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Serbia: Crna Reka monastery

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Crna Reka monastery | Serbia | Europe

[Visited: September 2016]

After a night in a quirky hotel in the Muslim enclave of Novi Pazar, we drive further south on a sunny morning. After our descent of a mountain pass, we see the sign for Crna Reka monastery just in time to take the left turn, and drive a backroad into a narrow gorge, shaped over many centuries by the Black River (Crna Reka). Almost every turn is signposted, which gives us the impression this is a well-visited place, but when we park the car, there is no one else around. We walk the stone path to the very end, where we see a larger building, and a small shack with T-shirts hanging outside. When we turn, our jaws drop. What we see, seems impossible. A vertical rock wall rises out of the bottom of the valley. Several buildings seem glued to the rocks; the only way to reach it, is over a wooden bridge. What a location to build a monastery! It was, of course, constructed in Ottoman times, when churches were replaced by mosques in the region, and Orthodox Christians had to retreat. They certainly found a good place to hide here. In fact, when much larger Sopoćani monastery was attacked in the 16th century, they flocked here to hide.

Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): Looking up the upper part of the iconostasis of Crna Reka church with part of the ceiling in the background

There is no one around, and we walk the bridge to find a massive closed door on the other side. I am afraid we might not be able to enter, but then, pushing hard, it turns out the door is not locked. To our surprise, lights are lit inside, and we walk down stairs hewn out of the rock to enter one of the rickety buildings clinging to the rock wall. A hole in the floor suggests this is the toilet. Walking upstairs, we find another wooden structure sticking out of the cliff. Some vague frescoes on the outer wall and two different chairs make this look a little more official. There are small spaces inside, with books, chairs, and other items stored. It is when we walk further up that we come to the real treasure of Crna Reka monastery: a chapel with frescoes on the walls and ceiling. A small window high in the ceiling allows some daylight in, so we can fully appreciate the magnificent frescoes. Several oil lamps are lit, again indicating that there must be people around. This chapel is dedicated to Archangel Michael. We take our time to marvel at the colourful frescoes.

Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): The church of Crna Reka clings to the vertical rock face, and can only be reached using a wooden bridge

When we walk the bridge back to the grassy field, we see a grey-bearded, black-dressed monk who invites us for a coffee or tea. We sit upstairs, and the monk pushes a big bowl of Turkish delight on the table towards us. Communication is not easy: he only speaks Serbian, but somehow, surprisingly, we don't need much words to still feel a bond with this character who leads a totally different life in a completely different world. He tells us there are four monks in the monastery, and the main day for visits is Saturday. We are happy to have come on a weekday: the utter tranquillity and serenity of the monastery is almost palpable. Before we know it, he takes out a bottle of slivovitz which he generously offers us. Afterwards, I walk up a hill for some good views of the monastery. Now that I can see in its entirety the mountain against which it is built, I am even more in awe at its daring construction. After a last tour of this remarkable treasure building, I walk back to our car, where the other monks have assembled to collect and cut wood for the coming winter. We give some of our fruit to them in appreciation of their generosity before we drive back to Novi Pazar.

Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): Looking up the ceiling of Crna Reka church
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): Entrance door surrounded by wall paintings inside Crna Reka church
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): Detail of the wall painting of Crna Reka church with saint
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): The nave of Crna Reka church, looking towards the iconostasis
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): Entrance of the Crna Reka church
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): Oil lamp with detail of the iconostasis in the background
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): Door and part of the iconostasis of Crna Reka church
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): Saint painted on the exterior wall of the church
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): A wooden balcony clinging to the cliff
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): Looking up at the ceiling of the nave of Crna Reka church
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): Richly decorated walls of the nave of Crna Reka church
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): The richly decorated sanctuary of the church of Crna Reka
Picture of Crna Reka monastery (Serbia): Inside look of Crna Reka monastery

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