Visiting Mokra Gora and Višegrad

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The countryside of Serbia is truly extraordinary. After experiencing Belgrade, I decided to spend a week in the southern Serbian mountain town of Zlatibor. At around a kilometre above sea level, it has a cooler climate and made a welcome change to the melting Satan-hot summer temperatures of Belgrade. It has been said that Zlatibor has some of the cleanest air in all of Europe. Zlatibor is a resort town and is a very popular skiing destination for Serbians in winter. For a week I had my own mini studio-cube apartment at the top level of a warm family home on the outskirts of town.

Zlatibor is also a launchpad from which to visit the region’s surrounding areas of which there are many gems. However without your own vehicle it can be challenging to visit these places. Fortunately I met a very interesting and knowledgeable young man named Bogdan who has his own small tour business. It was already the beginning of September when I arrived in Zlatibor and by then much of the peak August crowds had left meaning the town wasn’t over crowded and finding/extending accommodation was never a problem.

 

Mokra Gora

One day I embarked on a day tour with Bogdan and a small group of Serbian tourists to the nearby region of Mokra Gora close to the Bosnian border. Mokra Gora is an authentic and traditional slice of the Balkan country with some magnificent vistas. For the first leg of our Mokra Gora excursion, Bogdan drove us from Zlatibor to Mokra Gora railway station, from where we would travel on an old school train on the short but memorable Sargon Eight narrow-gauge railway line. This line was originally built in 1921 just after the First World War. It took four years to build and is over 15km long. The construction of the line was increasingly gruelling and often life threatening. 3,000 – 5,000 workers were involved in its construction and 200 died. As well as laying down the track, 22 tunnels and 5 bridges were built to make way for the line. The longest tunnel has a length of 1669 metres.

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By the Ćira train on the Sargon Eight narrow-gauge railway line

Rather tragically, not long after the railway line was completed, it became abandoned and defunct. It was only in 1999 when it re-opened as a tourist attraction. The classic and vintage narrow gauge train is known as the “Ćira” train. Being on this train brings back happy childhood memories of riding the famous Bluebell Railway train in East Sussex. The spirit of Thomas the Tank Engine throbs. All that is missing is Ringo Starr. I can imagine him being the conductor of that train in another life, taking ample swigs from a cheap bottle of plum rakija in the colder winter months whilst entertaining passengers with off-beat anecdotes via the tannoy.

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Mokra Gora

The landscape and views throughout the train journey are sublime. It is a true joy to ride on this train and simple stare and marvel at the fertile green mountain scenery. All that hard graft to build the railway line was not all in vain. The first station we stop at is called the Ninth Kilometre. It is so-called since there are nine kilometres between the station and the Bosnian border. Then we stop at Jatare Station. Here I take a short hike up a small rocky hill with a young Serbian couple from Belgrade for some lovely vistas. Jatare used to be a water station and resting place and is also known by the fact that not one ticket was ever sold at the station.

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In Jatare with some Serbian friends

We make a few more stops to admire the country scenery before returning to Mokra Gora station where we are reunited with Bogdan. From here we travel to a nearby small village called Bela Voda, which is well known for its natural spring with healing water. The water is known to cure and treat skin diseases. What is also unique about the water here is it is highly alkaline with a pH of 11.5 and is ranked as 5th in the world in terms of its pH level. In addition to treating skin diseases, the water can be drunk in small doses and can cure stomach ulcers and gastritis. It is good for digestion and is also known as ‘eye water’ since it can treat eyelid inflammation.

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Bela Voda

Bela Voda is a paradise of a place with an attractive cherry-red stone church by the water stream, which augments the beauty and etherealness of this special village. I fill my empty bottle with some of this water from the well. Nearby there are wooden huts that are available to rent. I think to myself how delightful it would be to spend a long summer here completely forgetting any notions of time and space.

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Drvengrad

From Bela Voda, Bogdan drives us to a hillside village not far from Mokra Gora railway station called Drvengrad. This completely wooden village was built by the Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica for his 2004 film Life Is A Miracle. It’s a unique, brilliant and unusual place with small streets and squares named after famous filmmakers, writers, visionaries, revolutionaries, sports-stars etc. I’ve written a separate article on the wonders of this magical place in another article which can be viewed here.

