EXPLORING UPPER KONAVLE: SOKOL GRAD AND MEDIEVAL TOMBSTONES

k1k2The Konavle region in Croatia stretches between Cavtat and the border with Montenegro. Many people have already passed through this fertile valley on their way to Dubrovnik or Čilipi Airport, but I suppose that the road through the upland of Konavle, with its picturesque stone villages on the karst slopes of Mount Snježnica (1234 m high), is still unknown to most tourists and travel fans.

The reason why we decided to explore the upper section of Konavle  was the fact that the villages in this area are hiding many “stećci” or medieval tombstones, as this region borders with Herzegovina, the homeland of numerous medieval necropolises.

k3Immediately after passing the border we turned right, in the direction of Vodovađa and Dubravka. The narrow road took us uphill and we enjoyed the magnificent view of the valley with its typical slender cypress trees and the karst mountains above us. After a twenty minutes’ drive we were surprised to discover a medieval fortress on the top of a rock: Sokol Grad. Of course, we were curious to visit the tower, which was obviously renovated and reconstructed. We paid an entrance fee of 40 kuna (€5) and climbed the steep stone stairs to a small museum with very interesting exhibits. Medieval music was heard in the rooms with showcases, and on the outer walls, equipped with a series of old canons, visitors could hear the sounds of war-making. The view of the surroundings was breath-taking.

k4Sokol Tower was built on the site of an Illyrian and Roman fortification. In the late 14th century, the fortress was ceded to the Dubrovnik Republic. There was a cistern, a storehouse for wine and food, a building for the soldiers, but also a separate house for the accommodation of women and children from the nearby villages in case of war danger. After the big earthquake in 1667 the fortress was abandoned. The ruins were purchased by the Association of Friends of Dubrovnik Antiquities in 1966 and the fortress was completely renovated and reconstructed. Last year it was officially opened for visitors. Although I really admired the excellent setting of this cultural monument, I could not help feeling sorry for monuments of this type in Montenegro, which are often abandoned, neglected and full of litter. How beautiful it would be to reconstruct the fortress of Žabljak Crnojevića, Haj-Nehaj, Kosmač, …..

k5We continued our trip through the upland of Konavle in search of “stećci”. And we really found them at several locations, mostly as an integral part of small village cemeteries: first of all around the church under Sokol Tower, and further in Gabrili, behind the church of  Pridvorje, near Drvenik … Very picturesque tombstones can be found near Uskoplje, at the graveyard of the church on the left side of the road (coordinates N 42°34′ 29″; E 18°16’59″). They show women in a circular dance, a horseman and various other scenes.

k7But the most important goal of our trip was Brotnice, a small village on the border with Herzegovina, the location of a necropolis with a very famous medieval tombstone that is often mentioned in literature. So we passed Uskoplje and turned right at the signpost to Duba Konavoska (13 km), following the narrow asphalt road through the arid karst landscape.  After a few kilometers we turned right in the direction of Brotnice and after having passed this hamlet, the road was getting worse. An inhabitant of the village explained us that we had to park 500 m farther beside the road, at a big blue fire plug on a junction with two trails. We did not take the sandy path uphill on the right side, but we continued on the left trail, passing a small home chapel. After 20 minutes we reached a small church and behind it, on the graveyard, was the necropolis with around 10-12 tombstones, most of them simple stone slabs. The biggest one, a stećak with a pointed top from the 15th century,  showed vivid primitive carvings and glagolitic lettering in the ancient language of Bosnia. The frontal side of the monolithic monument was decorated with a deity bearing large rams’ horns, rosette, and a crescent. We also saw a hunting scene, deer, dancing girls, an eagle with its pray, a dog with a hare in his mouth, a horseman …. It was unbelievable to see that such a marvelous tombstone, a real work of art, is hidden here, without any signposts, in the middle of nowhere.

Deeply impressed by the beauty of this mysterious tombstone, we took the same way back and reached Cavtat, from where we took the highway returning to Montenegro.

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SPRING IN POŠĆENJE AND NEVIDIO CANYON

Early in May we had guests from the Netherlands and decided to show them the beautiful wild mountains in northwest Montenegro. Large parts of the Durmitor National Park were still closed for traffic at that time, but we spent two days in the surroundings of Pošćenje and Canyon Nevidio.

