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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Never miss a new post! Get notifications about new posts straight into your inbox!
Save this post for later: