This astonishingly inexpensive country is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. But get in quick: the genre-jumping Exit Festival – annexing a medieval fortress in Novi Sad each July since it began as an anti-Milošević protest – was awarded the Best Major European Festival title. Belgrade is being mentioned in the same panting breaths as Berlin and Ibiza. And Serbia’s killer skiing, spa-hopping and Drina River rafting are luring thrillseekers away from pricey playgrounds in ‘the other Europe’.
Balkan backpacker buses bypass it in favour of ‘easier’ neighbours like Croatia and Bulgaria. The loss of erstwhile nation-partner Montenegro means it has no coastline. People regularly confuse it with Siberia.
It’s the birthplace of modern tennis legends, but nobody can pronounce their names. And then there’s the small matter of Serbia being a former international pariah. But for partying, passion and personality, this small – and for now, astonishingly inexpensive – country is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.
You’ll have to get in quick, though: Serbia is already making headlines for all the right reasons. The genre-jumping Exit Festival – annexing a medieval fortress in Novi Sad each July since it began 15 years ago as an anti–Slobodan Milošević protest in 2000 – was recently awarded the Best Major European Festival title; Belgrade, with its hedonistic floating nightclubs, is being mentioned in the same panting breaths as Berlin and Ibiza; and Serbia’s al fresco amusements – killer skiing in Kopaonik, spa-hopping in Vrnjačka Banja, rafting the Drina River, all of them cheap, cheap, cheap – are luring thrillseekers away from pricey, played-out playgrounds in ‘the other Europe’.
One secret that hasn’t yet been spilled? The Serbs themselves. While famous natives – think Palme d’Or–winning director Emir Kusturica, controversial performance artist Marina Abramović and a certain Novak Djoković – steal the spotlight, it’s the everyday Serbs that may prove to be the country’s greatest drawcard. Forthright, fun-loving and all too ready to welcome visitors with a hearty backslap and a glass of rakija (fiery local moonshine), they’re more than the stereotypical scoundrels Hollywood would have us believe.
But in 2015 Serbia is edging towards EU ascension, meaning big changes – and big crowds – are coming. Go. Now. Before the rakija runs out.
Listen out for the loudest place on the street, any street, anywhere. Go inside. This is kafana, somewhat akin to a pub or taverna, but with more shouting and smoke. You’ll see Serbs engaging in their national pastime (arguing), mayhap a smashed bottle or two (don’t fret: this is merely punctuation) and if you’re lucky, be serenaded by a ramshackle trubači (trumpet) band who will mistake your eardrum for a microphone. Don’t walk past: kafana IS Serbia.
Head to the hills for a (literally) dyed-in-the-wool village experience. Mokra Gora is a sleepy, sheepy hamlet in Serbia’s west, but there’s more to do here than chew your cud: ride the Šargan 8 steam train through precarious, preternatural mountain passes; explore Drvengrad, the whimsical village-within-a-village built by director Emir Kusturica for indie classic Life is a Miracle; and try to walk without wobbling after a rakija and roštilj (barbecue) session with obliging locals.
Go boho in Belgrade’s own mini-Montmartre. The quaint, cobblestoned streets of Skadarlija are lined with raucous inns, offbeat galleries and meandering musicians redolent of the quarter’s heyday as a haven for artistes, gypsies and oldetimey hipsters.
Serbia isn’t the quietest place on the planet, but you can find a bit of shush in any of the country’s medieval monasteries. Fruška Gora is home to the highest concentration of the Orthodox cloisters, 16 of them all tucked up tight in a 50km-long stretch of sylvan hills and ancient vineyards.
Depleted after the August debauch? Head south to Leskovac for September’s Roštiljijada (barbecue festival) and chow your way through this year’s attempts at the world’s biggest pljeskavica (Serbian hamburger): a previous entry weighed in at 51kg.
Most bizarre sight
Đavolja Varoš (Devil’s Town) is a trippy cluster of 202 natural stone pyramids looming eerily over bright red, highly acidic mineral streams. According to local whispers, the towers – which teeter between 2m and 15m in height and are topped with creepy volcanic ‘heads’ – were formed after guests at an incestuous wedding were petrified by an offended god.