TRAVEL: HIS­TORY RE­VIS­ITED

Land­locked Ser­bia, with its fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory and vi­brant cul­ture, might just be eastern Europe's most un­der­rated travel des­ti­na­tion.

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY RACHEL STERN

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

01

The lively main pedes­trian walk­way and shop­ping district of Niš

The 18th cen­tury Niš Fortress, one of the best pre­served for­ti­fi­ca­tions in the Balkans

02

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.

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