When I come down to breakfast, Dragan’s mate and his guests are admiring the artwork in the dining room.
The centrepiece of the decor is a painting of noble Prince Lazar as he lies mortally wounded on the Field Of Blackbirds. It’s a poor copy of a more famous original.
Lazar lies propped up on a corpse, his hand covering his side and holding what looks to be a serviette with ketchup on it. By his side, the Maid Of Kosovo cradles his head and provides sustenance from a jug.
In the original she is showing slightly less skin than she is in the brightly coloured acrylic copy. Unlike in the original, it cannot be safely assumed that the jug contains water.
A certain amount of artistic licence is permitted. We don’t actually know what Lazar looked like because we don’t actually know that much about him. Sometimes he’s styled Prince Lazar, sometimes he’s a king. Always he’s a saint, having been canonised after his death.
We don’t know exactly how he died, whether he was executed by the Turks or whether he was killed in battle. We don’t even know who won.
In spite of this, Lazar’s image is quite literally iconic. His face appears on frescoes and icons all over Serbia, often holding a model of Ravanica monastery in his right hand. The building was intended as his bequest and last resting place, and is the holiest site in all Serbia. As we shall see, things didn’t quite turn out as he had planned.
I pay the bill. Half of it is written in the Latin script and half of it in the Cyrillic. After a while you stop noticing this. Of all the things I love about Serbia, the weirdness ranks pretty high on the list.
Having gone on holiday to Georgia last year Serbia seems normal in comparison but the latter still has its moments. Some of them have been quite literally hair-raising.
With its electric cables running within inches of the swimming pool, Dragan’s mate’s hotel is not for the faint-hearted. Even here though there’s something priceless about looking at the pool attendant when the water feature starts to spout. Never before have I seen a facial expression which so precisely conveys the emotion that “well that’s not supposed to happen…”
I give Dragan a call and he takes me down to the bus station. The radio is blaring out “Hotel California” translated into Serbian. I spend a couple of days at the only hostel I’ve ever stayed in that provides toothpaste and has a TV in every bedroom. It’s excellent. The good thing about the weirdness in Serbia is that it works both ways.
I have an easy time of it eating long lunches, varying my diet only occasionally with the only readily available alternative to the national cuisine: pizza with ketchup and mayonnaise. The only event I have planned is a football match between the local boys and a team from the western mountains. The front of my ticket is in Cyrillic, the back is in Latin.
Niš has a rather unusual claim is that its most renowned monument is made of human skulls. As with elsewhere in the Balkans, it helps to preserve a healthy sense of the macabre.
We have the Ottoman Turks to thank for it and Stevan Sinđelic, a splendidly mustachioed leader of Serbia’s first national uprising. Besieged by the Turks at a nearby fortress and fearing defeat, Sinđelic came up with the idea of blowing up the fortress, thus annihilating the attacking Turks.
The only downside was that the plan involved annihilating the Serbian defenders and the honour-bound Sinđelic himself. In doing so he claimed an honourable draw and a special place in Serbian history. In an act of revenge, the Turks gathered up the skulls of the Serbian fighters and formed them into a tower, a grizzly warning to any other would-be rebels.
To western ears it all sounds rather absurd, to Serbs less so. Death is much more up close and personal here.
People don’t die in Britain, they pass away, kick the bucket or push up the daisies. They are no more, they cease to be. Bereft of life they rest in peace, as John Cleese put it. Brits deal with death through euphemism and a healthy sense of humour.
Germany is more matter-of-fact. Few such euphemisms are permitted. You can fall over or hand in the spoon but most of the time you just die. Walk into older drinking establishments and you’ll see photographs of football teams or bowls teams with faces crossed out in black biro. Don’t expect these chaps to buy you a drink at the bar.
Don’t joke about death either — either in Germany or here in Serbia.
In this neck of the woods death is taken extremely seriously. Unlike in Britain, it is not the end.
Death marks the separation of body and soul but neither ever entirely ceases to be. Souls are in the hands of the Lord but bodies are still very much here on this earth. “Gone but not forgotten” does not work as an expression because the dead are very much still with us.
We know very little about the victims in the tower of skulls, other than that one of the other fighters may have been female, but they serve as a poignant reminder of Serbia’s historical need for self-sacrifice. When you actually see them up close then it does this very well.
I’m reminded again of Prince Lazar. There is little chance that he will ever be forgotten but nor is he entirely “gone”. Death was only the beginning of a six-hundred year journey to his last resting place.
Over the coming centuries his remains followed Serbs through countless migrations and invasions. He was hidden in remote Vojvodinan monasteries and moved to Belgrade to stop Croatian death squads stealing his jewelry before finally, on the 600th anniversary of his death, he was laid to rest at Ravanica in the manner he would have wanted.
