Saturday, April 29, 2006

Western Serbia 2006 photos

Friday, April 28, 2006

Studenica and Žiča Monastery

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 captivating.

Žiča 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.

Mileševa Monastery

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. 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 andThick clouds hung below the tips of Mt. Zlatar, 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.

Sargan Train and Tara National Park

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.

Sirogojno and surrounding villages

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 counterparts.

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 ambience.

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 work.

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 time.

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, etc.

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.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Spring Flooding in Belgrade

If you haven’t heard on the news, the Danube and other rivers in Eastern Europe have flooded their banks due to heavy rainfall and melted snow. Romania, northern and eastern Serbia, and Bulgaria are the current victims. The lower-lying areas of Belgrade have also been hit. Senjak, the area where I live and location of the school, is quite high and not directly affected.

This afternoon I decided to head down to Ada and see for myself the flooding situation that was occurring around that area. As I walked down the hill towards the Sajam road, I saw that traffic was backed up, just as it had been all week. At least this major road wasn’t closed like it was earlier in the week, causing major difficulties for people getting to school. Recalling the water bubbling up from the manholes last Sunday and spilling onto the roads, this section actually looked drier.

As I walked towards Ada, things were different. It was quite something to see areas I had walked on less than a week earlier now underwater. Poles for street signs and lights were partially submerged. A pile of sandbags bordered a side of a house. Restaurant and houseboats were marooned quite a distance away from the shore. Through the brackish waters, the yellow of dandelion heads could be seen. Bike paths, instead of circumnavigating around the man-made lakes of Ada, now led directly into the floodwaters.

Except for the truck with sandbags entering Ada park, activities were going on as normal. Teens were playing soccer on the grass. Young parents pushed babies in strollers along the higher paved paths. Like usual, young children were often dressed warmer than necessary. People of all ages ran, walked, or jogged along the paths, enjoying the spring sun. Popcorn and ice cream vendors tempted those who didn’t stop into the small cafés along the way. Fishing and boating also continued as normal. With the debris and perhaps chemicals brought by the floods, I’m not sure if I’d want to eat those fish, but it was a great day to fish.

I decided to head back to Senjak by another route. I walked around the circumference of the hippodrome, giving me a different view of the horse track than I normally see from my apartment. As I turned the bend, I once again saw cars lined up for quite some distance. It appeared that they had been waiting for a bit, as some had turned off the engines and were out of the cars talking to others. Not quite sure what the issue was, I continued heading towards Senjak. I saw a police car drive to the left of the long queue of cars. Was this holdup caused by floodwaters? Would I be able to get up to Senjak from this road? I then saw gates over the railroad tracks. After the train went through, a man cranked up the gate and vehicles once again made their way through, causing the normal congestion of a narrow road.

Before I headed home, I walked through the neighborhood, taking some photos of the blooming trees. The extra color, along with the leaves bursting forth on the trees, spring flowers and brilliant blue skies reminded me of why I enjoy spring so much.