The Balkans

This is a tour of old Yugoslavia - now a wholes series of countries and I’m visiting five of them in one hit, on a group ‘adventure’ tour, starting in Serbia. We’re going to cover quite a lot of the Balkans and Balkans, it turns out, means ‘hilly’. It’s a reasonably civilised affair, though the guide for the most part acts as if he is still under communist directive and we are shepherded and controlled from pillar to post. He’s also, over-keen on extremely long monologues.

Belgrade, Serbia

We meet in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. It would be a good place for a stag weekend. It’s very much a pavement society and bars, nightclubs and cafes run the length of the main drag, Knez Mihajlova. Most of the women have a lot of make-up, died hair and boob jobs. The shops that are interspersed between the bars are not enticing, small and garish. The buildings are a juxtaposed mixture of old and new, as much has been bombed out.

Fortress of Kalemegdan

The most interesting part of town is down towards the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Here there’s a park and the Fortress of Kalemegdan, the symbol of Belgrade, with ramparts and good views up the river. It’s an odd mix. There are some artillery structures dating from the 18th century, a medieval fortification, an acropolis with original or partly reconstructed ramparts, gateways, towers, the excavated ruins of a fifteenth century castle, some Turkish monuments, an elegant eighteenth century Baroque Clock Tower and a Roman Well.

Across the other side of the river, some older timbered buildings remain. There’s also the Rose Church of Our Lady, along with a panoramic view of the Lower fortress and its monuments - the Nebojsa Tower, the Baroque Gate of Karl VI and the remains of the medieval metropolitan palace.

A (Very) Brief History of Serbia

  • Serbia has been continuously inhabited since the Palaeolithic Age - for at least 7,000 years,
  • 18 Roman emperors were born on the territory of modern day Serbia. The most famous of them was definitely Constantine the Great.
  • The Serbian Kingdom emerged in 1217, following successive Slav migrations, becoming an empire in 1346. But then the Ottomans annexed the entire country, though their rule was constantly threatened by the Hapsburgs. In the early 19th century, the Serbian Revolution established the nation-state as the region's first constitutional monarchy. Following the subsequent unification of the former Habsburg crownland of Vojvodina with Serbia, the country co-founded Yugoslavia with other South Slavic nations.
  • During the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Serbia formed a union with Montenegro, which was peacefully dissolved in 2006, restoring Serbia's independence as a sovereign state, for the first time since 1918. In 2008, the southern area of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence, (with mixed responses from the international community). Serbia continues to claim it as part of its own sovereign territory.
  • Our journey reflects this complex history. Typically, in East Europe, the tour also features a great many churches (mainly Serbian Orthodox) and monasteries from Roman, to ancient wooden, to Serb-Byzantine style to Baroque. Some of them are extraordinarily beautiful and most are intricately decorated, gilded with colourful icons or murals inside.

Sremski Karlovci

The side trips from Belgrade feature Sremski Karlovci, a town dating back to Roman times. It is situated on the banks of the Danube and is traditionally known as the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Key sites are the Patriarch’s Palace – and the mid-18th century cathedral of St Nicholas. A little distance away on the Fruška Gora mountain, the Krušedol Monastery with its very pink domed gatehouse, one of several enjoying the alpine views.

Facts and Factoids

  • Serbia is often referred to, by other European states, as Rascia, after the town of Ras and its orthodox church.
  • Serbia produces the most expensive cheese in the world - 1,000 euro per kilogram. It's called Pule and is made from a blend of goat and donkey milk. There are only about 100 jennies who can be milked for Pule-making and it takes 25 litres milk to create one kilogram of cheese. Apparently, famous Serbian tennis player, Novak Djokovic, is a fan.
  • Serbia is the second largest exporter of raspberries in the world. It also leads Europe in exporting plums, prunes, apples and pears.

