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[teacherartexchange] Melissa's spring trip to Western Serbia


From: Melissa Enderle (melissa_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Fri Apr 28 2006 - 12:19:10 PDT

Dear all,

Below is the text version of my spring trip to Western Serbia. There, I
visited Sirogojno, rode on the Sargan 8 historical train, did a bit of
hiking in the Tara National Park (in between the rain), and visited several
important Orthodox monasteries including Mileseva, Studenica, and Zica.

You can find the travelblogs and some photos at:


Western Serbia
Spring 2006
Sunday, April 16 - Sirogojno
Although I now have visited several places in Serbia, the western section
near Sirogojno and Zlatibor hold a special place in my heart. Its
countryside is beautiful - the sloped wooden farm buildings and sheep
dotting the steep green hills, meandering creeks and rivers, spring
wildflowers providing an accented color, and of course the rural people.
Catching one of the earlier busses in the morning, I arrived in Zlatibor a
bit after noon. Along the way, I could see people fishing in the swollen
rivers. The rain and drizzle didn't seem to bother them. What looked like
algae actually turned out to be grass sticking out in flooded areas. The
forested hills around the region were still quite brown, with the occasional
white puff of blossoming trees dotting the scene. White smoke still
meandered out of chimneys, utilizing the plentiful wood heating source of
the region. A young man walked his horned cow down a narrow driveway. In the
villages, one could see people carrying olive branches. Following the Julian
calendar, Palm Sunday took place one week later than their western
Mikica, a friendly taxi driver I had met last year, took me to a restaurant
in Zlatibor that was tastefully decorated with Serbian handicrafts and
antiques. The restaurant owner was a refugee from Bosnia and was working
hard to make a new life for himself. I was served a large piece of round
fresh flat bread layered with kajmak (sweet cream spread) and prosciutto
(smoked meat). With a full stomach, we headed towards the Ethnographic
Village in Sirogojno. The friendly staff at the village was awaiting my
arrival and promptly escorted me to the converted traditional home that was
my apartment. Space heaters on the main floor and upstairs sleeping area
were already turned on, providing warmth against the damp drizzly weather.
The apartment even had a fireplace in its tiny living room. Outside, the
structure looked like the other small traditional Western-Serbia homes
preserved in the ethno village.
With camera in hand, I toured the homes and farm buildings that comprised
the open-air ethno village. Although nothing had really changed since last
year, it was just as enjoyable a second time around, admiring the unique
architectural details and interior artifacts that provided a glimpse into
everyday living. The rooms were lit by an open door and perhaps one or two
small windows. To avoid camera shake, I put my camera on a higher ISO and
used my remote shutter release - flash would have destroyed the peaceful
Now that the rain had let up, I decided to go for a walk. I passed through
the tiny village of modern Sirogojno and followed the curved narrow road up
the hill; to where it went, I wasn't sure. An occasional house or farm
building dotted the landscape. Open fields contained the typical conical
haystacks. Fruit trees (for making brandy) were still bare. I also saw a few
vineyards. In the wooded areas, small white wildflowers peeked up from the
brown leaf-covered forest floor. Plastic litter provided additional (but
unwelcomed) splashes of color. Birds happily chirped away, singing their
spring mating calls. It was very peaceful here.
Monday, April 17 - Sirogojno and Surrounding Villages
I woke up early and decided to take a short walk around the ethno village.
At a nearby farm, the roosters crowed and calves bellowed for milk. Birds
also announced the start of the day. Peeking between the clouds I could see
some blue patches of sky - a welcome start to the day. A woman from the
ethno village restaurant brought me my breakfast - corn grits, local cheese,
kajmak, and more prosciutto. It was much more than I could eat.
That morning we would take a drive through some of the local villages. Along
the way we saw an older man carrying a traditional hoe. Like many older men
of the region, he wore the v-shaped shajkača cap. The photo I took of him
revealed his heavily-wrinkled face. I later learned that this man was an
important builder of the region. I took photos of a few other people as
well, including a young man hauling a pile of twigs on a horse-pulled cart.
Near the village of Gostilje, we stopped by the local waterfall. It was
stronger and larger than last year. We looked at the small water mill, used
in the past for grinding corn. We passed by several trout farms and stopped
at one. The owner greeted us and allowed us to take a look at his operation.
One could see the spotted fish at various stages and sizes, swarming in the
cold water. These fish were a good source of income, purchased for
consumption in Serbia and several neighboring Balkan countries. The owner's
large hands reminded me of my grandfather's, widened by years of hard manual
Along the narrow winding mountain roads one could see signs of life. Men
were busy making wood, taking advantage of the good (for a change) weather.
Another man shoveled manure onto the cart pulled by two cows. Others