 

Višegrad

Early in the morning the next day, I meet up again with Bogdan for another tour this time visiting the historical Bosnian town of Višegrad. Višegrad is famous for its landmark Ottoman-era Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and was the bridge immortalised in the Nobel prize winning writer Ivo Andrić’s novel The Bridge On The Drina. It is also the site of another village complex built by Kusturica called Andrićgrad after Ivo. Unlike Drvengrad, this village is completely made from stone and there is a statue of Andrić.

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Dobrun monastery

Before crossing the Bosnian border, we make a stop at the old monastery of Dobrun, which was constructed in 1343 by Duke Pribil and his sons Stefan and Peter. Originally all of the interior of the monastery was decorated with frescoes. Today, just a fraction of those original frescoes survive. Fortunately the one of Tsar Dušan with his wife Jelena and their son Uros still remains. Tsar Dušan, who was also known as Dušan the Mighty (born in 1308 – died on 20 December 1355), was the King of Serbia from 8 September 1331 and the Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks from 16th April 1346 until his death in 1355. This was the golden age of Serbia and at the time of his death, the Serbian Empire included most of modern day Greece, Albania and large swathes of former Yugoslavia.

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14th century fresco of Tsar Dušan with his wife Jelena and their son Uros inside the monastery 

Unfortunately since the era of Tsar Dušan, the monastery was under attack on several occasions. The first attack came in 1393 when the Ottoman Turks occupied Bosnia. Yet it faced the greatest destruction during the Second World War when it was used by the Germans to store ammunition. On their withdrawal in 1945 at the end of the war, they blew up the monastery. It was restored the following year. In spite of the monastery’s turbulent history, it is a handsome and immaculate building in beautiful surroundings. The decoration of the front facade of the monastery is a work of art.

Afterwards we cross the border and head to Višegrad. In 1454 Višegrad was conquered by the Ottoman Empire headed by Osman Pasha. The town remained under the empire for over four centuries until 1878 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina. More recently, the town suffered greatly during the Bosnian War from 1992-5. Much of the town was bombarded by JNA (Yugoslavian National Army) troops and many houses were destroyed and an estimated 3,000 Bosniaks were killed.

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The landmark Ottoman-era Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad

Most of the arches of the famous bridge were badly damaged (and some even completely destroyed) during both world wars. The bridge was also the scene for the killing of hundreds of Bosniaks by Bosnian Serb forces during the Bosnian War.

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In Andrićgrad

Filmmaker Emir Kusturica’s nearby village complex, Andrićgrad (also referred to as Kamengrad or ‘Stonetown’), officially opened on 28th June 2014 to mark the 100th year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the young Bosnian revolutionary, Gavrilo Princip. When you enter the complex and walk along the Main Street with cafes, you may notice two large rectangular mosaic murals by the Multiplex Dolly Bell cinema. The first one features Gavrilo Princip with other members of the Young Bosnian movement who wanted to end Austrian-Hungarian rule in Bosnia by assassinating the Archduke. This led to the start of the First World War. In the other mural a group of men featuring Kusturica appear to be engaged in a ‘tug of war’. In a way this mural is a homage to the perseverance and resilience in realising Kusturica’s vision of Andrićgrad. Looking at the mural more closely, you may notice the Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic in the background.

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Mural of Gavrilo Princip and members of the Young Bosnian movement 

 

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Mural of Kusturica (with Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska) and Novak Djokovic in the background 

The town’s style is a mix of Ottoman, Byzantine, Renaissance and Classical periods of architecture which reflect the history of Višegrad. There are statues of Ivo Andric, scientist and visionary Nikola Tesla and Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, who was a Prince-Bishop of Montenegro as well as an important poet and philosopher who’s works are seen as some of the most significant in Montenegrin and Serbian literature. In addition to his literary talents, Njegoš is seen as one of the fathers of the modern Montenegrin state and Kingdom of Montenegro, and for his struggles with the Ottoman Empire as he tried to expand Montenegro’s territory. His poem Gorski Vijenak (The Mountain Wreath) is considered a classic and it became the Montenegrin national epic. It had a big influence on Gavrilo Princip, who knew it off by heart. The poem is significant for many Serbians as its a reminder for them of their solidarity with Montenegro against the Ottoman Empire.

