Getting spiritual in Serbia - Europe - Travel - The Independent

 

Getting spiritual in Serbia

Valerie Singleton discovers hidden treasures in the monasteries of the Raska region

The wooden gong summoning us to prayers resounded around the passageways. I leapt out of bed in my small room to shower and dress, quite forgetting I'd been told the first gong was at 4.30am and there would be two more before I needed to be up for the liturgy at 6am.

The Gradac Monastery, where I was staying the night, was in the mountainous Raska region of south-west Serbia, very near the border with Kosovo. I was honoured; I'd been given the room the bishop uses when he visits, which meant I had a loo and a shower.

It was too cold to use the Church of the Annunciation, so the liturgy was held in the refectory, which had been transformed into a small chapel. The service lasted two hours and was strangely calming. It was conducted by Father Vitalije, the only priest who lives at Gradac. Then, with the refectory converted back into a dining room again, I had breakfast with Sister Anna before taking a look at the 13th-century church and its frescos.

Most of the figures were damaged but the colours were striking, especially the rich blues. There was a fairly intact Annunciation and a delightful Virgin Mary and Child where Mary, sitting in what looked like a bright red bucket chair, tenderly rested her head against the baby Jesus in a rather odd crib.

The 'White Angel' fresco The 'White Angel' fresco (Dragan Bosnic) I had been given three maps when I'd arrived in Belgrade a week earlier. A tourist map, a map of the wine routes and a map of monasteries. Unfolding the latter, I'd been astonished at their sheer number. I counted 74, including those over the border in Kosovo. The building of many of these took place in about the 12th century, when Stefan Nemanja converted to Christianity and created Serbia's first independent medieval state, centred on Raska and named after the River Raska, or Ibar, which flows through this wild landscape. Raska also became a term to describe a style of architecture for the monasteries in this part of the country.

These monasteries are Serbia's hidden treasure. Many contain superb frescos, a great number in surprisingly good condition, despite centuries of neglect and exposure to the elements. Some of the monasteries are on Unesco's World Heritage List, and many have dormitories where visitors are allowed to stay at very little (or no) cost.

With only a few days at my disposal, I'd decided to follow the trail of Serbia's national saint, St Sava (Stefan Nemanja's son), and visit five monasteries associated with his family and that early medieval state. My guide was the charming and knowledgeable Srdjan Ristic. "Let me tell you about St Sava," he said. "Sava is very important for the Serbian people. He was Nemanja's youngest son, who eventually became a monk and founded the Serbian Orthodox Church and became its first archbishop – so now he's our national saint."

Sava was buried in Mileseva Monastery in 1236, although in 1594, as a reprisal for a Serbian uprising, the Ottomans dug up Sava's remains and took them to the Vracar Plateau on the edge of Belgrade. "They burnt them in full view of the inhabitants of the city," said Srdjan. "Today, on exactly the same spot, we're building the Cathedral of St Sava, which is larger than Hagia Sophia in Istanbul."

Mileseva Monastery lies on the edge of the River Milesevka, around 250km from Belgrade. There isn't much around aside from the monastery, a few village houses spread over the low hills and one café where the lights had fused. Srdjan took me inside the church, to see the White Angel, one of the country's most valued frescos. Painted as long ago as 1235, it is still in excellent condition and depicts the Angel Gabriel waiting at Christ's empty tomb.

The next day, we reached our second monastery: Sopocani. Sopocani was built by King Uros I, another grandson of Nemanja. The church was left in ruins and had no roof for more than 200 years, so it is remarkable that, even in the fading light, I could see the walls were covered in frescos. The artists are unknown but it is thought they were painted in the late 13th century. The Ascension of the Holy Mother of God, with the Virgin Mary lying on a vast bed draped in sumptuous fabrics, was proclaimed the most beautiful fresco from the Middle Ages at the 1961 World Exhibition in Paris.

After our night in Gradac, we headed back to Belgrade. "I have two more very special monasteries I want to show you on the way," said Srdjan. "Studenica is one of Nemanjas's most significant endowments. He built it about 1190 and it is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Our last stop will be Zica. Zica is very different. It is painted red and it is where Stefan was crowned."

Studenica, set in a valley surrounded by mountains, was a bigger and more ornate site than the others I had seen. It had an almost completely circular outer defensive wall, ruins of the original monk's dwellings and a huge new dormitory for guests. There were three churches in the grounds but Nemanja's Romanesque Church of the Virgin, partly covered in marble, was the largest and most breathtaking, with a most moving Crucifixion in deep reds and blues, Nemanja's sarcophagus and a coffin – completely encased in old silver and Russian jewels – which contained the remains of his wife St Anastasia.

Zica proved to be another magnificent Romanesque monastery, an important spiritual centre where Sava became the first Serbian archbishop and where Stefan and many Serbian kings after him were crowned. Perched on a hill near the city of Kraljevo, it was looted many times over the centuries but was now superbly renovated.

I returned to Belgrade happy to have seen five such contrasting examples of Serbian monasteries, but all too aware that, according to my calculations, I still had 69 to visit sometime in the future.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Flights from the UK to Belgrade are offered by Air Serbia (020 8 976 6000; airserbia.com) from Heathrow, and by Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) from Luton.

Seeing there

Explore Belgrade (00 381 64 153 15 24; explore-belgrade.com) offers day-long tours of monasteries in Serbia from €25pp.

More information

serbia.travel

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Sport
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week