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Travel & Holiday

Spectacular Serbia

The country boasts stunning architecture and quirky cities such as Belgrade and Novi Sad
The Straits Times - September 6, 2011
By: Tan Chung Lee
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Spectacular Serbia Tourists can take in the stunning view of the Danube from the turrets and walls of Petrovaradin fortress in Novi Sad.

The south-eastern European republic of Serbia may be off the radar of most travellers due to the 1990s civil wars following the break-up of the former federation of Yugoslavia. But all that is behind it now and Serbia is well worth a visit.

What it has to offer is surprisingly quite delightful.

Here, you will find some architecturally stunning towns boasting a cosmopolitan lifestyle, a striking landscape with mountains, nature reserves and hidden valleys with monasteries, historic citadels and a rich East-West cultural heritage - at value-for-money prices and in a unique, even quirky, style of its own.

The quirkiness starts in Belgrade, its capital. Who would have thought that this once drab capital city of the former Yugoslavia is party central with a vibrant nightlife that rivals the best to be found in western Europe's major cities and attracting its top DJs?

The centre of nightlife in Belgrade is its Stari Grad or Old Town, along its pedestrian mall Knez Mihailova and the narrow cobblestone lanes radiating off it. The trendiest street is Strahinjica Bana, a strip lined with bar after stylish bar, with beautiful patrons sometimes spilling out into the street nursing drinks in hand amid flashy cars parked along the kerb.

Belgrade also has a bit of a split personality, with its location at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers which divides the city into two contrasting halves - the enchanting Old Town with its old hilltop citadel, the Kalemegdan, facing brash New Belgrade with its towering high rises.

Aptly named by the Turkish (Kalemegdan means battlefield fortress), this citadel, which once housed the entire city's population, was fought over countless times during two millennia, with each successive power putting its own stamp. On the original Roman fortifications, there have been additions from the Byzantines, Hungarians, Ottoman Turks, Austrians and Serbs. Today, Kalemegdan is a leafy park, with its mediaeval towers, gates, barbicans, fortress walls and ramparts forming its historic core.

If Belgrade is surprisingly varied and dualistic, so is the rest of Serbia. The gentle rolling plains of Vojvodina in the north with its orchards and vineyards are a contrast to the mountainous slopes of Zlatibor and Kopaonik, which are transformed into skiing centres in winter. And while the towns of Vojvodina such as Novi Sad and Subotica are more Hungarian in their architecture and cultural outlook, those in the south, such as Novi Pazar with its skyline of mosques and minarets, are more reminiscent of Turkey.

Yet, both regions are studded with nature reserves where you can hike, cycle, go bird watching or relax on a farm stay. And tucked away in their valleys are some of the country's most important monasteries with wonderfully preserved frescoes.

Vojvodina is just over an hour by road from Belgrade but it is a world away. Its hub is Novi Sad, dubbed Serbia's cultural capital thanks to its many music and film festivals. The most popular, Exit, which attracts top musicians and audiences from all over Europe, is held in July in the atmospheric Petrovaradin citadel, the jewel in the city's tourist crown.

Perched on a volcanic rock overlooking the Danube across from Novi Sad, the 17th century citadel was so well fortified that it was nicknamed the Gibraltar of the Danube. Where there were once barracks, there are now museums, artists' studios, craft shops, restaurants, cafes and a hotel. Its ramparts follow the contours of the Danube, offering sweeping panoramas of the river and the city.

The city's other attraction is Stari Grad. To absorb its lively atmosphere, walk along Dunavska Street from Trg Slobode or Freedom Square dominated by its soaring cathedral and quaint town hall past endless stretches of pavement cafes.

Thirty minutes by road from Novi Sad is the picturesque town of Sremski Karlovci. As the religious hub for Serbia since the 18th century, it is no surprise to find many churches and seminaries here. There is even a Peace Chapel to commemorate the signing of the Peace of Karlovci in 1699 between the Ottoman Empire and European forces to halt hostilities.

A major wine-producing centre since the time of the Romans, Sremski Karlovci is famous for its herbal-infused Bermet and reislings, which can be sampled in the town's wine cellars.

Right at the doorstep of Sremski Karlovci is Fruska Gora National Park, which is partly forested and partly cultivated with orchards and vineyards. Its lakes and streams are a haven for wading birds.

