Few places in the world have a history as complicated as the Balkans in general and Serbia in particular—both its ancient history and the recent turmoil of the 1990s Yugoslav Wars. The Serbian royal family became the rulers of the Yugoslavian state formed after World War One (which began, by the way, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia) from territories previously held by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That only lasted until Hitler invaded in 1941, since the partisan resistance declared Yugoslavia democratic in 1943, until the communist party led by Josip Broz Tito took over in 1946—and declared the country to a consortium of socialist republics including Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Which remained reasonably stable until Tito’s death in 1980, when ethnic tensions fueled a series of secessions and, ultimately, a decade of war. A conflict that, fortunately, has been resolved well enough to bring peace and prosperity (and a happy influx of tourists) back to the region with the formation of five independent countries.
Think Serbia’s 20th century sounds complex? That’s not even considering the tumult that’s taken place there since the Iron Age, when the region now known as Serbia was conquered in turn by Thracians, Dracians, Celts, Balkans, Romans, Huns, Greeks, Byzantines, Slavs, Bulgarians, Turks and Hungarians. In fact, the Ottoman Empire and the grand Habsburg Empire captured and recaptured Serbia from each other on several occasions prior to World War One—utterly destroying its capital city of Belgrade three times. Got all that? No? Well, fortunately, it’s not important, since what Toto has in mind is a tour of Serbia’s cultural and historical riches—not a test. The country will be the first stop in our April 2017 Beautiful Balkans tour, beginning, naturally enough, in its resilient, oft-rebuilt capital.
Considering that it’s been ravaged by 115 wars over the centuries and razed to the ground 44 times, it must be said that Belgrade is looking remarkably good. We’ll spend a full day exploring its many highlights, from the 18th-century old town of Zemun (once a competing city across the Danube) to the more modern architecture and open spaces of New Belgrade. There’s plenty to see including the National Theatre, Parliament, the Old Palace and the Church of Saint Sava—one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. And no shortage of museums, including the National Museum, the Belgrade City Museum, the Military Museum, the Nikola Tesla Museum (containing the inventor’s enormous archives as well as his ashes) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Europe’s first, founded in 1958. After lunch, we’ll also visit the Kalemegdan Park (featuring the Nebojsa Tower, one of the few remaining monuments of medieval Belgrade) and the fourth-century Belgrade fortress, both situated on a cliff overlooking the junction of the Sava and Danube rivers. (Legend has it, by the way, that Jason and the Argonauts passed by this site and that Attila the Hun is buried beneath it.)
We’ll also take time to visit the old Skadarlija Bohemian Quarter to enjoy its numerous cafes and bars. Speaking of which, Belgrade is famed for the happening-ness of its nightlife (the Times of London called it “Europe’s new capital of cool”) and we’ll have two free evenings to find out why. The next day we’ll drive to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gamzigrad-Romuliana, the ruins of a 4th-century Roman compound built by the Serbian-born Roman emperor Galerius. One of the most significant late Roman sites in Europe, it features a palace built to honor the emperor’s victory over the Persians and a temple devoted to his mother Romula, who was a priestess of a pagan cult—as well as both of their mausoleums.
After lunch we’ll drive on to Nis, one of the oldest cities in the Balkans (founded in the third century B.C.) and now the third-largest city in Serbia. There’s much to see in Nis, including one of the few preserved Nazi concentration camps in Europe and a Skull Tower monument made of the remains of decapitated Serbians during an uprising against the Ottomans. But we’ll emphasize Nis Fortress, an early 18th-century fort built by the Turks on the site of ancient Roman, Byzantine and medieval forts. An old mosque is on the grounds and the interior of the fortress is now a park.
Our final day in Serbia will be devoted to the exploration of Novi Pazar, a multicultural area of Muslims and Orthodox Christians, and the Serbian city that shows the greatest Ottoman influence—with historic buildings from the 15th- to 17th-centuries. Novi Pazar’s Altun-Alem Mosque, dating from the 16th century, is the largest in the region, yet the city also features the 13th-century Orthodox monastery of Sopoćani Monastery (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and other Orthodox monasteries and churches such as the 9th-century Church of St. Peter.