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.
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.
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 15th century castle, some Turkish monuments, an elegant 18th 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.
Typically, in East Europe, the tour 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.
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, course. 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.
Five miles up the road, the city of Novi Sad. Two cathedrals and some thought provoking murals if you dart away from the tour and up the side streets. One of the cathedrals is exceptionally tall and skinny.
There’s also an Austrian fortress, Petrovaradin, once called 'Gibraltar on the Danube' on the river here, though it’s now more of cultural centre with arty shops and cafes.
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.
On our way south to Nis, around the station area 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 realtively 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 Serbian raspberries or rakija (plum brandy).
There’s also 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 in Southern Serbia, 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 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 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 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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