Colorful Sopocani Monastery and the UNESCO sites of Novi Pazar

Sopocani Frescoes, a UNESCO World Heritage in Serbia

Around Novi Pazar, the UNESCO has nominated four different sites as universal World Heritage. This was reason enough for us to travel to Novi Pazar in Southern Serbia and seek out these places. A first search on the Internet brings up a lot of great photos of the Sopocani Monastery along with some explanations about its historical importance. The Sopocani frescoes constituted a link between antique, Byzantine and Western mediaeval traditions. However, we find little information about the other three sites: The church of St. Peter, Stari Ras, and St. George Monastery. Are they worth a visit? But since they are on the list, and we like to venture into the unknown – we will try to see them all!

Where is Sopocani Monastery?

The four UNESCO sites are scattered around Novi Pazar, a predominantly Muslim town in the south of Serbia near the border with Kosovo. Getting to Novi Pazar in the first place is a lengthy endeavour. From the capital of Belgrade, it would take almost a day by bus. But since we stopped at the Monastery of Studenica, another UNESCO site, we have less distance to cover. But even then, we have to change buses two times and it takes half a day to reach Novi Pazar.  

Leaning crosses on the graveyard of St. Peter’s Church

St Peter's Church in Serbia, part of the Sopocani UNESCO cluster

It takes only about half an hour’s walk from the town centre towards the northern outskirts to reach St. Peter’s church. The small round building is reportedly the oldest church in Serbia. Built in the 9th century it served as a family church for the important Nemanjic royal dynasty. Not everything we see is original, though. A big part of the church including the upper story was rebuilt in the 15th century.

The church of St. Peter sits on a grassy knoll with a good view over the valley. Gorgeously ancient-looking tombstones surround it. They are cross-shaped and covered with curvy letters and green lichen. Most of them have sunk into the ground to some extent, and lean to one side or another. On a closer look we can decipher some of the numerals on the tombstones, and guess some words. Someone died at age 53, apparently, someone else was over 80. And we find some dates in the 1870s, but also in the early 20th century.

St Peter Church in Novi Pazar

An orthodox priest waves from a nearby office building before he comes over and unlocks the church. Many of the frescoes inside are not well-preserved. But we recognize some saints in signal-coloured robes (mostly black, white, and red). What we like most is that we may walk up to the upper story of the small main sanctuary. There is a circular walkway where we can look down into the altar room. In a side room we marvel at tombstones dating from the 18th/19th century. They have funny, but also strangely modern, faces. With their beards and round glasses, they look like hipsters.

Gravestone at St Peter's Church in Novi Pazar

Colourful frescoes of Sopocani Monastery

The next day we skip the 6 am bus to Sopocani Monastery for obvious reasons. The next bus leaves Novi Pazar at 10:30 on time. After half an hour later we get off at Sopocani Monastery without a clear idea of how to get back. Buses in these parts of Serbia are quite infrequent and the Monastery of Sopocani is near a mountain pass, far off from any village. It is also near the source of the River Raška, the main river that runs through the area.

Sopocani Monastery near Novi Pazar

Like in Studenica, there is a large round wall around the whole monastery complex, with the church in the middle. Around the church tower, there is an open peristyle hall with some frescoes facing outward, like in the Bukovina churches we have seen in Romania. But here, it is the interior of the church that is completely covered with marvellous frescoes. Every wall and every doorframe inside the Sopocani church is full of images. Saints and evangelists, archangels, bishops and Serbian kings crowd on the walls, along with scenes from the Bible and other stories.

Sopocani Monastery Fresco

“Look!” Natascha points to a scene where many people sit around tables in discussion. She looks up the scene on the tourism app we downloaded. “That’s the Last Judgment! Looks more orderly than in our churches!” But then she realises that these are the Ecumenical Councils and that the Last Judgement depicted on the next wall is grizzly as always: Naked souls, angels, and a lot of devils with horns and tails.

Fresco at Sopocani Monastery

The app also explains in rather great detail about the church history. It was King Stefan Uroš who built the church in the 13th century. Unfortunately, he was dethroned by his son shortly afterwards and lived in exile in another monastery. After his death, however, Uroš’s remains were brought back to rest at Sopocani Monastery. The son, as we understood, later repented, and became a monk himself. But only after getting himself his share of power.

