FROM the old turkish fort in Belgrade, you look down to the flood plain of the Sava and Danube rivers. Belgrade stands on a small bluff. Everything else is flat as far as the eye can see. “Easy country to conquer,” I remark to my driver.
“Must be if we Serbs managed it,” Dejan replies. This is my first taste of the Serbian sense of humour. Very dark. When the last Turkish soldier left Belgrade in 1868, the hated Stamboul Gate, where heads of Serbian rebels were impaled, was pulled down to build an opera house, and this fort was turned into a park with a small zoo. After a state visit in 1989, Libyan ruler Colonel Gaddafi donated two camels. When one of them gave birth, the calf was named Monica Lewinsky — “Because of the lips,” Dejan explains. “And when they got a new python, they named it Madeleine Albright.” Every joke is political in Serbia.
We walk back towards the city centre, past Konak Kneginje Ljublice (Queen Ljublica’s Palace) — a 19th-century mansion with a big bay window and a lot of ornate chimneys. According to Dejan, one of the founders of modern Serbia, Prince Miloš Obrenović, lived here with his wife and two sons, but after he was caught having an affair he moved out and built an identical palace for himself outside the city. It was Miloš’ son who built the opera house, but he was assassinated before the first performance was staged.
“Here in Serbia, we do not need foreigners to kill our leaders,” Dejan says. “We do it ourselves.”
We make for a small restaurant in Kralija Petra that sits opposite the white-painted Orthodox cathedral. Its illuminated sign depicts a single question mark. The reason for this was that the 19th-century owner had followed the Serbian tradition of naming his establishment after the nearest landmark, but when Prince Miloć built his cathedral nearby, the ecclesiastical authorities objected to a tavern called ‘At the Orthodox Cathedral’. So a temporary question-mark sign was attached to the restaurant until the owner thought of another name. He never did.
It consists of two small, low-ceilinged, family-sized rooms with a small ‘orchestra’ of guitar and violin playing between the tables. Dejan and I discuss my itinerary. I am keen to get out of Belgrade and see the rest of Serbia; he is keen to talk politics. I have only been in Serbia a few days but I’m already aware that the country expects to be seen as a victim of the recent Yugoslav Wars. At the opera house, I had an argument with a man who claimed the Serbs suffered far worse ethnic-cleansing than any they inflicted. Two people have shown me the bombed-out Ministry of Defence building, which, 12 years after NATO’s attack remains a blackened wreck.
“When our people shot down a stealth bomber in Buđanovci, someone painted on it, ‘Sorry, we didn’t realise it was invisible,’” says Dejan, and we both smile at the irony.
Over our bowls of muckalica (a kind of goulash), I ask him about the princes and kings of Serbia — surely a good way to change the subject, as the 130 years that separate the accession of Miloć Obrenović in 1815 and the deposition of Peter I Karađorđević in 1945 are a veritable maelstrom of violence and conspiracy, with Serbia’s two royal families — the Obrenović and the Karađorđević clans — battling it out for supremacy. One crown prince was denied the throne for kicking a servant to death; another royal was shot, disembowelled and thrown from a balcony during a palace coup. You get a lot of gory history when you come to Serbia.
We visit Sveti Sava (St Sava’s Temple) in Krusedolska on the Vraćar Plateau. This huge white-marble-clad structure was begun in the 1930s and is still not complete. It stands on the spot where, in 1594, the Ottoman Turks burned the disinterred body of St Sava. It was intended to rival Haigha Sofia in size.
World War II and the 45 years of official atheism that followed delayed completion, but when — or rather, if — it’s ever finished it will hold more than 8,000 worshippers.
“It is not Serb to build on this scale,” mutters Dejan as we step around incomplete mosaics. “Who knows when it will be finished. We do not work hard in Serbia. In the days of communism, people grew lazy; they used to say, ‘You cannot pay me as little as I work.’”
After taking the E75 motorway towards Jagodina and pulling in to a service station called the Tito Café, we stumble across a reminder of the communist days. The place is empty except for us, some red-and-white Coca Cola chairs and masses of memorabilia dedicated to Josip Broz Tito (the former president of Yugoslavia) — photos, books, busts, plaques. I’m even drinking my Turkish coffee out of a chipped Tito cup and saucer.
