Zemun
Thursday, 19 December 2013

Serbia rediscovered

Fifty years after her last adventure in the region, Valerie Singleton explores one of Europe's forgotten highlights...

Belgrade was the last place I had expected to find myself in the middle of winter. But an unexpected meeting in Dorset a few weeks earlier with Dr Lavinia Davenport, the wife of the British Ambassador to Serbia, led to an invitation to stay at the British Residence.

I had told Lavinia about my amazing adventure in 1965, when a friend and I had driven down through what was then Yugoslavia to Greece in my battered Morris 1000 convertible. But we never made it to Belgrade.

So it’s about time,’ was her reply.

A splendid guide, Srdjan Ristich (or SJ), was waiting to show me the sights, with an itinerary that would take me south and west into the mountains after a few days exploring the city. On my first morning, Stevan, the residence manager, filled me in on a few Serbian customs. The spoonful of fruit preserve I was offered before breakfast was followed by a glass of water and then a shot of rakija, the Serbian fruit brandy.

‘It starts a Serbian’s day with a zing,’ Stevan said.

I learnt that each family has its own saint, which they celebrate on their saint’s day (Slava) and that seemingly hardy Serbs are susceptible to draughts. They are fearful that these ‘Promaja’, as they’re called, might make them ill or kill them.

Serbia took a battering during the wars of the 1990s. Reading up on that period before I left helped me to understand the complicated history of this region.

Nothing sums up the centuries of turbulence better than the massive Belgrade fortress. Built on the Kalemegdan plateau, overlooking the junction of the Rivers Danube and Sava, it’s a stunning position and just the place to begin a tour of the city. The Ottomans when they were here, on and off for 400 years, called it ficar-bair, ‘the hill to think on’. Today the locals do just that.

Serbia-02-590Left: boats on the river bank below the fortress. Right: sampling the tourist delights

From the edge of the plateau I could look down on the assortment of boats lining the banks of the two rivers – clubs and drinking places, which come to life late in the evening until the early hours. Belgrade has the reputation of being one of the liveliest night-time cities in Europe. It was misty but I could just make out New Belgrade across the river, developed on marshland after the Second World War, and in the distance the old riverside town of Zemun, which is popular in summer.

Knez Mihajlova, the wide pedestrian street that leads to the park and fortress, was once the Roman’s Via Cardo Maximus, and the Romans were around long enough for 17 emperors to be born in Serbia. Today, there’s little in the city to remind one of the Romans or Ottomans. The Knez Mihajlova is lined now with grand 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, galleries, shops and cafes.

After the fortress, SJ took me to Republik Square, the buzzy heart of Belgrade, to show me an imposing monument of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic riding his horse. This was the leader who, in the middle of a turbulent 19th century, negotiated to ‡finally get rid of the Ottomans from the city. ‘At about eight each evening you’ll see dating couples using this statue as a meeting place,’ SJ informed me.

Not far from the British Residence was the Mausoleum to Marshal Tito, who ruled Yugoslavia after the Second World War. His white marble tomb lay in the middle of a simple building, with a large photo along one wall of the members of the Non-Aligned Movement that Tito founded. The other side had a room displaying hundreds of diŽfferent batons from the Day of Youth relay races Tito inaugurated.

Serbia-00-Quote-590

Collecting my luggage at the airport, I had cheekily admired the exquisite jewels in the pendant the priest standing next to me was wearing, only to ‡ nd I was talking to Bishop Andrej of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Apparently he had just been in Britain to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph. He invited me to visit the Patriarchy, which I did later in the week with the ambassador. His Grace the Bishop Andrej of Remesia was charming and talked about his work as the western face of the Orthodox Church, before showing us the chapel with its lovely frescoes. It was an unexpected treat.

One day SJ took me across to New Belgrade, with its broad avenues, to have lunch at the trendy restaurant owned by Novak Djokovic. Video screens on the walls continuously reran his many tennis successes. ‘When Novak is playing a tournament,’ SJ told me, ‘this place is packed with his family and friends.’

We tried a variety of eating places. The Question Mark tavern, a typical Serbian town house and one of the oldest in Belgrade, served food with a strong Turkish in• uence. Substantial food, I thought. Because of the tavern’s closeness to the Orthodox cathedral, smoking outside it was banned in 1824 just after it was built, which can’t have been too popular. Serbs like their cigarettes.

A huge cafe-cum-shop selling quirky gear and gifts called The Supermarket (because it was once just that) was fun at lunchtime, and one evening a group of us went to a rather wet Skadarlija, a cobbled street full of old cafes, or kafanas, which was the haunt of artists and writers in the 19th century. In the Two Stags, the cafe’s resident group serenaded us.

It was time to go south. In the medieval trading city of Valjevo, 100 miles from Belgrade, we spent an absorbing few hours in the National Museum, which had just won a prestigious tourism award. It was superbly laid out, displaying the different settlements found in the province, from Neolithic times to the Second World War. After lunch we wandered through the old part of town, a cultural heritage site.

Serbia-03-590Left: Old town Valjevo. Right: Valerie outside Novak Djokovic's restaurant

Then it was oŽff into very foggy mountains to stay at Küstendorf Village, a hotel complex of chalets recreating local Serbian architecture. Designed and owned by the Serbian ‡ lm director, Emir Kusturica, I felt it was a rather odd and slightly dated place. Not helped when next day it was still dank and foggy. I knew I was surrounded by glorious scenery because I bought the postcards.

It cleared later, as we drove further south to the Muslim city of Novi Pazar. The mountains and autumnal colours were breathtaking. Mosques and minarets began to appear and my guidebook told me there were 32 mosques in the city and 50 in the surrounding countryside. With an average age of 27, Novi Pazar is the youngest city in Europe. The streets could have done with a bit of a clean but it was diŽfferent and historically fascinating. There were the remains of a fortress, a derelict Ottoman hamam and we glanced inside the 16th century Altun Alem mosque to ‡ nd children learning the Koran.

Outside the city there were important early churches and several of the wonderful medieval monasteries that extend across the whole of Serbia, decorated with rare and precious frescoes.

In more modern times, Novi Pazar has become famous for making jeans and most things seemed cheaper than in Belgrade. Bed and breakfast in my pleasant hotel cost only €50 euros a night for two. Small streets had tiny jewellery shops full of distinctive rings and there was lots of gold.

Back in Belgrade on my last evening, waiting for a taxi in Republik Square, I noticed young men and women gathering by Prince Mihailo’s statue, anxiously checking their watches.

THE FACTS

JAT Airways •flies direct to Belgrade from London Heathrow from £177: 020-8976 6000, www.airserbia.com

Operators include:
Amanda Slade at Holidays Please: 07810- 094515 or email amanda.slade@holidaysplease.com
Regent Holidays: 020-7666 1244, www.regentholidays.co.uk
Travel The Unknown: 020-7183 6371, www.traveltheunknown.com

For more details on travel to Serbia and visiting the monasteries, see the National Tourist Organisation’s website: www.serbia.travel


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