Ser­bia: Why this off-beat coun­try is on the rise

With its me­dieval fortresses, Ro­man relics, UN­ESCO sites, tra­di­tional towns and vil­lages and wine-grow­ing re­gion, off­beat and up­beat Ser­bia of­fers a Euro­pean city break like no other,

Selling Travel - - Contents - says Stu­art Forster

“We’re see­ing this rapid growth be­cause we of­fer a range of year-round, qual­ity prod­ucts: city breaks, cul­tural tours, win­ter sports and ac­tiv­ity hol­i­days, river cruis­ing, health tourism and fes­ti­vals are rea­sons to visit” Rus­sell Sten­house, UK PR and Mar­ket­ing Rep­re­sen­ta­tive, MPR Net­work (Ser­bia Tourism UK)

My eyes quickly adapt to the low light of the mild, musty-smelling wine cel­lar. Wooden bar­rels, some more than 100 years old, stand on pal­ettes be­low a brick­work arch. ‘Probus 12’ is scrawled in chalk on the bar­rel to my right, de­not­ing a grape va­ri­etal named af­ter one of the 16 Ro­man em­per­ors born on the ter­ri­tory that is now Ser­bia — and vin­tage.

This is the Ži­vanović Win­ery on the edge of Srem­ski Karlovci, a town whose ochre Pa­tri­arch’s Palace is typ­i­cal of the grand build­ings erected dur­ing Hab­s­burg rule.

Sweet, spiced Ber­met wine, made in this re­gion, was a favourite at the em­pire’s court.

Re­al­is­ing that I’m Bri­tish, a mem­ber of the Ži­vanović fam­ily wel­comes me into the com­pact on­site mu­seum and shows doc­u­ments prov­ing that its wine was stocked aboard The Ti­tanic.

The pri­vate mu­seum’s fo­cus, how­ever, is bee­keep­ing. I wan­der over to a nov­elty hive, de­signed to look like an or­tho­dox church: it re­minds me of the monas­ter­ies I vis­ited ear­lier to­day in the rolling hills of Fruška Gora Na­tional Park. Frescoes at Krušedol Monastery, painted around 500 years old, im­pressed me with their vi­brant hues.

Check­ing my watch, I re­alise it’s al­most time to head on to Novi Sad, whose vast Petrovaradin Fortress dou­bles as the venue for the rau­cous EXIT mu­sic fes­ti­val. Per­haps I’ll buy a bot­tle of Ber­met.

New hori­zons

As off­beat as much as it is up­beat, Ser­bia is on the rise. Re­gent Hol­i­days (re­gent-hol­i­days.co.uk) of­fers a day trip to Novi Sad and Fruška Gora in its new five-day Bel­grade Short Break trip, priced from £765pp. This can be tai­lor-made with three- to five-star ac­com­mo­da­tion and in­cludes a half-day walk­ing tour of Bel­grade.

Year on year UK vis­i­tor num­bers were up 13% in 2017 and the Na­tional Tourism Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Ser­bia has an­nounced dou­ble-digit vis­i­tor growth in each of the last five years.

Val­ued at €1.2 bil­lion last year, Ser­bia’s tourism in­dus­try is ex­pected to be worth €1.9 bil­lion by next year. Pre­dic­tions sug­gest at least a 40% rise in vis­i­tor num­bers over the com­ing three years, partly down to plans for a tele­vi­sion mar­ket­ing cam­paign and Novi Sad be­ing de­clared Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture for 2021.

Con­nec­tions from the UK are good. Air Ser­bia (airser­bia.com) flies to Bel­grade nine times a week from Heathrow. From Lu­ton, Wizz Air (wiz­zair.com) has three di­rect flights a week to Bel­grade. KLM (klm.com) flights via Am­s­ter­dam are an op­tion from re­gional UK air­ports while Ryanair (ryanair. com) and easy-Jet (easyjet.com) also con­nect.

