A day in Serbia, a night in the rain

Serbia by day
A 12th century monastery
Dinner at a roadside bar

Showing off Serbia

As it turns out, we could have slept in. By the time Goran calls in the morning, the computers are up, but the seats are sold out. It had never occurred to me that getting to Sarajevo would be such a bit deal. Okay, so we can't drive from Montenegro as was once the case. So, there aren't any trains. Now, it appears, even buses need to be reserved in advance. Jovica makes the reservation and we go back to sleep.

Much later, and much closer to noon, we wake up, polish off the salad and salami and good stuff from the day before, and realize that this is our opportunity to see the 12th Century monastery at Studenica (STU-denitza) that Jovica has wanted to show me all along. More than that, this is a chance to see his favorite part of Serbia--not the flat Voivodina that we drove through last night, but the hilly Serbia in which he grew up.

I wasn't to realize later that neither Jovica, nor Goren, had ever been to this monastery. Just as in San Francisco Muir Woods lie unvisited in my house until visitors show up, I was the guy's chance to see Studenica.

And, then again, it isn't as though we rush. After our leisurely breakfast, we get over to Goran and Gordana's by about one. Their flat is a wonderfully book-full and skylit fourth floor tiny apartment with kitchenette. In Yugoslav terms it probably isn't bad, and inside, other than size, it is thoroughly modern and beautiful. Goran later complains that when it is hot outside, they bake.

Some friends are visiting, so we spend some time laughing over the Feral Tribune, and really hit the road by 1:30.I have barely gotten to take a sip of my coffee when all of the male persons are suddenly up and we are going. The visitors, presumably home. The three of us are hitting the road. We decide that we can pick up the bus ticket later. After all, the station is open all night and we will be back in time.... This makes me nervous, but Goran is sure, and Jovica wants to hit the road.

What can I say. Serbia is beautiful. I love the hills and the partially harvested fields. I love the old-fashioned hay stacks built around upright poles, and often complete with little ladders, topped often by a bit of plastic around the area where the pole sticks out. I love the homes that we gradually figure out are built of red bricks just a little smaller than American cinder blocks. The basic house is two stories, with a balcony on the second story, which has two windws, each of which is to the outside of a door to the balcony. When all is done, the brick is plastered white. I keep meaning to take the perfect picture, but am holding out for even better until, later, it is too late. As you'll see from this snap, taken later when we were held up for a few minutes for a traffic accident, this camera does not do panoramas worth shit. The lovely houses I have just been describing, are the sort of white dots in the distance.

For the first hour there are no villages, just houses built wherever along the road. Jovica says that people just buy land and build on it as they please. His father lives in such an area, and, as it turns out, still does not have a phone--in part because of the expense of wiring communities that are so spread out. (And, also, in part due to the crazy state of the rump Yugoslav phone system, but we've already discussed that ;-).)

We stop at a fairly commercial place for a quick coffee on the way, and then continue on. It is a bit drizzly out, but we continue to make progress and continue to make progress. It gradually sinks in that the monastery is far away and we are not going quickly. It is after 5 when we finally pull off the main road (it would be far too much of an exaggeration to call it a highway) towards the monastery. There are a lot of newish houses here, almost as though someone had decided to build a suburb out here in the middle of nowhere. Add to this the fact that the monastery is poorly marked (like, haven't these folks heard of neon, for goodness sake???), and we come close to missing it.

The monastery at Studenica

No problem. We don't miss it. And it is quite something to see. The old 12th century walls are still up, surrounding the whole site. It does look as some dorm-type buildings outside the walls might be part of the monastery, but I have no way of telling. Inside, there are modern-looking, possibly rebuilt, dorms and a library/dining room lining the wall. More or less in the center is the main church, a smaller chapel, and then a couple of surviving rough chapels from way back when. Later we will look at the foundations, all that is left of what was once 14 chapels, many of different Christian sects, that had been there, and were torn down, I believe, by wars or by the Turks, over time. The main chapel goes back to the 12th century.

Although it is now 5:30 and we are worried that we won't be welcome, a monk hurrying to prayers in the the main churchmain church directs us to its doors. Inside there is an old 14th century section with several drawings along the walls in classic Orthodox style and a small souvenir shop where booklets and crosses and candles are for sale (albeit, not at this moment). The next chamber in is the original chamber. More icons and an old altar. And then we are in the main area, where services are being chanted. The voices at this part are lovely (later, there will be parts, or perhaps some late arriving monks, who are less harmonious). I am fond of Gregorian Chant in any event, and for Jovica this is a religious experience. Goron keeps calling me out of services to walk around the yard while he smokes cigarettes.