puttered along in their small tractors. Dogs lazily slept in the middle of
the road, absorbing the warm sunshine. We weren't able to progress all the
way to Dobroselica, due to the impassibility of the road caused by winter. I
would have to find the man whom I had drawn and give him the print another
Upon returning to the Sirogojno ethno village, I met a retired Serbian
architect and his wife. They stayed here every fall and spring for a few
weeks, enjoying the solitude and atmosphere for the last 10 years. Hearing
that he was an architect, I asked him about a unique feature I had seen on
the local buildings. He explained that the overhanging part of the roof peak
had a more superstitious than purposeful function. The zigzag edge looked
like teeth and was supposed to scare away evil spirits. The retired
architect also explained that the carved antennae-like pole on top of the
kapic vent (sort of like a chimney) visually indicated that the household
would provide shelter to people while traveling or from against the Turks.
The elderly man who looked a lot like Abraham Lincoln then showed me one of
his experiments. Just yesterday he had placed some plastic water bottles on
the ends of branches of a birch tree. Now they were between a 1/3 and half
full of clear water-like liquid. I told him about the tapping of maple trees
in Wisconsin to get maple syrup.
Now joined by his wife (a retired German teacher), the couple asked if I
would join them to go into town and eat a late lunch at their favorite
restaurant (actually it's probably the only one in town). While walking
there, I met a family from my school in Belgrade - they too were vacationing
in Sirogojno. I told the family I was glad to see them experiencing a bit of
their host country instead of racing off to other destinations for
vacations. For dinner we had pear brandy, tender veal, mashed potatoes and
gravy, and carrots cooked with lots of garlic. It was a satisfying, hearty
meal. We then made our way back to the ethno village grounds, stopping for a
moment at the St. Peter & Paul church. A funeral was being conducted in the
tiny cemetery. A woman busily worked at piling up loaves of bread, food, and
drinks - enough food for more than twice the number in attendance. Even if
the family didn't have much money, one would always make sure that guests
were well-fed. The retired architect pointed out the small building next to
the church. It was once used by priests who stayed there overnight before
traveling onward to another one of their remote village churches. He also
explained that the limestone marker I had photographed was actually a
krajputaš, a monument typically placed near roads commemorating soldiers who
had died. This area has seen a lot of suffering from wars, including both
World Wars, the Balkan wars, the breakup of Yugoslavia, Turkish invasion,
Back again at the ethno village, I finally caught up with Zoriča, the
founder of the museum. I shared with her some prints of the paintings I had
created while living overseas, including a few of the ethno village. She
then proposed that I have an exhibition next year at the museum. Perhaps I
will be able to coordinate the opening with the time my parents intend to
come next April. Zoriča then gave me a copy of her new book, a detailed
research about the history and art of the St. Peter & Paul church right next
to the ethno village.
A short while later, Zoriča's husband arrived. We walked over to the home of
an elderly couple I had visited last year. When I presented the print of an
oil pastel painting I had done of the wife, they were both tickled and
honored. It immediately was placed on the fireplace mantle to be admired and
for all to see. Hanging on the wall were framed embroidery pieces that the
woman had done of famous artworks such as those by Renoir. Typical of
Serbian hospitality, we were invited to stay and have something to drink.
While the Turkish coffee was being prepared, the woman brought out a large
container of honey and scooped some into a glass bowl. She brought out the
honey, spoons, and water glasses on a silver tray. Each person took a
heaping spoonful of honey, drank some of the water, and then placed the
spoon in the glass. The husband then eagerly offered us some of his rakija.
Just like last year, the home-brewed brandy was very strong - part of a
glass was enough for me! After finishing the strong Turkish coffee, we
thanked them for their hospitality and departed.
Tuesday, April 18 - Šargan Train and Tara National Park
Šargan Eight Train
When I woke up, it still was raining. I packed up my belongings, ate
breakfast, and thanked Zoriča and her museum crew for their hospitality. Our
first destination was the Šargan 8 train. This year I had the departure
times of the train and was eager to this newly popular tourist attraction of
the historic train route through the mountains. In fact, I heard that there
are plans to extend the route into neighboring countries. At the ticket
booth, I was told that I might have to stand, as there were so many people
wanting to ride. Indeed, there were lots of children (young and teenagers)
eager to board the train. I agreed and ended up in the front car. In this
car (built in 1903) were a few families traveling together - some from
Serbia, and others from Switzerland and the UK. After an initial pause, the
train began making its way along the figure 8 loop. The horizontal distance
between the train stations Mokra Gora and Šargan-Vitasi is only 3.5 km, but
