You won’t have truly experienced Serbia without sampling Rakija, a popular fruit brandy that’s around 40 per cent proof – often higher when homemade – and a tasty introduction to this small country with its contrasts and distinct regional differences.
It was a sunny September afternoon as we wound our way from Belgrade towards the Tara Mountains to a region known as Zlatibor, three hours’ drive away in the west of the country.
Halfway, we detoured down a twisting lane to the secluded Pustinja Nunnery, set among the northeast slopes of the Valjevo Mountains. There we were proudly escorted around the grounds, and then into a small chapel where elaborate frescoes dating back to 1622 covered the ancient walls. These included one of St John the Baptist which is considered the most exquisite example of Serbian medieval art.
Back on the road, the landscape became more rural and agricultural on our way to the town of Bajina Bašta, which is on the eastern boundary of the Tara National Park in the Drina Valley. The park covers an area of almost 20,200 hectares, with the land majestically rising from 291 metres at Lake Perućac to 1,591 metres at Kozji Rid. During the winter the high ground shivers under cold temperatures and lots of snow. May brings the rain clouds, making it pleasantly cool and dry, but summertime is the best season to visit, although the autumn months can also be warm.
At Kozji Rid the River Vrelo flows for 365 metres before spilling into the Drina River which forms a large section of the border between Serbia and Bosnia. We took to an inflatable raft on the Drina and floated through the gorge on calm water, picking up speed as we were carried through small rapids.
Floating back into Bajina Bašta we spotted the famous tiny house that is perched precariously on a rock in the middle of the river. When the river is in full flow, the house often floats away and must be rebuilt. After disembarking, we scrambled up the bank to take photos of the house before sitting down to a delicious meal of freshly caught trout.
From the river, we drove a short distance into the Tara National Park, twisting our way up narrow roads, then walked through woods to one of the best viewpoints, Banjska Stena. Spectacular views of the mountains and neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina lay before us; below was a 1,300-metre drop straight into the Drina River. From the choice of multiple hiking trails, we took a short half-hour option to see a carpet meadow, Tepih Livada, a lush, spongy, never-touched-by-man, green, grassy ecosystem.
Wildlife is rife in the Tara Mountains and it’s not unusual to spot the odd bear. Bears are protected in Serbia, but should they roam into Bosnia, they could be killed.
We spent our second night 100 kilometres from the Bosnian border at the Zeleni Čardaci Organic Farm where the vibe is based on “love and harmony”, and all food is organic and grown on site or locally. The accommodation is in cute wooden two-storey cabins with traditional kitchens, and decorated with wooden panels.
I was told the three most important things in the Tara Mountains are breakfast, lunch and dinner: lunch is customarily never before 3pm and dinner is between 9pm and 10pm. Throughout our trip we often dined in small, authentic cafés known as kafana; casual, relaxed establishments that generally serve good food on red-and-white-checked tablecloths.
Serbs are big meat eaters and meals always consist of meat in some form. Most start with a large shared platter loaded with cold meats, a local white cheese, kajmak (pronounced “kaymak”– close in taste and texture to clotted cream) and delicious bread.
Waking after a filling organic breakfast at the farm, we arrived in Mokra Gora National Park and boarded the historical Šargan Eight narrow-gauge railway – a scenic train journey that winds its way up the mountain in a figure of eight. The track is 13.5 km long, with 22 tunnels and five bridges and viaducts, and you can disembark at various points to hike in the forest.
We descended at Jatare and met with our driver before continuing onwards towards the ethno-styled village of Drvengrad, which is well worth a visit. A small town entirely made of wood, it was created by the famous Serbian director and actor Emir Kusturica. There’s a filmmaking school and galleries and you can rent and stay in some of the small wooden houses. Paved in wood, the main square features a tiny wooden church and a few restaurants.
Our next stop was the town of Zlatibor, in an area popular for cycling, hiking and trekking, with a huge monument on the hill overlooking the town. We hiked the five kilometres up the hill for great views of the area, before sitting in deckchairs to watch the sunset.
The following morning we headed to the mountain town of Sirogojno, where the open-air village museum has a spectacular collection of authentic 18th-century homesteads collected from across the region as well as a knitting museum and shop selling ornately knitted clothing and other items. Made by local ladies since the museum was set up in the 1960s, the ornate items are sent worldwide and sold for high prices – the museum’s prices are much lower.
We returned to Belgrade, driving through the busy streets and past huge socialist apartment blocks before passing gigantic billboards of George Clooney advertising coffee. Serbs love the beverage and the first coffee house opened here in 1522. They need it, as Belgrade is renowned for its buzzing nightlife, colourful bars and restaurants.
It is also remarkable for its history, which goes back to the Romans and beyond. Today a handful of bombed-out buildings remain derelict – a strong reminder of the not-so-distant war and the 1999 Nato bombings during the Kosovo conflict.
Heading downtown we checked into the central Hotel Metropol Palace on the seven-kilometre-long Boulevard Alexandra. From there I took a stroll around taking in the shops, old buildings and quaint cafés – Belgraders are a fashionable bunch – before dinner at the Kalemegdanska Terasa restaurant within the grounds of Kalemegdan Fortress which dominates the highest point of Belgrade overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.
The once upmarket area of Savamala is the new creative part of town with artistic workspaces rubbing shoulders with contemporary restaurants, boutiques and nightclubs. Other must-see places include the St Sava Church and the House of Flowers, where you can visit mausoleum of former president Tito.
Before leaving, we had time to walk around the Ada Ciganlija, known locally as “Ada”, a river island turned into an artificial peninsula on the Sava River. It’s where Belgrade’s citizens come to jog, swim, rollerskate, sunbathe, eat in lakeside cafés, or like us, enjoy a drink as the sun began to set on our fascinating Serbian trip.
To book contact Explore! www.explore.co.uk/holidays/highlights-of-serbia.
Trips will start in June, continuing in July and September 2018. The tour cost starts from £825 per person with the price including return international flights and seven nights’ accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis, six further meals, transfers, transport and the services of an Explore leader.