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[teacherartexchange] An October visit to northern Serbia and Sirogojno

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From: Melissa Enderle (melissa_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Sun Nov 05 2006 - 19:49:27 PST


Dear all,
Below is a travelogue I wrote for my latest trip. We had a 4-day
weekend and decided to make the most of the opportunity to take my
first visitor to see two beautiful parts of Serbia - the fertile
Vojvodina region north of Belgrade and then my favorite part of
Serbia - Sirogojno.
I will be placing photos on my website this week sometime http://
web.mac.com/melissaenderle/. Currently this is also available on my
blog http://melissaenderle.blogspot.com/

Melissa

As I begin writing this, I look outside the patio door of my
apartment. It is a dismal, grey, day with intermittent rain. The
temperature is a bit warmer than Friday (when it snowed for the
school’s annual Halloween event), but cool enough to want to stay
inside. What a huge difference a week made! During much of our
journey to northern Serbia and down to the western mountain village
of Sirogojno, we wore lighter layers – and sometimes no jacket at all!

Having secured a rental car, things would be much easier and faster
to reach our destinations. This would also give us flexibility,
spending as much time as we cared for a particular town. On the
bright October morning of Thursday the 26th, we headed northward to
the region known as Vojvodina. Driving was Pat, a retired teacher of
ISB, an American who married a Serbian and has lived here for around
30 years. Olja, a Serbian teacher at school and a common traveling
partner of mine, was eager to join us. Nancy Lamers, a former art
education professor (and elementary art teacher) of mine came to
visit me, and she was also eager to see areas of Serbia outside the
city of Belgrade.

As we headed out of Belgrade, the land became flatter and
predominantly rural. All the farmers seemed out in their fields,
harvesting corn, tying up stalks, or plowing the dark earth. Small
tractors hauled wooden wagons filled with field corn, glowing even
more yellow in the bright fall sun. Along the banks and sometimes in
the field, controlled fires were lit, burning brush and presumably
unwanted remnants of cornstalks.

Krušedol Monastery
Our first stop was the monastery of Krušedol, located in the Fruška
Gora region south of Sremsi Karlovci. Although originally built in
1509, the current Baroque style dates back to the early 18th century
after Turks seriously damaged the structure in 1716. The large white
church dominated the center of the rather small grounds. In one
corner men were working on a construction project, with even the
bearded monk in his black robes carrying 2x4’s to the site. Amongst
the religious jewelry, icon reproductions, and candles, Nancy spotted
some bottles of rakija produced by the monastery and decided to
purchase a bottle of the “holy” alcohol as souvenir.

As we entered the church, I saw some older-looking frescoes in the
arched entryway. A few frescoes remain from the 16th century, but
most date back to the 18th century. Light from narrow windows
streamed in, illuminating portions of the frescoes covering the walls
and some of the iconostasis on wood paneling. A beautiful wooden
carved casket-like box caught my eye, perhaps containing the remains
of Branković founding family member. Much of the treasury of once in
the church was plundered by the Croatian Nazis in WWII, with the
remains now in Belgrade.

We then took a quick tour of the grounds. While taking photos of the
outer part of the church and monastery buildings we could see the
head of a nun pop her head out once in a while. In one open room we
could see empty cobs of corn with a large woven basket outside the
door. The bottom portion of a wooden wagon was also intriguing, its
wooden wheels casting long shadows underneath the arches. Just as we
got into the car, a large tour bus pulled up, a good signal that we
should be on our way.

Sremski Karlovci
Just 11 km from our lunchtime destination, we decided to stop at
Sremski Karlovci, an attractive town with an array of buildings from
the 18th and 19th centuries with a 1770 marble fountain as its
centerpiece. We peeked inside the baroque Orthodox cathedral, but its
flooring was undergoing renovation and so we were unable to enter. In
the center of the square, children and adults climbed up the stairs
to get water pouring from the spouts of the four lions on the
fountain. After taking some photos of the high school (1791) with its
combination of traditional Serbian and Secessionist styles, we found
some poppyseed pastry for a snack and headed onward.

Novi Sad
Our first stop in Novi Sad was the Petrovaradin Fortress. Little
remains of the original fortress and much of what is seen dates back
from the early 18th century. Walking towards the famous clocktower,
we were greeted by tacky red stuffed heart pillows and shocking pink
poodle stuffed animals. What an untapped market these places could
have! Sadly, most of the buildings and galleries above the fortress
were closed for renovation. Since it was nice out, we enjoyed a
stroll around the outer perimeter overlooking the Danube River.

