A former settlement of gypsies turned into a hip bohemian quarters, a pottery village, an Ethno Park, vineyards, lavish spreads against an idyllic countryside and a gorgeous sunset cruise, ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY experience the best that Serbia has to offer
“Going to Serbia? Must be cold!” remarked a well-meaning friend. “No, that’s Siberia! This is Serbia. Novak Djokovic… Ana Ivanovic… Jelena Janković… Serbia?” we shot back. Until recently, our knowledge of all things Serbian was limited to its most famous tennis personalities. But thanks to the Serbian government’s visa waiver scheme launched in September 2017, we were among its first beneficiaries and got to know the Southeast European country a little better.
Of course, we knew Tito. We have a Josip Broz Tito Marg in Delhi, named after the Yugoslav communist statesman and founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement along with Nehru, Nasser and Sukarno. Even back then, Yugoslavia had a liberal travel policy that allowed foreigners to freely explore the country and its citizens to travel worldwide.
Despite Marshal Tito’s efforts, in 1991 a decade after his death, the unified country of jugo-slavia or ‘southern Slavic’ ethnic states splintered into Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and the autonomous regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina.
We flew in via Moscow to the capital Belgrade and landed at Nikola Tesla airport, named after another famous son – the noted physicist and inventor. The quirky baggage carousel emerged from the boot of FIAT cars installed in the wall with the poster ‘Welcome to Belgrade, FIAT – Proudly made in Serbia.’
“So how’s Slobodan Milosevic?” we asked our driver as a conversation starter. Met with a frosty stare, we knew we didn’t mean the controversial president. “The tennis player…?” “Oh, that’s Slobodan Živojinović! You know ‘Boba’ eh?” he said with renewed respect. “He’s retired now. All our names end with -ić (ich). Can be confusing.” He switched tracks on the car audio and a lady’s wailing voice greeted us. “That’s his wife – Serbian pop singer Lepa Brena.” He sighed and shrugged, as if it explained everything.
That evening, we walked down Belgrade’s buzzing pedestrian street Knez Mihailova, named after national hero Prince Mihailo, who expelled the Turks from the country. His bronze statue astride a horse dominates Republic Square. On the far end, Skadarlija was once a settlement of Gypsies in the abandoned trenches opposite the ramparts of Belgrade’s fortress Kalemegdan.
Today, it’s a hip Bohemian quarter full of kafanas (coffee houses), breweries and traditional restaurants like Dva Jelena, where musicians play starogradska (Old Town Music). Over coffee, we sat with Alex from Balkan Adriatic, to tailor our Serbia itinerary. We set off early morning for Zlatibor in western Serbia, stopping at a bakery for some börek (baked filled pastries), the most popular Serbian breakfast, paired with yoghurt.
The signboards whizzed by as we tried to read them, in vain. It looked uncannily like the restaurant signs one finds in Goa these days… “Is it Russian?” we enquired. “No, it’s Cyrillic”, said Alex. “H is N, П is P, P is R, C is S, 3 is Z!” The script seemed as if the Underground was sending coded messages (‘Ha! Read this, Herr Goebbels’) or perhaps someone had too much rakija (local plum brandy) and jumbled up the letters. One thing was clear – mastering Cyrillic wasn’t happening on this trip.
Driving past stunning lakes, forests and monasteries at Ovčar-Kablar Gorge, we reached the pottery village of Zlakusa. Mixing powdered flintstones with local clay, potters slowly turn the wheel by hand to create masterpieces. Seventeen local families have been practicing this art for generations. Each piece had two seals – the letter ‘3’ or Z to denote the village Zlakusa and the family’s name, in this case, Pottery Tesić. With amazing precision and practiced ease, Zarko Tesić shaped a large earthen dish with a lid, used traditionally to cook meat.
Terzića avlija is a charming Ethno Park at Zlakusa that served as the first school in town. A few houses in a pretty garden bedecked with flowers double up as museums with relics from the Balkan War besides photos, utensils and Partisan memorabilia. Shell casings had been modified into beautiful coffee filters. Guests can taste home made juices and traditional Serbian dishes prepared in the well-known crockery of Zlakusa, learn pottery or take courses in folklore dancing and stitching. There’s a strong tradition of wood carving too, on display at workshops along the way.
For insights into Serbian craftsmanship and countryside life in a 19th century mountain village we visited Sirogojno where 50 wooden houses had been transplanted from surrounding villages. Each was meant for a certain purpose and equipped with tools of the trade – blacksmith workshop, barn, chicken coop, corn crib, bakery, tobacco store, tavern with cauldrons for making rakija, a wooden church and the oldest house with roof crosses (erected to prevent premature deaths), dating back to 1845.
The only open-air museum in Serbia, Staro Selo (Old village) also has a store selling locally made jams, preserves and Serbian dolls. Outside, local ladies knitted Sirogojno style sweaters, caps and scarves. One beckoned us to her handmade tapestry and treats of dried apples and apricots on strings.
