serbian Orthodox world. Ostrog Monastery houses the remains of a 17th-century saint named Basil, who locals claim still performs miracles for visitors to this day. Hiking to Ostrog Monastery in the manner of the ancient pilgrims remains a popular way to get there – but that’s also largely due to practical reasons.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: No public transport goes directly to Ostrog Monastery. For those without their own car or who aren’t part of a tour, taking a train and then hiking to Ostrog Monastery is the only option.
Taking the train timetables as well as the crowds into consideration, however, you may not end up having enough time to step inside the main church. So is visiting Ostrog Monastery this way even worth it? Learn more at the end of the article.
A Stop in Podgorica
Those interested in hiking to Ostrog Monastery will first need to get to Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital and largest city – but hardly among its most popular.
Intending to catch the 12:55 PM bus to Ostrog (the only earlier train leaves as 8:00), I arrived a few hours in advance to get a taste of what Montenegro’s capital was like.
While not terribly ugly (nor pretty), Podgorica feels strikingly lifeless, especially for a capital city. With a couple of hours to kill, I headed over to the historical district, about 15 minutes on foot from the bus and railway stations.
Around the area, you can find an Ottoman-era Clock Tower along with the Osmanagic Mosque. But aside from a few old landmarks scattered here and there, Podgorica Old Town is largely comprised of modern residential buildings.
I’ve seen numerous travel writers rank Podgorica and Pristina, Kosovo as among the most boring capitals in the Balkans – if not all of Europe. But the comparison isn’t fair. While Pristina may not have much to offer tourists, it’s a vibrant and soulful city, while Podgorica is simply depressing.
Feeling I’d seen enough, I made my way back to the train station, picking up some snacks for the hike at a supermarket along the way.
Hiking to Ostrog Monastery
Arriving at the small, unstaffed train station, you’ll want to make a left and walk along the tracks for a few minutes. Eventually, you should see the start of the hiking trail on the opposite side.
As we’ll cover shortly, taking the afternoon train and then hiking to Ostrog Monastery roundtrip won’t leave you with enough time to actually enter the monastery given the long lines.
Therefore, you might want to consider taking a taxi if you find one. During my visit, however, there was only a single car parked outside the station and it seemed to be vacant.
The hike to the Upper Monastery could take up to 90 minutes, depending on your speed and how long you spend at the Lower Monastery.
All in all, it’s a pretty easy hike of a few kilometers. And even on a hot summer day, the trail is largely shaded and cool.
Near the trail entrance, look for the yellow sign pointing to Ostrog in Cyrillic. Despite how few people hike to the monastery from the train station, the trails are fairly well-signed.
But it would also be wise to check the Maps.me app, which has the full trail clearly marked and also works offline.
Even with Maps.me, however, I encountered a few tricky parts. A couple of times, the trail would split into two, and it wasn’t always clear which one I was supposed to take. I wasted a bit of time at one point by hiking up the wrong trail, eventually arriving at a local farmer’s shack.
But all in all, you’re unlikely to get too lost. Eventually, you should arrive at a large grassy meadow from which you can finally see the Upper Monastery far off in the distance. And another sign around here confirms the correct direction.
Yet, until you reach the Lower Monastery, you’re likely to have the entire trail to yourself. That’s because a large majority of visitors come by vehicle and then hike the last portion up.
After about 50 minutes or so of walking, you’ll find yourself on a paved road. And from here it’s an easy walk to the Lower Monastery.
The Lower Monastery
The Lower Monastery is comprised of two main churches. And those hiking to Ostrog Monastery will first encounter the Holy Trinity Church, constructed in 1824. It was built during the reign of Petar I Petrović-Njegoš, the prince-bishop who ruled Montenegro from nearby Cetinje.
As we’ll cover shortly, the Upper Monastery was built so as to remain hidden from invading Ottoman armies. But by the 19th century, with the Turks’ influence in the region waning, religious authorities felt confident enough to construct a new church right out in the open.
Be that is it may, conflicts with the Ottomans were still ongoing, and the church was even burnt down in 1877. It was restored a few decades later with support from Nikola I, the King of Montenegro.
Leaving the Holy Trinity Church, be sure to fill up your water bottle at the public tap on the way out. Walking further up the road, you’ll arrive at a second church: the Church of St. Stanko the Martyr, built as recently as 2004.
While the church itself isn’t anything out of the ordinary, the platform right next to it offers the very best view of Ostrog’s Upper Monastery. It’s a much clearer picture that you’ll be able to get from the Upper Monastery itself!
Just next to the Church of St. Stanko the Martyr, meanwhile, is a large and hectic car park. It’s here that many of the tour buses or shuttle buses park, leaving visitors to make the rest of the journey on foot. As such, you’re bound to encounter plenty of other hikers from this point onward.
Don’t be surprised to see many making the journey barefoot, in homage to the ancient pilgrims who traversed these paths during the Middle Ages.
It’s a tranquil, forested path, but is constantly interrupted by the modern road. Every several minutes you’ll have to exit the forest and reenter again, minding traffic from either direction.
The Upper Monastery
Overlooking the Zeta Valley, Ostrog Monastery was built in 1665 in a crag in the rock, with a natural cave making up its interior. Built far away from any residential areas or even roads, its secluded location helped it remain hidden from a potential Ottoman attack.
