The region of Rome-era vineyards and dreamy villages revs up the beat with an electric capital
“This man reformed the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet in 1868, wrote its grammar and the first dictionary,” says my guide Milica Lenasi, nodding at a sculpture of Vuk Karadžić, whose luxuriant Turkish moustache leaps far beyond his shoulders. It was a revolutionary act, as the Ottoman rule between the 14th and 19th centuries prohibited Serbs to print books or teach Serbian. “Know the letter ‘dje’ as in Djokovic’s name? They say Karadžić designed it (Ђ) to look like his deformed wooden leg!”
You’ll tell yourself that you’re in this little Vojvodina town of Sremski Karlovci, an hour northwest of Belgrade, to get away from the bigness of the city, to embrace the greens of Fruška Gora mountain and the blues of the Danube nearby (you’re really here for the local wine).
But you’ll stay for the stories.
I see the big, baroque buildings first, painted in intense ochres and reds—the Karlovci Gymnasium, Serbia’s first secondary school built across the Four Lions square in 1792. The Patriarchate Court stands beside it, as do the nearby St. Nicholas Orthodox church, and the Roman Catholic church. But what draws me to the town are smaller pockets of bliss: I eat a fat gold quince whose juice runs down my mouth, bought from the fruit market where all produce looks like a luscious, Cezanne still life. A man who comes to the Four Lions with sunflower seeds every day invites me to feed some rowdy pigeons. It is he who points out curious grape and beehive motifs—the town’s most important produce—on a nearby building.
The Živanović family has sweetened the story of Sremski with honey and wine since the 18th and 19th centuries. Their garden has over 200 beehives but their best exhibit is hidden indoors—an 1880 beehive shaped like a domed church. Živanović’s star offering is Bermet, a red, white or rosé dessert wine that was born in monasteries circa 16th century as a cure for headache and stomachache. Bermet is made with 27 to 33 different herbs, spices, and fruits—think the goodness of carob, cinnamon, nutmeg, wormwood and cloves sloshing about. It tastes like Christmas plum cake in a glass, and was even served on the Titanic. I pair it with kuglof cake, a buttery raisin-y German recipe, and move on to lick clean different honeys off spoons. The darkest one tastes like a flower garden; the mustard coloured one is rich royal jelly, and the third feels like a burst of sesame seeds.
A short drive from Novi Sad’s city centre (top right) lies 137, a traditional salaš—B&B with farm—serving homely Serbian fare such as aubergine with olive oil (left); The longer hand tells the hours and shorter one the minutes on the clock tower in Novi Sad (bottom right). Photos by: Kareena Gianani (plate), Sonia Nazareth (children), Photo courtesy: LUKA ŠARAC/NATIONAL TOURISM OF SERBIA (clock tower)
Drive 20 minutes northwest to reach Serbia’s second city Novi Sad, and Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2021. There’s a whiff of romance in the way Danube laps a few feet away from the tables at the restaurant, Čarda Aqua Doria. Serbians linger a couple of hours over each meal, so I take my time and order fiš paprikaš, a spicy tomato-based stew made with bony fish. To taste colonial influences on Serbian food, I try the perkelt, a Hungarian-inspired dish of carp or catfish cooked with spices and bell pepper. Fat cheesy noodles are dunked into it just before eating. For dessert, I try bajadera—a creamy nougat layered with walnuts, a nod to the region’s Austro-Hungarian past.
Stop by the hilltop Petrovaradin fortress (legend goes that some wretched cats were sealed into its walls for it to have nine lives), before driving to downtown Novi Sad.
Once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the area’s baroque buildings seem to have stepped out of a crayon box. I walk along the main square which holds the city hall and the Roman Catholic Church of the Name of Mary. Milica points out fish scale-like tiles on the church’s roof and spire—Zsolnay ceramics, from Hungary. They remind me of colourful chevron motifs on ikat sarees I covet so back home. Many buildings, I notice, have curious bow window-like structures. These, explains Milica, are kibitz fenster. “The Yiddish term ‘kibitz’ means ‘to take a look’, which isn’t the same as looking,” she grins. “Gives you just enough of a peek at goings-on to gossip the next day!” I also learn about how Albert Einstein lived in Novi Sad with his wife, Mileva Marić, who was a genius at maths and physics, and is believed to have a big hand behind his Nobel Prize. Their house still stands in the city, as does the restaurant where she played the piano and he the violin.
We drive 30 minutes to International Road, just outside Novi Sad. For dinner, like a true-blue Vojvodinian, I step inside 137, a salaš (Hungarian for ‘farm’). These traditional, family-owned B&Bs are portals into rich Serbian cuisine and hospitality. Floral table covers, walls covered in old family portraits and ceramic curios—if my grandmother were to whip up a meal in Serbia, this is how she’d do it. The meal itself is like nothing I’ve ever tasted. There’s the Serbian staple ajvar (roasted red pepper ground with olive oil), garlic roasted with rosemary, olive oil, and honey, and a dessert called Floating Island, made of egg white and sugar, which tastes like a birthday surprise. Sremski Karlovci
The small mountain town is beloved for its open-air museum and a cave with curious designs
Sirogojno sweaters weaved by locals (top) are a highlight of the trip to the open-air museum; The curiously shaped terraces at Stopića cave (bottom). Photos by: Sonia Nazareth (woman), JORDEANGJELOVIK/ ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES PLUS/GETTY IMAGES
Come summer, and the mountains of Zlatibor call out to Serbians the way frozen cocktails beckon drunken teens. The region is easy to reach—a four-hour bus ride from Belgrade transports you to peppermint-fresh air and chalet-style homes. Hiking trails wind like long daydreams, and small villages are reminiscent of the Alps. Local travel agencies in Zlatibor conduct regular tours to the Sirogojno museum and Stopića Cave.