It was evening when we reached Hotel Mir Zlatibor. At Grand Restaurant Jezero, Alex swatted away the menu as one would a pesky fly, giving us a reassuring nod that supposedly meant, “I got this!” He ordered a typical Serbian mezze platter, a mixed meat pile-up, Escalope Karadjordje (pork escalope stuffed with kajmak or clotted cream) and Princess Donuts. Sips of vodnjika, a traditional brew, revived us from food coma. A word of caution: portions in Serbia are humongous, though you can order half portions!
Our food intake was an imminent threat to our wellbeing; ironical considering Zlatibor was a wellness destination. In 1893, on the insistence of local hosts, King of Serbia Aleksandar Obrenović established it as a health resort. In his honour, a fountain was erected at the spot where he had lunch and a small lake Kraljeva Voda, literally King’s Water, was built.
The picturesque hotels and restaurants look lovely in the reflection of Zlatibor Lake. In summer, tourists take a stroll around it or go hiking, while in winter the lake freezes over and people come to ski on the slopes of Tornik. The local market is a great place to pick up honey, rakija, cheese and smoked meats.
At Drvengrad between Mount Tara and Zlatibor, we stumbled upon an ethno village so pretty it could pass off as a movie set. We discovered it actually was one, built by Serbian director Emir Kusturica for filming his movie “Life is a Miracle.” The village set-up had quaint wooden houses with streets named after eminent personalities like Djokovic and Ivo Andrić, Nobel-prize winning author of Bridge on the Drina. We took a guided tour of the art gallery, library, the ‘Underground’ cinema, the church of St. Sava and a souvenir shop. Visitors stay in log cabins, sold out during the annual Kustendorf Film Festival.
At Mokra Gora we saw the famous narrow gauge heritage railway Šargan Eight that once ran from Belgrade to Sarajevo but was closed in 1974. Between 1999 and 2003 the Serbian Ministry of Tourism and Serbian railways rebuilt the section over the Šargan Pass with Kusturica’s help. Popularly named Ćira or Nostalgy, the train runs on the Mokra Gora-Šargan Vitasi route with the tracks forming a figure ‘8’.
We made our own figure 8 back to Belgrade after some wine tasting at Aleksandrovic winery and the mausoleum of Serbian kings at Topola Oplenac with a crypt covered in mind-numbing mosaic. Soon, it was Alex (meal) time again and his order at Knežev Han restaurant matched the grandeur of the Serbian sunset.
We bid goodbye to our rallyist friend as archaeologist Luka Relic guided us through the remainder of our trip – from Nikola Tesla Museum, Tito’s memorial House of Flowers, Cathedral of St Sava and Belgrade Fortress overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.
We explored the fort and museums of university town Novi Sad, medieval churches and Krusedol monastery in the Fruska Gora mountains and family-run wineries like Bajilo Cellar at Sremski Karlovci. In the old town of Zemun we took a sunset cruise down the Danube – the longest stretch of the river lies in Serbia – before wrapping up with delightful seafood at Šaran restaurant!
Back in Belgrade, after checking out the local craft beer scene with Luka we all met up for a farewell dinner at Zavičaj Ethno Restaurant. A lavish Serbian spread and enough rounds of rakija and dunia (quince brandy) later, Zoran the dashing owner of Balkan Adriatic decided it was time to experience Belgrade’s legendary nightlife.
What followed was a blur of music, lights and faces, as we dove in and out of clubs and splavs (party barges), barely in time for our return flight. But there was enough reason to come back – the legendary Iron Gates on the Danube, the Guča trumpet festival and of course Alex’s off-road trips and his goulash!
Fly Turkish Airlines via Istanbul or Aeroflot via Moscow, and Air Serbia to Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade. Pottery village Zlakusa and “Terzića Avlija” ethno village are 185 km from Belgrade. Zlatibor is another 38 km away with Sirogojno and Mokra Gora nearby. Novi Sad is 94km/1 hr northwest of Belgrade. www.airserbia
When to go
The Kustendorf Film & Music Festival is held in January. Exit, an award-winning summer music festival is held at the Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad, the famous trumpet festival is held at Guča in August and a Rakija Fest in September in Belgrade.
Where to Stay
Terazije 20, Belgrade
Ph +381 113642069
Hotel Mir Zlatibor
Jovanke Jeftanović 125, Zlatibor
Ph +381 (0) 31845151
Where to Eat
Ph +381 11 7234885
Zavičaj Ethno Restaurant
Gavrila Principa 77, Belgrade
Ph +381 63 369670
Karađorđeva 4, Topola
Ph +381 34 6814411
Grand Restaurant Jezero
Kraljevi Konaci bb, Zlatibor
Ph +381 (0) 66415415
Ph +381 34 826555
Balkan Adriatic DMC
Ph +381 11 3625036
Tour Guide: Luka Relic
Ph +381 65 9890305
For more info, visit http://www.serbia.travel
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 13 July 2018 in Indulge, the weekend supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.