WEEKEND IN SERBIA: Heritage and nature of Despotovac

You may wonder why I have chosen the area of Despotovac town to be my first Serbian destination. I can almost hear the local people saying: “It’s simple, we have everything here!” And they are so right!

Just look at this photo below – this is where I am right now, at the restaurant overlooking this lush water! There is no better place than this one to turn on my laptop and type the first few lines for the new blog section – Weekend in Serbia, while sipping local coffee (and having a great veal soup and some pancakes). Images of everything I have seen for the past few days are rushing through my mind at the moment – the waterfall, stalactites, lavish hills, the 15-century walls, original floor at the Manasija Monastery where Serbian great rulers once walked through… But, let’s start from the beginning.

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Abundance of water

Do you know that it only takes two-hour-drive to get here either from the capital of Belgrade or the city of Nis in the south? Well, stay tuned and read through the post, enjoy various photographs and you will get the picture of what there is to see in this part of the country and how easy it is to stop by.

FROM BELGRADE: About 130 km (take the highway to Markovac – 100 km, and turn to Svilajnac town)

FROM NIS: About 115 km (take the highway to Cuprija – 95 km)

TOLL FEE: Belgrade-Markovac 340 RSD (about 2.80 Euros), Nis-Cuprija 300 RSD (2.50 Euros)

You are supposed to take the exit on the highway Belgrade-Nis at Markovac town towards Svilajnac. Despotovac town is easy to reach afterwards, just follow the road signs. I didn’t use the navigation and got there easily without any wrong turns.

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Celebrated in the whole area – Despot Stefan

The plan was just to drive through this time, to continue to the Manasija Monastery, and to spend couple of hours in the actual town later. But, I did take a glimpse of the streets, there was a park that looked interesting, the pedestrian part on my left. “This is where I’ll stop by for a coffee”, I said out loud.

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Manasija Monastery entrance

MANASIJA MONASTERY The monastery was fortified by the strong walls including 11 towers and it was built by the Serbian ruler Despot Stefan Lazarevic. Medieval scholar Constantine the Philosopher wrote that the construction work has started in 1407 and it is assumed that the Monastery was finally built in 1418. It soon became the cultural center of former Serbia thanks to Despot Stefan who realized the importance of knowledge preservation and thus established the Resava School here, the one dedicated to copying and preserving valuable books. Therefore, the place is also referred to as the Resava Monastery.

Despot Stefan Lazarevic died in 1427 after having a heart attack while hunting near the town of Kragujevac. It is still not confirmed whether his body is buried in the Manasija or the Koporin Monastery next to Velika Plana. (More about Koporin in the next Weekend’s post.)

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The 15-century walls

It’s easy to go around town of Despotovac and to hit the right turn towards Manasija, even though signs tend to be too small to read sometimes, so do take it slow in order to go to the right monastery. (There are few of them in the area.)

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View through the gate

And then the road goes up and down, over numerous hills, nicely covered in forests and meadows. (I was lucky that everything went so green so fast, almost overnight, because the temperatures went up quickly.) You take another curve and go over one more hill, and you suddenly see the walls! The fort is so imposing in all its medieval strength and it’s such a contrast comparing to the green surroundings. There is the iron gate, small parking lot and the arch entrance between the two enormous pillars – the Manasija Monastery!

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Former Resava School

At the time I was there, there were two groups coming in – primary school children, and elderly citizens who went in to buy candles hand in hand. It’s not the first time I came to Manasija, but I found myself wandering around Resava School walls again, taking numerous pictures and trying to hide from the sun in order to see the top of the church. They say that the floor in the church is the original, the same they have put in when the complex was built. I took my feet up and down, one by one, and thought: “Oh, they did the same six centuries ago!”

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The original floor

Since few blog’s friends have suggested couple of places in the area that they have heard about and wanted me to check them out, I took the car drove further to the village of Lipovica, about 20 km from the Monastery. There is the pleasant road where you will rarely pass by any other car, and so all the hills and curves are there – for your eyes only. I passed by the charming bridge in Bukovac village, and then there was the village of Panjevac, few road signs for local places… The area has now more to offer to visitors it seems. This was also one great opportunity to meet with people of the Eco Farm Milanovic, to have a good chat and a strong Serbian coffee.

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The church at Manasija

DESPOTOVAC The town lies between the Kuchaj mountain and the lush meadows, on the east side of the Great Morava river. Although the whole municipality consists of 31 villages and more than 23,000 inhabitants, the population of the town itself is less than 5,000 people. The area is abundant in nature and water, with the river Resava curving throughout the region.

The town is mentioned in 1381 for the first time by Lazar, the Serbian monarch, but it wasn’t until 1882 that it got its name Desptovac. Another Serbian ruler Milan Obrenovic has decided to commemorate Despot Stefan Lazarevic by giving his name to the place.

