Serbia is a land of tensions, conflicts, contradictions. One commentary characterized it as a place where those factors are centuries old but are never truly forgotten and forgiven. Certainly the country’s history over the twentieth century has made it “The Bad Boy of the Balkans,” for it was a Serb nationalist in Bosnia who shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife and in effect precipitated the First World War. It was the army of the Republic of Serbia that brutally besieged Sarajevo for almost four years. And it was a Serb-led army that committed the worst atrocity of the Yugoslav Wars at Srebrenica, where 8000 Bosnian men and boys were executed in a matter of days.
The entirety of the Yugoslav War in the 1990’s is a confused web of factions from Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia–even Albania–all fighting one another, trading sides, and all are guilty of brutal acts of barbarism. Certainly it was worse in Serbia, where Slobodan Milosevic continued conflict with the Albanians of Kosovo until mid 1999, and was later sent to The Hague as a war criminal. To place the blame on Serbia alone is a falsehood; yet if any country has come from this conflict as a pariah nation, it is Serbia.
Serbia today is, like Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia, a nation trying to move beyond the memories of those bloody years and look to the future. It’s capital, Belgrade, is one of the biggest partying cities in Europe, famous for its all night clubs on barges on the Danube, its bars and restaurants, its parks and historical monuments. And there is an irony to it all. There is no denying the past, though the average Serb blames “bad leaders and leadership.” But it is best to try to forget, to put a funny face on all the ethnic, religious and nationalistic conflict of the past, to try to smile and get on with life as joyfully as is possible.
Having come directly from Sarajevo to Belgrade, we were particularly attuned to all of these contradictions, and tried to find those aspects of Serbian life that seemed more forward looking and characteristic of the country today, almost twenty years after the conflict. Belgrade is not a beautiful city, and its history is the best way to explain it. The city lies on the convergence of the Sava and the Danube Rivers, and they were the boundary point between the Habsburg Empire to the north and the Ottoman Empire to the south for almost endless centuries. As a consequence, it has been destroyed and rebuilt somewhere between thirty and forty times.
The most central point in Belgrade is the Republic Square, where Prince Mihailo III sits astride his horse in front of the National Museum. That horse is the central meeting place for everyone in the city.
Focal point of all of this conflict has always been the Kalemgedan Citadel, an enormous fortification at the point where the Sava River joins the Danube. Now set in a beautiful park
It has a long history dating from Celtic and then Roman times, and has itself been destroyed more than forty times. Its gates are impressive
and the views from the bluff above the Danube are spectacular.
Note as well the barges tied to shore that, after dark, explode with music and dance and partying youth through the entire night.
Our favorite area of the city was the Skadarska neighborhood, often called Belgrade’s Montmartre, that was the haunt of artists and writers in the early twentieth century and still has something of the same flavor today with cobblestoned streets, restaurants and music,
and the Romas, or Gypsies, close by.
More central is the Stari Grad or Old City, full of elegant shops, and Knez Mihailova, a broad pedestrian street lined with classical Habsburg buildings,
sidewalk restaurants spilling out onto the pavement,
and old buildings with interesting interior courtyards.
Beyond Belgrade, we were drawn to the monasteries that dot the countryside and were the strongholds of Serbian Orthodoxy in the face of Ottoman and Islamic rule. The Ottomans controlled Serbia for over five hundred years, so Islam was the official religion and Orthodox Christianity had to survive principally in the shadows. Yet over the centuries, the Ottomans’ attitude toward Christian citizens was subject to a good deal of change. At times Christians were allowed to practice their religion openly but perhaps pay significantly higher taxes. At other times Christianity was outlawed and oppressed, and the religion was kept alive only in these monasteries. Quiet places of meditation, usually in deep valleys, always surrounded by strong walls, they are often beautiful structures and still utilized today by monks.
We first went to visit the Krusedol Monastery in northern Serbia in the midst of the Fruska Gora National Forest. It was built between 1509 and 1514 and contains the remains of two Patriarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church. With no prior knowledge, we stumbled on a baptism taking place in the chapel of the monastery. The priest was baptizing three people: A young girl of perhaps eight years old, a teenaged boy, and a man perhaps in his mid twenties. A parent stood behind each with a right hand on the right shoulder of the baptized and a candle in their left hands.
