Niš - Andrew - 2009
Along with its neighbour Montenegro, Serbia is one of Europe's newest countries. Until 1992 the capital, Belgrade was capital of the old Yugoslavia. Following the bloody break-up of that country Serbia became the dominant partner in the union of Serbia and Montenegro.
This was never a situation destined to last and in 2006 the two countries finally split apart. Serbia suffered at the hands of the harsh regime of Slobodan Milosevic, although many in the country still follow his hardline rule.
In 2008 the region of Kosovo declared independence, although not recognised fully by the international community it only seems a matter of time before Serbia becomes isolated in not recognising Kosovo as a separate entity.
Denied a coastline in the breakup Serbia's chief attractions are the mountains and the cities of Belgrade (Beograd, the capital) and Novi-Sad.
Niš - Andrew - 2009
I selected a conference in Serbia deliberately to try to “hit” some of the other former-Yugoslav countries which I had missed on my first trip (see Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Montenegro).
The conference was in a town called Niš which is in southern Serbia (ironically well connected to Sofia where I was in July (see Bulgaria). To get to Niš I had to fly into Belgrade airport where, fortunately, I would be picked up by one of the people involved and driven the 80 odd miles to Niš. Thank God I was as it took about four hours in a car without any stops, it would have taken forever on a bus!
We skipped through the edges of Belgrade which looked impressively sited on hilly ground sweeping down to the Danube but were soon out into the countryside. I was told by my driver that this was the “King’s Road” (aren’t all these routes called things like this) and it goes down the River Valley of the Morava from Belgrade right to the bottom of the country. On either side of us I could see distant hills, but this centre was flat and largely empty. In the end I was quite glad to get out of the baking hot car and into Niš.
I was staying in the “landmark” Hotel Ambasador which stands sentinel over the main square (Trg Oslobodenja). I was checked in and shown to my room and then left to my own devices. Now the room looked like it hadn’t been decorated since Tito was alive and kicking, the walls were painted a rather bold shade of purple and there were interesting fungi growing in the grouting in the shower. All in all it was perhaps the least lovely hotel I’d been in for many years.
Never mind, I was pretty excited to be in Serbia. Not so very long ago (well, about 10 years exactly in fact) the British had been dropping bombs on this very town. There was even a memorial (which my driver had pointed out to me) commemorating this very fact only a short distance from my hotel.
Once I had dumped my bags, phoned home and had a bit of a brush up I decided I’d go for a bit of an explore around Niš. My first view of the city was out of the windows of the hotel (but not my room) where I looked down towards the River and Castle. A fine view slightly marred by a neon sign which, this still being daylight, was not looking its best.
Down on the ground level I attempted to retrieve my passport from the Hotel Desk (and received a very Communist-era no) and then went out to see what was around. One of the main streets of Niš was currently being completely dug up, so the walk down to the Post Office to get stamps for postcards was a bit of an obstacle course. Once I’d safely got my hands on these I headed back to the main square and down towards the River.
I got an impression immediately of a poor town trying to pull itself up. People were dressed in what might have been high fashion in the mid-1990s, the shops were all a little sparse and odd-looking, but there was much work going on to clean things up and the University had created a young population who gave the place a bit of a buzz.
Inevitably, I arrived at the River Nišava and the Castle beyond it. The Castle was built by the Turks during their occupation of Serbia, but despite therefore being a sign of the hated aggressors it seemed to be the most loved of all Niš’ monuments.
From the “town” side of the River the Castle probably looks its best, with the very solid looking gatehouse and walls stretching from either side it looks every bit the medieval fortress. Surprisingly, once you pass over the Bridge and through the gatehouse there is much less inside than you’d expect. A series of cafes huddled in the shade of the walls on one side, a restaurant and – peculiarly – a crèche on the other. In the centre in an old armoury is a small museum and a gift shop (the only gift shop I found in Niš).