Fruska Gora is also renowned for its 16 monasteries, notably Krusedol and Grgeteg, tucked in hidden valleys on its southern slopes. While not as old as the mediaeval monasteries established in the south of the country, the Fruska Gora monasteries built in the 16th to 18th centuries helped to sustain the spiritual life of the Serbs in the face of the advance of the Ottoman Turks from the south.

For fans of art nouveau architecture, Subotica, just north of Novi Sad, is the place to be. Marvel at its extravagantly decorated buildings from the turreted castle-like town hall and ornate Jewish synagogue to the florid former Rajhlo Palace-turned-art gallery.

For a different perspective of Serbia, visit its southern region, considered by many Serbs as their cultural heartland for it was here that the Serbian state was first founded, where their greatest monasteries are located and where the fiercest battles were fought with the Ottoman Turks.

Yet, this clash of civilisations produced a rich mix of Islamic and Orthodox culture. Novi Pazar, with its Turkish bazaars, teahouses, mosques and caravanserais, best exemplifies this.

In the environs around Novi Pazar, however, a different atmosphere reigns. A short drive brings you to the eighth-century Orthodox Church of St Peter and its evocative cemetery. Further afield are some of Serbia's most important mediaeval monasteries such as Sopocani, with its Church of the Holy Trinity and the still active Studenica Monastery, both of which are recognised for having the most impressive frescoes of the Byzantine era.

But the most surprising part in this region of Serbia is its mountains - a welcome relief after the lowlands of the north.

One tourist attraction lies in the village of Mokra Gora in the mountainous Zlatibor region, where you can ride on an old-fashioned steam train known as the Sargan Eight.

So called because its main loop is in the figure of eight, the train hurtles through 22 tunnels and across 10 bridges as it climbs up the steep slopes of the Mokra Gora and Sargan mountains through high passes and alongside rocky gorges and lush valleys that characterise this corner of Serbia.

The spectacular two-hour journey retraces the most scenic section of the former Belgrade to Sarajevo railway that had run between Serbia and Bosnia from 1925 to 1974.

Mokra Gora is also the site of a quirky hotel complex converted from a movie set created by Emir Kusturica, a Serb filmmaker, for his Life Is A Miracle (2004) film.

Named Drvengrad (wooden city), it comprises traditional wooden houses typical of the area and has its own library, gym, swimming pool, church, art gallery, theme restaurants and a cinema. Roam its streets named after Bruce Lee, Che Guevara and Frederico Fellini, walk in Diego Maradona Square or take a picture with Johnny Depp. Or stay a night at €44 (S$77) half-board, for an unusual, if a bit Disney-esque, experience.

5 things to do

1 Do dress appropriately when visiting monasteries and churches - no shorts, sleeveless T-shirts or skimpy tops.

2 Do make sure that every hotel you stay at registers your arrival on a card, which is given to you upon check-out. When you leave the country, the card is retained by immigration.

3 Do take a sunset cruise on the Danube in Belgrade for a different perspective of the city as your barge sails under bridges, past floating restaurants, the Kalemegdan fortress and the twinkling lights of downtown. Reservations recommended (http://www.klubkej.com).

4 Do take advantage of the special weekend rate offered by top-end hotels in Serbia's cities, which is 40 per cent off normal rates. During the week, opt to stay instead in a mid-range hotel with prices averaging €40 (S$68) a night.

5 Do enjoy the wide range of delicious Serbian food and wines available. In Novi Sad and Subotica, don't miss the Hungarian-style fish soup served in a copper pot with paprika. Elsewhere, try cevapcici (kebabs) and other grilled meats, sarma (stuffed cabbage) and hearty meat stews. A typical meal including wine costs €15.

2 don'ts

1 Don't be put off by the general sullenness of the Serbs. You will meet many who are friendly.

2 Don't talk politics, mention Kosovo or the Bosnian and Croatian civil wars. Most Serbs are not happy with the actions of their leaders during the war years.

GETTING THERE

Turkish Airlines flies direct from Singapore to Belgrade. Open-jaw ticketing is possible as the airline services all of the Balkan cities. Free stopovers in Istanbul are allowed. For bookings, contact any travel agent or go to http://www.turkishairlines.com

 

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