I nibbled on a charred ear of corn, trying to ignore the fact that people had been staring at me in wonder. The streets of Uzice were teeming with late evening strollers, enjoying the cool breeze blowing up from the river. Some of the roads were closed to traffic, but I could still hear engines revving nearby. Earlier that day, I had witnessed some of the craziest driving in my life, almost getting hit twice on a zebra crossing. Now that the same roads had been pedestrianised for a few hours, I could fully embrace the city’s lively atmosphere without having to fear for my life.
I stopped in the middle of the road to take a photo of the towering Communist blocks that dominate the city’s skyline. As I stood there, trying to capture the city’s urban grit, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t come across a single tourist that day. No wonder people had been looking at me as if I had fallen from outer space. I was probably the first person they had seen taking photos of the ugliest buildings in town.
While I’ve always wanted to travel to the Balkans, Serbia was never really among the top places on my bucket list. Well, I’m always up for new adventures in offbeat destinations, so I didn’t think twice before accepting an invitation for a three-week stay in one of the least-visited countries in Europe.
I met Biljana, an engineer and entrepreneur from Uzice, and her two daughters in August 2015. They were in Malta for a month and spent most of their mornings in my kitchen, seeking respite from the blazing summer heat while showing me photos of their hometown and other beautiful places in Serbia
. A year later I boarded a plane to Belgrade.
Hiking through old railway tunnels in Uzice
A stray dog followed us along the river esplanade. The place was dead quiet, save for the sound of water pouring down the face of a small dam. It was hard to believe that the same area had been a hive of activity the night before. In summer, the River Detinja becomes a swimming area, but no one was brave enough to jump into the water on that overcast, July morning. It looked cold, and eerie. Very eerie.
The dog eventually got tired of my frequent photo stops and chose to go off in a different direction. A few minutes later, we reached the end of the path, where a set of uneven steps led up to the city’s old railroad. On the other side of the river, water gushed out of a man-made hole in the wall. A pretty building, which I had initially mistaken for a house, sat on the banks of the Detinja. Built in 1898, the structure is the oldest hydroelectric plant in Serbia and the second oldest in Europe. Its design was based on the scientific research and discoveries of Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla. The plant is still in use today.
We walked through the first railway tunnel in complete darkness. I felt rather uneasy about being in a dark, deserted place, but Ana seemed unperturbed by the unsettling surroundings. She had done this walk many times before. We emerged into the hills, where a cluster of red-roofed houses lay perched on lush green slopes. Another short tunnel led us further into the hills, followed by a never-ending tunnel that set my heart racing. I honestly thought I was going to lose kidney that day.
The railway line connecting Uzice with Visegrad
in Bosnia & Herzegovina was opened in 1925. In the mid-seventies, the route was no longer deemed viable, and the narrow-gauge railroad between Visegrad and Uzice was closed. The tunnels are now a historic site – although the track has been replaced with a car-friendly road.
Threatening clouds hovered over the hilltops. We stopped by another hydroelectric plant, Turica, which was built in the 1920s to meet the growing demand for electricity. The plant is tucked among forested hills, but you can see its beautiful waterfall from the old railroad. The first hydroelectric power plants in Uzice were initially built for textile factories in the region. Later, they were used to supply electric power for the city’s street lights.
A low rumble of thunder echoed across the hills. We started making our way back as soon as we felt the first drops of rain. It was a ten-minute walk to the next tunnel. Flashes lit up the sky. The rain picked up, and the only available shelter was a wooden gazebo on the side of the road. We sat there for about twenty minutes, debating whether we should make a dash for the next tunnel or wait for the rain to abate. Water dripped through the gaps in the wooden planks and the occasional gust of wind tossed rain against our backs. It looked like we wouldn’t be able to keep ourselves dry much longer.
I tucked my camera in my waterproof bag and stepped out into the storm. By the time we reached the tunnel, we were soaked right through to the skin, but I wasn’t willing to spend an hour or so in that dark and sinister place waiting for the storm to subside. We arrived home with dripping wet hair and with our clothes completely drenched. The soles of my pumps had started to come off, but all that mattered was that my camera had survived the deluge unscathed.
