Niš & Belgrade, Serbia
As soon as we entered Serbia the never-ending mountains of Montenegro quickly diminished into hills and the roads became more driveable. Three and a half hours later we reached Studenica Monastery, another Serbian Orthodox complex. High walls blocked out the traffic noise, making the place feel peaceful and secluded. It looked more residential than other monasteries we had visited, and far less touristy. There was a chapel in the centre, where the customary rituals were being performed by devout visitors, but otherwise there wasn't a great deal to see.
Niš was another three hours away. The landscape became relatively flat and we passed fields full of corn, shining gold as the sun set. Being a Sunday tomorrow we were allowed to park in the city for free after dark, so we pulled up close to the centre and jumped out to explore the town.
With no food on us and knowing supermarkets wouldn't be open tomorrow, we headed into Niš to find something to eat. Inside the fortress (the main sight in the town) we found a restaurant called Hamam, which was (as the name suggests) set inside a converted Turkish bath. We sat outside because it wasn't scorchingly hot, like it had been the last few weeks. This is definitely weather I could get used to. During the meal there was a quartet playing Serbian music right next to our table – it was almost like we were being personally serenaded. Danny ordered a mixed cold entrée platter, which turned out to be enormous - it could have fed four people. There were four types of cured meat, 10 large pieces of cheese, bread and a selection of veggies. We were only a quarter of the way through it when our mains arrived. After devouring our steaks we grazed a little on the platter again, but it was too much for us. It's not often we leave food on our plates.
Feeling extremely bloated after dinner we took a stroll around the fortress and main square, but we couldn't see a lot at night. When we arrived back at the van we discovered that we had parked in the middle of a live music gig/nightclub. Not ideal. We immediately moved a few streets down, where we could still hear the music but it was nowhere near as deafening, and we could actually fall asleep.
The next morning we wandered the fortress during daylight, but there weren't many sights to see. An ancient amphitheatre had been revamped, which could have been a highlight if not for the bright blue plastic chairs making up the seating section. Most of the fortress was parkland, which was lovely but not something we go out of our way for. Outside the fortress we saw Sunday markets lined up along the street, and Danny couldn't wait to get down there. We bypassed the lines of stalls selling clothing/accessories and ended up in a massive food section. As we had no food in the van this was a great opportunity to stock up. It was unbelievably cheap – in total we only spent a couple of dollars and came away with a truckload of fruit and veggies. One man even gave us a bag of mini capsicums for free. We'll be eating healthy for days.
Next we headed to the centre square and along the pedestrian street, which didn't offer us anything except cafes. Bored by this area we returned to the van and drove to the other side of town, where we visited the Tower of Skulls. The Tower was built by the Ottomans in the 1800s, and displays the skulls of Serbians they killed to scare off the opposition. It once contained almost 1,000 skulls but now less than 60 remain, the rest having been stolen. The indents where the skulls were once located were prominent, a ghastly reminder of how savage human beings can be. We received a free information session on the history of the Turkish-Serbian conflict and the story of the Tower, which was a harrowing bonus.
Once we had finished with Niš we headed for Belgrade, following directions to a campsite we found online. As soon as we arrived we saw a wedding party right in the middle of the grounds - was it some sort of weird, Serbian tradition to have wedding photos inside a campsite? A local man saw us looking confused and approached us, explaining that the campsite had closed but there was another one half an hour away. Luckily for us it was open, as it was the only one in the city. The map showed that it was located right on the Danube, but there was no access to the water and trees blocked the majority of the view. Once again there was no washing machine, so the afternoon was spent washing clothes by hand. The campsite did have internet though, which was one step up from several of the previous caravan parks we had stayed at.
We caught an old, hot bus into town and were dropped off somewhere in the middle. We didn't know where exactly, so we ended up following the masses and fortunately landed in front of the tourist office. There was quite a change in scenery from the bus stop to the city centre – it started drab, grey, run-down, and turned into streets full of colour, with trees, cafes and well-maintained buildings. It was like walking through two different cities.
With map in hand we started our tour of Belgrade. We walked down the beautiful pedestrian street, admiring the various architectural styles, and slowly made our way to the fortress. This fortress was similar to the one in Niš – mostly green open spaces in the middle with lookouts over the city from around the edges, but it was larger and slightly maze-like at times. It also offered better views, extending out over the famed Danube River.
After the fortress we passed by a few churches, a lame excuse for a mansion, and then headed over to the “alternative” area. It was situated mostly on one street, lined with leafy cafes containing trees growing right through the decking. The last half of the street was full of colourfully painted townhouses, depicting scenes of further townhouses. It was far more attractive than the concrete slab-look that many of the buildings possessed.
Back in the non-alternative area we ventured right down to the bottom of the city to St Sava, the world's largest Orthodox Cathedral (or so it claimed). On the outside it looked spectacular, but the inside was one big construction site. We weren't sure if it had never been finished or if they were remodelling the entire space, but it wasn't somewhere to hang around for long. A small section was devoted to religious paintings, temporarily resting on seats. One lap around the exterior was all we needed to explore the church.
We jumped on the bus back to the campsite, but the bus was so crowded that we couldn't see out of the windows and we missed our bus stop. This resulted in a 15 minute walk back to our stop and then another 10 minutes to the campsite. We didn't really need more exercise on top of all the walking we had achieved by around the city. To end the night on a high Danny made Thai chicken curry for dinner, which paired nicely our gin and tonics. We discovered that from the back of the caravan park we could see the lights of the city at night, although they were too distant to make out any detail.
The following day we strolled through New Belgrade, across the Danube from Old Belgrade. I don't know how “new” it was, but I would say '"not very". We ambled along the Danube for a while, but it looked a little empty here and not at all photogenic. The only highlight appeared to be the fantastic views over city and a more picturesque section of the Danube in the distance. There were some decent buildings around, but overall New Belgrade wasn't exactly a must-see.