Serbia’s west is the forgotten gem of the Balkans, rich in history, folk tales and wildlife. James Stewart sets out to rediscover a long misunderstood land
One late-summer afternoon in Kremna village, Ljubisa Carević strolled into the orchard behind his cottage – the one with views over shaggy conical haystacks, toward the wooded hills. The pears on his trees had started to blush and yielded slightly to his squeeze. It was time to harvest.
Ljubisa bottled the pear juice into a demijohn bottle. Then, at the precise moment when its fermentation ceased, as gas from the bottle stopped bubbling up through the bucket of water, he lit a fire beneath a copper still and distilled the juice into a clear alcohol. He then repeated the process and casked the liquid. Two-and-a-half years later, he explained all this to me as he poured me out a glass of his pear rakija.
Belgrade riverside (James Stewart)
We sat in Ljubisa’s wood-panelled holiday cottage as the day’s light faded, the rakija in our glasses glowing gold in the light of the fire. “Drink, drink,” he urged. The faint smell of smoke wafted from the liquor, then a pear-tinged, alcoholic heat filled my mouth and trickled into my stomach.
Ljubisa shot me an enquiring look. I nodded: “Dobro (good).”
There are two things you’ll notice about Serbia, my host insisted. The second of these was the rakija. Pears, plums, apples, grapes, quince, walnuts, herbs – Serbians can turn most farm produce into moonshine, inevitably brought out to welcome guests. And the first thing? I enquired.
“That’s the gostoljubivost – the hospitality. This is a country with a big heart.”
Yet few travellers take the time to discover this. The implosion of Yugoslavia casts a long shadow over the nations of the former republic – Serbia perhaps longer than most. While the sun-drenched coasts of Croatia and Slovenia welcome crowds in their millions, for many people there persists a lingering sense that Serbia’s hinterlands are still dangerous, home to some unnamed conflict.
Kalemegdan Fortress in Belgrade (Dreamstime)
Belgrade might be touted as the ‘new Berlin’, thanks to its boisterous nightlife and some post-Soviet urban grit, but not many venture outside the city. “Is it safe?” someone even asked prior to my trip to the capital and rural southwest. Of course it is, but this idea of it being otherwise has existed for so long that it’s hard to shift. If, as Winston Churchill observed, the Balkans has produced more history than it could consume, Serbia has had indigestion for eight centuries.
My taxi driver echoed this sentiment as we drove into central Belgrade. These broad boulevards were from socialist Yugoslavia, he said, as we drove through the suburb of Novi Beograd. On my behalf, he made a detour past the old Federal Executive Council of Yugoslavia building, a modernist marvel that once embodied all the hope of a brave new nation when it was born in 1945.
We then crossed the River Sava into old Belgrade, past a tower bombed by NATO in 1999 because, as my driver claimed, its TV station was showing a programme about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. “It’s true. Ask anyone in Belgrade,” he insisted. On its opposite bank, he welcomed me into what was the OttomanTurkish empire for nearly 450 years. “See the Danube over there? That was the southern border of the Habsburgs, its arch rival.”
Before those warring superpowers, it was the Celts, Romans, Barbarians and the Slavs themselves tussling over the land. To understand Serbia, you need to recognise the cultural tectonics here at work in central Europe’s crossroads. Things rarely run smoothly when civilisations’ plates collide.
It falls to 13th century saint Sava of Ireneus to sum up centuries of confusion: “The East thought that we were West, while the West considered us to be East,” he claimed. It was an oft-repeated cliché during my time here, but this is after all a country for whom misunderstanding is a way of life.
Entrance to monastery near Tara (Dreamstime)
“Over 2,600 years, my city has been destroyed 40 times and changed rulers over 60 times,” said Srdjan Ristić, the owner of Explore Belgrade tours. He had led me to Kalemegdan Fortress, the legendary ‘White Castle’ that leant its nickname to the Serbian word for Belgrade, ’Beograd’.