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Statue of the writer Ivo Andrić whom Andrićgrad is named after

 

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Statue of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš by the Crkva Svetog Cara Lazara orthodox church

Aside from the bridge and Andricgrad, Višegrad is a small but interesting city to explore on foot. If you have the time, walk along the bridge to the other side of the river. From there you can take a walk up one of the hills along a heavily debris laden path. From the top you have an incredible birds eye view over Višegrad.

On the way back down, keep on walking along the other side of the river and very soon you will stumble upon the childhood home of Ivo Andrić. It is a crimson-pink house, but it’s not possible to enter since it is a private residence.

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The childhood home of Ivo Andrić in Višegrad

Just before I left Višegrad for Zlatibor, I was at a small cafe close to the bridge where I had an exceedingly good slice of baklava cake. Oh boy it was so good. If I could remember the name of the place I would tell you, but alas I can’t.

 

By Nicholas Peart 

©All Rights Reserved

 

 

References

Wikipedia

-srbvoz.rs

-panacomp.net

-“The Town That Emir Kusturica Built” : excellent article by Peter Aspden in the Financial Times, where he writes extensively about Andrićgrad and also features an interview with Emir Kusturica

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The Village That Emir Built

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The wooden village of Drvengrad is a unique creation nestled in the mountains by the border between Bosnia and Serbia. It was built by the Serbian film director and all round maverick Emir Kusterica originally for the setting of his film Life Is A Miracle. But this place is more than just a film set, this is a white hot design for life. A place of hope and positivity, where one can spiritually flourish and be inspired. It almost sounds like the self sustainable community of Auroville in India. But not quite. Auroville is an enormous place with a substantial international community in the thousands. Drvengrad is a floating micro galaxy with its own idiosyncratic vibes and charms.

The landscape around Drvengrad in the Serbian region of Mokra Gora is breathtaking. And even if this awesome village didn’t exist, the scenery alone is a paradise of the highest level for anyone simple wanting to relax, re-energise, unwind, tune out, drop out etc. If the world ever got too much, this part of the world would be on my list of places to disappear to. Rimbaud went to Harar in Ethiopia. I will come here to Mokra Gora.

When one enters Drvengrad, the first thing one most likely notices is the Russian style wooden church at the end of the main square. It is dedicated to St Sava who was the founder of the Serbian autocephalous christian Orthodox Church (as well as the founder of Serbian law). All the squares and streets (more like paths) are named after various famous people. The main wooden square at the entrance is named after the highly revered visionary, humanist and pioneer of Alternating Current Nikola Tesla. Diego Maradona also has his square by the Latin quarter of the village which houses the Damned Yard bar. This bar is full of black and white photographs of Latin American revolutionaries like Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Emiliano Zapata. On one side of the bar is a montage of photographs of Emir Kusterica with Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch, Maradona, Mike Tyson and others. Cuban music plays on the stereo and I feel like I am back in San Cristobal de Las Casas in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Adjacent to the bar is a large indoor swimming pool and an underground gym and cinema.

The nearby Visconti restaurant is more sedate and formal than the Damned Yard bar. Aesthetically there are shades of the architect Le Corbusier in the internal design. It houses a substantial collection of books and a large collection of wines. Close-by is a children’s playground and an art gallery, which was unfortunately closed when I was there. But fortunately there is the Van Gogh hut, inside where there are murials and recreations from his famous paintings. There is also a tiny market square where one can buy local artisan crafts, oils and honeys. When I visited this market corner there was an old lady sitting down by one of the stalls knitting.

On the side of one wooden hut is a large mural of the Russian writer Dostoevsky. At both ends of the mural are a clutch of super sized colouring pencils ingeniously created from tree trucks.

Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic has his own street with a couple of outdoor tennis courts at the end. Film directors Frederick Fellini and Igmar Bergman also have streets named after them as does the Nobel prize winning Balkan writer Ivo Andric. Stanley Kubrick’s name is also stamped into this village in the form of the Stanley Kubrick Theatre.

