Before we even begin our story on what to see in Sjenica, we just have to consider the local weather. When one visits at the beginning of spring, in the time of blooms and blossoms, this is where one probably comes across – heavy snow. Jadovnik mountain will still be white and the road towards its peaks might just be impassable. (That’s how it was when I visited.) It’s always colder out here compared to other parts of Serbia, so prepare yourself for a few mornings below zero.
FROM BELGRADE: about 245 km
FROM NIS: about 240 km
And here is why. Sjenica town is located in the Pester plateau with an altitude of about 1,000 meters. You don’t have the sense of its height given that you are surrounded by mild hills and you don’t have to climb anywhere. Still, when the wind blows over the hills at this altitude – that stretch for thousands of hectares – you will feel it in your bones. (Even in April!)
Pester Plateau was declared the Special Nature Reserve in 2016. It covers 3,118 hectares, developing a unique habitat complex with diversity in flora and fauna. It’s 45 km away from the town with Trojan being the highest peak (1,430 m). Due to its specific geography and climate the Pester plateau is also known as Serbian Tibet in summer or Serbian Siberia in winter.
This plateau is the biggest of its kind in the Balkans and one of the largest in Europe with the altitude of about 1,150 m. During the 1950’s the lowest recorded temperature was minus 39 degrees, which is the lowest ever in Serbia. The average annual temperature is about 6, while snow sticks for 60 days a year.
The Special Nature Reserve was our first stop. You get impatient to see the famous hills in person, that are usually adorned by flocks of cows and sheep, with various herbs and flowers. Even though Pester was once covered in pine trees, which led to a formation of a vast peatland, there is not a single tree in sight today. That’s probably one of the reasons these hills look so mild. Also, this is the largest peat find in the Balkans and they say that 95 percent of all the flowerpots’ soil in Serbia actually came from Pester.
We drive towards Trojan, the highest point of 1,430 m, while Milorad the ranger tells us how Pester itself is 1,030 m high. Trojan is related to various interesting stories. They say that it was named after an ancient nobleman and that in the Pester lake below, a three-headed dragon lived once. As it got out once a year taking one person from the village, when the time came for the nobleman’s daughter to be sacrificed, he called out to famous warriors and knights for help.
This is when St. George comes to the scene, as he was among those who answered. As he struck the stone in the foothill, to try out his sword, a freshwater sprung out. The spring is known today as Djurdjevica is the only spring in the entire plateau, the one that never dries out or freezes (even though the temperature can often go below 30), and the one that gathers people from surrounding villages. They showed me human footprints in the stone, along with horse hoofs traces… If you wonder about what to see in Sjenica Serbia, this spring should definitely be one of the stops.
As the story continues, St. George beheaded the dragon. The legend stuck with locals through time and so, surrounding villages got somewhat symbolic names.
“Where the dragon swung its tail and broke trees”, says Milorad, “that’s where the village Krnja jela (Broken Fir Tree in a rough translation) stands today.”
One of the heads is somewhat an enigma, and Zeljko from the Tourism Organization of Sjenica tells me about the British team that actually came a couple of years ago to investigate the fact that one of the British lords has a dragon head presented on his coat of arms, the one that allegedly originated from Pester. The legend says that the head was taken to Great Britain by knights.
The Trojan hill is not immune to stories either. This is where the large fortification once stood and the story goes that the wealthy nobleman dug in his riches into the underground cellars. That is why treasure hunters still dig here from time to time.
It is possible to organize a tour to Trojan with the local Tourism Organization or the Reserve. You can hike to the top, take a jeep ride or cycle through the Pester plateau.
We are on our way to see small houses called “stanovi” or “katuni”, specific cattleman’s places without water or electricity, where they dwell over summer for as long as their cattle are able to feed outside. Thus, milk and cheese are of exquisite quality, given that the cattle are grazing on the pastures filled with herbs. (There are 1,230 species of healthy herbs in Pester!) I was told that I should expect a cattleman to talk a lot if we happen to come across one since they are here for months without seeing another human or even speaking to one.
And so, on one of the hills, we were welcomed by a young man in his early 20s. His name was Enver and he was talking about himself, his flock of sheep, how seven years ago “a great roar was heard from the abys where a few bulls fell in long ago” (“Or maybe it was a dragon’s roar”, Zeljko adds). Enver doesn’t like to be photographed, but when we mention that some girl might see him that way, he blushes, smiles widely, showing us his strong white teeth.
“It would be better to bring her first, so that she can see if she likes it here or not”, he says modestly.