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Despot Stefan’s square

Up until recently I actually haven’t wondered about the name of Despotovac town. I remembered that again while I was trying to take another photo of the Despot Stefan monument at the square dedicated to this famous ruler. When you think about it and look around, you realize that almost everything here bears the name of Resava or Despot, even if being a bank or a dental clinic!

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Despotovac street

Still, this is a nice, small town where you can visit the Old Mill, have a coffee at the Despot’s Square, take a glance of the charming library façade. And I just had to have some local cake.

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Library in Despotovac

VELIKO VRELO LISINE The village of Lisine lies on the wider canyon of the Resava river, at the altitude of 376 meters. Beneath the Beljanica mountain (1,300 meters) there is Veliko vrelo (the Great Spring) and its waters go down into the waterfall of Veliki buk few hundred meters downwards. Veliko vrelo is among the scarce strong karst springs in the country, and local nature lovers are extremely proud that this is one of the great examples of the so-called gravitational springs. The small river Vrelo flows into the bigger Resava.

There is also a fishpond in Lisine while the whole area is well known for special species of trout.

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Veliko vrelo coming out of the mountain rock

It’s not hard to go from Despotovac to visit the natural park of Lisine (a must-see if you are in the area!), but I did turn towards Manasija again and then back “to the traffic light and left afterwards”. Another 15 kilometers or so, and you will reach the small crossroad where you can go to the Veliki buk waterfall or the Resava Cave. “The waterfall first, I’ll visit the Cave tomorrow”, I said to myself.

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Water rushing under the bridge

This part of the road is not that good. Try not to go fast, since there are a lot of holes. And do call your loved ones since there will be no phone signal once you reach the hill. One genuine wilderness, one might say.

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Tumbling down for few hundred meters

What I didn’t do few years ago and I promised myself to check off the bucket list this time, was to drive all the way up as far as the asphalt goes. This way I went above the waterfall, and I was actually between the Veliko vrelo and the waterfall. So, there is a nice parking lot here, and just go for a walk for some 300 meters or so to the right. I was blown away by the Veliko vrelo! The spring has just begun and there is such an abundance of water here, fresh and clean, tumbling down beneath the small wooden bridge and going fast over numerous stones. What a walk!

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Small wooden bridge along the pathway

VELIKI BUK This is “a unique phenomenon among the karstic waterfalls in Serbia”, it is stated at the municipality of Despotovac website. Having around 25 meters in height, the Veliki buk represents one of the largest waterfalls in Serbia. What makes it even more unusual is the fact that waters coming down from the Veliko vrelo, have created a large cut into the Beljanica mountain slops forming a small lake few meters deep. Along with the small river Vrelo, the waterfall is protected as the Natural Monument Lisine. Vrelo gathers all those mountain waters from karstic areas of Beljanica.

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View of the Veliki buk from above

When you come down from the Veliko vrelo walk, the path continues to go down. This is the place you will come back to pick up your car later and where you can take a lunch break at the Kafana Izvor Lisine, the local restaurant with traditional hospitality and huge plates!

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Traditional decoration at Kafana Izvor Lisine

Go slowly one step after another by the fence and watch how those fresh waters continue to tumble down, from one level to the next. You will take the improvised steps down, but it’s possible to stop and admire the view all the way down. When you reach the water, there is a vast area of local restaurant’s garden to the left, while the path continues to the right. Once again you hear that loud water sound, it gets foamy pounding the rocks and hitting the moss. But up there, it gets even louder… Oh! I was stunned, speechless. I think that my mind just went blank for a moment (however surprising that may be for a creature full of life such as myself).

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Water flow by local restaurants

Why I got so surprised when this was not the first time I am visiting the Veliki buk waterfall, you wonder? Oh well, the last time I was here it was one of the summer months and thus the water was not that abundant due to high temperatures. But now, in April, it seems like the water has just woken up! There is a small wooden terrace in front of the waterfall I was posing for a photo or two few years ago. Now I couldn’t even go near the thing. It’s not just that the waterfall was loud and powerful, but it was so strong that it felt as the wind was blowing on the terrace with a heavy rain bursting around!

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Wet and windy terrace at Veliki buk

I visited few more things in the region, but I returned here next to the waterfall again to enjoy the view and type these lines. By the time you read the post on the blog in the upcoming days, I will most likely be already back in Belgrade.

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Noisy powerful water

RESAVA CAVE The karst composition of the Beljanica mountain is to blame for so many pits and caves in the area. The most famous one is the Resava Cave (or the Divljakovac Cave). Not only that this is the largest and the most beautiful of all the caves in Serbia, but it was also the second one opened to public in the former Yugoslavia.