Each year Drvengrad hosts the international Kustendorf film festival, also founded by Kusturica. Johnny Depp, the Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal and the directors Jim Jarmusch and Abbas Kiarostami are some of a handful of well known faces to have visited.

Below I am sharing some of my photographs of this awesome village.

 

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Text and photography by Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographs From Belgrade’s Savamala District

Belgrade’s Savamala district is one of the most interesting parts of the Serbian capital city to explore. It stretches from the main railway and bus station up until the Kalenegdan fort complex. Walking around this area one is rewarded with a mess of different styles and periods of architecture. There are some splendidly ornate buildings in perpetual decay and many more Brutalist structures. In fact, walking around Belgrade for the most part feels like being in an odd blended bubble of Vienna and the Barbican district in London.

Savamala was badly destroyed in both World Wars. For many decades since the end of WW2, it was a very run down place and had a negative reputation. However in the last few years it has developed as the creative hub of Belgrade and many bars and art spaces keep popping up. To get a good and accessible taste of the area’s scene, head to Braće Krsmanović street by the Sava river. The beginning of the street is marked by a disused shell of an old antique crumbling building. Further on is the KC Grad cultural centre. This is an indispensable cultural landmark with live music and happenings. Upstairs there’s an art exhibition space. Further along the street is a clutch of bars.

Architectural delights aside, there is some magnificent street art if you look hard enough. The area around Zeleni Venac market is a hive of activity and an interesting place to explore. Lots of cheap snacks and street venders selling anything from books to football t-shirts and some t shirts with the face of Vladimir Putin on them.

Below I am sharing my photographs accumulated from my wonderings around this fascinating part of Belgrade

 

 

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Text and photography by Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

 

 

Munching Your Way Through Belgrade

Belgrade is a fantastic and great value city to eat your way around and a fabulous food destination in its own right. It is a cosmopolitan city and you can find good international food outlets in addition to more traditional places. Anyone’s who’s travelled across Serbia may be familiar with the countries pekaras, which are traditional bakeries often open 24/7. At these eateries you can pick up a late night sandwich or pastry for only a few coins. Often the ladies who work at these places are delightful and very patient with my bad to non existent Serbian. In fact, quite a few of them speak very good English.

In Belgrade, like the rest of Serbia and most of former Yugoslavia, there are plenty of places selling traditional foods such as Cevapi (Balken sausages), Bureks (Balken pies) and pljeskavicas (hamburgers done the Serbian way) etc. I had my first taste of a burek at some hole in the wall place by Dolac market in Zagreb and I was dying for a bowl of vegetables and water after just a few morsels. My mouth was a cave of low-grade grease. A pljeskavica, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing. I don’t think I’ve ever, in all my time in Serbia, had a substandard pljeskavica.

 

The Best Cevapi in Belgrade: Drama Cevapi

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Cevapi places, or Cevaperias as I like to call them with a Latino tinge, are ten a penny around most of former Yugoslavia. Yet I’ve never tasted Cevapi as divine as the ones I was served here at Drama Cevapi. They are so tender and almost melt in your mouth. For less than $3 you get a metal plate with five Cevapi topped with a handful of chopped onion accompanied with shredded cabbage, a dollop of clotted cream and chilli sauce and some bread. There are other items on the menu but this is the signature dish and what this place does best

 

Pljeskavicas in Belgrade

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It’s hard to pick one place in Belgrade as there are a few places which all do equally good pljeskavicas. Depending on where you are based in the city there are three places which do mean pljeskavicas and they are all open til late so perfect and very convenient after a night out thrashing the rakija and Jelen. I have to admit I probably had the best pljeskavica when I was in Novi Sad, but I was so smashed I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the place. If you are in the centre of the city, at the corner of Kolarčeva and Makedonska, is the eatery chain Gyros In City. They do very filling pljeskavicas as well as excellent and cheap Greek style kebabs. I also love the people that work there; jokers of the highest order who always brighten up my day.