Finding a parking space in the main part of Novi Sad, Pat used her
cell phone to fill up the “meter” – a very convenient, modern
method. Already hungry, we didn’t spend too much time looking
around. Pat pointed out a sign in front of a tattoo parlor she had
seen a week earlier – “House of Pain”. I’m not sure if I would
have named my business that phrase! With most of the cafes only
serving drinks and/or full of customers, we settled on a small place
and ordered pljeskavica, sort of like a hamburger made from a mixture
of pork, beef and lamb, sprinkled with spices and grilled with onion.

Palić
Prior to reaching our final destination for the day, we made a short
stop at Lake Palić. Pat explained that teachers and students from ISB
would make an annual trip up to here as a way of bonding and
relaxing. The area started as a spa in the mid 19th century and then
developed into a popular health resort and vacation spot. As we
walked along the park sidewalk, we saw people rollerblading, riding
bikes, lazily strolling along, and of course – talking on their cell
phones. Sports equipment and boats, including paddleboats could be
rented. Set back from the lake one could see a series of small, but
attractive hotels and restaurants – making it an attractive
relaxation spot. The autumn sunset cast a warm glow over the still-
beautiful flowers and changing leaves. After Nancy’s first Turkish
coffee at a restaurant, the sun disappeared over the water, signaling
it was time to leave for Subotica.

Subotica
Now just a short distance from the Hungarian border, we were at our
nighttime destination. We decided to stay at Hotel Patria, not so
much for its accommodations (like many Serbian hotels, it had that
“depressed in-need-of-rennovation-and-attention” look), but
because it had parking and was centrally located. Following
recommendations of the receptionist, we walked past the McDonalds and
up some stairs to a cozy authentic restaurant. It was well after 7pm
and still no one else was there. They gave us some menus that had
English translations, some of which were quite amusing, such as horse
d’ouvres. While eating, a pianist and violinist provided wonderful
ambiance. After around 9pm more people began filling the tables.
Taking advantage of the unseasonably warm evening, we strolled around
the main city section before heading back to the hotel for the night.

I was looking forward to our next morning – taking a tour of all the
beautiful Art Nouveau and Secessionist architecture. Once again, the
weather was beautiful. Most signage was in both Serbian and
Hungarian, a strong indication of its proximity to current Hungary
and long domination by Hungarian rulers. Immediately apparent was the
number of people – both young and old – riding bicycles. The
extremely flatness of the city made it a perfect method of
transportation, lazily meandering through the narrow streets. The
pace here felt much slower than in Belgrade. What a beautiful place
to stop and read the newspaper or plop down your sack of potatoes and
gossip with the neighbors!

We headed towards the large Town Hall, a magnificent reddish building
in the Hungarian Art Nouveau Style built between 1908-10. Every
section – from top to bottom – was oozing with different details.
One of the guidebooks described it as “an architectural mishmash of
styles that could be said to verge on the tasteless”. Having liked
it very much, I would have to disagree. Needless to say, a lot of
photos were taken. I especially liked the corner gargoyle-like
figures, with curls flowing from its head as in flames. Even the rain
gutters and snow stoppers on the roof were decorative. At one corner
was the McDonalds, tastefully adopting its window signage and
interior decoration to the same style. Curious to see the inside of
such a structure, the three photographers (Nancy, Pat, and I) went
inside, hoping at least some area was open for viewing. In contrast
to the deep red and yellows of the outside, the interior was
dominated by cooler hues of green, turquoise and white. Everything
looked freshly painted, with stenciled designs and patterns around
each column and edge very crisp and colorful. I was glad to see that
such a city treasure was receiving the monetary attention towards
preservation. True to Art Nouveau tendencies, the stairway was a
patterned symphony of curvy wavy metalwork instead of straight bars.
In a higher floor I could even smell fresh paint, a sign that some
work was really new. We got as far as the top floor, when Pat stopped
us saying that there was a forbidden sign on the door, as it was some
sort of military function.