I am far too unfamiliar with Orthodox Churches to describe the interior. All wall space is taken up with frescoes. Behind us, as we walk in, is Jesus being taken down from the cross. Another scene is said to symbolize the church becoming the transition from the pre-Jesus synagogue. There are saints, galore. They are often in terrible shape--age? war? I don't know. Around the sides of the chapel, and also in the part where prayers are led, are coffins. Some are built into the wall. Some are just there. As monks come in to pray, they stop and cross themselves at each one, and bow. One can sense the motion and its mantra effect on them, even when they appear to be hurrying (if they are coming in now, of course, they are late). There are two small naves to each side in the main hall, giving the hall a cross shape. Most of the half dozen monastery congregants are in the naves. Behind the main lecturn and icons and coffins in front is another room, which also contains icons and more religious relics. At some times during the service a prayer leader is inside the room (although it isn't really a room, being screen off, not separated by real walls, or even being totally screened off). Most of the prayer is gregorian chant, which is wonderful, if occasionally there are off-key voices. Along with us in the main area are a few visitors, as well. One older woman sits during most of the service, but I follow Jovica's lead and stand when I am present. There is a lot of crossing. I try to look polite, but refrain from participating in that part of the ritual.

At the end of the service, in place of communion, the congregants go to each of the coffins in turn, crossing themselves, as was done by the monks coming in late. As they leave, they do not turn their backs on the icons. Instead, they face in the door and cross themselves at the doorway to each chamber as they leave, only turning after crossing themselves. It is all solemn, and in its unfamiliar way, a familiar-feeling sense of peace and communication with god is present.

Afterwards, Jovica buys a candle and one of the novitiates takes us around and tells us about the monastery a bit and shows us the icons. I am dependent upon translation, but it is also enough for me, in most cases, to simply look. The novitiate is dressed in regular dress. As if called up by Central Casting, he has dark, curly hair and beard. He looks to be about twenty. His face has that intense calmness that you see in people who are living a very focused, spiritual life separate from the rest of the world.

Outside, we note the graves of several people marked by stones placed so that we walk over them as we move around the monastery yard (sort of like the graves of folks buried in the church at Penshurst). A couple of them, dating back only about a hundred years, include a Magen David, the Star of David. The novitiate identifies it as the "shield of David," but says he does not yet know why that symbol would be on anyone's grave. At one point he suggests a sect that considers itself both Christian and Jewish, I guess like the Messianic Christians in the States. It seems improbable that there would be a connection with this monastery a hundred years ago, though.

It is raining a bit harder than drizzle now, but not unpleasantly so. Inside the smaller chapel are a string of saints. The novitiate explains that these include the founder of the chapel, who holds the chapel in his hands (in the picture), symbolizing that ownership, and his wife. The Turks have excised her face--the rest of that drawing is intact, other than age, but no part of her face is left. They were afraid of being cursed by her. The novitiate points out that several of the icons are so damaged. From my perspective, it's hard to tell. Everything is in pretty bad shape, although here and there things might be in a process of restoration. What do I know?

Dinner at a roadside inn

By now we are pretty hungry, and it is getting dark. We head back, knowing that we face about a four hour drive. Goran and Jovica assure me that they are looking for some place to eat, but it must be the "right place." Goran says that it will tell us when it is the right place.

They do stop once or twice, but neither time does the inn pass examination. Finally, a couple of hours down the road, as we are all reacting to hunger pangs, we find it. It's a typical roadside place, with some nice tables inside, and the outside reserved more for drinking. Across the road a decent local band is entertaining in the Turkish style. Jovica examines the outdoor grill and reports that it has been used up until an hour or two ago, so the meat, fresh pig as it turns out, will be fresh. The waitress is great. We order drinks (Jovica, as designated driver, sticks to mineral water. Goran suggests grappa, and I allow as how I'll join him in whatever.) The gang also order soup, which the the waitress, opening a bottle of winewaitress animatedly, and obviously describes as "excellent." Even I, without Serbian, understand that!

The soup is excellent. A spicy mix of meat and vegetables and dumplings. The bread is pretty average, but no sooner have we finished the first tureen, than she brings out another as part of the order. By me, the soup would have been enough. I'm satisfied. I'm not so impressed by the pork that follows, although the salad is good. We order a bottle of wine and continue to joke and to talk for an hour, until Jovica points out that it is later than ever, and we are still at least a couple of hours from home. It is getting late, too, which means that my bus ticket may be in jeopardy. I am also beginning to feel as though I have spent a lot of nights out drinking with the guys, and am beginning to think of quiet evenings at home.

The rest of the trip is long. The rain comes down harder. There are a couple of accidents. The road is slow, anyway. At one point, Jovica is even pulled over for alleged speeding. It really didn't seem as though he were going fast, but there is no appeal. It is almost an arbitrary ticket.

Unfortunately, by the time we get back to the center of town to the bus station, it is, again, after 1am and we cannot buy a ticket between 1am and 4am. Jovica is mad at Goran for convincing him to let the ticket wait. We are all thinking that Serbia is nice, but I do need to get to Sarajevo and we can't keep doing this. Jovica insists that he will stay up all night to be at the bus station at 4 to get the ticket. If all works out, tomorrow night I will be in Sarajevo.

[back] to Arriving in Belgrade
[on] to Passing through Srbska (it should be like hemorrhoids)

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