In the Summer of 2021 most of Europe was still in the grips of COVID-19 travel restrictions. A friend and I decided to buck the staycation trend and put together an itinerary that was neither obvious nor easy to execute: an exploration of southwest Serbia (with a brief detour via Bosnia Herzegovina to visit Sarajevo).
What we discovered was a country of spectacular nature: heavily forested mountains fringing wide river canyons; breath-taking waterfalls; secret remains of castles, fortifications, and stone bridges; and countless lakes. Add to this the pure mountain air and karstic source-water, and balmy micro-climates, and you might as well be in Switzerland (at a fraction of the price).
The trip started in Sofia, where a car and a driver were waiting for us (we had flown to Bulgaria from Milan for logistical reasons).
I was impressed by the vastly improved road infrastructure – on the Serbian side – since I last made the trip years ago.
Our first dinner in the country was at a hotel on the outskirts of Nis. We had looking forward to Serbian cuisine with some anticipation and the meal did not disappoint. But most of all, we were able to slip into the relaxed atmosphere typical of the Balkans: late dining hours, large salads, delicious grills, flexible menus, unpretentious service and generous drink measures. Masks not compulsory!
We might have stayed there but for our eagerness to make some of the distance towards our destination the following day: Zlatibor.
Our first night was spent at a ‘5 star hotel’ – clearly self-awarded, for it was nothing more than a simple guest house – in the small town of Leskovac.
Having left that staging-post behind us (early) next morning, we made it to Zlatibor by midday.
This is a prime holiday spot for Serbs: a health resort in summer and a popular ski resort in the winter, with its own lake and a Western-style ‘El Paso City’ theme park on the outskirts. The countless chalets and large hotels are a testimony to Zlatibor’s popularity; yet we were after a more authentic Balkan experience.
Serbia is not yet part of the EU and we had been warned about roaming charges. What a relief then to find out that just about every café, bar or even small beer stand had their WiFi and was happy to share it with customers. The internet would not fail us throughout our progress across Serbia, in fact.
The bridge on the Drina
There was a time, not so long ago and certainly within the lifetime of this editor, when Serbia and Bosnia were part of one country: Yugoslavia (the country of the southern Slavs).
Crossing the border at rich in historical and literary references Visegrad (now in Bosnia) was part and parcel of our decision to explore the run of the river Drina (or that part of it that goes through Bosnia and Serbia) and the Dinaric Alps that intersect a number of Balkan countries.
For those who have read, or are at least familiar with Ivo Andric’s historical novel, The Bridge on the Drina (that contributed to its author winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961), the river and its bridge are broadly significant. They symbolise the five-century strong Ottoman rule in the Balkans; the conversion to Islam of a proportion of the population there; and the underlying conflicts that led to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The ever-simmering frictions and residual tensions are never too far from the surface, and are poorly understood by the West. They are informed by a complex history that has seen entire populations subjugated, religions defended and betrayed, cultures, traditions and languages melded but never quite integrated, and borders redrawn far too many times(hence the term balkanisation).
Revisiting the Balkans is always a bitter-sweet reminder of the myriad and fiercely, culturally proud people who inhabit that part of the world.
The Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Visegrad was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. Today, a short zip line runs from the small hill that overlooks it on one side of the river down to the bridge itself, and an enterprising team of two cash in on the area’s beauty and Ivo Andric’s fame. They do so with a smile and a running narrative about the town and its history, and we enjoyed both the short descent over the river and the interaction.
Visegrad itself is quaint enough to warrant a visit, with its galleries, cafes, churches and remains of ramparts and stone towers, even without the famous bridge.
From there, we followed a heavily forested, mountainous road towards Sarajevo – remembered in the West for the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the precipitation of World War I
In the past, Sarajevo was coloured by its ethnic and religious diversity – where Orthodox churches rubbed shoulders with Ottoman mosques – yet was unmistakably Balkan. Today, the city is developing a national, monocultural and mono-religious identity – influenced by an Islamic Studies Center, and the itinerant population of Turkish and Gulf investors.
The old city is awash with street traders, live musicians and performers, and countless restaurants and kafanas offering delicious local and Middle-Eastern fare. We loved the pomegranate juice sold at just about every street corner and the restaurant where we had dinner, perched above the river, serving the ubiquitous pleskavica, cevapi and mixed-grill dishes.