Nearby was the central square – Trg Slobode. A large blue fountain
constructed of famous Zsolnai ceramics from the Hungarian town of
Pecs was a central figure. Pigeons enjoyed the waters, taking baths
in the shallow waters. The designer even remembered a handy detail –
slightly curved indentations along the edge, just the size for sitting!
Another building attracting our attention was the library, a yellow
neo-baroque edifice with rich sculptural decorations, built in 1897.
Framing the main entrance were two muscular, slightly monster-like
males in white stone, with an eagle spreading its wings in between
the figures. On the corner of the building, a sculpted figure folded
its arms above its head, as if bracing to hold up the curved balcony
above it.

As the morning wore on, the curious collection of large cubes
(reminding me of igloo snow blocks) were beginning to be used. Some
young teen girls dressed in tight jeans and midriff tops danced
syncopated, gyrating moves. On one end a large fan blew leaves, with
cameramen moving in and out to capture the commercial. Other blocks
were being carried to another decorative building with a balcony.
Earlier we had remarked that the young woman peering over the balcony
reminded us of Rapunzel. Now a stack of wooden and Styrofoam blocks
were erected in a stairway, leading from the concrete below almost up
to the balcony. In the floor above the balcony was a gynecological
center. A woman in a lab coat peered down, also curious about the
happenings below. Video cameras soon arrived here, directing a man
when to add another block to almost reach the “Rapunzel”. I hope
the filming also captured the gynecology sign J

Hungry (of course), we had a snack - žito, a wheat porridge flavored
with nuts and raisins and served wit real whipped cream. Enjoying the
sunny day, it was the perfect spot to people-watch.

Sombor
Although there were a lot more beautiful buildings we could have
visited, it was time to move on to Sombor. Otherwise we would get to
our nighttime destination of Sirogojno too late at night. Like its
nearby city Subotica, Sombor was very flat and ideal for bicyclists.
We parked the car near the outdoor market where one could buy lots of
fresh produce and wooden do-dads. I especially liked the unusually
tall straw brooms, circularly arranged around a large tree. The city
was very laid back and was heavily shaded by the many trees in the
parks. I enjoyed the architecture here as well, but not as much as
Subotica’s. In a small hardware shop, Nancy spotted a mousetrap with
four holes. The shopkeeper of the cramped shop demonstrated how to
bait and set up the almost guillotine-like device. Other fun
purchases included what we nicknamed a “Yak purse” and some wax
for a beauty treatment (I promised not to reveal what they did with
it). While at lunch (meat, of course), we spotted a cute small stray
dog. It was very polite and would have made a great pet. Too bad we
had a long journey to make. The dog did receive a healthy supply of
leftover meat though.

Drive to Sirogojno
After our late lunch we headed towards our next destination –
Sirogojno. We knew the narrow road would take longer, but we did not
anticipate taking quite that long. Of course it would have helped if
signage in NoviSad would have been existent, legible (one sign was so
faded you couldn’t read any of the words), accurate arrows, and
townsfolk who could provide accurate, helpful directions for
visitors. Along this route we saw a lot of people burning in the
fields. Others were still gathering harvest. The narrow two-lane
highway was quite a challenge, testing one’s patience (as you got
behind a slow truck) or one’s defensive driving as people tried to
pass when a car was coming from the opposite direction. As we headed
southward, the roads got curvier, indicating that we were entering
more mountainous and hilly regions. Now dark, it was even more
difficult to see the road hazards. In the middle of the road we saw a
dog, obviously hit by a previous vehicle but still alive. Pat pulled
over and attempted to go and find the dog to move it to the side of
the road, but it was too late. Navigating through even more narrow
forested roads from Užice to Sirogojno, we finally made it to our
destination about 7 hours later. Because a filming for a Serbian
sitcom (their equivalent to Mr. Bean) was occurring, the restaurant
at the Ethno museum was still open. We didn’t stay up too late,
because we had to prepare ourselves for our main task tomorrow –
sweater shopping.

Sirogojno
For breakfast, we were treated with a large spread of traditional
local cuisine. Homemade yogurt came in cute little ceramic round
pots. Fresh bread, kajmak (spreadable slightly salty rich cream),
local white cheese, and užika pršut (hard, smoked beef slices) were
enough to satisfy all. We then went and began taking photos and
touring the ethno museum grounds. Since I was the only one who had
been there before, I became the tour guide.