The open-air Sirogojno museum is scattered amid pines, and homes from the 19th and 20th centuries bring to life Serbia’s old villages. The sloping roofs are four-sided and there are corn cribs, bread ovens and low beds displayed—as if their owners had just stepped out for a smoke. A restored classroom is around too, as is a souvenir store that sells ceramic containers to store the potent local fruit brandy, rakija. End the tour with a meal at the local inn; it rustles up simple but nourishing meals of slow-cooked lamb, dolma-style vegatables, and smoked beef. Don’t forget to pick up a Sirogojno sweater outside the museum’s gate—knitted by local women, they all bear motifs of tumbling hillside cottages and flowers, and resemble snug, furry pets.
A 10-minute drive from the museum, stepping into the yawning mouth of Stopića Cave feels like a delicious adventure. Its entrance—60 feet high and about 130 feet wide—looks ready to swallow me whole. Dusan Obradoviç, the caretaker who has hair like Colonel Gaddafi, takes me deeper into a small part of the 5,250-foot expanse that has been explored. Yellow floor lights make cathedral-like ceilings look sinister, as if their stalactites might bite. The cave’s dramatic draw are a series of tufa pools or baths: limestone terraces rising like stacks of frills, with water pooling between these pleated walls, illuminated by pink, blue, and red lighting to magical effect. According to Dusan, these formations are a result of the Trnavski Potok river flowing underneath this four-million-year-old cave. Then, just like he came, Dusan scrambles up a tufa pool like a mountain goat and disappears.
Ethnic villages, heritage railways, and a river doubling as a border on the slopes of the Tara mountain
The landscape is drenched in sunlight streaming through the Tara and Zlatibor mountains, yet a red-and-cream vintage car snoozes, with a swooping black pine tree for an eye mask.
An hour-and-half drive from Zlatibor lies Küstendorf village, full of 19th-century log cabins transplanted from around the region, looking as if it were afloat amid the hills. A few metres away is Ingmar Bergman Street, then Bruce Lee Street, even a Diego Maradona Square! Küstendorf looks right out of a film set—because it is. In 2002, the iconic Serbian director, Emir Kusturica, built it for his film Life is a Miracle, and did not dismantle it. Visitors can rent cabins, try out Serbian food in restaurants, and watch artsy films in a cinema named after Stanley Kubrick. A Christian Orthodox church bookends the main square. Every January, the village hobnobs with filmmakers from around the world who flock to the international Küstendorf festival held here.
When the Šargan Eight train belches smoke and glides with a choo-choo-choo, the hope of a delicious journey fills the mountains around Mokra Gora station, near Kustendorf. The narrow-gauge line was completed in 1925 to connect Belgrade to Dubrovnik through Bosnia, and move on to Zelenika in Montenegro. It soon fills with gaggles of tourists, so I wedge myself on a platform connecting two carriages, imagining what the train would look like from the sky while it traces part of its figure-of-eight loop. Šargan Eight clanks along pine-covered hills, brooks and bridges. A smiling face bobs out of every window. Some tunnels pass in a blink, others linger over like long, deep sleep.
Log cabins, a cinema named after Stanley Kubrick, and vintage cars lend a fairy-tale air to Küstendorf village (top left); The Šargan Eight Train (top right) was built in 1925 and connected Europe to the Adriatic Sea; The lookout, Banjska Stena (bottom left), in Tara National Park is the perfect spot to see how the river Drina forms a natutal border between Serbia and Bosnia; Boating on Lake Perućac (bottom right), also part of the Drina, takes visitors even closer to the neighbouring country. Photos by: Konrad Zelazowski/ Agefotostock/ Dinodia Photo Library (village), D. BOSNIC/ National Tourism of Serbia (train), MIK122/ Fotosearch LBRF/ Dinodia Photo Library (National Park), Kareena Gianani (lake)
Signs announcing the presence of Europe’s largest bear—the brown bear—dot my trail in Tara National Park, but I know I’d be very ‘lucky’ to bump into any. A taxi outside the train station takes me right into the lap of these Dinaric Alps in western Serbia, to gaping ravines and panoramas. Tara’s Banjska Stena lookout overlooks the Drina canyon: wild hills sprawled like giants, and the river—a robin’s-egg blue—snaking between them. Drina is also a natural border, and the mountains to my left are actually part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I begin peering for signs of life in the country, and spot homes with chimneys, and a wee mosque too.
Take a taxi down from Tara, and find your own pocket of calm along the watery border. Perhaps take a boat ride along Lake Perućac, which is part of the Drina, created by damming the river and building a hydroelectric power plant. Up close, the water blinks emerald, and gently meanders between Serbia and Bosnia. Lunch on the boat is a simple meal of bounty from the Perućac: freshly caught fish, herb potatoes, and cabbage, served with a side of mountain air that feels freshly minted, and reflections of cliffs plunging into the lake.
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Hailed as the spiritual capital of Serbia, the town of Sremski Karlovci is known for its Roman-era vineyards, and honey. Photo by: ZOONAR/N.SOROKIN/ ZOONAR GMBH RF/ Dinodia Photo Library
FlyDubai flies between Mumbai/Delhi and Belgrade, with a layover in Dubai. Indian travellers can enter Serbia without a visa for a period not exceeding 30 days. Belgrade-based Milica Lenasi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an excellent guide, brimming with stories about Serbia’s complex history.
is Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.
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