With attractions ranging from a tower of skulls and a devilish rock formation to a mountainside resort with a major Kubrick fetish, both the natural and man-made sites in Serbia’s south pay tribute to the country’s trademark dry wit and whimsy. The landlocked country may not immediately jump to mind as a tourist hot spot, but if you’ve been reading this section in recent months, you’ll know that’s one of the reasons we love it so.
Undeniably hospitable, Serbia not only has a rich history to share with its guests, but a contemporary vibe that is truly unique. You know what we mean if you’ve ever had the chance to party on a barge on the Danube or dance until the wee hours inside a 17th-century fortress at the annual EXIT Festival. While enchanting Belgrade is a must for any first-time visitor to the country, after a few days of exploring the capital city, we implore you to head south on this unforgettable four-day road trip.
Knocking Around Nis
With an easy drive along Serbia’s central highway, you can get from Belgrade to the third largest city of Nis in just over two hours. The birthplace of Constantine the Great, Nis (pictured above) has Roman roots and a difficult history that is well preserved among the city’s major sites.
Start your visit chronologically at the Tower of Skulls. Originally built as a warning by the Ottoman occupiers following a Serbian uprising in 1809, the shocking monument has since been reclaimed by the local population and preserved in an Orthodox Church. If you’re up for it, the Crveni Krst Concentration Camp and Bubanj Memorial to those executed during World War II are further reminders of the mark war has left on the region.
Tower of Skulls
Photo: Bridget Nurre Jennions
After a day touring the city’s history, rejoin the present inside the 18th-century fortress where the residents of contemporary Niš gather to play games in the grassy park or catch a musical in the classic amphitheater. After an evening of sipping Jelen (the local brew) and watching the city go by, make your way across the network of pedestrian walkways to Kopitareva, where you will find the city’s best restaurant and bar scene.
From Devil’s Town to Serbia’s “Napa Valley”
Get ready for a bit of off-roading as you navigate to the village of Djake and the geological wonder nearby known as Devil’s Town. Legend has it that the more than 200 rock pillars (ranging from two to fifteen meters high) represent the demons carried on the backs of the area’s ancestors. Locals still come here to pray before St. Petka Church, dedicated to the Orthodox patron saint of the sick, and take a dip in the town’s devilish mineral waters with their famed healing properties. Make sure to try the local delicacies cooked over a wood fire in the town’s restaurant before getting back on the road.
With the spa town of Vrnjacka Banja in your sights for the evening’s rest, enjoy the leisurely drive through the rolling green hills of the Aleksandrovac wine region, known as Zupa. Though the climate is compared to France’s Bordeaux and the Napa Valley, the wine still has some room for development. Nevertheless, there is no better place to experience true Serbian hospitality. If arranged in advance, you will be treated to an unforgettable afternoon of food, wine, and banter at the family winery of Dragomir Rajkovic.
Healing Waters and Holy Ground
Make sure to get a good breakfast at your hotel (we recommend Solaris Resort), because the best way to get around the sleepy spa town of Vrnjacka Banja is on foot. Stroll down to the city’s main park where lovers have been putting locks on Most Ljubavi (the Bridge of Love) long before it became a Parisian trend. Next, set your sights on the town’s main attraction: the world’s only mineral spring with the exact temperature of the human body, which has attracted wellness-seekers since Roman times. The impressive spa complex at the end of the park, Rimski Izvor, is the perfect place to find a variety of treatments or simply to soak as the Romans once did.
After a morning of relaxation, you will hit the road once more in search of one of Serbia’s most important religious sites, the UNESCO-protected Studenica Monastery. Nestled in a serene mountain landscape, it’s no wonder why this location was chosen in the late 12th century as the holiest site for the Orthodox Church. The complex is comprised of two main churches, which each house iconic 13th and 14th century Byzantine art along with the remains of the church’s founder and the first Serbian king, as well as an active monastic home and long-abandoned hermitages. If you are lucky, the knowledgeable caretaker, Ivan, will be on hand to answer any questions you may have.
Photo: Bridget Nurre Jennions
Continue your journey for another 150 kilometers through the winding roads and scenic vistas of Serbia’s mountainous west towards Mokra Gora. Along the way, make sure to stop in the picturesque town of Ivanjica and for a sumptuous dinner of traditional spit-roasted lamb at Stari Bojo in the town of Mackat.
A Train Ride Back in Time
If you arrive early enough the previous night to check out the hotel bar with an alpine lodge feel, traditional Russian instruments on display, and New Orleans jazz blasting, you will know that Mecavnik Resort is far from ordinary. Home to the annual Kustendorf Film and Music Festival, the resort was originally built as a fictional town for Drvengrad for the Serbian film “Life is a Miracle.” You can watch the film (with subtitles) and several others in the resort’s Stanley Kubrick movie theatre.
Made primarily from recycled railroad tracks, the resort is not Mokra Gora’s main attraction. Make sure to confirm the schedule with locals, because the narrow-gauge Sargan Eight train cannot be missed. Originally part of the train line that connected Dubrovnik and Belgrade from 1925 to 1974, the Ministry of Tourism rebuilt and reopened this stretch of track to visitors in 2003. The two-hour journey up and back takes you through 22 tunnels and across five bridges, with regular opportunities to get out and enjoy the remodeled old train stations and jaw-dropping views of the valley and mountains beyond.
Top image: jay joslin, CC-BY
Breathtaking Balkans columnist Bridget Nurre Jennions is an Emmy-winning TV journalist and an international development specialist in Kosovo. Follow her travels on her blog, Bridgekrieg.