As peace has returned to most of the Balkans, countries in the region, including those that broke off from the former Yugoslavia, are opening their doors to tourists. And Serbia, despite the unsettled conflict with Kosovo to its south, is no exception.
To the Serbs, religion is a crucial part of life. And the most important spiritual sanctity in Belgrade is this grand cathedral dedicated to Saint Sava, the first archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the founder of Serbian law and literature. Saint Sava was born a prince during medieval times. But like his father King Stefan Nemanja, who left the throne to become an orthodox monk in 1196, he decided to follow the religious path and still managed to contribute so much to his country. The former king himself was also a highly respected monk and canonised as Saint Simeon.
Homeland of the Serbs, one of the most prominent of the many ethnic groups that inhabit the western part of the Balkan Peninsula, Serbia maintained a federation with its closest ally Montenegro and hung on as Yugoslavia until 2003.
However, just three years later Montenegro decided to follow the path of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia, which had declared independence from Yugoslavia years earlier. Serbia, now a nation-state, continues to regard Belgrade as its capital city.But the story of Serbia and its people goes back far before the time of the defunct socialist federation formed after World War II under the leadership of Marshal Tito.
The Serbs, the country's main ethnic group, have settled down in this part of the world since medieval times. Over the centuries, they have left behind cultural legacies that range from language, food and other traditions to religious belief, i.e. Serbian Orthodox Christianity, and monuments in the form of fortresses, churches and monasteries, many of which have been well-preserved. Some, like the 12th-century Studenica Monastery located about 200km south of Belgrade, have been declared by Unesco World Heritage Sites.
While Belgrade is the country's most dynamic city, Novi Sad, about 70km northwest of the capital, is known for its diverse cultural charms. But beyond the two cities, which are linked by the Danube River, there are a host of exciting places waiting to be explored.
Yes, even in Europe, there are still a lot of new destinations for avid travellers. And some of them, of course, you can find in Serbia.
Centuries ago, when tap water was not available in households, fountains were an important source of drinking water for the people of Belgrade. The one seen in the larger picture is the Terazije Fountain, which was built in 1860, replacing an older one built by the Turks. The fountain also lends its name to the square where it stands. These days, even with advanced public waterworks, the city still has a number of fountains that locals and tourists alike visit to quench their thirst.
Strategically built atop a hill overlooking the point where the Sava River meets the Danube, the Belgrade Fortress is unsurprisingly a popular place for the townspeople to come for recreation. The fortress complex boasts not just stunning panoramic views and well-preserved ramparts and towers, but also a public park, a zoo, an art pavilion and a military museum.
Despite the fact that the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia he ruled as president for almost three decades is long gone, Marshal Tito’s place in history seems secure. With an iron fist and patriotic campaigns, he managed to unite and hold together the ethnically diverse nation that continued to exist for another 10 years after his death before it finally broke apart.
Serbia’s second largest city, Novi Sad is no less important than the capital in terms of arts and cultures. At the city’s Liberty Square you can appreciate different styles of Western architecture from neo-Gothic to neoclassical to Baroque. It’s considered by many as one of the most beautiful city centre in former Yugoslavia. Like the one in Belgrade, Novi Sad’s Petrovaradin Fortress sits on a hill on the bank of the Danube. In 1917, Josip Broz Tito — yes, the man who later became Yugoslavia’s life-time president — was arrested on charges of anti-war propaganda and held at this fortress for three weeks before being moved to another prison.
During Marshal Tito’s time, Belgrade was among the most developed cities in Eastern Europe. However, due largely to the costly ethnic conflicts in the region that Serbia has both directly and indirectly been involved in, the economy here is not as good as it used to be. While many hope the situation might improve if the country succeeds in its attempt to apply for the European Union membership, others doubt if the EU will survive its current economic troubles.
From the Republic Square where an equestrian statue of Prince Mihailo, a leader of the Serbs during the 19th century when the Balkan region was still under the influence of the Ottoman Empire, stands in front of the National Theatre all the way to Saint Sava Church and to the Belgrade Fortress, you can find several historical buildings that reflect different parts of the country’s history. The House of National Parliament, shown in the photo on the left, for example, dates back to 1936 when Belgrade was the capital of what was known then as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After World War II, no matter how many times the country changed its name and political system, from the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, to Serbia and Montenegro and finally, since May 2006, to the Republic of Serbia, it is this same building that serves as the national assembly.
From the streets during rush hours, you may notice one thing that Belgrade and Bangkok have in common: traffic jams. If you check out the local news media, you’ll quickly find another thing: deep-rooted corruption.
Dating back to the 12th century, the Studenica Monastery in central Serbia was established by Stefan Nemanja, father of the highly respected Saint Sava. One of the most important of its kind in this Orthodox Church country, the fortified monastery houses within its churches and other buildings precious medieval frescos and artifacts from centuries ago. These days, the monastery also provides pilgrims and other visitors with accommodation and a canteen, where authentic Serbian food made by the monks is served.
One of the oldest places of worship in Serbia, the Church of Saint Peter near the southwestern city of Novi Pazar was where Stefan Nemanja, founder of the Medieval Serb state, got married to his wife Anna. Their two sons, one of them later become Saint Sava, were baptised here too. It is said the present church is built on the site where a number of older ones had been before. Surrounding the church are tombs from the 18th-19th centuries. Saint Peter’s Church is part of a historical area known as the Stari Ras-complex, which in 1979 was listed by Unesco a World Heritage Site.
- Serbia doesn't have an embassy in Thailand. The nearest you can apply for a visa is in Jakarta, Indonesia (email: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com; website: http://serbia.visahq.com/embassy/Indonesia/).
- To save yourself visa hassle, one option is to have somebody get it done for you. The Swiss-based Kuoni Travel offers tours to Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and other countries that formerly were part of Yugoslavia.
For details, contact its sales manager, Thanate Suphavittayakorn. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
- Writer: Pongpet Mekloy
Position: Travel Editor