Hidden in a canyon about 30 km south of Novi Pazar is one of the world’s most unique cave churches. Crna Reka Monastery was established as early as the 1200s and its current look has remained largely unchanged since the 16th century. Unknown to most visitors to Serbia, a trip to this mysterious monastery could very well end up being a highlight of your travels.
For more information on how to reach Crna Reka Monastery and where to stay in Novi Pazar, be sure to check the very end of the article.
The Walk Up
Hopping on a minibus at Novi Pazar’s main terminal, I was dropped off in the small town of Ribariće about 40 minutes later. The town lacks a formal bus station, with the main bus stop consisting of a few wooden benches placed along the main road.
From Ribariće, it’s about a 3 km scenic walk to the monastery. To get started, you’ll first have to walk across the bridge taking you over Gazivode Lake.
The artificial lake, which was caused by the damming of the Ibar River, largely lies within Kosovo, the border of which is just about 10 km away.
And much like Kosovo, the Novi Pazar region mainly consists of Muslim-majority towns surrounded by historic Orthodox monasteries on their outskirts.
Scenic hills and mountains dot Ribariće’s landscape, and I was lucky to be making this walk in autumn when the trees were bursting with color.
As I made my gradual uphill ascent, I passed through a few sleepy, dilapidated villages that made the compact city of Novi Pazar feel like a bustling metropolis.
In one village, I even encountered a 100-year-old power plant which visitors are free to step inside.
And getting closer to the monastery, a bilingual sign even recommends visitors to go and check out the view from a campground called Staro Stelo, about half a kilometer in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, trees mostly obstruct the view of the Ibar Valley below. But like the power plant, the spooky atmosphere of the abandoned campground (at least during my visit) is sure to delight fans of urban exploration.
Visiting Crna Reka Monastery
Entering the monastery, you’ll likely be surprised to first encounter large and elaborate dwelling quarters for monks that have just recently been built. Don’t be dismayed, though, as the main cave church still retains its original look and feel.
Passing the modern constructions, you’ll walk down a tranquil nature path before reaching an old building. And it’s around the corner that you’ll find the main monastery.
But first, take note of the interesting bell tower that’s topped with a wooden pyramid.
While there are plenty of cave churches throughout the Orthodox Christian world, Crna Reka is especially unique. Its stone facade built in front of the rockface appears to be floating on air.
A small cave church dedicated to the Archangel Michael was first established here in the 13th century. Later on, Crna Reka was inhabited by a 15th-century hermit named Joanikije of Devič, and the earliest monks’ cells may date to this time.
To enter the monastery, visitors need to walk across a wooden bridge to reach the other side of the gorge. Mysteriously, this portion of the river actually flows underground before reappearing several hundred meters away.
It’s after the river, in fact, that Crna Reka, or the ‘Black River Monastery,’ was named.
Looking off to the side, you’ll spot numerous wooden balconies spread across multiple levels. They jut right out of the stone facade with only a few beams of wood propping them up.
Stepping inside, I encountered a small cave shrine that seems ideal for prayer and meditation. Though I’d seen several monks on the way over, I was relieved to find that I wasn’t disturbing anyone.
It turns out that St. Joanikios himself had to leave Crna Reka Monastery after getting too many visitors. He eventually had to relocate to Devič, Kosovo to find solace.
Walking up some steps and passing by an icon of the Archangel Michael, I found my way to the main church, which has apparently not been altered or renovated for hundreds of years.
As beautiful as some of the larger and newer churches in Serbia’s main cities can be, there’s something extra special about these humble, centuries-old churches in the countryside.
The small place of worship is entirely covered in faded yet gorgeous reliefs and icons. The extant frescoes largely date back to the 16th century and were painted by an artist named Longin.
You’ll find depictions of Archangel Michael, Saint Mary and various scenes from the life of Jesus.
It’s also in this room that the remains of a 13th-century hermit named Saint Peter of Koriša are kept. He was born near Peja, Kosovo. And following his father’s death, he went to live an ascetic life with his sister, with the pair first settling outside of Prizren.
But Peter, desiring solitude, would later leave his sister to establish his own cave dwelling near Koriša, Kosovo. While Peter never visited Crna Reka Monastery in his lifetime, his remains were secretly brought here due to fears they might be desecrated by the Ottomans.
Ever since, Crna Reka Monastery has been an important pilgrimage spot for devotees who come to ask for the saint’s blessings.
Time seemed to stand still as I silently took in both the artwork and the atmosphere. As impressive as Crna Reka may look in photographs, the cave monastery has a certain power to it that can only be understood by visiting yourself.
After a long period of abandonment, monks came to live in this monastery again in 1933. But it would be abandoned again during the wars of the 20th century, only being revitalized as recently as 1979.
Behind the church is a place to leave candles, after which the natural cave hits a dead end. Taking one last look around, I headed for the exit.
I left Crna Reka Monastery and continued down the same scenic route I’d hiked up earlier, but this time with an enhanced feeling of serenity.
Buses for Ribariće depart from Novi Pazar’s bus terminal at 8:00, 9:00 and 10:50, followed by numerous afternoon buses.
You can look up the timetable on the website polazak.com, and be sure to type in ‘RIBARICE KOD TUTINA’ as the destination.
Throughout my travels across Serbia, I found polazak.com to be very accurate. But I was dismayed when it only listed return buses from Ribariće to Novi Pazar beginning in the late afternoon.
Taking the 9:00 bus, walking to the monastery, spending time inside and walking back, I was already back at the bus stop at around 12:30. Once there, I was expecting to have to wait for a few hours for the next bus to come.
Fortunately, to my surprise, a bus appeared after 30 minutes or so. It looked like a large city bus and it was headed straight for Novi Pazar.
To be honest, I almost decided to stay in my hotel for the day instead of visiting Crna Reka Monastery.
Not only had it been a cold and gloomy week, but I wasn’t sure about easily being able to find transport back to the city. And I was simply fatigued after months of constant travel throughout the Balkans.
But having pushed myself to do it, I’m really glad that I went. I’d even go as far as saying that this was my single most memorable experience in Serbia. While I’ve visited countless Orthodox monasteries over the last several years, there’s nothing quite like Crna Reka.
I probably got quite lucky being the only visitor at the time, as I’ve read comments online mentioning it being fairly crowded.
Nevertheless, I’d still say that a day trip to Crna Reka Monastery from Novi Pazar is not only worth it, but it makes the entire trip out to Novi Pazar itself worthwhile.
In my case, I was coming from Niš. Despite looking somewhat close to Novi Pazar on the map, there are no direct buses and I had to transfer in a city called Kraljevo.
The bus from Kraljevo to Novi Pazar turned out to be a minibus, and it was fully packed, forcing many people to stand for most of the ride. At least it wasn’t too long of a journey.
The website polazak.com is very reliable when it comes to long-distance transport in Serbia, and it’s a great way to work out the logistics of your trip.
Given its small size, you could base yourself just about anywhere in town and be within walking distance to many of the main landmarks.
I stayed at a place called Old Town Apartments. It was a cold week when I arrived, and I was happy to find that the place was well heated with an interesting floor heating system.
I had my own room and bathroom, and for four nights I paid just €45 including tax.
Even being located in the south part of town (near the Altun Alem Mosque), it was still walkable from the bus station in 15-20 minutes.