There were also ongoing conflicts between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy at the time. With Catholic missionaries trying to spread their influence throughout the region, Ostrog Monastery’s isolation guaranteed it as a safe haven for Orthodoxy.
And ever since the 17th century, Ostrog Monastery has been closely associated with St. Basil, a prominent bishop who served here for decades.
Who Was St. Basil?
Born in 1610 near Trebinje, Herzegovina, St. Basil became a monk at Tvrdoš Monastery at the age of 15. Throughout his life, he was highly respected and known for his kindness and generosity.
Later in his career, he served as bishop at Ostrog Monastery, which was still small and relatively unknown at the time. Over the years, he gradually remodeled and expanded it.
Though beloved in his time, he mostly achieved notoriety as a miracle worker after his death.
Seven years after his passing, he’s said to have appeared in the dream of a local monk, prompting residents to open his tomb. Not only had his corpse not decayed, but it even smelled like basil!
(As famously discussed in the famous novel Brothers Karamazov, in Orthodox Christianity, a person’s undecayed corpse is a telltale sign of their saintliness.)
From then on, people traveled from all over to pray before St. Basil’s remains. And many miracles attributed to him are similar to those of Jesus himself. For example, he’s said to have cured the blind and helped disabled people walk.
More recently, there are numerous local tales of babies and children falling from the Upper Monastery, surviving without a scratch.
Other legends, on the contrary, detail the sudden deaths of those arriving at here with intentions to desecrate St. Basil’s remains.
Even arriving here with an understanding of the faith which locals place in St. Basil’s miracles, the sheer size of the crowd can be shocking. And if you’re visiting in summer, you’ll see dozens of thin mattresses laid out outside, with many people sitting and sleeping on them.
Supposedly, this so the faithful can spend a longer time at this holy place. And seeing the huge queues, it’s probably for practical reasons, too.
I did not come to Ostrog with any miracle I wanted performed or wish I wanted granted. I simply enjoy visiting historical monasteries to admire the architecture and soak up the atmosphere – ideally away from the crowds.
But what I encountered at Ostrog was not what I’d bargained for. Not only was the place chaotic and commercialized, but there’s simply no way I could’ve waited in line to enter the monastery without missing the return train to Podgorica.
And so, after a little under an hour or so spent walking around, checking out the gift shop and peeking in an additional cave shrine nearby, I had no choice but to begin my descent.
After all the effort required to get there, it was a rather disappointing outing, to be honest. (See below to see how one could do things differently.)
Returning to the station, the 17:17 train arrived about 20 minutes late, and I hopped on to find only several people with me in the carriage. In contrast to the chaos of the monastery, it was a peaceful ride back to Montenegro’s sleepy capital.
You can find the latest train timetables here. Below is the latest timetable at the time of writing.
Podgorica – Ostrog
Departure: 8:00 AM, Arrival: 8:46 AM
Departure: 12:55 PM, Arrival: 1:41 PM
Departure: 3:35 PM, Arriva:l 4:21 PM
Departure 6:30 PM, Arrival: 7:16 PM
Departure: 9:45 PM, Arrival: 10:31 PM
Ostrog – Podgorica
Departure: 06:37, Arrival: 07:23
Departure: 11:18, Arrival: 12:03
Departure: 14:27, Arrival: 15:12
Departure: 17:17, Arrival: 18:03
Departure: 20:17, Arrival: 21:03
This is a tough one to answer, as a major factor is your level of faith in the miracles of St. Basil. But let’s say you’re someone like me, who enjoys traveling to ancient and sacred places but without any particular religious goals in mind.
If that’s the case, then I would only recommend hiking to Ostrog Monastery if you’re able to take the earliest train at 8:00. This isn’t too bad if you’re basing yourself in Podgorica.
As I was staying in Cetinje, I would’ve had to take the 6:30 bus to get to Podgorica first. But I also never anticipated the crowds I encountered at the top, and wrongly assumed that an hour or so at the monastery would be plenty.
I suppose I could’ve taken the last 20:17 train back to Podgorica, but that would’ve entailed waiting around at the abandoned station for a while in the dark, plus possibly missing the last return bus.
There are plenty of group tours to Ostrog Monastery, which would probably be a better option overall. But as some of them also include numerous other destinations in Montenegro, I can’t imagine there being enough time to make it inside the monastery. Therefore, it would be wise to choose something that solely focuses on Ostrog, such as this tour.
For those interested in cave churches and who will be doing further travels throughout the Balkans, be sure to visit Crna Reka Monastery outside of Novi Pazar, Serbia. Not only are both the setting and the church stunning, but I happened to be the only guest there at the time of my visit.
Montenegro in summer can get expensive. Especially by Balkan standards. But even during the peak tourism season, you can still find a private room in Cetinje for as little as €10.
The major downside, of course, is that you won’t be by the beach. But from Cetinje, one can easily make day trips to places like Budva and other landmarks like Ostrog Monastery.
I found that staying for several nights in Cetinje and several more in Kotor was a great way to explore the country.
I stayed at Hostel Holiday Cetinje, where I paid €10 for a private room with a shared bathroom. While not right in the center, the town is small enough that the main landmarks are walkable. Overall, I had a good stay.
Even for such a small city, those on a larger budget will have plenty of good options to choose from.