TRAVEL: HISTORY REVISITED
Landlocked Serbia, with its fascinating history and vibrant culture, might just be eastern Europe's most underrated travel destination.
Landlocked Serbia, with its fascinating history and vibrant culture, might just be eastern Europe’s most underrated travel destination
Walking through the oversized, Ottoman-era entrance of Niš Fortress, we enter a leafy park filled with Roman and Byzantine fortifications. A walk around the grounds takes us past Turkish baths and a 16th century mosque converted into a contemporary art gallery. The fortress, a sprawling stone complex on the banks of the Nišava River in Niš, Serbia’s third-largest metropolis, is a prime analogy for Serbia itself: a country constructed upon layer and layer of history, each preserved in its present-day landscape.
The central country of the Balkans with a population of seven million, Serbia is one of eastern Europe’s most awe-inspiring and underexplored travel destinations. It offers visitors everything from relaxation in its bucolic landscapes – from river gorges to stunning ski and spa resorts – to some of the world’s best-kept archaeological gems.
My 10-day journey began in Niš. Enveloped by rolling hills in the south of the country, this buzzy city is one of the oldest cities in Europe and is a historical hotspot. Perhaps best known as the birthplace of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, in 272 AD, Niš was also at the centre of the ancient Roman road Via Militaris, considered an early gateway between eastern and western Europe. Traces of history can be found at every turn here, from the stunning 11th century Rusalia Church, built to house a Byzantine dignitary, to the regal Serbian Wartime Parliamentary Building, which in 1915 hosted the congress that led to the creation of Yugoslavia.
This confluence of cultures is also apparent in the city’s cuisine. Thanks to a Turkish baker, the burek – a flaky pastry filled with cheese and minced meat – originated in Niš in 1498. The greasy delight is still sold at several street stands throughout the city. Another specialty, Turkish coffee, has been sipped here since the days of the Ottoman Empire.
Serbs are famous for their friendliness and this can be seen particularly throughout the south – locals are eager to guide me to my destination if I look the slightest bit lost, language barriers notwithstanding. Younger people who speak more English in this university city make curious conversation and suggest the best kafanas, traditional taverns that serve Serbianstyle food and drink.
And that is how we find ourselves seated at Kafana Galija, a cosy bistro in central Niš. Rustic Serbian paintings hang on the walls and chatter rings through the accordion-backed Serbian folk music playing in the background. We feast on classic fare such as sarma, cabbage rolls wrapped around meat and rice, and the sweeter slatko, a fruit preserve spread on delicious homemade black bread. Serbs often start their meals with rakija, a type of fruit brandy that “opens the appetite,” as one local explains, and is also hailed as an aid for any medical ailment.
For both relaxation and treatment of rheumatism, Serbs turn to thermal spas. There are over 300 in the country and the nearby Niška Banja spa resort, situated at the bottom of the scenic Suva Planina mountain range, is one of Serbia’s largest and oldest. An evening in its hot mineral waters feels especially rejuvenating after descending (by foot in summer, on skis in winter) from the highest peak in the range, Trem, at 1,810 meters.
A short drive outside of Niš is Jelasnica Gorge, a natural wonderland that has been granted special reserve status for its unique features. The twokilometre-long park may be small in size, but it includes 65 endemic and sub-endemic plants, some of which date back to the ice age. There are Roman fortress remains here, and photogenic natural dolomite stone sculptures that resemble teeth,
windows and even kneeling figures. As the first rays of Serbia’s springtime sun emerge, picnic-goers spread out on park benches as rock climbers manoeuvre their way over some of the 200-plus routes.
NORTHERN STATE OF MIND
Next we head to northern Serbia, a growing industrial region known for its serene outlook on life. “Even if pink elephants are falling from the sky, people will stay relaxed,” one Niš transplant to Novi Sad, the country’s second largest city, tells me.
Sited on the banks of the Danube River, the city’s mellowness is apparent by midday, as coffee-drinkers sprawl out on outdoor patios along picturesque cobblestone streets lined with neo-classical architecture. One of the most stunning is Jevrejska (Jewish) Street, whose ornate, century-old synagogue has been under historical protection since 1991.
