Sitting among low hills where the Raška has its confluence with the Ljudska, is the large town of Novi Pazar (New Bazaar), capital of the region. Almost immediately upon arrival you notice how different it seems from similar-sized towns to the north like Kraljevo or Čačak.
Other than in Kosovo, Novi Pazar is the town with the most pronounced Islamic atmosphere in the country: instead of church domes, it is minarets that stab the skyline, and rather than the relaxed and carefree mixing of the sexes that takes place throughout most of Serbia, men and women seem to live more separate existences here.
Almost everywhere you look there are coffee houses full of huddled groups of men drinking small glasses of čaj or Turska kafa, talking and playing backgammon in a haze of cigarette fog. Even without the existence of mosques and old Ottoman buildings, such characteristics give evidence that this is still very much a Turkish town and, despite the worst excesses of 1970s Yugoslav town planning, modernisation has failed to destroy the distinctly Muslim character of Novi Pazar.
What to see and do in Novi Pazar
Part of the pleasure of being in Novi Pazar is to simply absorb its vaguely exotic atmosphere. The evocative sound of the muezzin – the call for prayer five times a day – that emanates from the mosques is a reminder that Turkey and the Middle East are not so very far away. The smells are redolent of the East too, with the ever-present, sweet-and-sour aroma of roasting coffee beans and grilling ćevapčići managing to overpower the stench of exhaust fumes even in the heart of the town centre.
The old Turkish quarter lies east over the bridge from here beyond the Turkish Fort (Tvrđava) that looks down over the central square, the grubby river and the dubious architecture of the Hotel Vrbak. The fortress, which dates from the 15th century, was formerly the seat of the Turkish sanjak in the region, and is home to a pleasant park these days. It was originally built to a triangular plan probably on the order of Isa-beg Išaković, the town’s founder. New buildings and reinforcements were added later, between the end of the 17th century and the middle of the 19th. Some of the original ramparts remain, together with an octagonal watchtower, but otherwise there is little to see.
Heading south over the bridge from the square, a narrow cobbled road, 1 Maj, leads through the old bazaar area to the early 16th-century mosque of Altum Alem, the most important Turkish building in the town. Access to the mosque can be gained through the courtyard at number 79, which houses several Ottoman-period graves and the entrance to an Islamic school. Altum Alem, built by the master builder Abdul Gani, is of a square plan, with a dome and a spacious porch covered with cupolas that are not typical for the region. There is a wooden gallery and a colourful mihrab within.
The road that leads to the mosque is lined with small restaurants that specialise in ćevapčići; coffee houses, butchers’ shops and small bakeries selling burek; closer to the bridge is a small enclave of shops that specialise in gold jewellery. Close to the bridge is a ruined hammam that probably dates from the 1460s and which was endowed to the town by its founder Isa-beg Išaković. It is a symmetrical structure with facilities for simultaneous bathing by men and women.
On the north side of Žitni trg is an old Ottoman Han (inn) dating from the 17th century, part of which currently serves as a restaurant and a guesthouse. This comprises a group of four buildings facing on to a common courtyard. In the past, the upper floor would have been reserved for the accommodation of passing traders (it still is), while other parts would have housed the cattle and animal stock that the visitors brought with them.
In contrast to this, on the opposite side of the square, is the Hotel Vrbak, one of the most unusual hotels in the country. It is hardly beautiful but the Hotel Vrbak cannot fail to impress with its mad-cap modernism, and gives weight to the theory that however much communist-period architects were under instruction to produce cheap, utilitarian housing for the proletariat, they were given completely free rein when it came to the design of hotels; that is, as long as they stuck to a vaguely futuristic concept.
The Vrbak is a prime example of this: a wacky architectural conceit that was taken seriously by a planning committee and immortalised in concrete – a curious combination of retro-Ottoman and modernism. The building consists of two hexagons joined together on two sides, with an extension reaching south across the lacklustre river channel that passes unglamorously through the town.
Getting to Novi Pazar
Novi Pazar is well connected by bus to most parts of Serbia. Several run each day to Belgrade, a journey of just over 5 hours. There is also one bus to Podgorica (in Montenegro) and one to Skopje in North Macedonia, two to Novi Sad, four to Niš, five to Kragujevac, seven to Kraljevo, ten to Sjenica, nine to Raška and a couple to Baćica on the Pešter plateau.
Fairly frequent services also run to Sarajevo and Istanbul, and there is a daily service to Priština in Kosovo.