We discuss our route. I’m keen to see Devil’s Town, or Ðavolja Varoš — a stunning geological formation in a remote valley, nominated last year as one of the Seven New Natural Wonders of the World. Driving through a damp landscape of pan-tiled hill farms and abandoned 19th-century railway stations, we spend a long time hunting for the elusive monolith until Dejan finally spots handmade signs that Slavisa, the curator, has erected.
Slavisa, a young man, tries to sound enthusiastic as he leads us through a narrow wooded valley with a stream that runs orange with iron deposits. Butterflies flit around us but there is an eerie absence of bird song. When Slavisa came to work here, he tells us, there were plans to rent out cottages in the woods but the company he works for changed its mind when it became clear that the very name Ðavolja Varoš still holds such fear for Serb visitors.
Rising 200ft out of the ground at the head of the valley, Devil’s Town consists of more than 200 tooth-like spires of rock and earth, protected by caps of volcanic andesite. “We were nominated for the Seven New Wonders of the World,” Slavisa explains. “But we didn’t receive enough votes.”
We climb to a small chapel, dedicated to St Petke, that the early Christians built near the top of the columns — an attempt, perhaps, to tame the Devil. Inside, you can buy a white ribbon for 200 dinars and tie it to an artificial tree outside. “All your maladies are the devil’s,” says Slavisa. “Here you can leave your afflictions with him.” The tree is covered with the fluttering white strips.
Looking down the other side of the ridge into the next valley, I notice a new series of columns beginning to form. “We call that New Hell,” says Slavisa.
I stay in the city of Niš that night. The light is fading as Dejan drives me through fields of sour cherry trees and huge new houses, ostentatiously decorated and over-ballustraded.
Niš is the birthplace of the Emperor Constantine. In fact, two other emperors were born in Roman Naissus: Constantius III and Justinian. As we arrive, the Nišava River is in full flood, moving in a fury. We park by the 18th-century Ottoman fort and meet my guide, Dragana. She tells me the Turks built over a Roman fortress and that they only abandoned this site in 1878, when the last Turkish soldier left Serbia. As in Belgrade, the fort is now a park, but just a few buildings are still standing, including a former Turkish bath house — now a small art gallery.
Crossing the river, Dragana points out Banovina Palace, where King Peter I Karađorđević (who took over after King Alexander Obrenović was assassinated) retreated with his government in 1914.
“He was worried that the Austro-Hungarian army could be in Belgrade in days,” says Dragana. “He wasn’t wrong!”
Today, Banovina more closely resembles a government office building than a palace. The Ottoman fort functions as its overspill car park. When I ask if there are any plans for an archaeological excavation here, Dragana laughs. “But to which period? Roman? Byzantine? Ottoman? There are 40 layers of invasion on that site, and even a few decades of peace. Any time you try to dig in Serbia, you hit history; that is why we do nothing. I trained as an archaeologist.This is why I am now a guide.”
We turn up our collars against the driving rain and find a meal in an old cobbled street called Kazandjijsko Sokace (Blacksmiths’ Lane). The word ‘Sokace’ comes from the Turkish ‘sokac’ (blacksmith) — evidence that the Turks left more than just a fort behind in this part of Serbia.
The next morning, we find another souvenir on the road between Niš and Istanbul, although it takes a while for us to pinpoint the Ćele Kula (Tower of Skulls) because of what Dragana calls the ‘Tourism Prevention Service’. Nothing is signposted, and if it is, it’s usually misleading. “During the Nazi occupation, the partisans turned all the signposts round,” Dragana laughs. “Sometimes I think they never turned them back.”
What we find is a square, neoclassical chapel set back from the road. Royal coats of arms are emblazoned above each of its four doors, which are framed by a white-skull symbol. The curator, a big gruff man called Predrag, looms into view. He lets us in and I come face to face with a wall of human skulls. This rough-hewn inner tower was a deterrent built in 1809 by the Turks after they put down an uprising at the Battle of Ćegar. The skulls of 952 decapitated Serbs were set into the mortar as a warning to whoever opposed the Ottoman Empire. Ćele Kula became something of a national shrine, with local families burying the skulls they recognised and making Stevan Sinđelić — the voivoide (duke) who cost the Turks 6,000 lives — a hero. “When he saw the battle was lost, Voivoide Stevan fired into the Serbian gunpowder and blew up everyone, Turks and Serbs, including himself,” says Dragana, to avoid surrender. There is a bust of him outside the chapel and his skull is preserved in a glass case inside.
