Half-hidden amongst the densely forested hills of the Fruska Gora National Park lie one of Serbia’s great cultural highlights: seventeen Serbian Orthodox monasteries dating from between the 15th and 18th centuries. Fruska Gora lies to the south of Serbia’s second city, Novi Sad, and a day spent exploring villages, vineyards and ancient monasteries provides a fascinating insight into the more traditional way of life that still exists in the countryside.
Fruska Gora would be worth a visit even without its monasteries. It’s a beautiful area, criss-crossed with walking trails, that also happens to be one of the country’s leading wine producing areas. The economy of the area seems to be based on wine, honey production and fruit growing – although a lot of the fruit ends up as alcohol as well. Beehives are dotted everywhere in the countryside, including mobile beehives on the back of trucks. They take their honey seriously in Fruska Gora.
It’s not so easy to get around without your own transport, so I hired a car in Belgrade and visited the area en route to spending the weekend in Novi Sad. I arrived at the 16th century Krusedol monastery, with its bright red gatehouse, early in the morning to find the entrance open but no sign of any people. I walked through the peaceful grounds until I reached the monastery. At the entrance, a monk hurried past on his way into a nearby orchard with barely an acknowledgement of my existence.
There was no one to point me in the right direction, so I followed my nose until I found myself admiring the stunning frescoes that adorn almost every inch of the monastery’s interior. Some of these paintings have survived from the 16th century, others date from the 18th century. Simple and colourful, they reminded me of the extraordinary frescoes I’d seen at Ethiopia’s Lake Tana monasteries – there must be historic links between these two branches of Orthodox Christianity.
As I left the monastery, the grey skies of the morning gave way to sunshine just as a large tour group from Austria arrived to shatter the peace and quiet. I drove off to visit a couple of other monasteries, passing through the lush valleys and hills for which this area is famed. This was always a remote area, and it was this remoteness that attracted monastic communities fleeing from the Ottoman Empire as it expanded northwards into the Balkans.
As wars and occupations swept backwards and forwards across the region, the monasteries of Fruska Gora became beacons for Serbs – vital links to their religious and cultural heritage. They still play a similar role today. I visited a number of other monasteries, all of which were within a 20km drive of each other and yet felt as isolated from each other as if they were on different planets.
Two highlights were Novo Hopovo and Velika Remeta monasteries. Both had peaceful locations, but Novo Hopovo had far more interesting frescoes – not to mention a gift shop stocked with locally made bottles of wine and local plum, cherry and apricot brandies. I don’t know what it is about monks and alcohol, but they have consistently proved to be some of the most creative booze hounds throughout the history of humanity’s relationship with the demon drink.
After a tour around Novo Hopovo I realised that it was well past lunch time. I’d not had any breakfast and hadn’t found a single restaurant on my travels through Fruska Gora. It was time to head for Novi Sad where, excitingly, I was staying in a hotel that forms part of the magnificent Petrovaradin Fortress, commanding sweeping views over the River Danube.