the height difference is over 300 meters. We stopped at the Šargan and
Jatare stations (reconstructed exactly as they had been in 1925 when the
line was initially opened) for about 15 minutes each. At the top station,
the engine was moved to the opposite end, so now our car was at the back of
the train. The train moved along at a slow, but regular pace. In between the
22 tunnels (some longer and others quite brief), one could see beautiful
views (although today it was rather hazy) of the countryside, steep cliffs,
small waterfalls, and the film-set village constructed on a hill above Mokra
Gora. It was rather strange to emerge from a tunnel and find the village on
the opposite side, bearing witness to the turns made even in the tunnels! I
wished the Serbian/Swiss families an enjoyable journey and joked that we
might see each other again. (They also were going to visit some of the
monasteries I had planned on visiting.) Within minutes of arriving back at
the Mokra Gora train station, it began raining once again.
Tara National Park
Despite the rain, I proceeded towards the Tara National Park. Located in the
panhandle of Serbia surrounded by Bosnia on two sides (with the Drina river
on the border), the park covers an area of about 22,000 hectares ad a height
of up to 1,500 m above sea level. I was looking forward to hiking through
its lush forests and enjoying the spectacular views of the deep gorges -
including photographing the rare endemic tree species known as the Pančić
spruce. Perhaps I would even see some of the rare birds such as the golden
eagle or a bear - at a distance. I unpacked my things in my room at the
Hotel Omorika and went into the large dining room to eat, hoping that the
rain would let up a bit after I had eaten. Unfortunately, it continued to
rain. I headed back to my room, holed up in a depressed-looking building
that had received few upgrades/remodeling since the 1970's. This was the
hotel Tito had stayed in during the 70's and where many sports teams had
practiced. It was explained to me that for a number of years in the 90's
(during Milosevic's rule), the hotel had been abandoned.
After a few hours, the rain finally let up a bit. Although it was still
lightly raining, I knew that this might be my only chance. I bought a park
map from the hotel, but unfortunately it was in Cyrillic. In addition, there
were no helpful signs in the area. Following (or trying to) the directions
given by a street-side souvenir dealer, I then found some markings on the
trees and began to follow those. The cobblestone road quickly gave way to a
narrow dirt (actually muddy) path. Every once in a while the dense pine
trees gave way to a clearing, revealing a bit of the park's natural beauty.
I also enjoyed the pink Erica flowers covering patches of the forest floor
in its color. In the distance, I could see some farms and heard the faint
clang of sheep/cow bells. As the rain began to increase once again, I
relented and decided to head back to the hotel. I would have to come back
another time.
Wednesday, April 19 - Mileševa Monastery
When I awoke, it was still raining. Today's destination was the Mileševa
Monastery, located near the town of Prijepolje in southwest Serbia. Thick
clouds hung below the tips of Mt. Zlatar, obscuring the likely beautiful
views of the tree-covered mountains and snaking river. In some areas, the
pine trees were particularly tall. The Lim River was moving quite fast and
seemed rather high. The road to Prijepolje was winding and narrow. I saw
several bridges being constructed, eliminating at least some of the curves.
Construction workers busied themselves with their cell phones rather than
attending to directing traffic. Others sat along the roadside and talked. We
drove through the uninspiring town of Nova Varoš and proceeded 27 km farther
to Prijepolje. I was surprised to see three mosque minarets in the town, but
was told that this indeed was a more Muslim area.
About 6 km outside of Prijepolje was the famous Mileševa Monastery. In front
of one of the buildings was a large Serbian Orthodox flag, seemingly making
a political/religious statement. Around a portion of the perimeter were
stone ruins of a wall and perhaps some Turkish small buildings. King
Vladislav founded the monastery around 1234. Two years later, it received
the body of St. Sava, elevating its position of importance to second amongst
Serbian monasteries. In the 1500's, the monastery operated a printing shop,
spreading liturgical books throughout Serbia and neighboring areas. In
retaliation for a Serbian uprising against the Turks in 1688, the monastery
was burned and left in ruins. The present-day building dates back to 1863.
We were not able to enter the monastery building. The church of the Holy
Ascension was erected in 1234/5 in the style of the Raška School.
I was eager to enter the inside of the church and see its famous frescoes
which represent one of the peaks of 13th century European painting. Inside,
I met the Serbian/Swiss families with which I had shared a train car on the
Šargan Eight train a day before. A nun lit candles on top of coffin over the
gravesite of St. Sava. On the opposite wall was the coffin of a recently
canonized individual. In the domes and around other places, frescoes had
large pieces missing. The frescoes of King Vladislav and St. Sava were
painted during their lifetimes and are seen as some of the best (and
accurate) portraits of the 13th century. In addition to the emphasis on
