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Feature 24 Mar 14

Topola, Serbia’s Royal Heart and Soul

In the midst of the hills south of Belgrade, known as Šumadija lies Topola, the hearth of the modern Serbian state and, some say, ‘its very own Provence’.

Nemanja Cabric
Oplenac Hill above Topola seen from the road | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

Besides boasting wines that can be compared to some of the best French vintages, visitors to Topola can see St. George Church and the Mausoleum, the house of King Peter - which now hosts an exhibition of the royal Karađorđevic dynasty - King’s Winery and Karađorđe Konak.

“One can feel what things once were, and really experience them. This is the place where history lives,” says Dragan Reljić, manager of the Oplenac complex located on a hill above Topola.

“Around 100,000 visitors come to see us every year. Most of them are from students on excursions,” he notes.

Small but important:

Topola today is a small town in Šumadija, some 70km south of Belgrade. However, once it was the residence of Karađorđe, founder of a royal dynasty and leader of the 1804 uprising against the Ottoman rulers of Serbia.

On the eve of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, which took place more than a hundred years later, it became the site of the royal residence of his grandson, King Peter I, just before the start of the First World War.

Finally, it is the place where the bones of 29 members of the royal family lie in a beautiful church, lavishly decorated with mosaics, stones from Carrera, Crete and Venčac - with an ornate chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

It was made from weapons seized by Serbian soldiers during the battles round the Thessaloniki front in World War One.

Some 100,000 people come to Topola every year to see the St. George Church and the next-door House of King Peter, which houses an exhibition of the dynasty’s belongings and portraits.

Humble beginnings:

Karađorđe’s fortified town was one of the biggest architectural projects in the Balkans in the early 19th century.

Karađorđe himself, founder of the dynasty, was born in Višnjevac, a village not far from Topola, and he dwelled in the area since early childhood.

Here he made a small settlement, and his first house. It was a simple home, built in the hasty fashion of so many Serbian builders who often had to migrate at short notice. In 1804, when the uprising broke out, the Ottomans burned it down.

However, Karađorđe continued to build a fortified town in Topola, with a palace and a church. It was the greatest construction work in the newly freed Serbian state.

A drawing of Karadjordje's Town on the slopes of Oplenac hill in Topola | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

“The Turks didn’t destroy it but [the rival dynasty] the Obrenovićs did in 1877. It was a sad page in Serbian history,” the manager of the Oplenac complex, Dragan Reljic, says.

However, parts of the complex survived, and today the Karađorđe Konak holds a permanent exhibition dedicated to the leader of the First Serbian Uprising.

Model of Karadjordje's house | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

Another attraction in Topola is the house of King Peter, which was his residence at the start of World War I.

Peter was born in Belgrade in 1844, but spent his childhood here, and so got to know about his roots and about his famous ancestor who founded the dynasty.

King Peter was crowned King of Serbia on the centenary of the uprising, in 1904. He had five children with his wife, Zorka, and led Serbian army retreat during the First World War I.

The King’s house:

King Peter's house was first imagined as building for the clergy, but eventually the King moved in so that he could monitor and stimulate the tempo of work in 1910-1912 on construction of the church of St George as a mausoleum for his family.

As his official residence, it housed an office, a bedroom, a room for an officer, a kitchen and a room for house staff.

Today, it holds an exhibition of portraits and objects belonging to the Karađorđević family.

Among them is the famous portrait by Uros Predic, the schoolbook image of King Peter I - the first crowned King of Serbia since medieval times.

There is also a portrait of Queen Maria, the wife of his son, King Alexander, who was much loved in Serbia, and who connected the Serbian throne to the Prussian, Romanian and British royal families. [Her mother, Marie of Romania, was granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England.]

Left: Queen Maria, the wife King Alexander. Right: King Peter I, closest to the camera | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

The three sons of Alexander and Maria were named after the nationalities in newly founded kingdom of Yugoslavia.

The oldest, Petar, was given a Serbian name, Tomislav was named after the first Croatian King and Andrej represented Slovenia.