Novi Sad and Petrovaradin

Five miles up the road, also on the Danube and the edge of the the Pannonian Plain is Serbia's second city, Novi Sad, the capital of once Hapsburg Vojvodina, The old quarter, Stari Grad, is the home of the Gothic Revival Name of Mary Church (exceptionally tall and skinny) and the neo-Renaissance City Hall, in the Svetozar Miletic Square. It's a splendid wander, down pedestrianised Dunavska Street, past the bishop's palace and the many cafes, restaurants and craft shops. There are also some thought provoking murals, if you dart away from the tour and up the side streets.

There’s also a huge Austrian fortress, Petrovaradin, once called 'Gibraltar on the Danube', on the river here, though it’s now more of a cultural centre with arty shops, cafes and great views.

Eating in Serbia

Dinner is at the very touristy Skadarlija, with ‘typical Serbian food and music’. No street dancing tonight unfortunately. Most of the food is undistinguished, chips, kebabs, tomatoey things. There are a few menu items worth nothing however - catfish goulash anyone? There’s quite an assortment at breakfast too, including cheesecake and pizza. The best offering by far is the ice cream. There are tempting stalls all along Knez Mihajlova. So it’s delicious ice cream for lunch every day.

South to Nis

On our way south to Nis, around the station area in Belgrade, we glimpse the cramped tents of the refugees being held here on their way overland from Greece. There are plenty more churches and fortresses. We stop to admire some at Kruseva, in the hilly Šumadija region. St. George's Church at Oplenac, just outside of Topala, is relatively unassuming on the exterior - plain white with the common green domes. Inside, are over 40 million tiles of jewel-toned Murano glass mosaic work, covering nearly every corner of the church's nave and underground crypt. Travelling on, there's also no shortage of road side stalls selling those famous Serbian raspberries or rakija (plum brandy).

Devil's Town

Mountains dominate the southern third of Serbia. Dinaric Alps stretch in the west and the southwest, following the flow of the rivers Drina and Ibar. The Carpathian Mountains and Balkan Mountains stretch in a north–south direction in eastern Serbia

We take a very long diversion to Đavolja Varoš (meaning "Devil's Town"), a peculiar rock formation. A mini Goreme, it features 202 exotic earth pyramids or "towers" This is located on Mount Radan near the village called Djake, (from the Albanian for blood). As if that isn't enough to chill you, there are two ravines known as Devil’s Ravine and Hell’s Ravine. Counteracting these are two springs with extremely acid water and well known (apparently) miraculous properties. A path leads uphill to the stone sculptures and viewpoints and a spectacular view.

The towers are formed by erosion and most have semi-obscene "caps" or "heads" of andesite, which protects them from further erosion. This explanation is far too prosaic however. According to one legend, these formations are actually petrified wedding guests who, on devil’s orders, wanted to marry a brother and sister. Then God punished them by turning them into stone to stand as a reminder that no sin goes unpunished.

A competing story says that there was a witch, who granted people’s wishes, as long as they promised to give her whatever she asked for. These 202 stone statues are those who didn’t fulfill their promise, or tried to trick the witch. Take your pick.

Nis, Serbia

Nis is pronounced Niche (and of course there’s a niche market!). It’s the second city of Serbia and birthplace of Constantine the Great. So naturally, there are Roman ruins (at Mediana), a cathedral and a fortress (of course – Turkish this time).  There’s also a very large protest march going on, though I can’t work out what the protest is about. We almost don’t get to see the Roman ruins, as they are closed, but an archaeologist takes pity and lets us in. Her talk is interesting but most of the remains are under cover, as they are being excavated and can’t be viewed.

Possibly, the most exciting sight is the Skull Tower. At the beginning of the 19th century, during the Second Serbian Uprising a  Serbian General, Steven Sindelic, realising he was on the point of defeat, blew himself up alongside 3,000 Serbian soldiers and about 6,000 Turkish soldiers. The Turks built the grisly tower with four walls - each containing eleven rows of seven Serbian skulls - as a warning against further Serbian resistance.

Next up, Macedonia.

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