Niš Con­stan­tine the Great Air­port, named af­ter an­other Ser­bian-born Ro­man em­peror, is a gate­way to the south-east.

Ser­bia re­tains an air of mys­tique, ex­plains

Si­mon Grove, Head of Prod­uct at Ex­plore.

“It’s one of those des­ti­na­tions that peo­ple have heard of but know lit­tle about.

“Ser­bia has some stun­ning parks. Tara Na­tional Park is pos­si­bly the most beau­ti­ful and can be com­bined with tra­di­tional towns and vil­lages, fan­tas­tic food and a hos­pitable wel­come.”

Says David McGuin­ness, Found­ing Di­rec­tor of Travel The Un­known: “Ser­bia is ar­guably one of Europe’s last hid­den gems, with its an­cient Ne­olithic sites, me­dieval fortresses, Ro­man sites, UN­ESCO her­itage monas­ter­ies and quirky fes­ti­vals… word is start­ing to spread but it is still very much a niche, un­ex­plored des­ti­na­tion.”

Ex­ca­va­tions of the Ro­man city of Vim­i­nacium, 90 miles south-east of Bel­grade, are among the high­lights likely to ap­peal to his­tory afi­ciona­dos and can be pack­aged to ap­peal to cul­tur­ally aware trav­ellers.

Health tourism is one sec­tor that is boom­ing – den­tal treat­ments are avail­able for a frac­tion of UK prices. For ex­am­ple, Atom­ska Spa (atom­sk­a­ban­jagorn­ja­trepca.rs/en) at Gornja Trepca of­fers di­ag­nos­tics and ther­a­peu­tic treat­ments for var­i­ous ail­ments.

Pop­u­lar sum­mer fes­ti­vals in­clude the Bel­grade Beer Fes­ti­val (bel­grade­beer­fest.com/en), Nišville Jazz Fes­ti­val (nisville.com/en), EXIT (ex­it­fest.org/en) and the four-day Guca Trum­pet Fes­ti­val (guca.rs/en).

Ex­plore (ex­plore.co.uk) of­fers an 11-day Ser­bian Sum­mer Fes­ti­vals tour priced from £1,545pp. Many Brits who at­tended the first EXIT in 2000 are re­turn­ing to ex­plore Ser­bia with their fam­i­lies.

Per­fect ten

Climb cas­tle walls: En­joy im­pres­sive views over the con­flu­ence of the Danube and Sava rivers and in­sights into Ser­bian his­tory at Bel­grade’s Kale­meg­dan Fortress.

Dark tourism: It’s hard not to shud­der when view­ing the macabre Skull Tower at Niš, built with rebel skulls af­ter the First Ser­bian Up­ris­ing of 1809.

Wine routes: Sam­ple Ser­bian vini­cul­ture and re­gional pro­duce by fol­low­ing a wine route. A high­light is the 1903 Čoka Cel­lar at Subot­ica, by the Hun­gar­ian bor­der.

River dance: Party into the not-so-small hours at one of sev­eral clubs on barges docked by Bel­grade’s river­banks.

Ser­bia rocks: Visit Devil’s Town to see eroded columns of rock up to 20 me­tres tall on the slopes of Mount Radan.

De­signer goods: Browse chic kitchen­ware, cloth­ing and gifts by up-and-com­ing Ser­bian de­sign­ers at Bel­grade’s Su­per­mar­ket con­cept store.

Win­ter fun: Ski 55km of pistes at Ser­bia’s most pop­u­lar win­ter re­sort, Ka­paonik, nick­named ‘The Moun­tain of the Sun’.

Beach bum­ming: Ser­bia may be land­locked but you can still re­lax on the beach at Bel­grade’s Aga Ci­gan­lija, an is­land in the River Sava.

Din­ing out: En­joy moder­ately priced qual­ity meals in Ser­bia’s restau­rants. Če­vap­čići — plat­ters of grilled meats, bread and dips — are great to share af­ter a day’s walk­ing.

