About six miles (11 kilometers) northwest of Vlorë is a small peninsula that grants access to Zvërnec Islands. The road cuts through a charming pine forest that is also home to several hiking trails and a couple of bunkers. Pass the tiny village of Zvërnec, the road comes to an end, and this is where the wooden bridge that goes to the island is located.
Maps refer to the place as Zvërnec Islands, as there are indeed two islands in the Narta Lagoon. The wooden bridge leads to the bigger island, which is also the place of a medieval Byzantine monastery. This island measures 1,400 feet by less than 1,000 feet and reaches a humble elevation of 100 feet. Apart from the clearing with the monastery, the island is covered with pine trees. The smaller of the Zvërnec Islands only has pine trees on it and can only be reached by boat.
The monastery is usually referred to as St. Mary’s Monastery (in Albanian, Manastiri i Shën Mërisë), but its full name is Monastery of Dormition of Theotokos Mary. This appellation refers to the last night of St. Mary on earth before being summoned to heaven—the term “theotokos” is a title that can be translated as “mother of god” or “bearer of god.”
Constructed during the 13th century, the church of the monastery is one of 200 religious buildings that Albania has recognized as a “culture monument.” The architecture of the building is quintessentially Byzantine, including the cross-shaped plan of the church, which, in this case, has a sarcophagus at its very center. One of the most prized items in the monastery is an icon of St. Mary that was created by Tërpo Zografi, a famous Albanian artist of the 18th century.
In addition to the church, the compound includes a smaller chapel, the monks’ dormitories, a workshop, a stable, a warehouse, a football pitch, and a tiny cemetery. Marigo Posio is buried in the cemetery. She was the woman who embroidered the first Albanian flag, which was raised on November 28, 1912.