Pošćenje – close to Šavnik – is one of the most picturesque villages of Montenegro. In this time of the year many fruit trees were blossoming and the pastures were full of flowers. Accommodation was easily found in the cottages of the Ethno-village “Nevidio” and we had a good trout dinner in the nearby “Jatak” restaurant.

Apart from the two glacier lakes, it was also interesting to visit the Ascension of St. Mary’s church in Pošćenje with its old medieval tombstones. The church is situated between the first and second Pošćenjsko Lake, on the left side of the road. “Stećci” are built into the wall of the church and a medieval “sarcophagus” with magnificent decorations is located behind the church.

Pošćenje is the starting point of many hiking and biking tours to the surrounding mountains. From here, you can climb Bobotov Kuk (Durmitor), but you can also make a short walking tour to the nearby Skakavica waterfall.

Moreover, Pošćenje is quite close to the famous Nevidio (“never seen”) canyon, which is considered to be the most impassible canyon in Europe. It was conquered for the first time by Montenegrin mountaineers in 1965.

Today Nevidio can be visited by tourists in organized guided groups with all necessary equipment for alpinists and divers. The canyon is about 3.5 km long, the cliffs have an altitude of about 450 m and in some parts it is only 50 cm wide.

We walked to the entrance of the canyon and also admired its depth from the bridge. In this season there were no visitors, but I am sure that during the summer many groups will take this adventure, as it has become one of the top tourist attractions of continental Montenegro. I am so sorry that I am too old for this challenge!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GORNJA MORAČA – ALONG THE ROAD MIOSKA-ŠAVNIK

If you want to see a part of Montenegro that is rather unknown, but of a magnificent natural beauty: take the road from Podgorica towards Kolašin and turn left at Mioska in the direction of Šavnik. On this route through Gornja Morača (around 45 km from Mioska to Šavnik) you will hardly meet any traffic, so that you can enjoy the beautiful views of the impressive high mountains all along the Morača valley and Bukovica canyon.

Turn right near the village of Dragovića Polje and continue on the narrow asphalt road down to the river. Pass the river using the old wooden bridge and drive up again to the village of Bojići. In a curve, you will see an old graveyard with a huge oak. This is a very interesting place, as it hides an old necropolis with around 35 medieval tombstones or “stećci”. They are located on the top of a hill behind the graveyard, among big trees, and many of them are decorated in shallow relief with solar and lunar motifs in the form of circles and rosettes. The local inhabitants call this necropolis “macursko groblje” and believe that the graves belonged to the medieval “macuri” tribe.

At the end of the asphalt road you will have a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and Morača valley. Take the same road back to the highway and continue towards Šavnik.

 

Interesting old stone houses can be found in the village of Krnja Jela (from this village you can turn left towards Sinjajevina).

Another siteseeing that is worthwhile is the monastery of Podmalinsko, which is not so easy to find. Near Boan there is a small signpost beside the road (“manastir”) where you can park your car and walk through the forest to the monastery (800 m), which is situated on the bank of the river. The monastery is the most famous sanctuary of the Drobnjaci tribe. According to a legend, this Nemanjić monastery was raised by Uroš I around 1252. Its church is dedicated to Archangel Michael. During World War II the church was abandoned and it was restored in 1998. Monk Lazar Stojanović painted the monastery church in 2005 and the frescoes are really wonderful!

 

 

 

 

 

MEDIEVAL TOMBSTONES (STEĆCI) IN MONTENEGRO – PART II

The most beautiful medieval tombstones of Montenegro can be found in the surroundings of Žabljak. There are no signposts or maps (although „stećci“ were put on the tentative list of UNESCO world heritage sites), and many people do not know how to find these two most interesting sites of medieval tombstones in the country!

But if you are in Žabljak, you can easily visit them during a half-day trip. Take the road to Pljevlja and turn right after „Vrela“ in the direction of Njegovudje. You pass Njegovudje and after a while you will also pass the village of Bare Žugića and in a curve on the right side of the narrow asphalt road (behind a group of houses) you will see a well-preserved necropolis. It comprises 300 “stećci”, including: 10 slabs, 50 chests, 10 ridged tombstones and 230 amorphous blocks. The finely finished “stećci” are located in the northern and the central part of the necropolis, while most of the amorphous ones are located in the southern and south-eastern part.

