Travel: Serbia a country that's emerging from change as an undiscovered gem
As a fledgling state in south-eastern Europe emerging from many years of flux, Serbia has lain undiscovered for many holidaymakers. But as Brendan Hughes found out, the picturesque Balkan country has plenty to offer for the adventurous traveller
AS WE strode up the hill towards the ruins of Belgrade Fortress – the historic centrepiece of Serbia's capital city – my first question for our walking tour guide was perhaps on reflection a little tough.
"What's the political situation in Serbia?" My English media companions on the trip were, I'm sure, less than impressed.
"To start with an easy one," I quickly added, somehow hoping this would soften the blow.
Our guide did his best to truncate the heavy subject to entry-level 'Serbia for Dummies'.
To the relief of all concerned, I later steered the conversation to the safer territory of Eurovision. Everyone loves Eurovision, right?
But as we sat on the fortress walls offering scenic views overlooking the city, it was interesting to reflect on the huge changes Serbia has seen.
While at home, Northern Ireland's constitutional position is never far from public debate, Serbia has its own complex constitutional matters to handle.
The eastern European nation in its current form – born out of the break-up of Yugoslavia – has only existed since 2006. There is still an active territorial dispute over Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence a decade ago.
Like the south of Ireland, Serbia has an openly gay prime minister. But like Northern Ireland, same-sex marriage remains outlawed.
The UK is seeking to leave the European Union, while Serbia is hoping to join.
Just like Northern Ireland's troubled history, this state of flux might have put off potential tourists in the past, but also like the north it's clear such reservations are misplaced – and there are many reasons why Serbia makes an excellent holiday destination.
Belgrade Fortress acts as a great example: Originating from the third century, it has been at the centre of countless sieges, battles and conquests, destroyed and rebuilt many times over the millennia.
Nowadays, it acts as a public park were people are free to enjoy its leafy grounds, offering a perfect vantage point of Belgrade and stunning views of where the vast rivers Sava and Danube converge.
We continued our walking tour through the fortress, the trees giving shelter from the baking sun. It was a welcome surprise that by just stepping outside the grounds, we were already in central Belgrade – a bustling, working city with more than double the population of Dublin.
The main shopping streets are fully pedestrianised, the lack of cars allowing for cafes and restaurants to spill into the sunshine with rows of outdoor tables and chairs shaded under parasols.
This offers the usual mix of high street stores, shopping mall retail and an array of eateries and bars to enjoy. We tried out Mama Shelter – a quirky fourth floor bar and large balcony terrace overlooking the city.
Drinks-wise, Belgrade is also very kind on your wallet. A typical pint of beer costs less than a quid sterling.
Another fine bar we tried was Ceger brasserie, which the English ones on the trip chose for watching England's World Cup semi-final game against Croatia. Thankfully England lost, and no more was said about that.
As you would expect for any capital city, Belgrade offers plenty to see and do.
The Church of St Sava – one of the world's largest Orthodox churches – looks interesting enough from the outside, but the real charm comes from peeping inside.
In contrast to its serene surrounds and pristine exterior, stepping through its doors reveals towers of industrial scaffolding and the clamour of workmen.
Some 83 years since building work began, the intricate design is still under active construction all these decades later.
The intricate, gleaming crypt offers of a glimpse of level of detail the church will eventually have throughout. Completion is not expected for many more years to come.
One way in which Serbians escape the bustle of the inner city is by venturing to Zemun, a district west of the River Sava.
Urban sprawl has subsumed it into the bounds of Belgrade, but Zemun was once a town in itself – and still maintains a character all of its own.
Restaurants make the most of views along the bank of the Danube, where little fishing boats are dotted in the distance.
Cobbled streets between terracotta-roofed buildings lead high on a hill to Gardos Tower. Make sure you're wearing comfortable shoes for the steep incline, but the trek is worth it for the panoramic views of the city.
Another retreat is Ada Lake – a man-made body of water which, for a city without a seaside, brings a welcome beach-resort feel.
As we sat under parasols along its pebbled shores tucking into a tasty lunch, families and kids splashed in the waters while sun-soakers topped up their tans.
About an hour-long drive away from Belgrade is Serbia's second-largest city, Novi Sad, offering a different vibe for the country. While Belgrade has the energy and buzz of a capital city, Novi Sad seems much more laid back and relaxed.
Its much flatter terrain allows for wide tree-lined boulevards, while the pedestrian-friendly city centre feels quaint with its ornate buildings and a main square flanked by a city hall and a Catholic church.
We visited during Exit Festival – an award-winning, four-day annual music festival which is considered one of the best in Europe. Rather uniquely, it takes place within the grounds of the history-steeped Petrovaradin Fortress, located on the banks of the Danube.
As dusk fell and as the festival ramped up each night, we joined the crowds of people streaming towards the vibrant festival across Varadin Bridge, which was lit in rainbow colours.
It's clear the city embraces the yearly extravaganza. Banners promoting headline acts are displayed along streets, and the entertainment spreads into the city centre with acts performing at a free open-air concert in the main city square. It's little wonder Novi Sad has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2021.
During the day, away from the festival, we journeyed into the hills surrounding Fruska Gora mountain. The beautiful region is known for its wine production, and is home to many monasteries. Novo Hopovo Monastery offered deeply tranquil surrounds nestled among the luscious tree-covered mountains.
We also stopped off at Kovacevic Winery, where its restaurant treated us to six scrumptious courses, each with a different wine. My eyes popped when I was told the bill only amounted to the equivalent of around £20 per person.
Among the wines was Bermet, which dates from the 18th century. It is exclusively produced in the mountainous region and includes some 27 herbs and spices. There is also evidence suggesting the wine was loaded on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.
Another great break from the all-night festival partying was canoeing along the Danube. After a scenic boat trip through the unspoiled landscape, we found a shallower spot along the riverbank and paired up in our canoes.
It was a trepidatious start – the eyes of a few bewildered fishermen boring into us as we tried not to capsize – but soon my English mate and I were off on our journey.
The landscape was serene. As water lapped against our oars, we paddled through a carpet of reeds and lily pads, and floated past a variety of wildlife – from hopping frogs to flocks of birds. Nothing could be further from the busy city.
The political situation in Serbia – or anywhere else for that matter – couldn't be further from my mind.
:: Visit serbia.travel, the National Tourism Organisation of Serbia's website, regentholidays.co.uk and traveltheunknown.com for more information. Air Serbia flies nine times a week from Heathrow and all major European carriers connect to Belgrade.