Pass these and you find yourself in a large plateau in the centre of the Castle area. In the middle of this is the Bali Beg Mosque – a building dating to the Turkish period but which has been much altered over the ensuing centuries. Also in this central area are remains of the original Roman fortification that stood here. I was very surprised to learn that no less a figure than the Emperor Constantine the Great was born in Niš (in fact, one of three – Constantius III and Justin I also came from here) and outside of town (sadly not to be on my itinerary) is the Roman site of Mediana.
It had been a long day, so I decided to head back into town to try to find some food. This proved to be impossible for me as a vegetarian. It would appear that Serbia has no concept of vegetarian … indeed, it makes France seem quite veggie friendly. No pasta restaurants presented themselves (usually a good standby) so I ended up swallowing my pride (and masses of monosodium glutamate) by eating “food” from McDonalds. Thus completely not satisfied with my meal I slunk back to my purple room.
I breakfasted the next day in the hotel restaurant. This felt like something from a Sixties spy movie. The huge net curtains which formed one wall were tea-stained and allowed only a weird sepia light to filter into the eating area which had formica-topped tables and metal chairs. I was given coffee which was made from I-know-not-what – not coffee at any rate – and had a croissant with 99% sugar as its ingredients.
Fortunately, when I got outside Costa Coffee came to my rescue and I had a proper breakfast before heading for the Conference. To get to the University I had to go straight through the Castle again and then out the other side of it, passed some very 18th century looking bastions. The Conference went well, despite me having to suddenly do a small talk that I was unprepared for, and by the end of the day I had used up virtually all the materials I had brought. This left me with a dilemma for the next day … could I possibly go and sit behind an empty desk, or do I just leave for Skopje earlier than I had planned. There was to be a guided tour on the second day and if I left I would miss it – and thus miss out on the macabre Skull Tower and the Roman ruins at Mediana.
At the end of the Conference I headed back into town and had a coffee at one of the Castle-wall cafes whilst I contemplated what to do. I decided to check out the bus times and walked along the side of the castle walls through the gypsy market to the bus station. There was a bus at 10, a bus at 12:15 and a bus at 3. I came to a conclusion, I would get the 10 o’clock bus and sneak quietly away from the conference early.
View of the Castle from the Hotel
Back in town I tried again to find some food and was even less successful than the previous night. Having read about a pasta restaurant I walked for ages down very unfriendly looking streets to find it shut and not looking likely to open. Frustrated I walked down to the River Bank and walked back along the Embankment as the sun began to set. It gave me some very nice last images of Niš before I returned to McDonalds for more yukky stuff and my last visit to my purple room.
In the morning I checked out (and finally got my passport back) and went for breakfast at Costa. I then wheeled my suitcase back past the Castle and through the gypsy market to the bus station, bought my ticket and waited for the bus. I tried to sit in the café but the smoke from cigarettes began to burn out my lungs (I’d sat all day in the conference the day before surrounded by a fug of smoke), so I ended up switching nicotine for carbon monoxide and sat outside waiting for my bus to arrive.
This it did, promptly and on time, I climbed aboard and was surprised at how comfortable it was. At 10 o’clock sharp the bus (with a fairly full complement of people) pulled away from Niš and began to travel through the sparse countryside of Southern Serbia. The passenger beside me, a very large man who looked every bit the policeman he turned out to be, asked me who I was and why I was travelling here. I had to produce my ticket and passport in response to his flashing a badge at me. He surveyed it for a while, looked me up and down a bit, and then seemed to relax. He offered me an apple (which I felt it would be wise to accept) and then tried to talk to me (as usual) about football. After my knowledge of this ran out he sank into a silence and I was slightly relieved when he got off the bus in the fly-blown little town of Bujanovac a short distance before the Macedonian border. In the last few miles before we reached the border the landscape began to change, it began to take on a familiar Mediterranean look (olive trees, tawny grass and little scattered villages). Bizarrely, the last thing I saw in Serbia was a massive dead animal (I think it was a wolf) by the side of the road as we zipped by, then we were at the border and I headed into another country.
Back to Eastern Europe
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