Driving along stunning mountains in Tara National Park
The thought of being in a car on a never-ending, hairpinned road makes my stomach turn, so I’m always a bit anxious when travelling through mountain ranges. I’ve been sick a few times on mountain roads (mainly in Scotland
), despite taking a travel sickness pill before every trip. When my Serbian hosts told me that we were going for a drive along the Dinaric Alps, I popped a few tranquilisers along with my usual sickness pills. As a result, I spent the next hour or so fighting off a wave of drowsiness as we drove along some of the most beautiful mountain scenery I have ever seen in my life.
The Dinaric Alps span across seven Balkan countries and they are the fifth most rugged mountain range in Europe. In Serbia, the Dinaric Alps cover a large part of the country, stretching from the northwest to the southeast. The mountains are covered with dense forests and are home to many species of wildlife, including chamois, lynxes and wolves. As we drove further up into the mountains, I spotted a few yellow signs with a silhouette of an animal.
“The signs advise against straying from the main road,” Biljana said, slowing down at the next sharp bend, “There are brown bears in these forests and sometimes they come very close to the road.”
We stopped by a large lake surrounded by thick woods. White-washed houses dotted the small clearings on the mountainside. Heavy, dark clouds hung low, obscuring the mountains tops. The lake’s emerald green water made the place look rather surreal. I soon found out that the lake is in fact artificial. Zaovine Lake was created in the early 1980s and covers an area of 15 square kilometres on the southern slopes of the Tara Mountain, which forms part of the Dinaric Alps. Tara stands at 1,000-1,500 metres above sea level and was declared a national park in 1981. Its forests are some of the best preserved in Europe.
We trudged through gravel and mud along the shore, where we spotted some fish jumping around in sea cages. A few metres away, a couple of fishermen had set themselves up right on the edge of the lake. After climbing up a large, man-made rubble, we sat down on a cliff overlooking the lake. Gusts of cold wind whipped my long hair across my face. I finally felt awake.
We continued driving uphill for another half an hour. The bends got sharper and my stomach had started to feel a bit funny. Finally, we pulled into a viewpoint. I moved slowly towards the edge of the cliff. The first thing that caught my eye was the long road spiralling down the mountain. My stomach flipped.
“So, what do you think?” Biljana asked.
We stood above Perucac Lake, an artificial lake built on the Drina River. The latter forms a natural border between Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. For a few seconds, I forgot all about the scary road ahead of us and savored the beautiful and rare sight in front of me. I was standing on Serbian soil, gazing at the forested mountains of Bosnia.
An hour later, I was sipping a cappuccino by a fierce stream of water running into the Drina River. My stomach had survived the drive downhill. We took a walk along the river Vrelo, which is only 365 metres long, making it the shortest river in Europe. Its course ends with a 10-metre high waterfall into the Drina, where I sat with my coffee, praying that we wouldn’t be taking the same route back to Uzice.
We had lunch in Bajina Basta, a quiet town that lies in the valley of the Drina River, right at the foot of the Tara National Park on the Bosnian border. As I struggled through the last few slices of my pizza, I realised that every place we had visited so far had a sombre atmosphere – perhaps it was the gloomy weather, or the unhealed wounds of the wars and conflicts that ravaged the country in the nineties. Memories of wars remain fresh in the minds of many Serbians, and some buildings still bear the scars of the NATO bombing in 1999.
Biljana’s voice cut through my thoughts. “We’ll go home via a shorter route. It’s getting late.”
Walking through the largest cave mouth in Serbia
An energetic chicken pecked at the grass. I sat on a bench in the shade, keeping my gaze fixed on the bird to make sure it doesn’t get too close. A few minutes later, I thought I heard a trilling sound coming from behind us. I turned around to find that we were suddenly outnumbered by chickens. The girls remained seated on the bench, scrolling through Facebook, while I went for a walk up a steep hill where I could take photos of the chickens from a safe distance. The path led to a large gaping hole in a sheer cliff and I couldn’t wait to explore its depths.
Three good-looking men emerged from the cave. Within seconds, Maja and Ana were at my side, drooling over the tallest of the men. He said something to them in Serbian and the girls translated for me. He was our guide.
Situated 14km away from Uzice, Potpec Pecina Cave has one of the largest and tallest cave entrances in the world. The cave mouth reaches a height of 72 metres and is shaped like a horseshoe. The 700 steep steps leading up into the cave left me gasping for air. I held on to the railing – I thought I was going to pass out. The sudden drop in temperature did not help. Meanwhile, the girls and three other visitors followed the guide along the curve of the entrance and up a few more steps. I had never felt so out of shape in my life.