It is about 80 million years old. It has 4.5 kilometers in length, but only 2,850 meters are explored thus far. The visitors path is about 800 meters long and you will be able to descend for 80 meters down. Along the two galleries that are accessible, there are, among others, the Hall of Joined Columns or the Entrance Hall of History (the latter being the one where the fireplace of the prehistoric men was found).

The season officially starts on April 1 and ends on October 31. You can enter the cave from 9 to 5 and you have to be accompanied by the local guide. The entrance fee for adults is 300 RSD (2.5 Euros), and for kids 250 (2 Euros). Using the parking lot will cost you another Euro and you can also rent a jacket for visiting the cave.

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Extraordinary decoration at Resava Cave

Reaching the Resava Cave is more than easy. All you have to do is to drive down from the waterfall to the same crossroad, and to turn left. The sign will say that the Resava Cave is only 5 kilometers away. I even joked with a friend I called when I went down the hill (where the mobile network was finally available), that “I didn’t even get to call properly, and I was already there, had to go”.

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Descending for 80 meters down

Bring a jacket or a sweater, socks, because it’s about 7 degrees Celsius in the cave! The humidity varies from 80 up to 100 percent.

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Fascinating ‘curtains’

You will be told when the next tour is scheduled to enter the cave. And it won’t matter if you are the only visitor at the moment or if the whole group of kids has just arrived, the visit will take place anyway. And so, that is how I got the chance to go around being the only tourist that Igor the guide was explaining those fascinating halls to, until one other curios tourist from the US came along. We were both walking around with our jaws down, amazed by the natural decorations, a bet or two that flew above, and you can help but be mesmerized by every little drop you hear and see coming down from the ceiling when you are aware of what it might become one day.

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Interesting formation that resembles ice-cream

There is the area in front of the entrance where you can have a coffee, buy a souvenir or just stare at the trees below and rest your eyes. My “resting” was interrupted only by a sigh or two that took off, by itself, to merge with that fresh air all around.

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Inside the stalactites

And so, there was one more stop for me when it comes to visiting Despotovac area this time – went back in the car and took off for the Cuprija town. At about 30 kilometers from Lisine there lies one other famous monastery – Ravanica.

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Peculiar formations

RAVANICA MONASTERY The government of the medieval Serbia has decided in 1375 to build the endowment of the monarch Lazar Hrebeljanovic (Despot Stefan’s father), where he will also be buried one day. The place was chosen in the meadow, near the river that bears the same name, beneath the Kuchaj mountain, where the monastery was to be erected and fortified with strong walls and seven towers. The monarch soon died in the Kosovo Battle, while the monastery was often looted and demolished throughout history. It’s interesting that the church is still in a good condition considering, although all the valuables were taken.

When being forced to flee the invaders in the 17th century, the monks took the monarch’s relics with them. At Saint Andrea they built a small church and then they reconstructed the Vrdnik monastery in Fruska gora in the north of the country (that is the reason Vrdnik is often called the Little Ravanica). They brought Lazar’s relics to Belgrade’s Saborna church. When celebrating the 600 years of the Kosovo Battle, it was the opportunity to put the monarch’s relics back to the Ravanica Monastery to finally rest.

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Through the medieval gate of Ravanica

If you enjoy driving, the road to Ravanica won’t be a problem. You will go through small forests, pass by lonely houses and along sharp curves, to descend to the village of Senjski rudnici. Another 10 kilometers or so and you will reach the Ravanica gate.

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Decorative facade of the church

Once again (just like in Manasija), you will be greeted by a strong fortification walls. Church is full of authentic frescoes and there’s also one of Lazar the monarch. Visitors were curious to buy various herb mixtures and potions made by nuns of the monastery, and you can also get yourself some small souvenir “with the blessing of saint prince Lazar”. And again, it rushed through my mind that this famous Serbian leader also walked through here, six centuries ago!

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Old bells at the tower

Let me add that the highway is at about 10 kilometers from the monastery, so that you can easily drive to Cuprija town and then to Belgrade or Novi Sad, or Nis to the south.

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Inside the church

…Apologies for a digression, but I just have to tell you about one other detail from my current surroundings. (Typing these lines next to the Veliki buk waterfall, remember?) Anyway, the family with two small children just came to the restaurant, but the three-year-old girl couldn’t stand still. While dad is feeding the other, even smaller, child, pregnant mother is trying to call for the girl to come back on her own.

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A 25-meter ‘fountain’

“Come back here, you can go there by yourself”, the mom says while the girl is taking another step, just behind my back.

“But mom… You have to see this!”

“You can’t go there, please, do come back.”

“But mooom…”

“What did you see?”, the mom asks while the girl is pointing to the waterfall, “What is it?”

“Mom, come and see, please, there is – a huge fountain!”

Next destination – Iron Gate, the Roman road

The full Weekend In Serbia section

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