Friday, April 28, 2006

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.

No comments: