Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Zlatibor Region of Serbia - Spring 2005

Zlatibor Region
Spring 2005

April 17, 2005

Spring break had just begun and I was nearly to my destination of Zlatibor, a mountain region about 230 km from Belgrade. Having left the town of Užice (pop. 60,000) after dropping off some people and picking up others on the bus, we proceeded with the last 25 km. to the town of Zlatibor. The tour-style bus slowly proceeded through the narrow, winding mountain roads. Small farms with terra-cotta tiled roofs dotted the valleys and sides of steep hills. The abundant pine forests (Zlatibor gets its name from zlato, which means gold, and bor, which means pine) provided green, compensating for the decidious trees that had yet to produce leaves.

Only a 4 hour drive (ok, in a bus it takes longer) from Belgrade, the region of Zlatibor is a favorite destination for Serbians. In the winter (with over 100 snowy days per year), three ski lifts and some cross-country trails accommodate winter sports lovers. In summer, people flock to the region and its mild climate, seeking refuge from the heat of cities. Although Zlatibor has an altitude of over 1,000 meters with peaks up to nearly 1,500 meters, the climate is milder than one would initially expect. The clean, pure air also attracts people with medical ailments, and is particularly known for its successful natural treatment of people with respiratory and thyroid disorders. For all, the beauty of its rolling pastures, creeks, and forested slopes is enough to provide some respite from the business of modern-day life.

Stepping off the bus, I opted to walk to my hotel. Although I didn't know exactly where it was, I heard from teachers at school that it was fairly close to the town center. Besides, I only had a small duffle bag (and my backpack where I had my photo/electronic gadgets) – the return trip would likely mean more bags. For a tourist town, I was surprised to see that signs (including the hotel and restaurant road signs) were in Cyrilic. For example the town name of Zlatibor would look like ЗлатиБор, and my hotel "Jugopetrol" would look something like Југоптрол. Even the tourist information booth's sign was in Cyrilic! I knew that I would have to crack open the Serbian phrasebook in order to make myself understood here – which was a good thing, since teaching at an English-language school doesn't force me to learn much of the local language.

After dropping off my stuff at the hotel, I headed back towards the city center. Although the air wasn't all that warm, the radiating sun felt wonderful. A small "lake" (more like the size of a large pond) provided a nice focal point for the town, with park benches and a sidewalk circumnavigating it. Children munched on popcorn from the rabbit popcorn vendor stand and all ages happily relished an ice cream cone. Groups of school children chattered and skipped along. Some paused for a drink at the "Česma Kralja Alexandra I" drinking fountain. After enjoying some moments of peace, I walked onward, heading towards the buildings past the lake. Here, newer cottages had been constructed, especially popular with weekenders from Užice and Belgrade. Moving onward, I meandered through the cluster of shops and restaurants. Nearing suppertime, I headed towards the direction of the hotel but was drawn to the expansive hill. On closer observation, one could see small purple spring wildflowers, delicately swaying in the mountain breeze. As I moved onward past the ski lift area, the flowers became more numerous, dotting the entire hill. Sitting down on the grass amongst nature with the warmth of the sun was quite refreshing.

Mokra Gora
The next day, I headed back into town to find and visit the tourist information booth. Unfortunately, the woman didn’t speak any English, so communication occurred in other ways. After understanding that I wanted to take photos of the countryside and people, she called for a taxi and I was soon on my way to the town of Mokra Gora. When realizing that both could speak French, the communication between the taxi driver and myself then became a bit easier. The skies varied between quite overcast (and even some sprinkles) to occasional patches of blue sky. Regardless of weather, I was going to see as much as I could.
Located near the Bosnia-Herzegovina border, the small village of Mokra Gora is best known for its spectacular Šargan Eight Railway. Designed in a figure eight loop, engineers in the early 1900’s were able to work around the steep cuttings and narrow gorges (300 m vertical difference between the two stations Mokra Gora and Šargan-Vitasi even though it was only a 3.5 km horizontal difference) to create this beautiful section of railway. Although the train route no longer serves its original purpose of connecting rural villages between Belgrade and Sarajevo, this short section has been restored back to its original 1925’s glory and is now a successful tourist attraction. Nearing the train station, I spotted a traditional-looking village on top of a hill. It was the set constructed for the 2004 film release Life is a Miracle. Like other buildings of the area, the roofs were quite steep to accommodate the heavy snowfall. Wood was the dominant building material, used both for construction and decoration. I especially enjoyed the unique church with its carved interior wood and the views from the plateau. The taxi driver pointed to the hills in the distance, which he said were in Bosnia.
The road to the Šargan train station paralleled the train tracks in several places. In other areas the railway went through tunnels. Even though I wasn’t taking the museum train, the view still was beautiful. At the train station were restored buildings including a museum with souvenir shop and café. Climbing up the steps, I walked past the end-of-line turnstile and up to the constructed waterfall. Walking through the pine forest (and pretty pink pine-like flowers), I saw another train tunnel and great views of the area.