We were at the very tip of the Balkan Peninsula, embraced on either side by the Sava and Danube rivers. Ahead, the vast Pannonian Plain stretched to infinity. Cargo lighters chugged up the Danube, where Jason and his Argonauts were said to have rowed. A family picnicked on a bastion from which the Ottoman army once fired at their Austro-Hungarian foes. Further behind us, cafés were busy on Knez Mihailova high street – the old Roman road to Constantinople. “History is one of our biggest products,” Srdjan said.
Today, Belgrade is the cosmopolitan face of modern Serbia. It’s a place where the coffee is Turkish – a thick sludge at the bottom of your cup – the food is Balkan, and the attitude Western. But if the country’s soul resides anywhere, it’s in the countryside. Even Belgraders often retain an ancestral rural cottage, Srdjan said. It was time to hit the road.
More than most regions of Serbia, the southwest resembles the country of Eastern European fairytales: higgledy-piggledy villages dotted with conical haystacks and farmers scything grass; painted beehives and cartoony, bug-eyed tractors parked next to shingle-roofed barns; and quiet corners with beautiful frescoed monasteries that contain a whiff of incense and Byzantium.
It’s not a place of sharp mountains, even though the Dinaric Alps puncturesTara National Park, where we were headed. Instead, humble, minding-their-own- business hills are patchworked with tiny fields and watered by startlingly azure rivers that run along the Bosnian border.
Tara National Park (Dreamstime)
Broad and swift, the Drina river that skirts Tara National Park was the childhood playground of my guide, Milan Pešković. Whenever he could escape, he’d be there: fishing, swimming, kayaking. Now he runs rafting trips along it, following in the wake of lumberjacks who once lashed logs together and rode them downstream to the mills of Belgrade over a week or so. “This river is in my heart,” he said.
I could understand why. From Simići, we’d drifted between silver-green willows on his raft (inflatable, sadly). Herons lumbered overhead as if built of grey rag and struts. The water fluoresced in the sunshine. Only birdsong and the gurgle of Milan’s paddle broke the silence. It was blissful.
Yet the past has a knack of permeating the present in Serbia. “Serbian boys were taken across the Drina by Ottoman Turks from 1500,” Milan said, adding that they were conscripted into the Sultan’s army as a levy on their Christian subjects. Known as devşirme (‘collecting,’ in Turkish), it was the starting point for Yugoslav author Ivo Andrić’s century-spanning, Nobel Prizewinning novel The Bridge on the Drina.
Some time beforehand, local folk hero Marko Kraljević had faced the same broad river when he rode out to meet the theninvading Ottomans. As strong as ten men, they say, as courageous as 20, he ripped a rock from the cliffs and hurled it into the river so that his horse could hopscotch across into battle.
“It’s true,” Milan said with a sly grin. “The rock’s around the corner. You can still see the mark left by his horse.”
We rounded a meander and there it was: a house-sized outcrop alone in midstream, capped by a fantastically rickety cabin. The horseshoe imprint? The current swept us past too quickly to see. But that cabin alone in midstream looked as preposterous and as wonderful as a fairytale.
That’s the thing about Serbia: some of its tales are fictions that masquerade as fact; others are improbable yarns that turn out to be true. In Kremna, where I stayed overnight in Ljubisa’s cottage, I learned about a village prophet of the 1800s. He foretold a time of fiery chariots riding an iron road on which people travelled for fun. That probably sounded bonkers 200 years ago. Aboard the 9.30 from Mokra Gora, it made perfect sense.
To a happy cheer and the hiss of brakes, the dinky Šargan Eight train embarked on its journey towards the mountains. When 25,000 workmen built its looping figure-eight ascent in 1918, it was the pride of Yugoslavia Mark I – the narrow-gauge line that would finally link the two big railways that spanned the first ‘South Slav’ state (the direct translation of Yugoslavia). In only three days you could get from Belgrade to the Croatian coast. Just imagine!
Rafting on the Drina river (James Stewart)
I wouldn’t have fancied that journey. Every jolt ricocheted through the slatted wooden seats. However, there was a jolly holiday atmosphere aboard. Balkan trumpeters and folksingers, who toyed with ululation, crackled from the train’s soundsystem. Families posed for selfies as the scenery trickled by: pretty wooden churches, hills freckled by red-roofed villages, forests as far as you could see.
