Day 3 – Vlasina – Surdulica – Leskovac – Kapaonik
Have you ever had a day which seemed relatively normal when you wake up but ends up being one of the most important days of your life? Well, today is one of those days for me. Fernandified and I woke up, had breakfast on the small terrace of the hotel we stayed in. The air was crisp and cold but the sun was getting stronger and its rays cut sharply onto the cold winds. The morning lumbered along as we waited for our friend who was running late.
In the book I picked up from Belgrade on the last day of our trip called ‘Snippets of Serbia’, I read that the south of Serbia earned a bad reputation. There is a Serbian saying that says ‘The more south, the more sad’. We are now pretty south of Serbia in this small mountainous village of Vlasina. Bulgaria on the east border, Macedonia in the south and the politically sensitive Kosovo on the west. The region is definitely not the wealthiest, the villages are not the prettiest, but the charm was unavoidable. Muddy winding trails flattened and thinned out, possibly by the boots of the village folk walking constantly on them, disappearing into the lush greens of the Vlasina lake region. Vlasina lake is the highest and the largest artificial lake in Serbia. The cold climes and the fertile lands meant greenery everywhere. The settlement was sparse and our short drive to the banks of the Vlasina lake showed how simple and untouched the region is. Small two-way road and some houses or resorts are all you see in Vlasina.
We arrived at a small flat area which lead to the banks of the lake covered in wildflowers. I noticed a lady picking the wildflowers wearing a straw hat and her bicycle close by. A scene from Sense & Sensibility played in my head where Mr. Willoughby brought flowers to Miss Dashwood after her accident. Mr. Willoughby said “I see mine is not the first offering. Nor the most elegant” after seeing the immaculate bouquet offered by Colonel Brandon. Miss Dashwood said, “I always prefer wildflowers” to which Mr. Willoughby replied, “I suspected as much”. This summed up the carefree, impulsive and romantic character of Miss Dashwood. In a way, south Serbia is exactly that – carefree, impulsive and romantic.
There were many activities there – locals tanning, swimming, boating and what have you. We rented a small paddle boat for an hour. In such a small remote place, everyone wanted to know who we were and where we came from. The mention of Dubai would light up the faces of the locals. We paddled across the lake and enjoyed the cool breeze, the deep moss green water and the blazing sun washing down on us. We left the lake and stopped at the local market made up of some 15 to 20 odd stalls selling local produce, household items, clothes and art mostly depicting sunset on the lake. In this part of Serbia, I was told that the locals would walk for hours, climb steep slopes to pick wild strawberries and blueberries. These are then made into syrupy, sweet, jammy condiments. Our friend’s mother made those herself so we were advised not to purchase any, however, we could not walk past the beautiful jars of honey that were on sale. Everywhere you drive, you would notice colorful boxes on the side of the roads containing bee hives. The gentleman who sold it to us apparently said to our friend that we were buying a piece of memory and that whenever we use the honey, we will be thinking of Vlasina. He probably did not know how true his words were.
We left Vlasina and stopped in small towns such as Surdulica and Leskovac for lunch and much needed coffee breaks. Did you know that Serbians always order a cup of coffee with a side of Coca Cola or some sort of soda? I am yet to try this combination but I thought it was fascinating! We were now headed up north from Vlasina but our main destination today was Kapaonik which was located right on the borders of Kosovo in the south-central terrains of Serbia. As the drive progressed and as hundreds of villages passed – perhaps never to be visited in my lifetime nor even know its names – the roads became sinuous and the trees became pointier. The landscape, which evidently resembled a mountain resort destination, gave way to incredible cottages with extremely steep sloped roofs. The landscape was breathtaking and far flung from the image of the economically deprived villages we had passed just a couple of hours ago. The sun was setting, the air was cold and I was in awe of what this small country had to offer only to be even more surprised tomorrow (read below :)). Kapaonik is the second largest ski resort in southeast Europe.
We chased the sunset and our friend drove us snaking in and out of sharp curves and loops to find the perfect vantage point to watch the sun set. I did not know what the fuss was all about to be honest. Everywhere I looked, it was pretty and the sunset threw a glorious shade of orange in the sky and it was magical in every frame of the view. Only a few minutes later, I finally understood why this view was so important because Fernandified had been planning for weeks and perhaps months for this perfect moment. I cannot remember what he said with much clarity as it was a blur. I only remember him asking if I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him and then the ring and then that was that. The next thing I remember was checking into our hotel. I was reminded later on that he used my full name, asked to marry him, went down on one knee and the whole shebang. I only remember – shock, happiness, laughter, emotion, love, blessed, “Is this really happening?”, “I look like shit”, “My hair is not washed”, “Is Miloš filming us?”, “Oh my God! I cannot cry on camera”, “I will punch this guy if he doesn’t stop filming”, “I really am going to punch him….” – all in the same moment.
So that was how it happened. Yes, I also nearly punched our friend and yes this was recorded in the video too.
Day 4 – Kapaonik – Novi Pazar – Kraljevo -Vrnjačka Banja – Kapaonik
I woke up today feeling oddly content and unsurprisingly happy. I had a big shiny……smile on my face (and the ring too). So, today our friend promises is going to be a good day in which we will get to see a completely different side of Serbia. We left our hotel in Kapaonik and headed out for yet another day of making memories. We are going to see all different shades of ‘culture’ today and boy was I excited!