On the decorated tombstones you can see arcades, twining vines with trefoils, three concentric circles connected with a ribbon, rosettes, crescents, sword, and shield. There are also horizontal decorations in zig-zag lines. One “stećak” depicts the scenes of wheel dancing, a dog with a deer, and the original wheel dancing with mounted deer.

Further on, some 200 m northwest from the Riblje jezero (Fish Lake) in the hamlet of Novakovići, you will find the most famous necropolis of the Durmitor area: “Grčko groblje” (Greek Cemetery), which is an inseparable part of the Durmitor and Jezera area covering some 500 sqm. There are 49 “stećci”, out of which: 10 slabs, 27 chests and 12 ridged tombstones. Twenty-two pieces are decorated (12 chests and 10 ridged tombstones). The most frequent decorative motifs are: arcades, twisted brands, friezes, frames or trimmings with oblique parallels, twining vine with spirals. On one tombstone you can clearly see the image of a hunting scene.

If you want to learn more about these medieval sites, read the thesis of Dejan Vemić “Late Medieval Tombstones (Stećci) in the area of Žabljak”, to be downloaded from internet as PDF. It contains many details and photographs of these sites and gives you a very good impression about the history of these necropolises!

Continue along Vražje jezero (Devil’s lake) and then turn right back to Žabljak. You will certainly enjoy it!

MEDIEVAL TOMBSTONES (STEĆCI) IN MONTENEGRO – PART I

It is always interesting to take the roads less travelled in Montenegro. That is why we decided to explore the area around Nikšić in search of medieval tombstones, also called „stećci“. At the same time, it was our wish to participate in the UNDP project „Foursquare for Development“: our research should contribute to the creation of tourist routes in the northern part of Montenegro.

Apart from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, „stećci” are also located in the north and north-west of Montenegro. Their origin is linked to the period between 12th and 16th century. They are genuine works of art, of varying size: from thin stone slates to gigantic stone blocks. Monumental “stećci” in Montenegro are mostly found in the area of the municipality of Nikšić gravitating to Hum (Eastern Herzegovina). The decorative elements appearing alone or in combination with other motifs (hunting scenes, wheel dancing, etc.) are characterized by ornamental zig-zag ribbons, spiral twigs and twisted bands in the form of a rope. As for architectural motifs, the semicircular Romanesque arcades with different types of pillars are the most common ones. 

On the first day of our trip we explored the western part of Nikšić municipality. According to internet data, many „stećci“ can be found in small villages around Velimlje, but also in the immediate surroundings of the town itself. Our first stop was in Moštanica, around 3 km west of Nikšić. Moštanica is  famous for its old bridge, but most people do not know that – behind the church and graveyard – there is an extensive site with around 100 medieval tombstones.

Another interesting site is the church of the village Broćanac Nikšićki, south of the lake Slansko jezero. It clearly shows that „stećci“ have been used as building material for the church. One of them can be seen in the wall, decorated with spirals and twisted ropes.

Travelling along narrow asphalt roads through the villages of Petrovići, Vraćenovići and Velimlje was a special experience.The road leads you through a barren landscape with poor and lonely villages. Hardly any traffic, no agriculture, only here and there some cattle and sheep. The last village before the Bosnian border on the road to Bileća is Vraćenovići. Near the graveyard you can find two sites with huge stone slates and one block with arcades, and another site is just behind the graveyard on a hill. 

As we wanted to avoid passing the border, we drove back to Petrovići and then further to Velimlje. This is an authentic part of the country with nice villages and scenery. Several sites with „stećci“ can be found near Velimlje, but the most beautiful one is the graveyard on the left side of the road (signpost to Miljanići) with two huge vertical stone blocks decorated with arcades, and one tomb in the form of a sarcophagus – and many other tombstones among the more recent graves. Several „stećci“ with inscriptions and decorations were used as building material for the church and can be seen in the walls.

Using Nikšić as point of departure, this is a nice day trip that shows you an unknown  part of Montenegro with an authentic landscape and nice small villages.