Potpec Pecina has been formed by the waters of subterranean rivers, some of which are still active. Archaeological remains found in the cave, including flint weapons and deer antlers, suggest that the cave was first inhabited by humans in the Neolithic Period. We walked through dimly-lit passages, surrounded by majestic stalactites and stalagmites. I took my eyes off the handsome guide for a few minutes, and absorbed the impressive beauty of the cave instead.
Visiting the gorgeous village of Zlakusa
As much as I enjoyed the tour in the cave, I was happy to be back outside, basking in the sun. I had started to feel a bit claustrophobic in there.
“So where to now?” I asked the girls as we started our way down the hill.
I glanced at the long, deserted road ahead of us, “And how do we get there?”
Ana shrugged, “We don’t know.”
For the next half an hour, we walked along a straight road fringed with large, green fields. Rows of corn plants stretched as far as the eye could see. The girls stopped by the side of the road to pick a few ripe raspberries. Serbia is the world’s largest producer and exporter of raspberries. I learnt this on our way home from Bajina Basta a few days earlier, when Biljana pulled into a country road, got out of the car, and returned with a crate full of raspberries. We spent the next two weeks having yoghurt with raspberries for breakfast and dessert.
The village of Zlakusa is located in the valley of the river Djetinja, around 10km away from Uzice. The area used to be a large Roman settlement, with the village’s highest point serving as a fortification. At the heart of the village lies an ethno park, Terzica Avlija; a typical rural household that nowadays serves as a museum. The park is run by a non-profit organisation with the aim of preserving local traditions and promoting sustainable development in the area.
We arrived at the park drenched in sweat. A woman in a traditional costume greeted us at the entrance, then walked towards a group of teenagers sitting by a large table. She called out a name, and a tall boy, not older than 17, walked up to us and introduced himself as our guide. Maja’s face turned a dark shade of crimson. Her sister giggled, then leaned over to whisper something in my ear.
“That’s her crush from school!”
The young man led us through the first house, which is the oldest one in the village. It was built in 1907 and still contains its original furnishings. The second house has been turned into a museum with artifacts spanning many centuries and reigns, from the Roman Era up to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The village also houses a pottery and weaving workshop and a typical classroom from the Second World War.
In August 1941, Yugoslav Partisans were defeated by German troops in a battle that took place on the mountain of Gradin in what was then the Republic of Uzice. German soldiers ransacked the villages in the Yugoslav territory, including Terzica Avlija. Residents who were found in possession of Communist books were shot and hanged at the village entrance. Zlakusa is one of the most cheerful and colourful places I’ve ever visited. It’s hard to imagine that this place was once the site of many tragic events.
After the tour, the girls and I were in dire need of a refreshing drink and a quick bite. We ordered pancakes drizzled with chocolate syrup and sprinkled with biscuit crumbs, and washed them down with homemade lemonade.
“So, do you like Zlakusa?” Ana asked.
I smiled, “Of course I do. It’s beautiful.”
“Well, the place we’re visiting tomorrow is even more beautiful.”
Riding the train through Mokra Gora
Ana had been right. The forested mountains and plunging emerald valleys of Mokra Gora make the place look like something straight out of a fairytale. Alpine-style houses teeter on the edge of mountain curves, surrounded by pine-fresh forests stretching high to distant peaks. The best way to soak up the magnificent views of Mokra Gora is to take a train ride on the Sargan Eight; a narrow-gauge heritage railway cutting through dense pine forests and steep, rocky mountainsides.
When I found out that we would be travelling on an 8-shaped railway, I made sure I had enough motion sickness pills and tranquilisers for the two-hour journey. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a very pleasant ride, punctuated by frequent stops at various viewpoints and old stations.
Built in 1925, the Sargan Eight was an important part of the East Bosnian railway connecting Belgrade with Sarajevo. The line was closed in 1974, but the Sargan pass has since been rebuilt and re-opened as a tourist attraction. The train itself looks very authentic with its wooden cars, slatted seats and stove heaters. The track is about 15km long and passes through 22 tunnels.
After the ride, the girls and I treated ourselves to an ice-cream. The temperature had gone up to 30 degrees, but the weather in the mountainous region of western Serbia tends to be very unpredictable. An hour later, we were rummaging in our bags for our jackets.
