A day of surprises in Serbia

Charukesi Ramadurai | Updated on October 18, 2019

Wall of faith: Frescoes adorn the inner sanctum of the Krusedol monastery, located deep inside a national park   -  CHARUKESI RAMADURAI

Monasteries, a national park and a city with the right balance of the traditional and the modern — a wrong turn can lead to many stories in this Balkan country

The young man was lost to the world as he stood staring at the colourful frescos on the walls of the inner sanctum at Krusedol monastery. He seemed to be in meditation mode, totally absorbed by the art around him. I know it didn’t take long for me to be entranced by the murals, fading and yet somehow so vivid and inviting. Krusedol in northern Siberia has five monks in residence and this young man — he smiled and waved his hands disarmingly when I asked his name — was in training to join their ranks.

The plum red entry gate gave no indication of the size of the monastery, as we parked our car and walked past a group of noisy schoolkids at the end of their tour. Autumn had arrived early, and the path snaking towards the main building was carpeted with soft yellow and orange leaves shed by the tall trees in the garden. An old monk in flowing dark robes was pushing bulky cartons on a wheelbarrow to the small shop inside the monastic complex. It turned out that the monks also made and sold wine and rakija, the potent fruit-flavoured Serbian liquor; I duly bought a few bottles of their best plum rakija to take back home. But I am getting ahead of myself here.

Located deep in the heart of the Fruska Gora National Park, this 16th-century monastery is one of the most popular Orthodox monasteries in the region. Locals say that it is one of 17 surviving monasteries of the original 35. It is said to have been ransacked several times by Turkish invaders, but has somehow managed to preserve many of the original frescoes inside the main altar. Representing Christ with his apostles, the Virgin Mary, and St John the Baptist, these frescoes are stunning, and cover every inch of the walls and ceilings.

After this we make a quick stop at the Velika Remeta monastery. Largely ignored by tourists, it appears even more serene and scenic. This monastery is older, built in the mid 1500s. The murals and frescos here had clearly been recreated — by celebrated Serbian artist Dragan Marunić — which made them shine brightly from old pillars and walls. The overall effect was startling, but not all that charming.

Getting out of Velika Remeta, we took a wrong turn and fetched up at the Ubavac spring, a source of mineral water credited with miraculous healing properties. The young couple from the village filling up gigantic cans with this water got chatting with us while we stopped to ask for directions: “India? India! You have come all the way to this little place that nobody knows about? You are welcome!” the woman exclaimed.

All of this was an unexpected delight that morning, since our initial plan was vague — a lazy hike, followed by a picnic lunch by a babbling brook inside the forest. We were crossing Fruska Gora on our way from the capital city of Belgrade to Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city. Fruska Gora is Serbia’s oldest national park, a densely forested mountain with multiple hiking trails, lush vineyards and hidden monasteries. We didn’t even realise when we had entered it. There was no single entry or exit to this sylvan land, or even a signboard to indicate our exact location. And before we knew it, we were also back on the highway, speeding towards Novi Sad. Not that there was much of speeding, since Novi Sad was a mere half hour away.

In any case, Novi Sad proved to be a pleasant choice for the aimless walking we had planned. Like in all self-respecting European towns, the city centre here, too, was around a central plaza. The one there is known as the Freedom Square (Trg Slobode). I was particularly taken by the neo-Gothic Catholic Cathedral and the art nouveau Jewish synagogue — not just the history and the architecture, but also the very fact that they stood tall in this Serbian Orthodox city. Not so surprising perhaps, given that Novi Sad has always been, and is still known to be youthful and liberal, home to the trendy EXIT music festival for 20 years now.

In 2021, Novi Sad will become the first non-EU city to be designated the European Capital of Culture. (This tag is awarded by the EU every year and it organises cultural activities in the chosen city through the 12 calendar months.) It had a laidback air about it that I found restful. And the perfect balance of cheery cafés and ornate palaces made me happy.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer-photographer

Travel log
  • Getting there

Fly to Belgrade via Dubai/Doha. Novi Sad is just over 90 km / 1.5 hours from Belgrade by road. Base yourself in either city and make a day trip to Fruska Gora.

  • Stay

Belgrade: Hotel Moskva (hotelmoskva.rs/), close to the main square.

Novi Sad: Citihotel Veliki (hotelvelikinovisad.com/en/).

  • Visa

Indian passport holders do not need a visa to enter Serbia.

  • BLink Tip

Hire a car for this trip; public transportation is irregular in these parts.

Published on October 18, 2019

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