Spring is almost here, and given the global Corona virus health scare it will probably make sense to keep travels local in the next few months. Following the tradition of my recommendations from 2019 here are a few suggestion on what to check out in Serbia in 2020.
Serbia’s third largest city, with the second largest airport in the country, is unjustly overlooked as a destination in its own right.
It was here that Roman Emperor Constantine the Great was born, where Serbian medieval ruler Stefan Nemanja met Friedrich Barbarossa in 1187 during the Third Crusade ,where one the Ottomans erected one of the most gruesome (yet impressive) monuments in Europe, the Skull Tower, and where the Serbian government was informed about the Austro-Hungarian declaration of what was to be World War I.
All of this means that the city has a lot to offer to history buffs: from its beautiful Ottoman fortress to the WWII Bubanj memorial. If you visit this summer, you will (hopefully) also finally get to see the restored Mediana archeological park (which showcases the remains of a plush neighborhood of 4th century Naissus), which has been closed for years.
On top of this, central Niš preserved a bit of its Ottoman charm in Kazandžijnsko sokače and also has some wonderful pre-WWII buildings like its art-deco synagogue (now working as part of the National Museum in Niš) and massive Palace of Nišavska Banovina (now used by the University of Niš.)
However, history is just one part of Niš’s appeal.
The city’s many restaurants, like Mrak and Dagi Plus, have a cult status among Serbian foodies, who also flock to its bakeries (like Mićko) as it is here that round burek was first made in 1498 by an Ottoman baker from Istanbul.
The city is also a short drive away from the spa town of Niška Banja and impressive Suva planina (dry mountain), which means that it offers a lot of options to unwind and get active. You can also easily explore the rest of the still lightly touristed Southern Serbia: from the slopes of Stara Planina, to the famous grill restaurants of Leskovac.
Niš is also the home of Nišville, Serbia’s largest jazz festival which takes place in August.
Valjevo: Western Serbia’s Hidden Gem
In 1804, Valjevo was the scene of an assassination of the two prominent Serbian leaders, Aleksa Nenadović and Ilija Birčanin by the Ottomans, which is popularly known as the “Slaughter of the Knezes”. This brutal act sparked the country-wide uprising against the Turkish rule which led to the first modern Serbian state. During WWII, Valjevo was the site of another celebrated death, this time of a partisan, Stjepan Filipović. Filipović’s death entered the Yugoslav national consciousness by a photo taken just before hanging, in which he is shown defiantly fighting for the anti-fascist cause with his two arms outstretched. He is honoured with an impressive steel monument, which draws in socialist monumental art enthusiasts.
In 19th century, Valjevo was one of the more prosperous cities in Serbia, and has a charming old part around the Kolubara river. Its most iconic street is Tešnjar, which preserved the 19th century feel and cobblestones, and is often used in films and TV shows.
A short walk from the city centre is Valjevo brewery, founded in 1860, and one of the few remaining old Serbian breweries which have not been bought by global conglomerates. The brewery is surrounded with a few decent restaurants, which serve decent local grub. One thing to try are “duvan čvarci”, a local snack made from pork.
However what makes Valjevo especially amazing is its proximity to some wonderful nature.
Just outside the city is the picturesque canyon of the Gradac river as well as two monasteries, Ćelije and Lelić. A bit further out (some 40 minute drive), are Taor springs, with their picturesque watermills which make for a nice hike in spring. Finally, there is the increasingly popular mountain resort of Divčibare which is especially popular with families.
Art Nouveau Elegance of Subotica
First mentioned in 14th century, Subotica is located on one of the main roads through the Pannonian plain and initially it served as a military base in the long struggle between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. Two centuries later, for a year it was a capital of “emperor” Jovan Nenad, who used a power vacuum in the region to found a Serbian state in the Pannonian plains, before being executed by the Hungarian nobles.
In 1686, when Subotica finally became the part of the Habsburg monarchy, it was settled by Serbs and Bunjevci, a catholic South Slavic ethnic group which originates from Dalmatia and Western Herzegovina, in an effort to strengthen the military frontier with the Ottomans. The city’s fortunes stated rising during the rule of Maria Theresa of Austria who granted it the status of a free city in late 18th century. Maria-Theresiopolis, as Subotica was subsequently named, grew throughout the 19th century and attracted merchants and industrialists throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was then that Subotica became a cultural melting pot with Bunjevci, Serbs, Hungarians, Germans and Jews flocking to the booming city. The growth made it the third largest city of the Hungarian kingdom and 10th largest in the Austro-Hungarian empire. In early 20th century, the prosperous city embraced Hungarian art-nouveau aesthetic, marked by colourful flowery national motifs, which became synonymous with the city.
The two most imposing buildings from that era are the Subotica Synagogue and Subotica City Hall. Built in 1903 to serve about 3000 of Subotica’s Jewish Neolog community, the synagogue is the second largest in Europe and was recently renovated to preserve its stunning architecture.
The city hall, whose massive tower dominates the city, was built in 1910 and is by far the most beautiful in Serbia, mostly for its splendid interiors. The daily guided tour at noon is a must for any visitor to Subotica and will take you to the intricately decorated town assembly hall and many wonderful salons.
A walk through the city also reveals other wonderful buildings from Subotica’s early 29th century zenith, like Reichle palace, designed by its profligate architect-owner, which now houses the city’s modern art museum. Once you tire from the architecture, you can refresh yourself in one of the old style cake shops, which serve fantastic Dorbosz torte and lud lab, a local chocolate and cherry cake.
The visit to Subotica would not be complete without the short hop to Palić lake. Although swimming in the lake is prohibited, the area around it offers plenty to see. Wes-Andersonesque art-nouveau water-tower, hotel, park, villas and lido offer a glimpse into the elegance of this early-20th century resort. The nearby zoo is a draw for children, while the winery named after a famous Bunjevac musician Zvonko Bogdan, is a good stop for adults.
For those into sports, Palić offers great jogging tracks, where the first Subotica native to win an Olympic gold medal in athletics, Đuro Stantić (or György Sztantics), trained. The city’s sporting reputation is now maintained by Davor Štefanek, a Greco-Roman wrestler, who won the gold medal in Rio in 2016. Those preferring to relax should make use of the numerous restaurants (csarda) lining the lake and which offer great local Hungarian-influenced specialties.
July is probably the best time to visit, as it is then that Palić hosts its renowned European film festival which brings a lot of Serbian and foreign visitors.
Soak up in a “banja”
One of Serbia’s best kept secrets are its spas. Long associated with pensioners and children, they are now making a comeback as wellness tourism is becoming more popular and more money is being poured into their promotion and drawing in a more stylish crowd.
Although many of Serbia’s spa-towns are still derelict, you can still find traces of their old-world charm, and enjoy great thermal waters. Many of the spas, like Banja Koviljača or Bukovička banja, were patronized by Serbian royals in 19th and early 20th century, while others, like Sokobanja, have an even longer history of attracting Ottoman (or even Roman) bathers.
Given that most of the spas are nestled in nature, you can also use them as convenient bases for hikes and day-trips.
Prolom banja, is close to the scenic rock formation of Đavolja Varoš, while Vrnjačka banja, where the corny trend of lovers putting locks on bridge railings apparently started, is a great base for exploring monasteries in Central Serbia, from Studenica to Ljubostinja.
While each spa is specialised for treating a different ailment, all of them have swimming pools and sauna facilities where you can chill, especially in the summer. Vrnjačka banja also put itself on the map of Serbia’s music festivals with Love fest, which takes place in August and attracts a younger, hard partying crowd.