This is an Atlas Obscura entry based, in part, on a May 2019 visit to Western Serbia.
“Do you want to marry God?” she asked, not five minutes into our acquaintance. It seemed less a question than an invitation.
I had picked up a young nun on the side of the road, deducing from her all-black attire that we were headed to the same place: Radovašnica monastery, at the foot of Cer (pronounced “tsair”) mountain in Western Serbia. She was from Bosnia, making her way across the former Yugoslavia from one Serbian Orthodox sanctuary to another, final destination unknown. I was from Washington, DC, driving the rural roads of Mačva in a glossy black Fiat Panda I’d picked up a few days earlier from Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport. Our conversation had taken an intimate turn remarkably quickly.
“No,” I answered bluntly, hoping to cut the evangelizing short. “I only came to light an anniversary candle”—shorthand, in the regional idiom, for the end of a one-year period of mourning. Though I was telling the truth about the candles, traditional beeswax tapers bought for that purpose in one of the nearby villages, it’s also the case that I was in a hurry and Radovašnica was just the first stop on a day trip back in time.
Local lore has it that the monastery’s land was endowed by King Stefan Dragutin of the Nemanjić dynasty in the late 13th century, making it among the oldest in the “Pocerina” region on the north side of the mountain. Both Serbia and the still-disputed territory of Kosovo are dotted with Orthodox monasteries, many far grander in size or set in more dramatic landscape than this one. But Radovašnica, like the others, helps tell the story of Serbia from medieval to modern times. It’s also a gateway between the fields and orchards of the area’s small family farms and the mountain. “Fertile Mačva has always attracted occupiers,” narrates a tv documentary about the monastery, the main church of which was destroyed repeatedly during several hundred years of Ottoman rule, late 18th-century conflicts between Turks and Habsburgs, 19th-century Serbian uprisings, and in two world wars. Sadly, it’s not the only thing around here that’s been “demolished, burned, and plundered.”
Although Cer—named for Quercus cerris, the species of oak that covers the terrain—certainly offers plenty of hiking and other outdoor activity for tourists and locals alike, it’s best known for an August 1914 battle in which the undermanned Serbian army defeated invading Austro-Hungarian forces, resulting in the first Allied victory of World War I. It is to the memory of the fallen from that campaign that the newest Orthodox church in the vicinity, Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, is dedicated. Baptized six years ago on the battle’s centenary, the church also serves as a sort of rest stop for travelers who brave the cobblestone track that traverses the mountaintop. (Google maps will instruct you to get from one end of the mountain to the other by roads at its base for a reason, as I learned when my rental car got stuck in mud created by the combination of spring rains and dirt roads.) When I was last there, both the church and the nearby “Linden Waters” lodge were deserted, though someone had been by recently enough to leave a full bottle of Montenegrin wine on a picnic table out front. A mural behind the church proclaims “Cer’s heroes, holy warriors,” putting a spiritual gloss on what was a decidedly secular event and hinting at the contemporary church’s role in keeping Serbian nationalism alive.
About five miles to the south of the mountain’s peak is a modest museum and monument: an ossuary in the form of natural rock, embellished with the phrase, “Your deeds are immortal.” The Battle of Cer also lives on in a WWI-era song, “March on the Drina,” played at national-team sporting events, and a 1964 film by the same name. Despite this cultural legacy, it’s the case that Cer doesn’t call attention to itself. Unless you know what you’re looking for, you might think the mountain and its surroundings are what an urbanite from Belgrade, a two hours’ drive away, would call a “vukojebina” (literally, “a place where wolves fuck”). The Serbian government, however, is determined not to let the mountain or the military conquest that took place there be forgotten. In late 2018, they announced a plan to construct a memorial complex with a massive glass tower “symbolizing victory,” featuring 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside, and designed to “be visible from large parts of Serbia.” My advice: get there while the wolves still outnumber the tourists.