The view vanished suddenly. There was nothing but darkness, the clang of wheels and hot, heavy air. The first of 22 tunnels – another cheer.
I fell into conversation with Miodrag, a guard in baggy blue uniform. He told me his father had worked on the train until it had originally closed in 1974; he had done this job since the line reopened for tourism in 1999. His children after him? Well, his daughter was only seven. But yes, why not? That sense of history, of continuity, was important he said. “We go so fast today. We shouldn’t forget the older ways too.”
In a land of folktales you need a hissable villain. And sadly, all too often in the past that has been the griffon vulture – once on the brink of extinction. Now, to see one of the world’s largest raptors you have to drive east from Mokra Gora for a boat trip into the Uvac Special Nature Reserve.
As I parked beside the water, a figure wearing a raffish straw stetson emerged from a caravan. He waved me over. A park ranger would explain all about the birds, the reserve’s chief said, clapping a hand on my shoulder: “But first, rakija! I’ve some that’s 13 years old in here…”
The bottle came into the boat with me and Nedeljko, the ranger. The chief would hear no argument against it. Finish it off, he told us. The bottle was over half-full.
By the late-1990s Serbia’s largest bird species was down to six breeding couples. “Farmers believed they attacked livestock, so poisoned them,” Nedeljko explained to me as we slipped through silvery-green water.
The griff on vulture certainly looks disreputable. In a fairytale it’d be the one that carries off a young princeling. “But they’re carrion feeders,” Nedeljko protested. “It’s crazy.”
A decade ago, the government simultaneously launched an education campaign and created the Uvac reserve to safeguard the last birds. Its soft, sleepy hills looked an unlikely place for vultures, especially ones that could weigh up to 10kg and measure 3m from wingtip to wingtip. There was nothing here but cows, which glanced up as we passed, their bells a soft thunk across the water. Then the scenery shook itself awake, squared its shoulders and sat up.
Soon we were in a tight limestone gorge, swinging around meanders as the river tied itself into knots. “Nature here is so beautiful – the cliffs, the water, the peace,” Nedeljko said, more to himself than me.
A griffon vulture in Uvac Special Nature Reserve (James Stewart)
We approached a cliff-face. Two hunch-shouldered heaps of brown feathers glared at us from a ledge. With a mewling puffball of grey feathers between them, the pair had quite enough to deal with without uninvited guests. Current estimates put the population at around 500 birds; perhaps 501 with that young chick.
So, we scrambled uphill elsewhere to a plateau on a tiny meadow. Nedeljko wanted to show off the meanders from above. To be honest, I barely looked. Within a minute of our arrival, a vulture cruised beneath us on huge wings, its splayed black feathers fl uttering in the updraught. Another flew so low overhead I heard the air hiss. It stalled, dropped a wing and circled back for a closer look at me. We eyeballed each other.
We didn’t finish the rakija, incidentally. It went away with me in the car. I was given no choice about that either. That night, in a quaint Hobbity inn in Sirogojno, I got chatting to waitress Danijela. “Good trip?”, she asked. I enthused about the vultures and the rakija, about the Tara National Park, the train ride and the gutsy homemade food. Above all, I praised the hospitality.
That question about safety now seemed even more absurd. Did she think Serbia was misunderstood? She thought for a while. “Perhaps,” she answered diplomatically before nodding. There was another moment’s silence before she added: “But maybe that’s because you haven’t got to know us properly yet.”
Explore (01252 883741, www.explore.co.uk) offers trips that cover the same areas as the author’s and tacks on extra sights with its new Highlights of Serbia tour.
In Belgrade, Srdjan Ristic, founder of Explore Belgrade! (www.explorebelgrade.com), provides thought-provoking tours and has encyclopaedic knowledge of his city’s history – in fluent English.
Air Serbia (airserbia.com) has daily direct flights to Belgrade from London Heathrow, with flights taking from 2.5 hours.
Wizz Air (wizzair.com) flies from London Luton to Belgrade three times a week.
Main image: Drina river (Dreamstime)