Week 10 saw us entering what was once the heartland of the Republic of Yugoslavia: Serbia. After saying goodbye to Montenegro and a very swift border crossing – the smoothest of all our Balkan trip border crossings in fact – we entered western Serbia, a region not much visited by travelers from other European countries.
It announced itself as a tourist region with big bill boards in English, but we found it one of the most difficult part of the Balkans to find tourist info in English or tourist info at all, for that matter.
Getting to the Uvac River meanders
Our first day in Serbia turned into a long day of frustration, coincidences, breakdown and one spectacular sight. The first three apparently were needed to get to the last, the spectacular meanders in the Uvac River. When we saw pictures of it on several websites we absolutely wanted to go there. The big question was: how to get to the viewpoint overlooking the river. None of these sites mentioned this.
The best starting point, however, seemed to be the town of Nova Varos, which was on the route to our first overnight stay in Serbia, Zlatibor. Great, we thought. Not so. After being unable to find any tourist info in Nova Varos we walked into a communist-era hotel to find a hotel manager who spoke a little French. Though his French was even worse than mine we managed to make an appointment through him with a driver who would pick us up at a meeting point near Uvac Lake and take us to the viewpoint.
Finally there: the Molitva viewpoint
We never found the meeting point. Next we drove for 45 minutes to another town (Sjenica), found no tourist info but some helpful taxi drivers with hand gestures pointed us in the direction we had to go. After thanking them and driving away we heard them shouting: our rear left tire was almost flat. Luckily a one man garage was just a few hundred meters away. With the help of a Serbian living in Switzerland translating for us in German, we got the tire fixed.
A few kilometers outside Sjenica we found a hillside dirt road which eventually proved to be the wrong road, but at a small café with a view over the river we could arrange for a 4WD with a driver who only spoke some words in French to take us to where we wanted to go. After an adventurous ride we were finally there: the Molitva viewpoint over the Uvac River. We thought it was worth all the effort.
Sirogojno and Drvengrad
We arrived in Zlatibor early evening to find some kind of Costa Brava holiday scene in the Serbian hills. All tourists visiting the region seemed to congregate here. Not really our thing. The next day we visited the off-the-beaten-track open air museum in Sirogojno with a collection of historical rural structures from western Serbia.
Next we drove to our accommodation in Mokra Gora. It was an guesthouse we had booked last minute after the guesthouse we’d booked 24 hours earlier cancelled our booking at the last moment due to overbooking. Despite Mokra Gora being a one street village we had trouble finding the guesthouse. Not even the shop owner across the street knew of its existence….
In Mokra Gora we tried to buy tickets for the Sargan Eight historic narrow gauge train ride, but tickets were sold out, so we ended up at Drvengrad, an ethno-village that featured in the 2004 Serbian movie Life is a Miracle. Not knowing the movie, the village was of limited interest to us.
House on the rock
The following day we had quite an interesting time again trying to find some viewpoints in Tara National Park. We started our journey at the national park’s visitors center in the town of Bajina Bašta on the river Drina, that forms the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina. We bought a map of the national park, which helped a lot, and asked about the famous ‘house-on-the-rock’ in the Drina that should be in Bajina Bašta.
The lady at the information center could only give a vague description of where we had to go. After driving through town for a while wondering if we were heading in the right direction we pulled over to study where we were and what do you know: there it was, right in front of us! The hut was put there in 1968 as a shelter by swimmers who found this a good sunbathing spot.
Tara National Park viewpoints
We quickly snapped a few pictures of the house against the background of dark skies before a huge thunderstorm turned the streets of Bajina Bašta into little rivers and water pools. Splashing out of town we headed over to the first viewpoint we wanted to visit, Biljeska Stena, in the northwest corner of the park.
After 1.15 hours of driving over some of the worst roads we’d encountered during our Balkan road trip, the last 6 km a mediocre gravel road, we arrived at the viewpoint to find it…… completely enveloped in mist and clouds. All we could see was a grey wall of misery and with only 13 degrees Celsius it was pretty chilly as well. Not what we had hoped for.
After waiting for half an hour and nothing changed we decided to drive to the next viewpoint at Banjska Stena. Just like Biljeska Stena it affords views over Perućac Lake, only even more amazing. We’d spotted a gravel road on the national park map that would offer us a significant shortcut over the long asphalted route.
It turned out to be one hell of a drive – steep and on one of the worst gravel roads you can imagine. But we made it in one piece and after a short hike we got to Banjska Stena. The view we’d come for was barely visible, with low clouds preventing us seeing much of a panorama. Here, however, waiting a while proved useful. The shroud of clouds lifted enough to at least show us some of the beautiful scenery. It was far from perfect, but at least it was something.
Luckily the nice weather returned again as we drove to the small village of Ovcar Banja. On the way we drove past the Spomenik Memorial at Kadinjača. The Kadinjača Spomenik is one of a series of memorial parks that the first president of the Republic of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, had erected all over the country. It’s located in the middle of nowhere, so it’s hard to imagine that over 100.000 people attended at the official opening in 1979. The monument commemorates a battle fought here against Nazi troops in 1941.
It’s a bit of a desolate place but fascinating at the same time, tranquil and surrounded by the amazingly beautiful scenery of rural western Serbia. Next to the monumental park there’s a permanent exhibition on the WWII battle fought here and a thematic exhibition ‘Užice region during the NATO aggression against the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia’. Ahum…
Ovcar-Kablar Gorge viewpoint
Ovcar Banja appeared to be some former Yugoslav holiday destination that time has forgotten. Our main reason to go here was to visit the Ovcar-Kablar Gorge viewpoint with again some nice river views. As you may have guessed by now it required some tenacity to find it. After asking around we found a tourist office hidden away in some apartment block manned by two guys who didn’t speak English, but they managed to convey where the turn-off for the viewpoint was.
Of course this was a narrow gravel road going steeply uphill. After seeing several new signs in Latin script we were sure this was going to be an easy one, but just when we really needed some signage it just stopped to never appear again. But we (again) made it to yet another great panoramic view of Serbian landscape.
Later on we visited one of the many monasteries surrounding Ovcar Banja. Only two nuns lived there. The nun who received us and showed us around spoke some English, which came as a surprise after stumbling over the language barrier in the previous days so many times.
St George’s Church mosaics
We ended our week in Serbia with a visit to the capital Belgrade. Driving there we made a detour for the town of Topola where we visited St George’s Church on Oplenac hill. Serbian orthodox churches are known for their beautiful ancient frescoes, but the interior of St George’s Church is completely covered with amazing mosaics. The church was built a little over a hundred years ago and many members of the royal house of Serbia are buried in the church yard and the church’s crypt, one of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen.
We spent 2,5 days in Belgrade. The city was far more interesting than we’d expected. Joining a street art tour and doing a tour focusing on the socialist past of Yugoslavia let us see many surprising sides of the city. During the last tour we were driven around by our guide from Yugo Tour in a 1979 Zastava, build in former Yugoslavia, at the same time learning why many people in Serbia long back to the old days under marshal Tito, when life seemed better.
Here are some pics from Belgrade.