Category Archives: monastery

From Višegrad in Bosnia, to Užice in Serbia

In my wonderfully welcoming lodgings, there’s a bottle of clear liquid on the kitchen worktop. And somehow inside it, someone has managed to construct a cross. Not being an alcohol drinker, I am however interested in this evidently local custom. I gather from my host that the cross is made of oak, and it ‘ oak ages ‘ the brandy. It is indeed pretty strong, but I cannot comment on whether the brandy is better with it or without it. 

Cross in a bottle of brandy….fuzziness brought about by strength of contents 
Local beer with a name to conjure with

As a non-drinker, I am finding it impossible to buy alcohol-free beer on this trip. I am obliged to buy the odd bottle of real as opposed to ‘ pointless ‘ beer, with interesting labels, and spend time reading Misha Glenny’s excellent book.

I am laden with gifts of pears, and plums, as I ride out of Višegrad after my second night there. It is a climb up from the River Drina towards the border with Serbia at Kotroman. On my way through the meandering valley, I pass an Orthodox monastery, and very shortly after, a mosque. I’m only a few miles from the border, and I decide to ride off the road, and have a look at the monastery. A coach is parked up outside. There is a big group of teenagers in the church, being shown around by an adult. The buildings and grounds are so well maintained, and this is a very striking aspect about all the places of worship I visit. There are some lovely and faded paintings on the internal walls of the church. This monastery is the Dobrun Monastery. The facade is very brightly and highly decorated, but I prefer the interior, and its 14th century interior. I brace myself and join the group of teenagers, all sitting outside in the warm sun. I’m curious that a group of 30 or so teenagers are keen to give up their day during their school holidays to go and visit religious buildings. A couple of them speak a little English, and after their initlal embarrassment and giggling, I have a short conversation with them. In answer to my question about what the site means to them, the answer is,” its very old “. 

Dogs taking the sun in the monastery gardens

Church interior
Monastery gardens 
Emperor’s Mosque – near border crossing at Kotroman
Border crossing into Serbia, at Vardiste
The trains stands in the station
Welcome to Serbia

There is a strange and confusing moment at the border crossing. As I approach what appears to  be the border, on my left there is an interesting collection of buildings and what appear to be earth-bermed bunkers. There is also a sign indicating that there is a memorial up on the hill to my left, and there are some old railway sidings and some semi-abandoned sheds. There’s even an old rail carriage. But there is a high chain-link fence, preventing me from accessing it all. The confusion ends when I realise that to investigate this intriguing bit of history, I have to go through the EXIT check-point of Bosnia & Hercegovina, and then turn immediately and sharply left, effectively in a kind of no-man’s land, and then I’m let loose. I’m not entirely sure where I am – having exited Bosnia & Hercegovina but not entered Serbia. Up a very steep little-used track is a memorial and chapel to 440  fighters killed in the First World War. I can imagine this steep and narrow defile would have been the scene of a bloody confrontation. And then I cycle back down to the road, and onto the Serbia ENTRY check-point. One of the wonderful aspects of travelling across borders on a bicycle is the ease with which you pass through these crossings. It is pretty universally accepted that cyclists just coast up to the front of any queue, get their documents inspected and stamped, and are happily welcomed through and into the next country. The border guards always seem to exhibit a cheerful curiosity, and ask about where you’ve come from and how far you’re going. They’re usually very encouraging. And so onto Serbia.

Memorial at Vardista border control
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Trebinje, Republika Srpska, Eastern Hercegovina

A small town of around 30,000, Trebinje has a lot to commend it.

 

Trebinje 1

It was a very hot day, and I walked up to the top of the prominent hill overlooking the town. At the summit, is the Gracanica Monanstery, completed in 2000. Its a Serbian Orthodox monastery, essentially a fairly faithful modern copy of a monastery of the same name in Kosovo.

As I’m a bit of an atheist, I always take a bit of an atheist’s view of religious buildings, but nevertheless admit to often being in awe of the beauty and splendour of the architecture, or the sheer weight of the presence of the ghosts of all the thousands or even millions of souls that have passed with reverence and religious devotion through the doors of these buildings. I have visited many, often seeking them out as places of quiet, for contemplation, or for refuge from a storm, or from the crowds. And I observe with interest, the trappings of the various theologies; the products of thousands of years in development. The site comprises a ‘ gift ‘ shop, and a restaurant and cafe, with a wonderful city wide vista across the river.

In Britain, the pace of building of new Christian churches is slow; it seems we have  already got enough of them, and congregation numbers are falling. In fact, where I live in Wales, I know that a lot of churches and chapels are being sold, for conversion to dwellings, as the institutions are unable to afford the funds to maintain them, and there’s only so much public money to go round to maintain the architectural essence of the few more interesting examples.  Mosques, in certain part of Britain, on the other hand, are being built, as the congregations seem be growing, albeit slowly.

In the countries of the Balkans, its a more complicated picture. 

Romania has until recently had the fastest rate of construction of new churches in Europe; ten per week. ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23420668 ) and this for a country of not much more than 25 million, with under-resourced public services. Only very recently has the Romanian Government made the decision to withdraw from its major commitment to assisting in the church building programme. ( http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/romania-reduces-funding-for-churches-12-12-2015-1 ) 

The countries of the former Yugoslavia are also booming; if you are a builder who knows how to knock up a place of worship. 

monasteryGracanica Monastery, Trebinje

monastery interiormonastery gift shopGift shop, Gracanica Monastery, Trebinje

I suppose, that after nearly 50 years, from 1945 onwards, when virtually NO churches were built, it’s only natural that the faithful would want to assert their right to worship the religion of their choice, once the prohibition had ended, and I would be among the strongest supporters of that right.  So, now its a busy time for church-builders.

I don’t know what the up to date situation is, but in 2014, researchers Milan Spasojević and Milica Milojević, wrote that in just the previous 15 years, over 200 Orthodox churches had been built, with another 100 in the final phase of construction, in Serbia alone. (http://www.ejournals.eu/pliki/art/3179/ ). 

What is also an interesting observation,  is that during the Bosnian War from 1991-5, ten of Trebinje’s mosques were completely destroyed, and that  from a situation where 5,500 out of a population of 30,000 were self-declared Muslims in 1991, by 2013, only 1000 out of a similar total population, declared themselves to be Muslim. I am not sure how many new mosques, if any are being built, although I did see a beautifully restored little stone and timber one in the centre of the old town.

What this change implies, for the longer term, is beyond the scope of my understanding after a mere two days here. But it does seem that Christian Orthodoxy is in the ascendant at the moment, in this place at least. 

Mosque

Mosque 1Mosque in the Old Town, Trebinje

At the end of this very hot day, I went looking for a place to swim. I had seen on the town’s Tourist Information board, a map, with a municipal swimming pool clearly shown. A wide slow moving river – the Trebisnjica – must surely offer a wonderful swimming opportunity. And indeed it did!

This wasn’t to be the last such municipal swimming pool which I would encounter on my bike. Around a bend of the river, and upstream of the centre of the town, is a pool of several acres! A weir and sluice gates controls the inflow and outflow from and to the river, and a grating prevents anything other than water or small objects entering the pool. The water was deliciously warm, a little muddy, and the warning from a fellow-swimmer about the slimy concrete bottom to the pool, accurate.

Surrounded by a concrete apron, extensive shady lawns, changing booths, showers and enhanced by a diving platform, this place must surely be crowded with families during the school holidays and evenings. As it was, only a handful of swimmers and sun-bathers were here, and I enjoyed a solitary swim, with my eyes on the distant, sun parched karst horizon.

poolTrebinje lido.