Nearby on Maršala Birjuzova is Mikan Restaurant, which serves local food. Adjacent to the main restaurant they have a smaller eatery where you can get Cevapis, pljeskavicas, hamburgers, hotdogs etc. I was served a very generous pljeskavica here by an old lady who spoke no English for 200 Diners. The board menu was all in Cyrillic, which I can read, even if I speak almost no Serbian. A wee tip; if you ever go to Russia (or any country which uses the Cyrillic alphabet), your life will be far less painful if you can decode Cyrillic. Doesn’t matter if you speak little to no Russian. If you can’t decipher Cyrillic you may as well be gallivanting on the moon.

Finally in the Dorćol neighbourhood on Gospodar Jovanova is the small eatery Loki. They are the pljeskavicas specialists and they don’t mess about. There are many cool bars in this neighbourhood and this is a great place to go for a late night pljeskavica.

 

The Bakeries That Never Sleep

Serbia is famous for its 24/7 bakeries. In almost all cities in Serbia you will stumble upon a bakery or pekara, which never closes. Super convenience aside, some serve serve a dazzling range of treats and are very inexpensive. I have two favourite pekaras in Belgrade. The first one is called Skroz Dobra Pekara and located right next to the king of pljeskavicas, Loki, in the Dorćol neighbourhood. You can find filling sandwiches for less than 200 Diners and strudels, pies, cakes and other assorted pastries for less than 100 Diners. What’s more, the ladies who work here are super nice.

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In the centre of town and right by the queen of pljeskavicas, Gyros In City, is another outstanding 24/7 bakery called Pekara Tomo. It is almost identical to Skroz and equally excellent and well stocked with cheap sandwiches and pastries as well as a small side pizza parlour.

 

Znak Pitanja (also called ‘ ? ‘)

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If you ever fancy having a proper slap up traditional Balkan meal with all the trimmings Znak Pitanja is a top notch choice. This restaurant also has the unique distinction of being the oldest tavern or kafana in the city at over 200 years old. I chose the 1kg pork knuckle. It arrived on a large glass tray accompanied with an ample supply of baked potatoes and a side of homemade horseradish sauce. I am not kidding, when the thing arrived it was enough to feed the entire population of Novi Sad. It was perfectly good no nonsense Balkan food.

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I hear they also have traditional live music here so may be worth reserving a table here for a Balkan feast with plenty of pivo and rakija when there is. I think great fun can be had.

 

Vegetarians and vegans in Belgrade: Radost Fina Kuhinjica

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I feel your pain. With the mammoth non stop cevapi/pljeskavica meat feast assault, travelling in Serbia can be a veritable drag. But once in the capital things brighten pretty quickly. I know there are a few veg establishments in the city and that will only grow as more and more people become vegetarian or vegan. In fact in both the cities of Belgrade and Novi Sad you will notice quite a number of ‘Go Vegan’ slogans graffitied throughout both cities. If this keeps up maybe I’ll be eating vegan cevapis and pljeskavicas when I return in five years or so.

I can’t just live on cevapis and pljeskavicas for the rest of my life. Even the most rampant of carnivores need something green from time to time. I read glowing things about a veg restaurant called Radost Fina Kuhinjica so one day I decided to investigate. Aesthetically this restaurant gets full marks. It’s a stylish and trendy place and all the menu booklets are enclosed in old hardback books. There is a backyard area where you can eat. When it’s dark all the tables have lit candles in old school metal candle holders. Instead of local music, I detect The Smiths, Coldplay, Lana Del Ray and The Strokes on the sound system.

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I order the veg burger consisting of tofu and red kidney beans. For the price I was expecting one large juicy veg burger. Instead I got two miniature burgers accompanied with a salad. All the ingredients were no doubt fresh and organic and the salad was perfectly good yet I was a little disappointed with the burgers. They were too plain. There was not enough zing or omph. This is not a bad restaurant and is certainly a cut above many ‘hipster cool’ vegan eateries which are a triumph of style over substance. Perhaps the veg burgers are not where it’s at? Maybe if I had the veg lasagna I would be raving about the place. Either way, as I mentioned before, with the passing of time, the veg scene here in Belgrade will only grow and maybe when I return a few years from now I may find a dazzling of choice of new and great no nonsense veg eateries.

