Serbia gets a second chance

Saturday 18 May 2013

We have dipped in and out of Serbia twice on our trip. The first time we entered from Romania and travelled through the low level central and northern section before exiting to visit Bosnia & Herzegovina. A couple of weeks later we were back having crossed from Montenegro into the more mountainous southern section on our way through to Bulgaria.

Completely landlocked and bordering with 8 other countries it is largely overlooked by travellers, remembered mainly for its role in the break up of Yugoslavia and the war crimes inflicted upon so many. Today it seems to be a real mix of cultures and style. Beautiful valleys with traditional farming villages and busy towns with some ugly concrete buildings dating back to the communist era. Mosques in some villages with orthodox churches in others. Fast modern Audi’s sharing the roads with ancient old lorries, horse and carts. Flashy supermarkets and busy produce markets vying for customers.  In total we clocked up 590 miles in 7 days.

Developing tourism does not seem to be high on the countries agenda, hotels and campsites are few and far between, attraction signposting is poor and all the Tourist Information offices we found were shut. We met the Chairman of the Camping Club of Serbia and his lovely wife at one campsite  - even they admitted it is a problem getting people to visit because the campsite network is so sparse. We only saw a couple of other campers in Belgrade and a few bikers whilst we were there.

All alone....

We first hit Serbia at an odd time – they were just beginning their 6 day Orthodox Easter holidays and the temperatures were also unseasonably hot – topping 34 degrees most days. Everyone was heading out of Belgrade and with a population of 1.6 million seemingly all on the move and awful signposting it was quite steamy and stressful trying to find our way across the city. We finally found the campsite at about 7pm, overlooking the Danube the setting was pleasant but the mozzies were out in force.

Danube in flood

Another country – another transport museum. The National Air Museum of Yugoslavia turned out to be one of those delightful but very quirky attractions not quite living up to its glitzy website image. The building was designed in the 60’s, built during the 80’s and finally opened in 1989, a few years before the war began, sadly the building itself is now a crumbling, leaking shell.

Crumbling steps, dirty concrete, leaking glass panes - very sad

Inside though it has an amazing collection including some quite rare and unique aircraft nicely displayed. Coming in just above our attraction budget at 500 Dinars (£3.80) it was certainly worth it. I followed Dave round while he pointed out what was what showing interest at the appropriate times – unlike the two bored wives sat on the stairs doing their nails while their hubbies clicked away taking endless photographs. Suspended from the ceiling is a mannequin attached to a parachute – complete with fashionable 80’s style bright blue eye shadow to match her outfit! She, like everything else, is covered with about 25 years worth of dust.

Now what does this do? - he's just a big kid at heart

Heading north of Belgrade we arrived at Novi Sad which was hit hard during 1999 losing all its bridges. It boasts a fortress, Austro-Hungarian buildings and a pretty, if somewhat deserted, town square. The sign in the Tourist Office window says it is shut for the 6 day holiday. We moved on and headed for the Zasavica Nature Reserve staying in a lovely campsite nearby for 2 days before making our way towards the border with Bosnia.

Novi Sad square
Zasavica Nature Reserve

The towns of Mali-Zvornik and Zvornik which straddle the River Drina used to be a single community divided by a river, now they sit in two separate countries with two border posts, one pedestrian and one vehicular. Its strategically important location resulted in the town being witness to some awful atrocities during the recent war. On the evening we were there an opportunist tried to open the vans driver door unaware we were inside with the curtains shut - that’s the only time so far that we have encountered any trouble. Once we park up we always lock the doors and if we have any concerns we attach bike locks through the handles and round the seats. It’s not high tech but it’s just an extra deterrent should someone decide to smash a window to try and open the door. We left with mixed feelings about the country but knowing we would be back we kept an open mind.

Fast forward 2 weeks and we arrived in the south western corner of the country needing to zig-zag our way across the mountains and valleys to the border with Bulgaria. The landscape is very different here with attractive gorges, rolling hills and a range of colourful geological rocks ranging from bright purple to blue and red - note our total lack of knowledge here on what they are! The roads are all lined with wild flowers and we came across some beautifull lizards.

European Green Lizards

The locals were busy tending the produce in their plots. Some of the towns we drove through were bustling and chaotic including Novi Pazar and Prokuplje, others were more organised, tree-lined and attractive such as Niš and Pirot. After getting lost trying to find our way to a lakeside spot in the hills for our last night we were approached by a group of young lads who helped us get back on track. The Serbs sometimes come across as a bit bullish and loud but these lads were genuinely friendly and helpful. A nice impression to leave with.  
Lake in the hills behind Pirot

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