On your bike: Visit sites of cul­tural in­ter­est on the Danube while fol­low­ing Eurovélo 6, one of Ser­bia’s many cy­cling routes.

What’s new

Ho­tels: The Sher­a­ton Novi Sad (star­wood­ho­tels. com/Sher­a­ton) is planned to open March 1. The 150-room ho­tel will fea­ture 10 suites and the top-floor well­ness cen­tre has a gym, treat­ment spa and sauna with city views.

There’s also a March open­ing sched­uled for the four-star Mama Shel­ter Bel­grade (ac­corho­tels. com). Pack­aged as an af­ford­able de­sign ho­tel, the 125-room prop­erty has two bars and a restau­rant with a ter­race on Knez Mi­hailova, the Ser­bian cap­i­tal’s premier shop­ping street.

The open­ings of the 242-room Hil­ton Bel­grade (hil­ton.com) and 120-room Viceroy Ka­paonik Ser­bia (viceroy­ho­tel­san­dresorts.com) are also planned this year. In the coun­try’s south, the Viceroy will have ski-in, ski-out ac­cess, a spa and four din­ing venues, in­clud­ing an après-ski lounge with moun­tain views.

Tour op­er­a­tors: A six-day guided cy­cling tour of east­ern Ser­bia is now of­fered by ibike­bel­grade (ibike­bel­grade.com), priced from

€490pp (£440). The cy­cling starts from Gol­ubac and con­tin­ues via Bor to Vi­liki Buk on 21-gear trekking bikes. E-bikes are also avail­able.

Tara­tours’ (tara­tours.rs) Magic Tourist Ring day trip starts from Mokra Gora in west­ern Ser­bia. It in­cludes a ride on the Šar­gan Eight steam rail­way to Više­grad and a jour­ney on the River Drina (in Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina). Reg­u­lar de­par­tures are avail­able in July and Au­gust, priced from £26pp.

Trans­port: In Jan­uary VINCI Air­ports’ bid was se­lected for a 25-year con­ces­sion con­tract en­com­pass­ing the op­er­a­tion and main­te­nance of the re­cently re­fur­bished Bel­grade Nikola Tesla Air­port. In 2017 5.3 mil­lion pas­sen­gers ar­rived at the air­port, 11 miles from the city cen­tre.

At­trac­tions: Bel­grade’s Mu­seum for Con­tem­po­rary Art (eng.msub.org.rs), housed in a strik­ing Mod­ernist build­ing, has re­opened fol­low­ing lengthy restora­tions.

Where to book it

GREAT RAIL JOUR­NEYS – 01904 527 181 Be­spoke tours are avail­able. A fournight twin city break com­bin­ing two nights in Bel­grade’s fourstar Bel­grade Art Ho­tel and two nights in Bu­dapest (Hun­gary) is priced from £535pp, in­clud­ing break­fasts, in­ter­na­tional econ­omy class flights with checked bag­gage and stan­dard class rail travel. greatrail.com/grj-in­de­pen­dent TRAVEL THE UN­KNOWN – 01904 527 181 The eight-day Ar­chae­ol­ogy of Ser­bia tour comes as a pri­vate tour or one of four group de­par­tures in May and Septem­ber. Vis­its to Bel­grade, Novi Sad, Sir­mium, Vim­i­nacium, Niš and Felix Ro­mu­liana are in­cluded. Priced from £1,945pp, in­clud­ing flights, trans­fers, site fees and guides. trav­elthe­un­known.com

“To truly get a feel for Ser­bia visit one of the sum­mer fes­ti­vals such as the Guča Trum­pet Fes­ti­val. Join over half-a-mil­lion rev­ellers at an amaz­ingly colour­ful, loud event that be­gan in 1961” Si­mon Grove, Head of Prod­uct, Ex­plore

Open­ing page: Both the Danube and the Sava flow through Bel­grade. This page, clock­wise from top left: a Ser­bian pic­nic spread; the lofty vis­tas of Tara Na­tional Park; Bel­grade’s cas­tle; folk dancers

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