While we were saying goodbye to Enver, I found out that on every August 2 when St. Elijah is celebrated in Serbia, there is a local festival that gathers people from remote villages. This is where businesses are agreed upon and marriages are arranged. Also, all the wealth of local cattlemen comes to light, since girls to be wed are wearing jewelry with ducats that range from 10,000 to 100,000 Euros.
Our trail takes us to the Pester lake. This is the place to be in May, early in the morning, when so many bird species come around, all singing and bathing. The Reserve is renowned for housing 99 protected species of birds. Also, a few rare orchids grow here at the beginning of June.
It wasn’t that dynamic when we visited. The grass was yellowish with no colorful flowers yet, but the clouds’ reflection on the lake surface was beautiful. Even though they said that I came early and that I should definitely visit again during summer when everything turns green, I liked these calm yellowish hills. The surreal, wavy landscape seemed to be stretching indefinitely!
This is the third biggest municipality in Serbia, with a population of 34,000. Located in the mild valley of the Pester plateau, the town itself is populated with 16,000 people and it lies at the altitude of 980 meters.
Caravans on the way from Dubrovnik to Constantinople used to stop here to rest their horses. Sjenica is mentioned in 1253 for the first time as the place where merchants came to declare goods and pay revenues. It has often been cut off from the rest of the country by heavy snowdrifts. This is still the coldest area in Serbia.
You can’t miss the Molitva viewpoint when you come here. There are four rivers – Grabovica, which flows through the town, Vapa, Jablanica, and Uvac – that form the famous Sjenica (or Uvac) Lake. You need to drive for 15 km from town in order to get to this observation deck. The Molitva terrace is 110 meters high and it provides one of the unforgettable views over the popular Serbian Uvac meanders and the gorge that begins 7 km away.
There are a few other stops one should make to the nearby mountains: Golija and the tourist center Odvracenica at the altitude of 1,744 m, or Jadovnik with the highest peak Katunic at 1,734 m. They say that the view from here when the sky is clear reaches all the way to the sea which is at the aerial distance of about 150 km. If you prefer Nordic skiing, there is the ski center available here with the only ski slope of its kind in the region.
Try to stop by the watermill on the way to the Uvac gorge, where the springs are. Water bursts out of the hill, tumbling down in a few separate streams that come together again in the foothill. The watermill is still operational. The current owners say that their family bought it in 1823 and they didn’t change a thing.
It was time for a break, a nice opportunity to go around the springs, take some photos and have a sandwich. On the opposite hill, there was a white horse grazing. Couldn’t even guess that on our way to the Pester Reserve we will be able to see dozens of horses resting next to the forest. Also, ask around about the nearby Borovi Hotel. It’s still under construction, but the restaurant serves coffee in traditional Turkish cups, along with some Turkish delight.
One of the landmarks of Sjenica is the 19th-century Sultan Valide Mosque, the endowment of sultan Abdul Hamid II’s mother. (Put it on your what to see in Sjenica bucket list.) The dome has 15 meters in diameter and it is built without any supporting columns. The building is a true witness of the golden era when Sjenica was the center of Sandzak, the municipality area within the Ottoman Empire, and it is the only royal mosque in Serbia.
There is also St Peter and Paul Church to be seen in town, even though when it comes to religious monuments, locals will often suggest a visit to the interesting 13th-century Kumanica monastery which is not very far by car.
I spent a couple of afternoons in town and had the opportunity to stroll around over the central bridge with the view of the future museum “Sjenicka kuca”. On both sides of the street, there were restaurants and cafés. I usually had lunch at the Vanilla Hotel where I stayed, and the afternoons were reserved for my laptop and coffee.
Zeljko and Milorad mentioned some traditional specialties of the area – famous white cheese, “prsuta”, “sudzuk”, paprika in milk cream, “mantije”, various pies (there is also a festival dedicated to Sjenica’s traditional pies in August). People from the hotel helped me find some homemade “mantije” (small wrappings with meat), that I wanted to bring back home, and also suggested a couple of pastry shops.
I stopped by the Kobra pastry shop, asked about the traditional sweets and got “kadaif” and “tulumba” on a tin plate. The sugar syrup was pouring down from both! Oh, and I couldn’t resist and asked for “poljubac” (kiss) as well. (It’s not what you think, that’s the name of another cake, all white and dipped in coconut flower.) It wasn’t possible to eat all three of them, especially because I wanted to visit one more pastry shop called Sandzak. The owner there told me that it was a market day and that he almost sold out. “But there is one left”, he smiled and pulled out a piece of “tres leches” with the original caramel topping. (Those who know me will understand my joy.)
Then I decided: next time I am coming to Sjenica in August to try the pies! And then to take a stroll with a bite or two of those delicious sweets.
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