In the hilly stretch south from the town of Kraljevo – itself some 170km south of Belgrade – to Novi Pazar lie some of Serbia’s most impressive monasteries. Just 4km southeast of Kraljevo, Žiča was a thirteenth-century creation of St Sava – Serbia’s patron saint and the first archbishop of the independent Serbian Church – with a vivid red exterior that evokes the red Serbs use to paint eggs at Easter.
The first and greatest of the Serbian monasteries, however, is Studenica, set against the wild, roaming slopes some 12km (and accessible by bus) from the village of Ušče. It was established in 1190 by Stefan Nemanja, founder of the Nemanjić dynasty, whose marble tomb lies in the Church of the Virgin Mary. Studenica’s superb frescoes were the work of an innovative but still anonymous Greek painter who created trompe-l’oeil frescoes to resemble mosaics.
Around 16km from Novi Pazar is the Sopoćani monastery, a thirteenth-century construction that once stretched across a whole complex but of which only the Holy Trinity Church remains. The Assumption of Virgin Mary is the most famous of its unusually large Byzantine frescoes; the bright colours and expressive faces are said to prefigure the Italian Renaissance.