Scaling the border of Kosovo from Kapaonik and moving closer to Montenegro is our first stop – Novi Pazar. Novi Pazar means ‘New Market’ and is a culturally rich city in the south-west region of Serbia with 82% muslim population. We parked our car and was leaving to explore the city only to be stopped by a few little boys asking for money. Our friend, Miloš, spurts out some quick words of what in my head sounded like a old man giving advice and the next thing I saw was this little boy (thug like, well gelled hair, collars turned-up, confident face, tanned skin and all of about 3 foot 5 inches) throwing his hands in the air looking exasperated. Miloš apparently asked the boys to wash the car for us if they wanted money. He promised to pay them when we return and if the car was clean to which the boy who seemingly looked like the ‘leader’ of the group (described above) argued saying that he did not want to work and asked our friend to “just give him the money”. When Miloš started dolling out advice that to earn money, one must work, the leader of this small group of business boys got upset and shooed us away. Well then….
The sun was almost above our heads and the first thing we were searching for was food. Not just any food, we were on the hunt for some local Börek. Börek is a rich flaky pastry filled with either cheese or minced meat and washed down with a drink of yogurt. We walked through Novi Pazar and its city center in search for a plate of perfect Börek. While walking through Novi Pazar, I noticed that the ‘coffee shops’ were quite busy and boisterous and mainly men. We asked the locals and found a hole in the wall family run place selling Börek. One could easily get lost in the small lanes in this wonderful city. We walked the back alleys and the small and narrow streets taking in remnants of ottoman influences, modestly dressed women and the daily lives of this uniquely oriental and exotic city.
Around Novi Pazar, there are a lot of monasteries of the Orthodox Christians in Serbia. The most significant one of the lot is the magnificent Studenica Monastery. Now, pay attention because what I’m about to tell you is the birth of the modern Serbia as we know today. The monastery was built between 1183 to 1196 but the painting was completed in 1209. The monastery gained enormous importance as it would become the future burial place of Stefan Nenamja. Stefan Nenamja founded the Nemanjić Dynasty and is considered the founder of Serbian state. His middle son Stefan Nemanjić became the First King of Serbia and his youngest son was Saint Sava (read about the church of Saint Sava here) – the first archbishop of Serbia and also known as the founder of Serbian medieval literature. Both father and son would eventually start the Hilander Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece.
Today, the fortified walls of the monastery houses the Church of the Virgin, and the Church of the King. We met a young man inside the Church of the Virgin whose name, I forgot to ask. He was studying History at Studenica and his passion was infectious. He said that the monastery housed the first ever hospital and school in Serbia and also described the famous frescoes inside the church in detail. Frescoes depicting the Crucifixion, Stefan Nenamja offering the monastery as his gift to God, Saint Sava bringing back the relics of his father to the monastery from Mount Athos were depicted in great detail. The Crucifixion is considered one of the best frescoes in Serbia. It was painted with a deep blue (called the Byzantine blue) background which the young man said was painted using Lapis Lazuli. Unfortunately, most of the faces on the frescoes were scraped off and destroyed by the Turks during the Ottoman invasion. Fortunately though, the monastery is undergoing restoration work in the hope of bringing out the grandeur that it once had.
If I had more time, I could spend days exploring the monasteries and learning about its history in every detail possible. However, time is not always my friend and today we had another destination to discover before the sun sets – Vrnjačka Banja. Serbia is blessed with many natural mineral rich springs and Vrnjačka Banja is a health resort or spa city where these mineral springs were first discovered. Known as favourite destination to the aristocrats back in the day, this city reminded me very much of Lemington Spa in the U.K. The spa centers were shut by the time we reached so we ate, walked and took in the fun fair that were taking place on the streets before driving back to Kapaonik and retiring for the night.
Day 5 – Kapaonik – Djavolja Varoš – Belgrade
We left Kapaonik for Djavolja Varoš, also known as the Devils Town. The name was definitely captivating and I was curious to learn more about this place. Djavolja Varoš consisted of tall stone formations with stone caps. This natural landmark was a nominee for one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. Everything about this place is spooky and mysterious. The landmark is located in a village named Djake, derived from an Albanian word ‘gjak’, meaning ‘blood’. Walking up to the stone formations, you follow a trail passing natural springs with names such as ‘Devil’s water’ which also happens to be extremely acidic and red in colour due to high iron content. It all works together with the whole eerie and sinister vibe of this entire place.
Legend has it that the stones are petrified guests of a wedding. On the Devil’s orders, the villagers tried to marry a brother and sister and all the guests were turned to stone by God as punishment. If this was true, everyone on Game of Thrones would be stone by now! Just saying.
So this is it! We have completed one week of exploring Serbia. We drove for hours, shared stories and learned a lot about each other. One story was about that time Miloš took his father’s car out for a spin when he was away. Miloš was extremely careful and meticulous, he drew every detail on a piece of paper. For instance, how the car was parked – the slant and all, the fuel level etc. so he could return the car back to how it originally was. When his father returned, he waited for a day and told himself that he was safe if nothing was said a day after his father came home. On the second day, his father was watching TV and called Miloš to come. A reporter was on TV reporting from the city center and in the background was Miloš driving around town in his father’s car! The hilarity of the entire situation didn’t get him in trouble. But the three of us ruptured into laughter. We will all remember this one day and laugh all over again. Tonight we return to Belgrade and tomorrow Croy and I will get back to our regular lives in Dubai – only this time, engaged.
We were so grateful to our friend for showing us all these different sides of Serbia and teaching us that if you look past the grumpy exterior of the Serbs, you would find a true friend for life. We felt that we learned a lot about Serbia, the culture, the history, the people. We thanked our friend for taking the time out and tolerating us for a week to show us both what Serbia is all about to which he replied “Congratulations! Now you have seen 2% of Serbia”.