Holidaying in Serbia: the Balkan country you never knew you wanted to visit
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Serbia is a destination that tends to escape the attention of many holiday-goers, yet is a country that can offer so much to all types of travellers…
Located in the south of Europe, and part of the Balkans, Serbia offers a plethora of delights. This landlocked country shares its borders with Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Albania and Romania, and while it isn’t a copy of any of its neighbours, each surrounding country has subtly left a small mark.
Serbia’s history is as turbulent as it is long, with centuries of conflict punctuated occasionally by times of peace. However, sadly, not much of its history can still be seen today. As one of Europe’s oldest cities, controlled over time by the Roman and Byzantine Empires, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Franks, Ottomans, and Habsburgs, and as the capital of Yugoslavia until its final dissolution in 2006, Serbia’s capital Belgrade has been through a lot.
The city has been involved in over 100 wars and has been burnt down over 40 times, and the Yugoslav Wars in the last decade of the 20th century made sure that Serbia became an outcast in Europe. All this, along with the NATO’s bombings in 1999 – of which many buildings still bear the scars – has meant that modern day travellers often disregard Serbia as a viable holiday destination. As a result, Belgrade is still, delightfully, off the tourist trail; packed with architecture and attractions many are yet to explore.
While some of Serbia’s most magnificent monasteries are actually located in Kosovo – Serbia’s breakaway province which the country rejected as an independent state in 2008 – there are many similarly breathtaking sites in the capital. While Belgrade might seem like a carefree city, more interested in parties than prayers, the Serbian Orthodox Church still plays an important role in the lives of the city’s many locals.
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The city’s Church of Saint Sava is one of the largest church buildings in the world and is located on the Vra?ar plateau, one of Belgrade’s 17 municipalities. Built on the spot where the Turks supposedly burnt the bones of Saint Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1594, this church is a perfect example of the way religious and national identities fuse in the country.
Serbia’s capital straddles the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, and Belgrade Fortress, the city’s most visited tourist attraction, is the perfect viewpoint to witness this beautiful landscape. Despite being destroyed and rebuilt over and over again for 16 centuries, Belgrade Fortress still stands as the symbol of Serbia’s capital and today comprises of the ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ towns and the beautiful Kalemegdan Park.
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In the Upper Town, Pobednik (or The Victor) monument commemorates Serbia’s victory over the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empire during the Balkan Wars and the First World War. Holding a falcon, on watch for the new threats on the horizon, in one hand, and a sword of war, ready to counter these threats in the other, the staue towards the very distant Fruška Gora mountain and towards the (at the time) Austro-Hungarian empire, and is possible the most powerful visual symbol of Belgrade.
The fortress grounds are also home to a number of other attractions popular with tourists, including the Church of St. Petka, Ružica Church, the Military Museum and Belgrade Zoo.
Despite being entirely landlocked, many visitors will be surprised to hear Serbia has beaches; a good handful of which can be found in Belgrade. Savsko Lake is a prime beach spot; made at the end of the sixties this man-made lake was created from the right-hand sleeve of the Sava River by constructing artificial dams near the upper and lower springs of Ada Ciganlija. As well as fishing, swimming and rowing, visitors to the beach can also water ski, jump in barges, sail and even dive. Plus there are numerous cafes and restaurants along the beach too, including Sunset 1999 which serves dishes that are a fusion of various Serbian and foreign recipes.
A little outside the city centre, on the northern bank of the Sava, is Zemun; another area of the capital worth a visit. Until 1918, this Belgrade suburb was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; an influence which is obvious as you walk along the Danube surrounded baroque architecture typical of Budapest. After a morning at the food market in Masarikov Trg, a walk to the top of the town to Gardoš Tower, which was built by the Hungarians in 1896, is well advised for stunning sweeping views of Zemun, Belgrade and the Danube below.
After the sun has set, Serbia still has so much to offer. The country’s feisty spirit is embodied in Belgrade’s world-class nightlife and, if you travel out of the capital and to the neighbouring city of Novi Sad in July, you’ll be sure to encounter the award-winning music festival EXIT, held at the Petrovaradin Fortress. When dining in Serbia, be prepared to tuck into a huge variety of grilled meat dishes. Pljeskavica, a grilled spiced meat patty mixture of pork, beef and lamb, is the country’s national dish, while seafood is also very popular, especially trout and carp.
This year is a spectacular year for Serbia’s third largest city, Novi Sad. 2019 sees the city celebrates the 20th years if its world-famous EXIT music festival, while also taking over as the European Youth Capital, and beginning the countdown to its crowning as the European Capital of Culture in 2021. Novi Sad is best described as ‘laid-back’ and ‘relaxed’, and keeps a low profile although situated only an hour’s drive north of Belgrade.
When visiting Novi Sad, the best place to start is the 18th century Petrovaradin Fortress. The fortress, built between 1692 and 1780, was first used for military purposes, sits atop 16km of unlit underground tunnels known locally as ‘katakombe’.
The hub of the city is Freedom Square (Trg Slobode), a popular plaza which stands between the neo-Gothic Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary at one end and the neo-Renaissance town hall at the other. Only a short walk away is Zmaj Jovina which, together Laze Tele?kog and pedestrianised Dunavska, forms the town’s vibrant area for eating and drinking.
The Museum of Vojvodina which exhibits Serbia’s archeology and ethnography, as well as the country’s traumas of two world wars, can also be found at the end of Dunavska.
Although Austro-Hungarian rule is long gone, the Hungarians have left their mark on the food in Novi Sad, especially their use of paprika. Café Veliki is an idyllic spot for traditional cuisine, or if you’re after an unexpected Mediterranean meal, head to Fish & Zeleniš, where servers carry across the street from the kitchen to the dining area.
EXIT festival 2019
Exit festival is quite possibly the largest and most visited music festival in Southeastern Europe, gathering fans from around the world for two decades. It has become the symbol of Serbia, with concerts played from dusk till dawn over four days. This year’s festival will be running from July 4 to July 7 and promises to be even bigger and better than ever before. A sight like no other, EXIT Festival comprises of over 40 stages and over 1000 artists, and the 2019 line up comes with a whole host of big names on the line up including, The Cure, Skepta, Tom Walker and DJ Snake.