In the past two years, Serbia was enjoying being rediscovered by its citizens thanks to COVID travel restrictions. As everybody “did” various spas, visits to the Uvac canyon, hikes on Stara mountain and dipped Bela Crkva lakes, one could wonder if there is anything else that remains to be visited? Thankfully, yes – and this year I decided to recommend places that were hiding in plain sight – whether it is the obvious tourist draw of Novi Sad as a European capital of culture or two cities that always seem to be overlooked on the way to Greek or Montenegrin coast…
Ever since the late 19th century, Vranje is the quintessential „Southern“ city, much thank to the works of Bora Stanković who described the passions and travails of the city life, which still had a strong Ottoman flavour. In mid-January 2022, „Nečista Krv“ (Bad Blood), a film inspired by Stanković’s famous work will premiere on Netflix and is due to inspire interest in this truly unique city, chock full with local flair and many stories.
One of the most famous ones revolves around Aisha and Stojan, Ottoman and Serb Romeo and Juliet, who were killed by Aisha’s father and the governor of the city, Selim Pasha. On the spot of this tragic event, as a penance, he built the white bridge with a plaque whose most famous line reads “Cursed shall be the one who divides what love unites”.
There are plenty of other Ottoman-style buildings in the city: from the 17th century Hammam (sadly closed to the public), the National museum (housed inside an Ottoman townhouse) to the house of Bora Stanković. On top of this, Vranje is dotted with a number of water fountains, the most of famous of which is Đerenka, which is also connected with a „love story“ (or rather an attempted , unsuccessful, rape of a local woman by a lovelorn pasha).
However the another thing about Vranje is its music (for which it got the title of UNESCO City of Music), and the stunning environments. In terms of kafanas, Sofka, Morava and Gradska Meana are the places to check out.
Hiking routes and also plentiful. One is going towards Markovo kale, remains of a medieval fortress which protected the city. On the other side there is Vranjska banja, a spa with the warmest springs in Europe. After years of neglect, the spa is being currently redeveloped with new hotels set to open in 2023. However, probably the most interesting areas to visit lie about 30 kilometres south there the 950 year old St Prohor Pčinjski Monastery and the beautiful valley of Pčinja.
The most attractive part of the Pčinja’s course through Serbia is Vražji Kamen (Devil’s stone), 5 kilometers of out of the town of Trgovište which features conical stone pillars as well as a particularly scenic 14th century church.
This year Novi Sad will finally become the European Capital of Culture, the first time that a city outside of the EU got this title, and will also receive a much hyped high-speed rail link with Belgrade. The progreamme is full of events ranging from open air perfromances to exhibitions about the history of Vojvodina and its very diverse peoples. The capital of culture designation, as well as the recent IT boom, also helped revitalise long neglected parts of the city, such as Petrovaradin and reopen new cultural centres such as Svilara, inside the old slik factory, and Eđšeg, located in a Belle Epoque hunter’s club building.
However, the hype around the Capital of Culture will hopefully draw even more attention to the fact that Novi Sad has much more to offer than romps at Exit festival. Its museums – Museum of Vojvodina, Galerija Matice Srpske and Zbirka Pavla Beljanskog – are on par with Belgrade’s National and Contemporary Art museum in terms of the collections, while its City Musuem at Petrovarad offers exciting walks around the storied „lagums“ tunnles below the impressive Petrovaradin fortress. On top of that, the fact that Vojvodina is Europe’s most ethnically diverse area is obvious in the range of monuments: from the Synagogue and its grandiose neo-gothic Catholic church of the Name of Mary (erroneously called the Cathedral – depite the fact that the centre of the bishopric is in Subotica), teh birth place of the Croatian national hero Ban Jelačić, a kachkar recalling the old Armenian church and community, as well as, the beautifully restored Serbian Orthodox Vladika’s court.
The diversity in Novi Sad is not just in the past, however. You can go to a hammam, visit „Shangai“ neighbourhood, and have some of the best burgers in Serbia at Toster (until recently you also could have had Uzbek food, but the restaurant is yet to reopen).
Besides the cultural programme, there is plenty to enjoy: swim on the Štrand, some hearty Vojvodina food at Plava Frajla or just a stroll around Dunavski park.
Novi Sad also offers a lot in its environs: the historic town of Sremski Karlovci, hikes around Fruška gora and its monasteries, as well as exploring of the swamps by Kovilj and an old, quaint fish restaurant, Na kraju sveta.
Long thought as a city that is just on the way to Zlatibor, Tara and the coast, Užice is a becoming a remarkable place to visit on its own. Despite its reputation as a predominantly industrial city clenched in the steep valley of the Đetinja, the city worked hard in the past few years to provide reasons for those passing through it to stay and look around: from the recent rebuilding of its scenic medieval fortress to the repurposing of an old railway as one of Serbia’s most beautiful bike routes.
On top of that, Užice’s industrial and socialist heritage offers a lot to celebrate. A small hydro-powerplant, built in 1900 as the first in Europe built based on Nikola Tesla’s design, is a testament to local ingenuity, while the fascinating monument at Kadinjača commemorates the fierce resistance of its citizens to the Nazi occupation and the short lived Republic of Užice.
The city’s Partisan character earned it not only a new name – it was named Titovo Užice after WWII- but also a fair bit of monumental socialist architecture. The remarkable, brutalist hotel Zlatibor is a masterpiece designed by Svetlana Kana Radević, the first female architect from Monetengro. It is situated on an impressive central square which is one of the largest in Serbia and is a great example of the mid-century approach to urban planning. Although Hotel Zlatibor is now closed, it is due to be remade into an office and residential block.
Once there make sure you don’t miss trying the city’s well known snack – Užice bun – which is a type of sandwich with kajmak, fried egg and local cured meat, soaked in lamb or pork dripping. It allegedly originated from Šuljaga bakery but Blue Moon is also recommended.
Besides the obvious day trip destinations such as Mokra Gora, Zlatibor and Tara, you can also visit the village of Zlakusa, whose special style of pottery was recently listed by UNESCO as Serbian intangible heritage. The vIllage is also close to Potpećka cave which is not only worth a visit but also has a great restaurant, famous for its trout, in front.
Although the English language media coverage would have you think it is a no-go zone, the northern part of Kosovo is brimming with amazing sights and remarkable history. Its administrative centre, Kosovka Mitrovica might be a divided city but it is a storied one, so much so that an excellent English language book was recently published about it. A lot of it revolves around the Trepča mine, which brought in most of its population during the 20th century. The mining character of the city is also commemorated in the monument designed by Bogdan Bogdanović which resembles an ore cart. The city is also connected to the ancient fort of Zvečan, improbably perched on a steep hill, with an amazing view over the whole of Kosovo.
However the main draw of the area is what is hiding in its hills. Banjska monastery was intended to be a mausoleum of one of the most successful Nemanjić kings, Milutin (whose remains now rest in Sofia, Bulgaria), and was richly decorated until it was destroyed by the Ottomans. Although its unusual, marble walls remain, the beautiful, romanesque statue of Virgin Mary and infant Christ, which used to adorn its portal, is now kept inside the nearby Sokolica monastery.
The latest attraction, however is the impressive Via Ferrata Berim, which takes you across stunning suspension bridges and rocks. Via ferrata, which will take you a day to traverse, is close to Ibarski Kolašin, which is becoming a bit of an adventure hub, with a lot of other outdoor activities and the beautiful lake Gazivode (temporarily named Lake Trump).