WE FEAST ON CLASSIC FARE SUCH AS SARMA, CABBAGE ROLLS WRAPPED AROUND MEAT AND RICE, AND THE SWEETER SLATKO, A FRUIT PRESERVE SPREAD ON DELICIOUS HOMEMADE BLACK BREAD
There are around 400 Jews living in Novi Sad these days, compared to 4,000 before World War II. In the late 1930s, historians estimate there were up to 80,000 Jews living across Serbia. By the end of the war in 1945, around 90 per cent of the country’s Jewish population had been murdered in the Holocaust, alongside Roma and other minorities. Many who did survive the terror fled the country afterwards. These horrific events are remembered in Novi Sad both at the landmark synagogue on Jevrejska (Jewish) Street and by the Raid Victims Memorial, a bronze monument on the banks of the river that carries the names of the victims of one particularly terrible raid in 1942.
Just outside of the city is the Petrovaradin Fortress, a sprawling 18th century citadel on a hill towering above the Danube. Its political prisoners have included Karađorđe, a Serbian revolutionary leader who led the first uprising against the Turks, and Josip Tito, the beloved former president of Yugoslavia and leader of the Partisans resistance movement during World War II.
Venturing into the surrounding Vojvodina region,
we pass the picturesque vineyard-lined hills of Fruška Gora, a mountain often dubbed the “jewel of Serbia.” The 255-sq-km area, which traces its human habitation back to Neolithic times, hosts several Serbian Orthodox monasteries such as the 16th century Krušedol Monastery, a colourful complex of buildings that is today depicted on Serbia’s five dinar coin.
Nowadays, the autonomous Vojvodina province is known for producing riesling, traminar and other regional wines perfectly suited for growing on its cool mountain slopes. We step inside the Kiš winery in the beautiful baroque town of Sremski Karlovci. Family owned since 1830, the winery produces – and holds the secret recipe to – the renowned dessert wine bermet, a strong and sweet treat that can be produced from both white and red grapes.
Our last stop is Belgrade, the country’s capital and largest city, which sits at the confluence of both the Sava and Danube rivers. For a city bombed 33 times in the past 100 years, Belgrade is undergoing a remarkable recovery, with up-and-coming coffee shops, restaurants on riverboats that host parties until dawn and high-end hotels continuing to populate the hilly city.
One particularly unique area is the Zemun neighbourhood, whose medieval walls and cobblestone streets were built on top of a Celtic settlement. A rare unscathed part of the city, a walk up several sets of steps to the Zemun Tower reveals sweeping views of Belgrade, including the Avala mountain to the southeast, standing out from the cityscape.
With its countless attractions it comes as little surprise that tourism in Serbia is currently increasing by 15 per cent a year, with Belgrade carrying the bulk of this burgeoning market. Two luxury hotels, the Marriott and the Radisson Blu, have opened near the monumental main square in the past couple of years. In 2018, The Hilton will be opening a 242-room hotel that inhabits an entire city block. This will be a short walk from the impressive Church of Saint Sava, one of the largest cathedrals in the world, which has continuously been under reconstruction since 1935.
We step inside, marvelling at the intricate stained glass and the sense of history contained in the Orthodox arches, domes and murals. The restoration is almost complete, and it feels like the perfect metaphor – a shroud of mystery is ready to be peeled back from this remarkable country as it prepares to share its incredible treasures with visitors from around the world.
THE CITY’S MELLOWNESS IS APPARENT BY MIDDAY, AS COFFEE-DRINKERS SPRAWL OUT ON OUTDOOR PATIOS ALONG PICTURESQUE COBBLESTONE STREETS LINED WITH NEO-CLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE
The lively main pedestrian walkway and shopping district of Niš
The 18th century Niš Fortress, one of the best preserved fortifications in the Balkans
03 The century old Novi Sad Synagogue no longer hosts religious services, but is home to many concerts and cultural events.
04 An annual folklore festival in Sremski Karlovci, a beautiful baroque city situated on Serbia's most prominent wine route.
05 The Petrovaradin Fortress, which took almost 100 years to construct, sits on the bank of the Danube River.