I decide to go and visit him. He still receives visitors, although times have changed since the 1930s when British travel writer Rebecca West was asked to shake his hand. The rumour is that on Sundays they still open the coffin; entirely consistent with the treatment of relics at other Orthodox monasteries in the region. Today is Sunday.
I take the two-hour bus journey north up the motorway to the small town of Ćuprija, in the middle of the wooded hills which make up Serbia’s undiluted heartland.
From the bus station I walk through streets named after dates of no significance to a foreigner until I reach the centre, a functional and unspectacular square dominated by the 22nd of December fashion house.
It’s an unusual sight to say the least, a concrete monstrosity of a building with Father Christmas stuck onto the side of it and it’s closed, probably for good.
I jump into a taxi and am instantly glad of my few lessons in Serbian. I’m also instantly aware that I could do with a few more.
I ask the driver how much it would cost to drive to the monastery, wait for half an hour and then drive back. He understands the words but not the concept. Why would anybody want to do that? he is asking himself.
He pulls out a mobile phone and dials his boss. The phone is handed to me. I then explain the same thing to the boss without the aid of hand signals. “To monastery you want?” he confirms in English.
“Yes” I say, explaining the whole idea again in English. There is a pause. “Give me…driver” comes the uncertain reply.
A short exchange of confused utterances ends with the words u redu —okay.
We are on our way. I have no idea what this is going to cost.
We drive the seven miles up to the monastery and do our best to make small talk. I deal well with the usual questions; as the driver is much older than me it does not seem appropriate to ask any of my own. Unlike every other taxi driver I have ever met here, he has only ever worked in Serbia.
He can’t tell me how much this will cost and I know better than to pay any attention to the meter. Numbers tend to flash up at random on these things. My bus fare here, according to the display on the cash register, was 2,000 dinars minus 1,220 dinars doubled then divided by two. 780 dinars is about six euros. The taxi fare could be anything.
As we drive through winding country lanes, the woods creep in on all sides. Serbian monasteries tend to be very secluded. We pass the idyllic village of Senje and the questions start again. This time it is my ultimate nightmare. He is giving me choices.
“Shall I park here or at the monastery?”
“Maybe the monastery then?”
He comes inside with me and points out the various parts of the compound. Church, cloisters, gift shop.
“Shall I wait for you here or in the car?”
“Will you find your way back to the car?”
It is a one-minute walk. I tell him I will survive and he nips to the gift shop while I head into the church.
There is a small risk that we will lose each other in the crowd. It is Sunday, it is the holiest site in Serbia and the whole package is extremely beautiful. The frescoes are original, the building a classic example of the Morava school of medieval church architecture.
I enter the inner sanctum, passing a company of Serbian soldiers queueing up at the other gift shop in the atrium. Lazar’s coffin lies on the right hand side, the lid is shut. The lady in front of me kisses it and makes the sign of the cross. Saint Lazar is very much still with us.
A school party comes in, led by a Sister clad entirely in black. She stands in the pulpit and watches over lest anyone pull a face or attempt a selfie. She flicks a switch.
Speakers blare out an audio track detailing the history of the monastery. By this time I am morbidly curious and am peering out from behind a pillar to see if they open the coffin. They do not.
I leave the building, take some photos and visit the gift shop. When I get back to the car I find that the driver and I have bought the same pendant with the image of Lazar.
We head back to Ćuprija and there are more questions.
“What are you doing afterwards?”
“Oh I thought I’d take a bus to Jagodina and get something to eat.”
“You don’t wanna go to Jagodina. It’s a bloody awful place.”
He might be right. The only reason I want to go to Ćuprija‘s big sister is morbid curiosity. The former mayor of Jagodina made the headlines briefly a few years ago when he claimed that “no man plucks his eyebrows in Jagodina”.
The Wikitravel entry for the town contains a special “don’ts” section which reads as follows.
Why would you NOT want to go to Jagodina with a write-up like that?
“Bloody awful. Ćuprija‘s much nicer.”
He drives me back to the main square a different way, as taxi drivers do.
“Look over there”, he says. “That’s the Morava river. Got a camera?”
“You can get some good pictures. You see that boat?”
“You can get a good meal there then walk back into town. Shall I drop you here or take you back to the centre?”
I figure if I get out here then I can avoid making any more choices. Numbers flash up on the display seeming at random and the total bill comes to less than ten euros. Serbia’s weirdness works both ways but on balance you come out of it in the plus.
He is right about the restaurant. It is excellent, service comes with a smile and plenty of questions. Ćuprija has looked after its one foreign tourist well.
I walk back into town and board the bus. On the hill in the distance you can see the monastery, looking out over the valley and the motorway that forms Serbia’s infrastructural backbone.
I say “looking out” of course. I could equally say “watching over”. Lazar is no King Arthur. King Arthur and his knights are asleep and will wake in their people’s hour of need. I fancy that Lazar still has one eye open.
Not dead, not even sleeping. Just resting.