On the way back to Zlatibor, we spotted an older woman by the roadside. Beneath her black scarf one could see her white hair with a thin braid across the top. When the driver asked her if I could take her photo, she smiled (many teeth missing), tapped her wooden “cane” and seemed thrilled. After I took a few photos, she held my hand, kissed my cheeks several times, and reached into her pocket to pull out a few nuts. Such warmth and generosity. Shortly after waving goodbye, it began to rain. Back in Zlatibor, I ordered Komplet Lepijna at a restaurant recommended by a teacher. After looking through the crafts stalls and purchasing some of the famous Sirogojno sweaters for my family, the sky once again grew heavy. It would be a good time to get caught up on some reading in the hotel and look at my photos.

Confirmed that Zoriča and the staff members of the Open Air Ethnographic Museum Staro Selo (meaning “Old Village”) were anxiously awaiting my arrival, I was looking forward to the next step of my journey in Serbia. The hotel workers at the desk that Monday morning could speak some English, so I explained to them that I was seeking a taxi driver who would be willing to hang around the museum village for several hours and then take me to some nearby areas for photographing authentic villages and their residents. A personal friend of his, the hotel worker knew that this taxi driver would be a good match – and he even spoke English. Making our way on the narrow winding road, we stopped a couple of times to take photos and for Mikica (taxi driver) to show me some small sights along the way, including the streams with clear water.

Just outside the entrance of the open air museum was a small village church built in 1764. The interior, also painted white, was quite simple. The floor was stone and there were no pews for congregation members. The front of the church had a wooden altar with several iconoclastic paintings that looked quite old. Mikica introduced me to the church Father, explaining to me that he had gotten married here seven years ago. Mikica also showed me several religious traditions, including kissing special paintings, candles burning for the dead and living, and entering/leaving the church facing forwards (walk backwards when passing through the doorway and leaving the church) and making the sign of the cross.

As we entered the museum grounds, we saw several groups of children who had come to see the preserved 19th century homesteads typical of the region. I hope that some of the students from the International School of Belgrade can come here as well to learn more about the cultural heritage of Serbia. For Serbian children, this would help broaden their knowledge of their native country’s history, and would provide a richer appreciation and understanding of their host country. Over coffee at the museum’s homey restaurant, Zoriča explained that she had established this ethnographic museum in 1974, the only one of its kind in Serbia. She had seen many other open-air museums in other countries and was eager to help create such a museum in her home country.

Our tour started with the main house of one of the two homesteads preserved on-site. The first room had a hearth in the middle of the dirt floor for cooking and warmth. The second room had an earthen heating stove, bed, cradle, and long table. The bed was for the eldest of the extended family and the cradle was placed near the stove for warmth. This room had a wooden floor and was the best-furnished space in the homestead. Married family members lived in cottages very close to the main house, but (as this was the heated place of the homestead) all main activities and socializing happened here.

The homestead also consisted of a chicken coop, corn crib (made of wattle to provide good ventilation and drying of corncobs) semicircular baking stove (bread was baked for the family twice a week), a shed for drying plums, a guest cottage, granary, milk house and stable. Only one woman of the family could enter the milk house for sanitary reasons. Here milk, cheese, and butter were prepared. In one of the storage sheds, tobacco hung to dry. In its second room one could see large wooden barrels and a special stove, all for the creation and storage of Serbia’s national drink – rakija (plum brandy). A blacksmith shop served the village. Here I saw wooden wheels and some old wooden farm equipment similar to that like my great-grandfather had used. The stable was located a bit farther away from the other buildings (the milk house was quite close to the main house) and had two levels. A ramp led up to the top level and was used to guide sheep up to the loft. This design is still used in the region. A simple wooden fence with woven soft branches surrounded the homestead.

