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,
“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.
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.
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.
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