Exploring the remote village of Drvengrad
Before returning home, we took a walk up to Drvengrad, a town that Ana and Maja had often spoken about when they were in Malta. The only thing I could remember about the place was that it was originally a film set. We started walking along the tracks, hopping over unstable and broken stones until we arrived at a path leading up a steep hill. There was not a soul in sight – except for a guard dog that wasn’t really happy to see us there.
We stopped short in our tracks, intimidated by the big, barking Labrador. His owner appeared at the door and the girls exchanged a few words with him.
“This is the right path,” Maja said cheerfully once we had made it past the dog, “He said we’re nearly there.”
Drvengrad (which means ‘Timber Town’) is a hilltop ethno village built by Serbian film director Emir Kusturica. The village is also known by two other names, Küstendorf and Mecavnik. Kusturica, who is mostly famous for his film Life is a Miracle,built this traditional, wooden village to serve as a cultural hub for aspiring artists and filmmakers. In fact, Drvengrad plays host to the annual Küstendorf Film and Music Festival, which is known for being an anti-commercial event as it ditches the typical Hollywood-style festival antics, including red carpets.
Despite being a popular attraction among tourists and locals, the village was rather quiet. We wandered along cobbled paths and stopped by some artisan stalls selling all sorts of hand-crafted items. Each path led us to a different log cabin, until we finally reached Drvengrad’s main street, which bears the name of the only local Nobel Prize winning author, Ivo Andric. Kusturica named the streets of the village after people whom he holds in high esteem, including Nikola Tesla, Che Guevara, Federico Fellini and Diego Maradona.
The village also has a library, an artist gallery, an underground cinema (named after Stanley Kubrick) and a tiny church dedicated to St. Sava. The increasingly darkening sky prompted us to take shelter in the only coffee shop in Drvengrad, which serves home-made cakes and juices. We spent an hour in the cafe, sipping freshly-made lemonade and thick hot chocolate. Meanwhile, I couldn’t take my eyes off the quaint decor and beautifully-painted walls. I could have easily spent another hour there (and ordered a second cake), but we had a bus to catch.
We started our way down the hill and encountered the angry Lab again. This time, however, we didn’t let it stall our progress. The bus to Uzice was at 6.30pm. We were there 20 minutes early, giving us plenty of time to nip into a shop on the other side of the road and grab some snacks. An hour passed, and we were still waiting for the bus. It got dark and cold. According to the schedule, there was another bus bound for Uzice at 7.30. I was hopeful, but Ana was sure that the bus wasn’t going to show up. Once again, she had been right. We had to call Biljana to come pick us up, and two hours later we were finally home.
Going for one last drive in Zlatibor
On my last day in Serbia, Biljana and I went for a drive through the resort of Zlatibor. Characterised by sweeping meadows and a cool alpine climate, this mountainous region is a popular area for skiing and hiking. Biljana told me that people suffering from asthma and other respiratory health problems are often instructed by doctors to spend a few days in Zlatibor due to the region’s very clean air. In fact, the town of Zlatibor was originally a health resort, established by King Aleksandar Obrenovic in 1893. It has since developed into a popular tourist resort with numerous luxury vacation homes and hotels.
I drooled over the gorgeous, Alpine-style houses lining the quiet streets. Tucked among tall trees, they blended well with the surroundings, unlike the huge hotels and apartments that had been built on barren hills. We drove past a few construction sites on the outskirts of town. The sight of rubble and cranes on what used to be unspoilt land saddened me. The sudden rise of tourism in Zlatibor has resulted in excessive urban development and hundreds of trees have been cut down to make way for tourist facilities.
The town centre was buzzing with activity. Children ran around the main square, where a stage had been set up, and groups of teenagers queued for waffles and ice-cream at the food stalls. Biljana and I sat down at a table on a restaurant terrace overlooking the main street. We feasted on a plate of grilled meats while beautiful ethnic music played in the background. Zlatibor is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Serbia, and yet, it still felt like I was the only tourist present that evening.
On our way back to Uzice, I sat quietly, reflecting on my concluding trip while watching the shadows of dusk descending over the vast meadows of Zlatibor. The past three weeks had been characterised by unusual adventures (and a few misadventures), no-show buses, scenic drives, and lessons in hydro engineering.
“Do you think you will ever come back to Serbia?” Biljana asked as we approached Uzice.
I spotted the railroad where Ana and I had been caught in a storm a couple of weeks earlier, and smiled.
“I hope so.”
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