On the site several buildings have been adapted for visitors and museum operation. A shop sells local handicrafts and goods such as honey and herbal tea. Others are now homey apartment cottages for visitors attending summer programs. There are also a few outdoor theatre-like areas for summer entertainment, lectures, and concerts. Knowing of my desire to take photos of local villagers, our docent took us to the village of Sirogojno. On the way, I stopped to try on a sweater for my sister (the famous Sirogojno sweaters are hand-knitted by peasant women of the region), but my mind was more focused on getting some good photos of villagers. After taking a few photos of some kindly older women, we then went the home of an older couple. I took some photos of them with the traditional conical haystacks in the background. The man then led me into a shed where he was making rakija. His stove for boiling the plums was more modern (but still rustic) than the one at the museum, but it served the same purpose. The finished rakija, he explained, took at least 2 years to ferment. The rakija he produced was mainly for his family, especially for festive events such as the family slava. He offered each of us a small shot glass to sample – it indeed was quite strong. Alcohol content may be from 40-70% (according to the internet, at least).

Proceeding back to the ethnographic museum, we were treated to a tasty meal of kyamak (milk cream butter) on fresh hot bread, sir (Zlatibor cow cheese), and svadbarski kupus (sour cabbage and pork with some veggies). After exchanging contact information and receiving some visiting tips for the next day, I thanked Zoriča and her staff for her warm hospitality. Prior to going back to Zlatibor, we saw a bit more of the countryside, including a small waterfall and country church.

The next morning Mikica picked me up and we headed towards Užice to buy some traditional Serbian music and see a few places recommended to us by Zoriča. We started by visiting the Church of St. George, named after Mikica’s patron saint. Nearby we visited Jokanovića House, a 19th century house preserved as an ethnological and cultural monument. Again, the people here were very warm and friendly, giving us a personal, complete tour. With a combination of the guide speaking sometimes in English and Mikica translating other parts, I understood most of it. The furnishings reminded me very much of items I had seen in Tunisia – an Islamic influence from the historical Turkish domination of the country.
We then went to a local gallery (warmly welcomed again) and the National Museum that housed ancient artifacts, some local traditional costumes, historical documents, and items through Tito’s reign. Tito’s Popular Army of the Liberation as its headquarters formerly occupied the building in 1941. After purchasing the CD’s, we returned to Zlatibor, where I had lunch at a restaurant recommended to me by Mikica.

On Wednesday morning, we left the hotel around 7:30 AM to get in as much as possible before my bus departed early afternoon. Once again, the skies alternated between menacing gray, some rain, and then blue skies. Our destination was Dobroselica, a small village with an old wooden church. At times the narrow road was covered in gravel. We stopped a few times to take photos of the beautiful natural scenery, pastures, and creeks, especially around the area of Vodice. Heading into the village, we met an elderly shepherd with his flock walking on the road. He carried a wooden rod much like those the shepherds in Tunisia carried. His face was reddened and wrinkled from a harsh mountain life. Out here, access to decent education and medical care was rare. He, like other men of the villages, wore the traditional Sajkača hat. During WWII, the chetniks were strongly anti-communist and bitterly resisted the invading Nazis.

One of the local residents offered to unlock the church for us. Taking the very large skeleton key, he went up to the short wooden, carved door. Inside the tiny wooden church (the man said it was 300 years old while an internet source said the church dated back to the early 19th century) were small iconoclastic paintings on wood of saints and many embroidered altar cloths and banners. Next to the church stood a wooden tower housing the church’s bell.

On our way to the next destination, we stopped at a restaurant/hotel outside of Zlatibor owned by a friend of Mikica’s. When going for a walk through the countryside the previous day in a quest to go down to some abandoned farm buildings, I had neared this building. We were then off to Mačkat, a village touted to have the best cooked lamb dishes. While there, we also visited the local church (which had Biblical scenes painted on the ceiling) and the elementary school. Like other educational institutions in Serbia, it had suffered years of neglect. The director showed me the school library, consisting of a few shelves of worn books (most not very “kid-friendly”), many dating back to and about the reign of Tito. On the way out, Mikica spotted two photos of his deceased mother who had taught at the school.
Nearing lunchtime, we stopped at a national restaurant that served the famed Mačkat lamb. The tender meat and potatoes were especially tasty and filled me up for the bus ride back to Belgrade.

This was the first extended opportunity I had to experience Serbia outside the capital city. The people were genuinely warm and friendly, and seemed to be especially enthralled that an American would take such an interest in the country’s heritage. The region of Zlatibor has a lot to offer tourists during various seasons. Hotels are being privatized and beginning to receive needed refurbishing. Meals and lodging are affordable, especially when compared to other European countries. Continued emphasis on tourism infrastructure and a positive P.R. will undoubtedly help the world come to recognize Serbia as an attractive place to visit. And the hospitality of the people will keep them coming back….

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