realism, the frescoes portray the psychological characterizations of the
individuals. As in most frescoes, the founder (in this case Vladislav) is
depicted holding a small model of the church. Many of the figures' eyes had
been gouged or obliterated by the Turks. I heard that these may be soon
restored. Frescoes depicting the Last Judgment were heavily damaged during
WWII when the church was used as a stable. Scenes of the Passion Week
covered large portions of the walls. The church's most famous fresco is the
White Angel, now regarded as a symbol of Serbia and recently adopted as an
emblem for the United Nations. Around the angel are other portions of the
Easter story and Resurrection. Remnants of a fresco once covering the scene
leads one to speculate that angel with its enigmatic smile might not be with
us today if it were not for such preservation.
Outside once again, we headed through an archway and walked on top of a
bridge reconstructed in the original Turkish style. I am glad to see such
preservation and restoration beginning to occur. Surrounding the area were
fields of fruit trees. Goats happily nibbled away on the tall grasses. After
a drink at the local café, we headed back to Zlatibor. Rain followed us.
Thursday, April 20 - Studenica
With the rain still persisting, we began the drive towards our next
destination - Studenica. The road followed the Western Morava and Ibar
Rivers. Both were very high. Plastic bags clung to trees in the swollen
river. Along a 20 km long scenic gorge created by the Western Morava River
are over 10 tiny monasteries. Constructed mainly in the 15th and 16th
centuries, these monasteries were located in more secluded places away from
main roads and far away from Turkish towns. We briefly visited Vavedenje
Monastery, located closer to the town of Čačak. Like most of these small
monasteries, Vavedenje was very simple. The existing church structure was
built in 1874 after the original one had been destroyed. No frescoes
remained from the original structure, but the carved wooden altar is older.
Traveling once again through the remote, mountainous region, we reached
Studenica. Established at the end of the 12th century, this monastery is one
of Serbia's greatest monasteries and is highly regarded by Orthodox Serbs.
We entered through the imposing Western Gate, constructed of stone with a
wooden pyramid roof.
In the small church known as King's Church (built in 1314), a special Maundy
Thursday service was taking place. The priest was chanting and waving
incense. Many of the frescoes in the church were quite well-preserved. As in
the Mileševa church, the fresco portraits portray realism rather than simply
stylizing figures. I did not feel comfortable looking around very long
during the service and quietly went outside.
I took a tour around the exterior of the main church completed in 1191,
known as the Church of Our Lady (or Church of the Holy Virgin). A prototype
of the Raška School style, the architecture seamlessly blends Romanesque and
Byzantine styles. The exterior is covered with polished white marble, unique
in Serbian medieval architecture. The cupola is a red color, just like the
King's Church. My favorite architectural element is the 3-windowed apse.
Framing the three narrow windows are carvings or elaborately sculptured
leaves, figures, and mythological beasts. Carvings of a similar style could
be found around one of the doors.
Most of the original frescoes inside the Holy Virgin church were completed
in 1209 and repainted in 1569. The Crucifixion fresco is especially
splendid. Recent earthquakes (compounding previous ones) have raised
questions of stability. Many of Studenica's remaining treasures (what was
left after repeated lootings) are now in a small museum on-site, but it was
closed for the day. The dining hall was open for view. In one end was a
large fireplace; in the other, a long table for the king and important
leaders. The yellow residential quarters looked much newer than the church
buildings, dating back to the 18th century. Bedding was hung over the window
ledges, airing out even in the rainy weather.
I hope to go back to Studenica and take more photos and enjoy the ambience -
hopefully with blue skies that make this UNESCO World Heritage site so

Zica Monastery
Heading towards Kraljevo, we stopped at the Žiča Monastery. Constructed in
1209 and finished in 1217, this church is painted in a distinctive rusty red
color. Here, a church service was also in progress. In the arched entryway,
I could see a few frescoes. Sadly, most of the original frescoes were
destroyed by Bulgarians in 1290 or later by Turks seeking to obliterate any
depiction of the human image. On both sides of this entryway were round
windows intricately carved out of stone. On the grounds was a beautiful
domed baptistery, reconstructed from some of the original fragments.
Back to Belgrade
It was time to head back to Belgrade. The bus trip from Kraljevo took about
3 hours, but the time went by quickly due to the fascinating company of a
college student from Poland. She also was visiting Serbia and Montenegro on
her spring break. From the windows of the bus, I could see flooded fields.
Back in Belgrade, the road next to the bus and train station was still
flooded; I opted to take a taxi home. Despite the inclement weather, I
enjoyed my trip to western Serbia. I hope to revisit some of the places with
family and/or friends.

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