Over 17 years ago, ethnic conflicts were still tearing apart a region of Europe that was formally the country of Yugoslavia. An ethnic divide amongst six republics fighting for independence and control raged for 10 years from 1991, leaving a chunk of the continent – a country of South Slavic nations established in the aftermath of World War I – dissolved and economically damaged.
Much of it still remains misunderstood to potential travellers in the wake of relative peace.
Many of those countries involved in the now western Balkans region, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) have or are still healing from their wounds and welcoming visitors with open arms.
One of those is Serbia.
It’s no secret that during that during the early 1990’s – that saw the individual wars of independence and nationalism take place – Serbia exercised more power in the political decision making, thus becoming more heavily involved in the devastating Yugoslav Wars. It is something many could discuss and argue about for hours and which still is contentious today. Kosovo, a disputed territory of Serbia, still has yet to be formally recognised in Europe as independent.
Yet, that should be of no reflection on the Serbia of today; of the Serbian people rebuilding their country and mending the cracks, just like their neighbours. Many potential visitors can’t disconnect from the fact that conflict only ended in 1999 (with a peace agreement in Kumanovo, Macedonia), yet it should be noted that also equals many years passed.
Under the glare of former headlines, Serbia is shouting about its stunningly beautiful country flanked by mountainous plains, mixed with historically preserved towns and cities.
Neither disappeared during war. They were simply shrouded, ready to be unveiled when the time came for a new beginning – in a Serbia that even if somewhat still politically fragmented, is both safe and open for exploration.
Travel to Serbia – See It With New Eyes
I landed in Belgrade not knowing what to expect, and was thrown headfirst into a cosmopolitan city of artistic revival that hummed amongst pastel coloured classicism. It was everything I was deep-down hoping it would still be as a focal Balkan capital.
Belgrade may be tinged with structural damage and an underlying poverty, but it is the vibrant, tenacious and determined heart of a new Serbia.
Belgrade is also the well-established starting point for spending days and weeks travelling across a country with good transport and tourism infrastructure. Serbia is no post-conflict wild west, although you will find yourself getting lost within its untouched and little-known nature-filled hinterlands.
The Danube, which snakes through 10 countries from Germany to the Balkan plains, invites you to test its calm waters – the connecting vein of Europe. Swim, canoe or leisurely bathe on the banks of Europe’s second largest river, before following it along to the city of Novi Sad that is nestled right beside it.
Novi Sad’s preserved cultural heritage makes it as much a city showpiece as Belgrade. The elegantly detailed city centre, marked by the “Square of Freedom” within sits the City Hall, catholic Cathedral of Mary’s Name and the monument of Svetozar Miletic is a stroll for the senses. Houses and palaces in candy colours, side streets full of museums and art galleries, small passages (like Zmaj Jovina and Dunavska) invite you to explore before you land in the pumping café and bar-lined Laza Telečki street – the sundown meeting place.
A highlight is the 18th century Petrovaradin Fortress, divided into Upper and Lower town. Climb up through the arched gateway passages to the symbolic clock tower with opposite time hands (large shows hours and small shows minutes). From here you can look out over the Danube and gets a bird’s-eye views of the grid streets of the Lower Fortress town, whose crumbling Baroque architecture retains stories of old in their fading facades.
Soon enough, nature beacons in Serbia, a country that is 75% mountainous and thus scattered with rolling green, protected nature parks, canyons, rivers and lakes.
Bajina Bašta is not only home to Tara National Park, but is where you can see for yourself the famous postcard perfect scene that is House on the River Drina. Once a refuge for sailors and swimmers in an area of crashing waves, it’s become one of the main symbols of the area.
I got off-track and wild in Valjevo by trekking through the 50km long Gradac River that runs through the steep slopes and high rock formations of the Canyon, before winding through the magnificent bends of the Uvac Gorge in southwestern Serbia. Alternative lookouts include riding the Sargan Eight narrow gorge railway in southwestern Serbia through the mountainous valleys and relaxing in the sunny mountainous open-air spa of Zlatibor, that is more than its ski resort reputation.
Such bounteous landscapes are also the foundations of good terroir, with Topola (a one hour drive from Belgrade) boasting award-winning vineyards that produce regionally characteristic sweet wine, such as the Aleksandrovic Winery and it’s superb ‘Triumph’ series.
Off the grid from the main cities and surrounding nature are smaller towns, each with their own distinct flair, and which help build a bigger picture as to the religious, cultural and artistic diversity of Serbia.
When Yugoslavia was initially founded, it was made up of a group of South Slavic Christian and Muslim nations, although the latter are now a minority in the country. Novi Pazar is a predominantly Muslim town that shows a different side to Serbia, with heavier cultural and visual touches of the east. It’s small, and appears nondescript at first sight, but wander its streets and accept the invitations from locals to try warming bread from the bakery, and sip coffee at their house. Smiles soon overcame language barriers, in an area of the country that wrestles with a bad reputation and an almost isolation in its Muslim identity, despite not being off-limits.
The village of Guča is known for its annual trumpet festival, which is exactly why you must head there. Even if you are not a trumpet fan, the sheer amount of performers lighting up the town with all manner of these distinct low hums and beats, will forever reverberate in you. Guča is where a distinct cultural festival instinctively brings people together.
The future is positive for a country so tangled in political fragmentation. To travel in Serbia is to remember there is more to it than the image shadowed in atrocity and devastation.
Serbia is simply what it always once was – a natural wilderness undiscovered, and a sum of its centuries old past that is more than the modern history we know.
A country in rebuild, that deserves the right kind of attention now.
This trip was created in conjunction with the National Tourism Organisation of Serbia (NTOS) and iAmbassador for the #MySerbia campaign. All opinions remain my own as I set out to uncover all the countries that were once a part of the ‘Former Yugoslavia’.