Belgrade and Environs

After an English breakfast at the hotel, we visited the Church of Saint Sava. Saint Sava (1174-1236) is an incredibly important figure for the Serbian people. He was the youngest son of Stefan Nemanja, one of the most important kings in Serbian history. He became a monk, founded the Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos, and became the first archbishop of the newly autocephalous Serbian Orthodox Church. In bringing Christianity to his people, he is known as the enlightener of Serbia. His church in Belgrade is the location of his posthumous martyrdom, built on the spot where the godless Turks, under demonic delusion, burned his holy relics in front of the Serbian people in 1595. 

The view from my breakfast table

This magnificent temple was inspired by Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and is about 15 meters taller. The plans begun in the late 1800s, the foundation was laid in the interwar period, and the construction is almost finished. There were no major donors, only small donations from every Serbian Orthodox Church around the world. The mosaics were finished just last year by a team of Russian artists.

Next to the Temple of Saint Sava is a small church dedicated to him, built 200 years ago. It contains a copy of the miraculous icon of the Mother of God Saint Sava brought to Mount Athos after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. His namesake, Saint Sabbas the Sanctified (+532), who founded Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean wilderness near Bethlehem, prophesied that one day a holy nobleman bearing his name would visit the monastery. When Saint Sava visited on pilgrimage, many miraculous signs happened. The monks gave him several icons painted by the Apostle Luke, and the Serbian Orthodox Church has more of St. Luke's icons than any other Church.

We left Vračar hill and began our tour of Belgrade, driving through New Belgrade. Its sprawling new apartments and office buildings remind me more of any American suburb more than a historic European city. Belgrade is one of the sunniest European cities (330 sunny days) as well as one of the greenest, full of parks and surrounded by lush forests. In this lush forest is Rakovica Monastery.

Rakovica Monastery

Rakovica Monastery is the closest monastery to Belgrade, and one frequented by pilgrims and Patriarchs. It contained spectacular new frescoes (2011-14) but photography was prohibited. Rakovica Monastery is the burial place of the saintly Patriarch Pavle (1914-2009). He was very holy, humble, and simple. He walked miles around Belgrade every day even into his 90s. He was beloved by his people since he was so approachable and would show up unannounced in parish churches. He led his people through the very difficult times of the civil war in the 1990s after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The tomb of Patriarch Pavle

At the Patriarch's tomb, I made a quick sketch of the monastery.

The monastery also has a holy spring, dedicated to Saint Parascheva. "Rakovica" refers to the specific crayfish that live in the area, that live only in very clean freshwater, such as the creek fed by this holy spring. We filled our bottles as drank holy water to give us health and strength for the journey ahead.

We returned to the city for lunch on our own. I enjoyed a Serbian beer and some urban sketching while I waited for my meal at Manufaktura, a restaurant specializing in traditional Balkan fare. You know you're in an Orthodox country when a good portion of the menu is marked "fasting." I'm sketching in a beautiful handmade sketchbook by the talented Elyse Allen, an artist in Chicago with family ties to my hometown of Goshen. I had a traditional Balkan dish of leskovac muckalica: pork medallions in a tomato-pepper-onion sauce with mashed potatoes.

We continued to the Belgrade Cathedral and Patriarchate. The Cathedral was a suprising combination of Neoclassical and Baroque, and bears little resemblance to the medieval character of most Serbian Orthodox Churches. It was built in the 19th century when the Serbs had recently won independence from the Ottoman Turks, thanks in part to assistance from the Austrian Empire. Thus, the Serbs wanted to architecturally reinforce their ties to Vienna with a Baroque steeple. The interior is Neoclassical with Pre-Raphaelite icons.

Some others in the group took an exceedingly long time at the Patriarchal bookstore, so four Russians and I got Serbian coffee at the oldest tavern in Belgrade (Serbian coffee is the same as Greek, Turkish, Arabic, etc. coffee, i.e. fine grounds boiled in a small pot and poured unfiltered). The tavern was a wedding present to a nobleman's son centuries ago and has remained continuously open since. It was renamed many times. Most recently, it was named "The Tavern Across from the Cathedral," but the Patriarchate objected to having the Church referenced in the name of the tavern, so it has gone without a name since 1892, simply referred to by the "?" the owner painted on the door when he wasn't sure what to rename it.


Belgrade is the oldest city in Europe, dating back at least 6,500 years. Its location is very strategic, at the intersection of the central European plain and the Balkan peninsula, as well as the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers. For example, the outcome of World War I was largely due to the Serbs' ability to cut off the supply chain between the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Since it is so strategic, it is also the European city with the most conflicts: the city has endured at least 44 wars.

The Kalegedan Fortress is the original location of the city of Belgrade. It has been a military fortification since the stone age to secure it's strategic location. Because it has served as a military fortress, citizens haven't lived inside its walls for centuries, unlike other old walled cities like Jerusalem. There is dense history in the layers and layers beneath the ground. It has been thoroughly excavated, but has been covered up with soil as that is the best way to preserve it. There is Celtic, Ilyrian Slavic, Roman, Barbaric, Roman (under Justinian), Medieval Serbian, Turkish, and later Serbian additions, reinforcements, and layers to this massive fortress complex. Today, it is an enormous city park. Before the Turkish occupation, there were 14 churches within the walls; only two remain today.

The Chapel of Saint Parascheva.

The Chapel of Saint Parascheva is one of two surviving churches at Kalemegdan. It once housed her relics, before they were transferred to Iasi, Romania. A holy spring appeared, so we once again drank Holy Water from this spring, which has healing properties. The early 20th-century mosaics depict scenes of Christ healing the blind man at the Pool of Siloam, and Christ healing the paralytic by the Sheep's Pool.

Ružica Church

Ružica Church (Our Lady of the Roses) is the other surviving church. It has unique chandeliers made from bullets, swords, and artillery shells from World War I, as a way to turn "swords into plowshares," to remember the fallen, and as a warning about the atrocities of war.

We finished our day with dinner in Skadarska, the Bohemian street. We began our traditional meal with an appetizer of cracklings (a Serbian winter staple) and Serbian versions of prosciutto and spanakopita. The main course was an assortment of grilled meat (beef, chicken, and pork) with potatoes.

Dinner ended with accompaniment by a traditional Serbian band.

I'm writing this post from the rooftop bar of the hotel, enjoying my last views of the beautiful Temple of Saint Sava. I'm excited to journey into the Serbian countryside tomorrow to visit medieval monasteries with important frescoes, the real reason for my visit to the Balkans.


Popular Posts