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

Photographs From Novi Sad

Arriving in the city of Novi Sad was my first taste of Serbia; a country I’ve always wanted to visit. After four days in this city, it certainly has not disappointed. In fact I had a real blast. Serbia’s second biggest city, after the capital Belgrade, has been a joy to explore and get to know. The attractive city centre around the main square is full of handsome buildings dating back to the time of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. There are lots of cafes to have a cheap cappuccino or bottle of Jelen beer along with a slice of Sachertorte or a couple of scoops of delicious ice cream. And all for just a few coins. Paris also has nice cafes and are great way to pass the day…..if you have deep pockets.

There are a plethora of sites to see in Novi Sad, but I recommend simply walking around this city. One great walk you can do is to walk towards the main bridge over the Danube river and on to the old Petrovaradin fortress. On sunny Summer days you will see locals bathing on the banks of the river. Once over on the other side, you are in the old part of town full of old buildings; many of them in splendid dilapidation. I seldom go to the gym but the walk up to the fortress more than compensated for that! When you’ve reached the top, you are rewarded with an amazing vista of the city and the Danube. There are also a couple of bars at the summit.

There is a small but interesting space which holds temporary art exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Novi Sad, which is part of the larger Museum of Vojvodina on Dunavska street. When I visited, there was an interesting exhibition by a Serbian artist called Igor Bosnjak entitled Projekat EUtopija. Next to the space there is a small display about the history of the Vojvodina region (of which Novi Sad is the capital) from before the start of the First World War until the end of the Second World War. It providing a very interesting understanding regarding what sowed the seeds for the First World War and the conflicts between the Austrian-Hungarian empire and Serbia. Directly opposite the museum is Dunavski park, which is a lovely spot to relax and have a walk. Look out for the statue of the Serbian poet and painter Djura Jaksic. He is sitting down and wearing a hat, looking uncannily like Don Quixote.

In the evening head to Cafe Veliki (one of the best and most authentic restaurants in the city) and order the Goulash. You won’t regret it! In the evening there are lots of bars to choose from. I had the good fortune to meet an interesting Anglo-Serbian guy from Manchester and a friend of his who took me on a tour of the city. We wound up the day in some bar, which I can’t recall the name of, where we had a few Jelens and some rakija. Rakija is a fruit brandy popular throughout south eastern Europe and comes in different flavours. At the end of night we went to a snack place for a pljeskavica; one of the national dishes of Serbia. You gotta have a pljeskavica if you ever come to Serbia! And it is perfect post-drinking food. There are also a smattering of bakeries open 24/7 where you can pick up a cherry strudel whenever you are feeling peckish.

There are many places to stay in Novi Sad. I stayed at the Hostel Podbara located outside of the city centre, but only a 10-15 minute walk away. It is a very tranquil and quiet place and almost feels like you are in the middle of the countryside. What’s more, the rooms are very comfortable and it’s incredibly good value for money; especially if you are on a budget. And the family who run the hostel are very kind and welcoming.

So, walk around and get stuck in! Don’t feel like you have to “do” Novi Sad. Grab a cafe and some cake. Have a Jelen and a pjeskavica. And just have fun!

Živeli!!!

 

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Novi Sad’s main square Trg Slobode

 

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By the main city centre church 

 

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Statue of the Serbian poet and physicist Jovan Jovanović Zmaj (1833-1904)

 

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Old town of Novi Sad

 

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Old town of Novi Sad

 

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Petrovaradin Fortress

 

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View of the old town from the fortress 

 

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The river Danube

 

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Novi Sad train and bus station

 

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Outside Novi Sad train and bus station 

 

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Street art in Novi Sad

 

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Street art in Novi Sad

 

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Goulash at Cafe Veliki

 

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Projekat EUtopija exhibition by Serbian artist Igor Bosnjak at the Museum Of Contemporary Art 

 

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Outside the Museum Of Contemporary Art

 

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In Dunavski park posing by a statue of the Serbian poet and painter Djura Jakšić

 

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Jelen beer and rakija on a night out

 

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A pljeskavica

 

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Novi Sad Synagogue

 

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Novi Sad in the early evening

 

 

Photographs and text by Nicholas Peart

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