Backtracking towards the Drina and to Serbia, we spent a night in a guesthouse in Sokolac, a small town in the Serb Republic – one of two autonomous entities that comprise Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Lakes, lakes, and more lakes
There are just under 200 lakes in the mountain ranges that traverse Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia.
Waking up in Sokolac – sipping on coffee, looking at the surrounding forests, and feeling at absolute peace -we took our maps out and picked an ill-defined border crossing following an old bridge near Stari Brod, Rogatica, and made our way towards Nova Varos in the Dinaric Mountains.
The views are spectacular, characterised by deep canyons and winding, well-maintained mountain roads. Here and there a countryside inn serves authentic, woodfire grills; the small roadside shops sell homemade rakiya (plum brandy) in plastic water bottles; and at the occasional, spontaneous gathering of roadside vendors they offer honey, spices, and bottled source-water.
Every few miles there is a signpost to some remote monastery. As a matter of fact, we came across and stopped at a site where a newly built Orthodox church was having its gilded ‘onion dome’ finished. How often does one see that?
What Serbia lacks by way of seaside, it makes up for in a huge variety of tours and treks: bear watching in Mokra Gora, wine routes, eco village and hiking adventures, etc.
We hope that someone starts a pilgrimage trail as this has to be quite fascinating both on a historical and cultural level.
We spent one night at a vast private chalet on the heights above Nova Varos. The place had unforgettable views, its terrace literally hanging over a cliff. It was comfortable if idiosyncratically arranged and furnished, with dedications to General Tito everywhere – a testimony to the strong Serbian feelings in this border region.
Everywhere along our route we saw innumerable raspberry plantations (Serbia is the world’s most important producer) as well as fabulous produce and meals at rock bottom prices. Memories of empty supermarket shelves back in London were a distant memory as we sat in quaint tavernas, sipping local wine or beer and feasting on supersized salads and local delicacies.
The following day we took the road back towards the Drina river, and headed for one of Serbia’s most loved resorts: Bajina Basta.
We meandered through a number of small villages, some just a cluster of farming homesteads, with the mountains as a backdrop. The river was always alongside us – sometimes hidden, sometimes majestic, dotted by quaint houseboats and river dwellings. The most photogenic of them sits on a rock midstream, in Bajina Basta itself.
It is difficult to overstate the beauty of this area. The small resort town teems with tourists in August – mostly from Serbia, but increasingly from Northern Europe too.
Its riverside restaurants, guesthouses and small hotels are fully booked and we defaulted to staying at a private house. In the summer kitchen we enjoyed generous salads, local rakiya, cold cuts from the downtown supermarket and a succulent watermelon – the most ubiquitous fruit after raspberries.
We hit the road to Perucac the following day, eager to visit yet another large lake.
Perucac is a small village, some 20 minute drive from Bajina Basta, and in the most beautiful setting imaginable. A river runs through it, and small-to-medium sized waterfalls decorate the landscape (we had lunch at a restaurant next to one, feasting on freshly caught local trout).
The road to Belgrade took us through heavily forested, low range mountains again, with frequent stopovers to look at this cave or that, and refill our bottles with mountain source-water.
Determined to stay in the hugely atmospheric Stari Grad (old city), we booked one of the few hotels that has a parking lot- a notorious scarcity in the area.
If you visit the capital for any length of time, you simply must have dinner in the famous Skadarlija, the bohemian and arty cobbled street area that packs one restaurant after another, each with their own live music performers.
You’d be at pains to choose your spot – they all look as good as each other and the menu is fairly identical too. Do not pick a heavily promoted eaterie: they are all great and the only difference is the prices. Even that doesn’t vary wildly.
After an indulgent dinner and a greatly entertaining night, we opted for a healthy breakfast the following day. We looked for and eventually found a covered market that sold primarily fresh produce, but also housed a number of smoothie bars and cafes.
Do take the time to visit one of these. You’d be rewarded with a vast selection of fresh fruit and/or vegetable juices and smoothies, blended in front of you, from fresh organic produce sold right there. This may be an East-European country, but most everyone speaks some degree of English and is happy to practice it.
Belgrade is built on the river Sava. The riverside development made possible with Gulf investment may not be every Serb’s cup of tea, but it will rejuvenate the city in a singular way and push real estate prices too.
Serbia is going to give Switzerland a run for its money in the next decade or so, and you read it here first.