The old town of Stari Ras

UNESCO World Heritage site of Stari Ras, Serbia

The same bus and driver, returning from the village of Bacica behind the mountain pass, picks us up an hour later. After a few minutes we get off at the Ras Resort Hotel to visit the remains of Stari Ras, another one of the four UNESCO sites around Novi Pazar.

Stari Ras or “Old Ras” was the old capital of the Raška state. There was some sort of fortress in the 9th century, but in the 11th and 12th century the place became important, and a town developed at the foot of the fortress. Of the town, Trgovište, we can make out only a few foundations next to the road – perhaps several houses. Our guidebooks extoll the influences of the so-called Raška architecture that combined Byzantine and Western influences, but here at least, no notable architecture is visible.

Remains of a fortress

Travel blogger Natascha walking up to the Gradina Fortress at Stari Ras

The path up to the fortress starts next to the resort hotel and leads through a steep forest and sheer rock. The top of this rock was clearly quite inaccessible to enemies, and it was here that the king built his fortress to protect the area.

On reaching the top we find a windswept plateau and some remaining fortress walls. They are thick and made from large stones to reinforce the natural barrier of the mountain. There is not much to see and from the few remains we cannot get any idea of how the fortress might have looked. But the view from up there is top-notch. We see huge machines quarrying stones and gravel from the next mountain across the ravine, and in the distance the houses of Novi Pazar stretch along the valley.

Travel blogger Natascha at the Gradina Fortress / Stari Ras, Serbia

After a quick rest we scramble down the steep path. No public bus will stop here for the next three hours, and it is a hike of around 12 km back into town. Optimistically we try to hitchhike at the bus stop. After all, auto-stop has been a normal mode of transport in the countries of the Eastern bloc for a long time. But to our surprise none of the passing cars stops. When we are close to giving up and walking back, a car finally stops. The pair of young doctors thought we look very German. They are studying German in order to get a better-paid job in a German-speaking country and are eager for some conversation practice.

A quest for Saint George

The doctors drop us at the outskirts of Novi Pazar, from where we take a taxi to the last of the four UNESCO sites of the Sopocani Monastery batch. Ɖurđevi Stupovi is the Monastery of Saint George – that strange letter Ɖ is pronounced as “dj” in Serbian, and Saint George thus written more like Saint Djurdj.

Entrance to the monastery of St George

The monastery sits on a hill not too far from Novi Pazar, we had read. But we haven’t been able to make it out on any of the hills. Once the taxi arrives at the monastery grounds we understand why: The church buildings are in the middle of dense woods. In addition, the whole church is reconstructed with only a few original walls left intact. It may have been built in 1170, but since then most of the building was destroyed and deserted for centuries.

St George near Novi Pazar is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Inside, we discover a few remnants of frescoes in some vaults. There is some kind of soot on the walls, and we cannot recognise any saints or scenes. St. George is on the UNESCO list for its Raška-style architecture, and for several beautiful frescoes. In particular, we have read about a famous image of Saint George on a galloping horse – but we fail to find that fresco. Is it behind the altar veils? Or has it been taken away to some museum?

Overall, the St. George Monastery turns out a bit of a disappointment despite the nice location in the countryside. After our visit we walk back into town and still have time for a coffee on the main square.

Are the Sopocani Monastery and the UNESCO sites of Novi Pazar worth a visit?

The frescoes of St George belong to the UNESCO World Heritage along with those at Sopocani Monastery

If you are not a collector of UNESCO sites, it is probably enough to visit the Church of St. Peter and the Sopocani Monastery. Both sites are hugely scenic. The frescoes at Sopocani were the best we have seen during our trip to Serbia. They are comparable to the marginally later frescoes of Gracanica we have visited in Kosovo.

The fortress and the remains of the city of Stari Ras, by contrast, are in our opinion only of interest for specialists. They became UNESCO sites for their “historical significance”. However, there is no explanation whatsoever on the spot. Therefore, unless you have extra material at hand you will have no idea what you are looking at. The hike up to the plateau is quite steep and slippery, too.

