Serbia’s Magical East

The mountains and forests between the Danube, Great Morava and Timok rivers have a centuries-long reputation for mystery, thanks to the rich culture of its large indigenous Vlach population and the wonderful landscape of the region.

Vlach traditional costumes, Romanian language and elaborate rituals, many related to the dead, still inspire wild stories in Serbia.  Indeed, any mention of Eastern Serbia will inevitably bring up ‘Vlach magic’, which is greatly feared and admired by the superstitious.

The region’s canyons and caves have also served to maintain its reputation for mystery. These natural wonders also offered shelter to many outlaws or ‘hajduks’ for which the region was famous during Ottoman rule,  while rich gold deposits around the Pek river attracted a fair share of adventurers throughout history.

Unfortunately, despite its natural and cultural riches, Eastern Serbia’s inaccessibility makes it one of the least explored and developed regions in the country. Its economic problems have been exacerbated by the collapse since the 1990s of many state companies headquartered there and the protracted crisis of the Bor copper mine, one of the largest in Europe. This means that many of the locals left Eastern Serbia to find work in Germany, Austria and France, and that many of its wonderful villages are now almost empty.

Nevertheless, Eastern Serbia is a fascinating region to explore, especially in the autumn when its thick forests explode in all possible colours and make navigating its narrow roads a pleasure rather than a chore.

As it is impossible to cram everything there is to see in Eastern Serbia into one trip or article, here are a few of the must-see sites. While you are there, make sure you try the famous Homolje and Miroc cheese, as well as the region’s honey and Negotin wines.

Felix Romuliana

A UNESCO-listed site since 2007, Felix Romuliana or Gamzigrad is the 4th century Roman palace of Emperor Galerius. The complex is recognisable for its immaculately preserved fortifications and its valuable mosaics and sculptures, most of which are on display in the Museum in Zajecar, about 10 kilometres to the east. Mounds containing the graves of Galerius and his mother Romula, after whom the palace was named, can be found on a hill above the complex. Interestingly, these mounds are where Galerius was deified in an elaborate ritual, making this hill above Felix Romuliana the birthplace of the last Roman god.

Felix Romuliana is open every day between 8am and 7pm.

Rajac Wine Cellars and Cemetery

One of the most impressive displays of Serbian folk architecture, ‘Rajacke pivnice’, are a complex of several dozen wine cellars built between the early 19th century and World War II above the village of Rajac. Rajac is a four-hour drive from Belgrade and half an hour from Negotin, the centre of this wine-growing region.

These wonderful limestone structures were built when the fortunes of several hundred Rajac villagers improved after the phylloxera louse epidemic destroyed European wine production. The Rajac vineyards were spared thanks to the dry, sandy soil of the area.

Although many of the cellars are now abandoned, some still offer the chance to try local wines and specialities, and also spend a night.

Another thing not to miss is the atmospheric local cemetery with its column-shaped grave stones, decorated with elaborate solar and cross motifs, characteristic for the region.

Manasija

One of Serbia’s most iconic monasteries, Manasija (also known as Ravanica) is celebrating its 600th anniversary this year.  The monastery was built in the ornate Morava style, a unique architectural style that developed in Serbia just before the battle of Kosovo in 1389. Manasija was founded by Lord (or ‘Despot’) Stefan Lazarevic, as a cultural and spiritual centre of the Serbian Despotate, the last Serbian state before the Ottoman invasion of 1459. Despot Lazarevic ruled from Belgrade until his death in 1427.

The beautiful sandstone monastery church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, is decorated with priceless frescos which include depictions of Holy Warriors and Despot Stefan. It also contains his tomb. In addition to the church, the Manasija complex also contains the remains of a large refectory which served the monastery during medieval times.

A visit to Manasija isn’t complete without a walk on the fortification walls and its 11 towers from which you can admire the beauty of the complex and its hilly surroundings.

Manasija can be visited every day between 8pm and 4pm.

Krupaj spring

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The karst spring next to the village of Milanovac is famous for its deep blue colour. The water springs up from a 70-metre deep cave and makes for a wonderfully photogenic scene, thanks to the thick forest surrounding it. Until 1945, when a small dam was built, you could see the water gushing from the earth, but now there is a beautifully serene lake instead. Next to the spring is a fish farm and a mill, as well as a hot spring.

Vratna Canyon and Monastery

The Vratna river canyon, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Belgrade, is a natural wonder thanks to three impressive natural stone arches – the tallest in Europe – that rise above its floor. The first two arches, called Small Door and Large Door, are a 20-minute hike from the entrance to the canyon, while the last one, Dry Door, takes two hours to get to.

Besides the beauty of these skeletal arches you can also admire the picturesque 14th century Vratna monastery that lies at the entrance to the canyon and also buy honey and other produce made by its nuns.

Trska Crkva

Trska Crkva is a 13th century church close to the town of Zagubica in the middle of the Homolje region. The church is notable not only for its Raska-style architecture, which is a local mix of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture, decorated with two impressive griffins watching over  its entrance, but also for ancient marks on its stones, which to date remain unexplained and some claim go back to the 9thcentury. The etchings range from undeciphered inscriptions and stylised crosses to drawings of stags and hunters and give the church a mysterious air.

Gornjak gorge

Called the Gates of Homolje, Gornjak gorge forms the entrance to some of the most stunning parts of Serbia. Besides the impressive sheer cliffs, the gorge hides two monasteries: the rock hewn and abandoned Blagovestenje and the stately Gornjak. A bit further from the gorge towards Petrovac na Mlavi, there is also a natural hot spring developed into the Zdrelo spa hotel and water park where you can enjoy the thermal waters throughout the year, albeit in a slightly tacky looking faux-medieval setting.

Modern Vlach mausoleums

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Eastern Serbia’s unique funerary culture is best evidenced by large mausoleums built on its village cemeteries. These mausoleums, which resemble houses, are where the family of the deceased spend time and leave gifts, such as cigarettes or TVs, to help them in the afterlife.

Although most of these house-like mausoleums are of recent origin, they are contemporary expressions of ancient Vlach customs, which required families to take care of their relatives even in the afterlife. In the old days, those customs included organising weddings for the deceased if they died unmarried.

These strange structures in villages around Eastern Serbia are slowly becoming popular sites for taphophiles. The most impressive mausoleums are to be found in Osnic by Boljevac and Trnovce by Petrovac na Mlavi.

This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight and on Balkan Insight portal. Here is where to find a copy.

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3 thoughts on “Serbia’s Magical East

  1. Interesting places. Thanks for the article Srdjan. I hope to visit some of those places one day. I wonder what some of the superstitions from the area are?

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