The long road to the monastery
Studenica Monastery, Serbia
I have a blister on my foot. On my outer left heel to be exact. It’s the colour of a plum and nearly the same size.
How did I get this blister, you ask? Oh, what, you didn’t ask? Well, I’m going to tell you anyway.
You see, I’ve been walking all day. Not necessarily by choice either.
I had decided to visit the Studenica Monastery, one of Serbia’s few World Heritage Sites and an impressive religious compound from the 12th century. Like most monasteries in this region, it had been built in the mountains far away from any main cities or towns.
That doesn’t mean it has to be hard to get to – but this country doesn’t make it easy to get to some of its most important sites. With a car – sure, you’d be fine. But not so much for an independent traveller relying on public transport.
I catch the bus from Novi Pazar to the closest point on the route to the monastery – a town called Usce. There I discover there are no buses that day to Studenica. I start to walk, not minding the scenery and thinking maybe a bus will come by anyway. There are a few cars that pass and I consider hitch hiking but I’m actually quite enjoying the view across the valley and the mountains so I push on. It’s hot, though, and I do wish there was somewhere I could buy some water.
It takes me two hours to get to the monastery and I decide immediately that the walk was worth it. It is a beautiful compound, with a well-tended garden and old marble buildings. Inside the church and chapels are detailed frescoes painted in the 13th and 14th centuries. There’s a tranquility that comes from being so isolated in the mountains and a sense of calm falls over me immediately.
800 years ago this place was the political, cultural and spiritual centre of Medieval Serbia. It is the largest and richest of all the Serbian Orthodox monasteries and contains the remains of the first Serbian kings. On the interior walls of some of the buildings are some of the best examples of Byzantine art. It truly is an important and fascinating place.
And so I return to my initial complaint. Why is it so hard to get to?
If Serbia wants to encourage tourism, it needs to make an effort to make places like the Studenica Monastery more accessible. It is not in the middle of nowhere – it is just 12 kilometres from a main road, but there seems to be no desire to create a connection along that distance. Perhaps the bureaucrats believe there isn’t enough interest from tourists to justify a regular bus service. But it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation because if a site is not easy to get to, tourists are going to be less likely to want to go. If they don’t go, they’re not going to tell their friends and family about it and there will be no word of mouth marketing for the site.
It’s a constant issue I’ve come across in Serbia and I’ll write a little bit more about it tomorrow. For now, though, let me just say that I made the effort to get to Studenica – but there were many other places in the country I wanted to visit but didn’t get to because the transport infrastructure was just too difficult.
In the end, I set off on my walk back to the bus stop but, after about half an hour, was picked up by a nice Serbian couple. They had recognized me from the monastery and stopped to offer me a lift. The local people might be looking out for travellers – it’s just a pity the officials aren’t doing the same.