How to visit Sopocani Monastery and the UNESCO-sites of Novi Pazar by public transport (without a tour)

It took us 1,5 days to visit all four sites by public transport. We walked from Novi Pazar to St. Peter’s church and back (around 3 km one way). From Novi Pazar 4 to 5 buses run on weekdays to the Sopocani Monastery. These buses also pass the ruins of Stari Ras. Unfortunately, there is a long break between noon and 4 pm. Hitchhiking might be an option although we found that Serbian people tend not to stop for hitchhikers. The nearby hotel might be able to organize a taxi.

Street in Novi Pazar, Serbia

You could walk from Novi Pazar to the Monastery of St. George (around 5 km one way) along the country lanes. We also read about a footpath from St Peter’s through the countryside to St George that would be shorter.  However, the priest at St. Peter’s told us that we could not walk that way. And the corresponding gate on the St. George’s end was locked.

For more on the practical side of our Serbia travel, see our travel blog article “Serbia travel – thoughts and experiences”.

NB: We were not sponsored in any way to write this posts and paid everything by ourselves.

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  1. Ha! Being rebuilt in the 15th century is still so old for us Americans. I love the leaning crosses, too. They look so mysterious. I’m glad that you said they were worth the visit, even for those not into UNESCO sites (although I am!) because I’d love to go and see the frescos. Sopocani Monastery looks like a gorgeous place to go if I ever travel that way!

  2. Interesting to read that there are 4 UNESCO sites around Novi Pazar. I would have been a bit worried too if I got off a bus at the Sopocani Monastery and was not sure how to get back. But the lovely frescos sure look like it is worth visiting. Great to visit with an App that helps you to learn more at the site. I was happy to read you got a bus back with no trouble. Although we might have passed at a stop at the fortress walls.

  3. What an incredible monastery and location to visit! I enjoy visiting UNESCO sites so this and the ruins and fortress would be of interest to me. I can’t believe how old the church is and the leaning crosses are cool but also a little creepy! Thank you for this introduction, it was a fascinating read.

    1. Dear Lisa, during daylight and with other visitors around, the crosses were quite scenic. But you do not want to imagine coming to this place at night. Or do you….? It might be interesting too….

  4. The frescoes from Sopocani Monastery remind me of the painted Monasteries from my home country, Romania. But they look much older, they have gone through more degradation than the ones in my country. I would like to see the St. Peter’s Church and climb to the upper story. I find it fascinating that the priest has to come to unlock the church. They must not get that many tourists there, even if it’s a Unesco site. And no wonder, with such unreliable public transport.

  5. This trip was more of an explorer’s journey. So, going by your journey, I think taking a taxi to these monasteries might be a better idea. It might be a bit expensive, I guess. But the view from the fortress seems remarkable. The frescoes remind me of the works we see in Indian states as well. And those sculptures with glasses are fun for sure. I always wonder how people in those days carried the heavy stones and made such strong buildings.

  6. What an adventure to go exploring and not really sure how to get to the next point! I can see that the Novi Pazar site is worth the unknown though. The leaning crosses at St Peter’s church are super interesting for a photo op. The Sopocani Monastery would be on my list as well for those beautiful frescoes. Thanks for introducing these Unesco sites!

    1. Dear Adele, the UNESCO sites of Sopocani and St Peter are worth the effort for sure. We enjoyed seeing the other two sites as well – and it was a small adventure to find our way between the sites.

  7. Serbia is really high on my bucket list, it looks like a country filled with so much history and heritage. This monastery looks amazing, so colourful and fascinating, bet it was even more amazing and breath taking in real life.

    Laura Side Street x

  8. Wow! That was really brave of you to travel without a clear mode of transportation available. But seeing all the photos and the rich history, it is definitely worth the trip. Glad that these have all been declared as UNESCO sites.

    The leaning crosses seems a bit spooky to me. Anyway, will take your advise to just visit the Church of St. Peter and the Sopocani Monastery should we have a chance to visit Serbia.

    1. Dear Clarice, thanks for stopping by. Actually, we travel by public transport a lot. Unless you are in really developed places, it is quite difficult to sort everything out in advance. So I guess we are used to this sort of travelling. And I do not feel that it is especially brave. 🙂

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