Belgraders are often restless to escape the congested streets of the capital. Thankfully, they need not go far: there are plenty of hidden gems within reach to sate your wanderlust if strapped for time or money to venture further.
Grocka’s Archeological Treasures
A 40-minute drive east from central Belgrade, spread over hills above the Danube, Grocka has been a popular place for Belgraders to build weekend retreats since the early 20th century.
Though mostly visited for weekend chilling and grilling sessions with friends, Belgrade’s easternmost municipality does not only boast a quaint town centre dotted with traditional buildings. It is also an archaeological treasure-trove, thanks to its position on the ancient road that followed the Danube and connected Europe with the Middle East.
The greatest of the finds is located in Vinca, where Serbian archaeologists found traces of a Neolithic settlement dating as far back as 5,300 BC. The museum on the site, which displays ancient artefacts, is open daily from April to October, except on Mondays. But it is best to check the opening hours and availability of tours by calling +381 11 806 53 34.
You can also unleash your inner Lara Croft or Indiana Jones by dropping by a rarely-visited Roman tomb, dating from the 3rd or 4th century AD, in the village of Brestovik. Found by accident in 1895 when a villager was tilling his land, the tomb’s main hall is wonderfully preserved. You can still see the ancient wall paintings, as well as the vaults that held the structure together. Though it most likely built for a wealthy local, legend has it that the tomb housed the remains of early Christian saints, so you are sure to find icons and crosses inside.
Access to the tomb is a story in itself, as the site is located in the back-garden of a local family, who graciously allow visitors to pass.
Once you are done with sightseeing, you can experience more recent history by kicking back in one of Tito’s favourite restaurants in Belgrade, the recently reopened and renovated Vinogradi (Hajduk Veljka 30, Tue-Sun, 9:00-22:30). It was here that Tito hosted some of his most distinguished guests, from Indonesian President Sukarno, to Sofia Loren and Neil Armstrong, before the restaurant closed and fell into disrepair. Though precious little of the old glamour remains, and the food now is average, the restaurant’s main attraction – an enchanting view over the Danube – makes it well worth a stop.
Architecture and Burek in Pancevo
Better known for toxins than tourists due to well-publicised leaks from a local industrial complex, Pancevo is one of Serbia’s more underrated attractions. Though officially not part of the capital, Pancevo’s proximity (a 30-minute drive or a Beovoz ride) means it functions as a commuter town.
Its opulent but fading beauty speaks of Pancevo’s past as an important centre of Serbian culture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its famous Gymnasium produced (and still produces) many notable figures in Serbian culture, from the painter Uros Predic and scientist and engineer Mihailo Pupin to the recently deceased actor Nebojsa Glogovac, widely considered one of the best of his generation.
The town’s importance is reflected in two beautiful Orthodox churches, which are sure to impress architecture buffs. The older of the two, the central Church of the Assumption, dazzles with its neo-baroque curved façade and two ornate towers. The interior is also remarkable as it features a valuable 1830s iconostasis, designed by a famed artist of the era, Konstantin Danilo.
But it is the 1870s Church of Holy Transfiguration, on the outskirts of the old town, that will surely take your breath away. Its ornate bell-tower and magnificent dome recall the great romanticism of the era. But it is the cavernous interior that really impresses, its walls covered with magnificent, if decaying, wall- paintings vividly retelling stories from the Bible. The iconostasis is arguably one of the finest examples of late 19th century Serbian church art, designed by two of the foremost Serbian architects of the period, Milorad Ruvidic and Branko Tanazevic, and painted by the aforementioned Uros Predic.
Besides the two churches, the old centre of the town, shaded by trees and dotted with quaint Austro-Hungarian-era buildings, is pleasant to stroll around, even more so if you head for Burek Stankoski (Milosa Obenovica 31, Mon-Sat 6:30-12:30), a cult destination for Serbian foodies.
Family-owned and run, the bakery caught the eye of burek connoisseurs a few years ago thanks to its novel choices of stuffing for Serbia’s beloved filo-pies – tasty twists on the traditional, such as roast pork knuckle or podvarak (a sauerkraut-base dish), to more cosmopolitan combos like quarto-formaggio or gorgonzola-chicken.
History and hops in Kosmaj
Mt Avala might be the more popular of Belgrade’s two mountains, but Mt Kosmaj will enthral aficionados of Yugoslav modernism given it hosts one of the most striking (and photogenic) WWII monuments in Serbia. It is also only an hour’s drive from the city.
Designed by Vojin Stojic and Gradmir Medakovic in 1971, this dramatic, star-shaped monument commemorates the Partisan uprising against the Nazis of July 7, 1941. Though the monument shows signs of neglect, it remains a popular hiking and picnic destination, especially as the peak of Mt Kosmaj cannot be reached due to a government facility located there.
Besides the monument, this pocket-sized mountain also hides plenty of history as an important silver and iron mining site since antiquity. There are three ancient monasteries on its slopes, Tresijan, Pavlovac and Kastiljan, the last of which is rumoured to be built on the foundations of a Roman fortification.
For those more into hops than history, Mt Kosmaj is also where Kabinet (Nemenikuce, bb), Serbia’s largest and most famous craft brewery, produces its wide variety of brews. Though the minimalist concrete brewery does not yet have a pub to visit, you can stock up on beers at the on-site shop, just call in advance (+381 11 2424478).
Food-wise, Kosmaj and its environs are famous for roast pork and lamb. Try Kod Tome i Nade (in Nemenikuce), as well as Dascara, MB and Veranda, in nearby Mladenovac.
This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.