Borac is our next stop. Dejan hums as he drives me through a landscape of unfinished orange-breezeblock houses, muddy farms and vineyards. At the village of Knic, we pick up our guide.
“Like travelling back in time,” says Dejan peering out at all the bomber jackets and Trabants we are passing.
Our guide is called Dule. His rugged face matches his voice, and as we stand in front of Borac’s ‘hidden church’ — the Church of the Virgin Mary — he grips my hand as he tells me that in Roman times the citadel of Borac was bigger than London. His tone seems to be ruefully implying that were it not for the invaders we’d now be standing in the middle of a bustling metropolis, rather than the ruined graveyard of a church that, since its founding in 1350, has regularly been smashed up by invading armies.
Despite its sheltered position at the foot of a sheer cliff of black volcanic rock, the Ottomans reduced Borac to its foundations. All that was left standing was this wood and stone church covered in moss. The priest has a key, I’m told, but no one knows where he is today.
Dejan ambles up to me. He must sense I’m taken aback by the desolation all around us. “Whenever the Turks and Austro-Hungarians wanted to try out who was the stronger, Serbia was where they fought,” he tells me.
After taking Dule home, we call in at a convent in Kamenac. Its beautifully manicured lawns are incongruous after the ruins of Borac. Conifers, flowerbeds and lawns line the walk to a small church. I am taken inside by three serious-looking young nuns dressed from head to toe in black. In one corner, every inch of wall space is covered with 19th-century frescoes. They are not very good, which is a shame, because in the 16th century the nunnery was renowned for its artwork. Only one of the nuns speaks to me. “Unfortunately some Ottoman soldiers got in and plastered over the human figures,” she says, pointing to the wall. “So when peace came in the 19th century, the nuns had the whole church repainted.” I nod. What a shame.
My final stop is the royal tombs at Oplenac, another pleasant surprise. The Mausoleum of St George, which was built in 1910-12 on the orders of King Peter I Karađorđević, is immaculately decorated with 60 million mosaic tiles, most of which depict Serbian saints and kings.
“The line of medieval kings stops in 1459,” says Miladin, the curator, “because in that year the Turks took Smederevo and the medieval Serbian state fell.” Everywhere you go, you get history, and it’s always to the disadvantage of the Serbian people. Yet the mausoleum is actually a celebration of modern Serbia and the Karageorgeviches, the dynasty that won that bloody internecine struggle back in the 19th century.
When I emerge, the rain has stopped and the mausoleum’s white marble glows in the late afternoon sun. Dejan tells me there’s a vineyard nearby called Oplenac that uses grapes tended on these very slopes by Peter I. Dejan recommends I try this; he may even join me in a glass. This is how Serbia should celebrate its past. We leave the sleeping kings to their rest and head for the vineyard.
Airlines with direct London-Belgrade services include Jat out of Heathrow and Wizz Air out of Luton. British Airways flies from Gatwick via Budapest. www.jatlondon.com www.wizzair.com www.ba.com
Average flight time: 2h40m.
To get to Belgrade from the airport, book in advance with Belgrade Taxis. Beware of unlicensed taxis. For travel outside Belgrade, it’s always advisable to book with a tour company. www.belgradetaxi.com
When to go
Serbia has a continental climate in the north and a Mediterranean one in the south. This contrast between cold winters and hot, humid summers means that May to June and September to October are the best times to visit.
Need to know
Currency: Dinar (RSD) £1 = RSD 115.
International dial code: 00 381.
Time difference: GMT +1.
Where to stay
Double rooms at the basic but convenient Hotel Kasina, Belgrade, start at €63 (£55) plus €1.50 city tax. Price includes breakfast. www.booking.com
Belgrade’s new Town House 27 is a city-centre design oasis. Rooms start at €190 (£170) per person on a B&B basis plus €1.50 city tax. Surcharge for second person sharing a double room is €30 (£27). www.townhouse27.com
The Bradt Guide to Serbia. RRP: £15.99.
How to do it
Regent Holidays offers the seven-day Sarajevo & Belgrade Twin Centre By Train, taking in Sarajevo, a train journey through the Serbian countryside and Belgrade. Prices start from £655 per person including flights, train travel and accommodation. www.regent-holidays.co.uk