Among the valuable exhibits is The Last Supper, the 1924 gift of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Damian. Interestingly, Adolf Hitler’s artistic sidekick, Goering, spotted the icon at King Peter's funeral I 1934 - which explains why the Nazis later made off with it during the occupation in World War II.

It is one of the few objects that were returned to Yugoslavia in 1947 by decision of an international tribunal. Besides that there are Russian icons, gifts of the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, in 1910.

The Last Supper, the 1924 gift of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Damian | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

These are only some of the original objects, as many treasures were given away, taken to the vault of the National Bank or became parts of other private collections.

There are also beautifully crafted and decorated sables, a marshal’s baton with Wallachian and Romanian motifs as well as war diaries of King Peter, dating from 1915 and 1916.

Also on exhibit is a copy of the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia, written in French exactly one month after the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.

There is also an impressive collection of icons made by masters from Mt Athos, in Greece.

Peter’s father, Alexander, was thrown out of power and sent into exile, where he died, and the Obrenovićs took over. Peter’s single wish as a young man in exile was to find a peaceful place to place the bones of his parents, Alexander and Simonida.

St Georges Church built from 1910 to 1912 | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

In 1911, he buried his parents under the church, a suitably restful place, with its peaceful atmosphere, wall paintings, mosaics and coloured lights. Construction of the church started in 1910 and finished in 1912.

Dynastic tombs:

King Peter had originally wanted to decorate the walls of the church with names of all of those who had sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the Serbian people in the Balkan Wars.

Peter’s son, King Alexander, later gathered the best Russian masters in church decoration who had escaped from Russia after the 1917 October Revolution, and asked them to draw up a list of all the most important medieval Serbian wall paintings.

The drawings were made on paper and sent to the Berlin Puhl-Wagner studio to make a mosaic out of Italian glass.

It is one of the largest mosaics in the world, covering 3,570 square metres. It is made of 15,000 different shades of colour, lavishly covered with gold gilt.

The subject of the mosaics that entirely cover the walls of the church is the life of Christ, expanded with a selection of Serbian medieval princes and nobles and a representation of King Peter I.

In the mausoleum lie the graves of the Karađorđevic family. In the church of St George, above the family tomb, are Karađorđe himself and King Peter I, the two pillars of Serbia’s statehood. Besides them, 27 other family members including five rulers are buried in lower section.

The Mausoleum beneath the St George Church | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

Rolling royal vineyards:

Besides the church, King Peter and his son, Alexander, invested a lot of efforts into the surrounding park, as well as into wine-making.

The region around Topola was known for its wines since Roman times. In the medieval era, the Serbian Despot, Stefan Lazarević, had a vineyard here. With its inspiring hilly terrain, dotted with pasture, meadows, woods, orchards and vineyards, it is known as “Provence in the middle of Šumadija”.

Landscape in Topola | Photo by Nemanja Cabric | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

These are only some of the reasons why King Alexander in 1927 started building one of the best wineries in Europe, which was producing fine wines from 1931, when construction finished.

The King's Winery with a basement on two levels was built to resemble a modern French winery.

The royal vineyards today consists of 10,000 hectares, which is only a third of the area planted when the King was alive. Besides producing high-quality wine, which can be bought only in selected shops, today it is a museum of enology.

Wine-making mechanism made around 1930 in King's Winery | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

Visitors can try white sauvignon, red sauvignon and chardonnay and pinot from the King’s vineyards.

In the basements underground are chambers with large empty barrels that once held the King's wines.

The archive contains numerous wine bottles, some of which are almost 100 years old and have never been tasted. They are covered with piles of dust, locked behind bars.

Luckily, the rest of Serbian 19th century history is completely open to all those interested to come to Oplenac.

Manager Reljić says this part of Serbia is Provence-plus. “It may appear like Provence, but this area is special – unique,” he says. “It is because of the composition of the soil and climate, which become special when poured into a wine glass,” he concludes.

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