Beyond the baptism was the main sanctuary of the chapel with icons framed in gold and frescoes covering its walls
and stretching all the way to the domes overhead.
In total there are sixteen monasteries in the Fruska Gora National Forest, though originally in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there were thirty-five. Set far in the north of Serbia and distanced from strong Ottoman rule to the south, the area was a stronghold of Serbian Orthodoxy in that period.
In the same area we also visited the monastery at Novo Hopovo, built in the early sixteenth century and one of the largest monasteries in Serbia. Its residence building, housing the monks, is particularly impressive and clearly in the Habsburg style.
But it is most famous for its frescoes, judged to be some of the finest in the entire Orthodox world.
In the coffin visible in front of the alter pictured above, are the relics (one assumes the bones) of Saint Warrior Theodore Tyron, martyred in 306 and long one of the earliest and most important saints of the Orthodox Church. There are a number of different accounts of his martyrdom and none is accepted as the authentic one, but his relics have long been a pilgrimage site here at Novo Hopovo.
Serbia is also famous for Rakija, an extremely strong brandy distilled by nearly everyone’s grandfather, but most notoriously by the monks. It is most commonly made from plums, but can also be made from raspberries, cherries and even honey. Here is the selection available for sale at the Novo Hopovo Monastery. We picked the plum and are able to certify its potency. It could serve as rocket fuel!
We spent the night in the forest at a primitive campsite provided by the park service, but there had been an exceptional amount of rain over the past weeks. Now Romy has front wheel drive and all of his weight is in the rear, so he just doesn’t do well on soggy ground. And when we tried to drive out, Romy was soon mired in mud, with his front wheels spinning. It took Bonnie, the local Park Ranger, his wife, and a couple of ecologists from a university in Vienna camping with us to push him onto solid ground.
We next headed about eighty-five kilometers south of Belgrade to a town called Topola. This is where a Serbian leader and king Karadorde plotted the Serbian uprising against the Ottomans in 1804. While it was unsuccessful, it did lead to a series of insurrections that in 1815 created de facto independence. What we found was the beautiful Church of St. George, of white marble and crowned with five domes.
Built in the early twentieth century, it is famous for its interior mosaics, which include over 40 million pieces of colored glass and are simply spectacular, rising as they do from the intricate marble floor
and reaching to the domes above.
The chandelier hanging in the center of the church is made of swords from World War One and is in the shape of the Serbian crown, but hung upside down in commemoration of all those who died in that horrible conflict.
When you approach the mosaics up close that you begin to understand the amazingly meticulous work that went into their creation.
Here is a close-up of the Madonna’s hand holding the baby Jesus, his feet visible as well.
The detail—the shading under the cuff of her gown, her fingernails and the toenails of Jesus, all of colored glass—is simply spectacular and the work of true artisans. We were absolutely in awe of what we saw here.
Our final stop before heading for the Bulgarian border was at the Studenica Monastery, founded in the twelfth century and fascinating for what it became over the centuries. Built in what was part of King Stefan’s royal hunting ground, it is set in a beautiful valley, its outer walls still showing the ruins of what were the cells of hundreds of monks living there in the past.
During its long history it contained numerous churches and chapels, most of which, like the monastic cells lining the outer wall, are now just foundation stones in the grass. But still central and powerful in its architectural grandeur and scale is the Church of the Mother of God, built of marble with each stone fitted with exactitude to those surrounding it.
The interior of the church is covered with twelfth century frescoes, some of which were damaged in a nineteenth century attempt at restoration.
It also contains many important icons from its long history, most stored in the Treasury, an impressive building still standing though not available to visitors. The original Refractory, or dining hall, is also there and while not open, a look through the windows shows its original marble tables and benches. Studenica remains an important pilgrimage site, and has seven monks and three novices living in attendance.
We spent the night in the monastery’s parking lot with a beautiful view out across the length of the valley. It was sublime with the sound of a stream through the night and church bells in the early morning.