Sweater shopping was the next item on the agenda. We started by going
to the local ladies who had booths at the edge of the museum grounds.
Pat commented that the quality seemed to have improved, but said she
already had two sweaters. We then walked down to the Sirogojno
sweater shop where they sell sweaters/jackets made locally but with
Icelandic wool. The quality of the wool is much better and the
knitting is more sophisticated as well – as is the price. I spotted
the color and style I had eyed previously and decided it was time to
buy. Nancy and Olja also found ones to suit their personalities.
After buying a few accessories back at the local ladies booths
(souvenir shajkaca hats, woven hats & mittens), we then put our
purchases in the car trunk.

At the local church, a wedding celebration was in process. Outside, a
brass band boldly played their upbeat tunes. A decorated horse-drawn
carriage was waiting, presumably for the bride and groom. The
carriage driver had a bottle of rakija, which he was sharing with
some older men wearing shajkacas (traditional hats of the region).
All seemed to be having a fun time. The wedding celebration continued
late into the night at the local hall, playing live music. Pat
explained that sometimes village weddings last several days.

For lunch we met up with Pat’s son and girlfriend who were
vacationing in nearby Zlatibor. She also bought a sweater – what a
good morning the shop had! Initially the place was quite crowded
(some school groups who had toured the ethno museum were also eating)
but we managed to set up two tables to accommodate all of us. I left
a bit early in hopes of meeting Zorica so we could make plans for my
upcoming exhibition at the ethno museum. At the church, a memorial
service was being held. That’s quite a bit in one day for such a
little church and village!

Later on, we went for a walk in the main village of Sirogojno. Since
it’s very small, getting lost is not a problem. Spotting some apples
on the grass next to the road, we picked up a few to eat – small and
crunchy, and definitely natural. Shortly thereafter, the elderly
woman who lived there came out, picking some off the tree and
offering us some. Nancy was surprised at the woman’s generosity,
presuming instead that the lady might have shooed us away for picking
the apples that had fallen by the road. Another example of local
kindness. We headed towards the home of the couple that I had met my
first time in the area. In April I returned, giving the wife a
printout of the painting I made of her. I hoped they would be around
so I could say hi. The husband was outside and recognized me,
welcoming us and insisting that we come in for a bit. He proudly
showed Nancy how he made rakija, even though the plum crop this year
was too poor to make any of the beloved drink. Back inside the house,
the wife pulled out the print I had made for her and warmly welcomed
me as if I was a relative. It was gratifying to see how such a small
gift as the print was appreciated. She then proceeded to make the
Turkish coffee and bring the honey, spoons, and water glasses. The
husband brought some 7-yr old rakija for us to try. As none of us are
real drinkers, we were a bit hesitant, but you really can’t refuse.
To everyone’s surprise, the rakija was very smooth and not that
strong. As soon as the tiny glass was finished, he proceeded to fill
it up again. We then had the spoonful of honey, followed by a drink
of water. Turkish coffee topped it off. For a few minutes the husband
left, returning with a full bottle of rakija for me to take along.
What generosity, especially knowing that they haven’t had a
successful plum harvest in two years! Thanking them for their
hospitality, we headed back to our cabin. I’m so glad that Nancy was
able to experience local people and their genuineness.

With the ethno restaurant closed and the only store in town closed,
we decided to head down to the town restaurant, buy a bottle of wine,
and play some mean cards – UNO. We had a lot of laughs and turned a
simple kid’s game into one of competition. I wonder what the waiter
thought. When it was time for closing, we headed back to the cottage,
at which time Nancy and Pat did their beauty treatment. It was fun
watching them.

Early the next morning, Pat and I went for a walk and took some
photos. The early morning light was beautiful – casting warm tones
over the fall hued landscape. We also experimented with the placement
of a goat skull we found for some still-life shots. After breakfast,
we modeled our sweaters, first in front of the cabin and then by the
museum buildings, much like they did in the Sirogojno sweater
catalog. It was fun. Nancy and I met Zorica, who gave Nancy a copy of
the book she wrote about the local church and gave her a list of some
other sources of Serbian art and architecture. We then decided that
my art exhibition would occur in June when my parents come, so we’ll
have some planning and work to do on that. I’m glad my parents will
be able to see the exhibition.

With the rental car due back in Belgrade, we reluctantly had to
leave. Between the wonderful company, beautiful sights (natural and
man-made), and gorgeous weather, it was a perfect 4-day weekend.
  

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