“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs – Donna Tartt, Secret History
Nestled in the eastern part of southern Banat, some two hours’ drive from Belgrade, Zagajička hills, named after the fact that they are located behind a forest (gaj) planted in 1818 to protect the crops and cities in the Pannonian plains from Deliblato sands (aka Europe’s Sahara), made me think of England’s West Country with many thistles adding to the quaint British charm. Eerily rising from the dull flat landscape and criss crossed by deep tunnels cutting through what used to be dunes, the hills have a strange labyrinthine feel, especially as we visited them on a very hot August mid-day, with the heat stroke adding to the vibe.
After leaving Belgrade a bit after 6am, we arrived at Grebenac at 8am, a large Romanian-Serbian village. We left our car by an HQ of a Hunting Club and proceeded on foot. The hike, was made a bit more strenuous by the fact that it was a) mostly unmarked and b) mostly following a sandy path hugging the forest in Deliblato sands. For the first 45 minutes the hike was so dull that I wondered why I just didn’t stick to some urban hikes in Belgrade, but once I glimpsed the hills it actually got interesting. Their globular shape, reminiscent of the Windows XP desktop background immediately made me happy that I will be able to take nice photos. Sadly, my hunger for picturesque meant we slightly strayed off the main path and ended up having to scale one of the steeper hills to bale able to get to the highest point, marked by a pyramid built by Austro-Hungarians in 1898.
The way back was similarly a mixed bag: initial excitement about getting through the hills was replaced by the drudgery of trying to find the way back to Grebenac. We eventually made, after a 15km hike and then decided to go to the somewhat underwhelming Bela Crkva lakes.
After a brief sojourn in Bela Crkva, we decided to take a ferry from Banatska (Stara) Palanka to Ram fortress and finally get to see it in full splendour. The ferry, despite the longish wait was well worth it: the Danube looked like a huge lake (with smoke stacks of Smederevo steel mill rising in the distnce) and Ram was wonderful. It was great seeing the fortress meticulously restored to its Ottoman era glory and its mysterious Antique-Byzantine heart, an oval temple, rebuilt. I was also happy to hear that a path towards an old Celtic fortress and temple is also being restored and will be accessible by the end of the year.
All in all it was a photogenic trip: more showy than pleasant. I would definitely suggest visiting, but would so it in May or October, when things are even more picturesque and less hot.