As our bus crossed the border from Bulgaria and ploughed onwards through Serbia, I fell in love with the country a little more with each passing mile. I watched stout old ladies in their headscarves and voluminous gathered skirts picking fruit from trees in their gardens, elderly men enjoying a glass of home made rakija while sitting on the steps of an almost tumbledown cottage, a hawk hovering over a field of gently swaying corn; for mile after mile, Serbia unraveled itself in a series of picture postcard images.
This was the countryside, though, and we were heading for the city of Niš (pronounced Neesh), Serbia’s third largest. It’s situated in the south east of the country, a two to three hour drive from the Bulgarian capital, Sofia (though this can vary depending on the length of queues at the border. Unless you’re traveling through this part of the country, perhaps on to Macedonia or Bulgaria (or even beyond as Niš is on the road to Istanbul), you might easily overlook Niš and spend time instead in the two other large cities which are more firmly on the tourist map.
It would be a shame, though, because Niš is an interesting place with much to offer visitors both within the city and in its environs. Although we spent only a day and a half in Niš, we managed to get a taste of the city and have it marked as one to come back to in the future. On first sight the city may look a little grim – tower blocks and concrete are the main visual theme – but if you dig a little deeper you’ll find plenty of history, some handsome architecture (and some Communist era classics) and plenty of culture. There are several important events in Nis’s cultural calendar but whenever you visit, there is enough to occupy at least a couple of days. What's more, Niš is pretty cheap with museum entrance rarely going much over a pound or two and a decent meal with wine coming in at around £7.00 a head.
The river Nišava cuts through the city but doesn’t make that much of an impression. The bridges that cross the river aren’t at all grand and walking along the riverbanks is not much of an appealing prospect. North of the river is the large fortress which is the highlight of Niš; the fortress that visitors see now dates from the eighteenth century but earlier civilisations had built fortifications on the same site. The main entrance is the imposing Istanbul gate and just inside is the old hammam (Turkish bath house) which is now restored as a restaurant. Within the walls there is an old mosque – now an art gallery – and an amphitheatre where a variety of concerts are held. Among a number of notable events held annually, visitors flock to Niš for Nišville - an international jazz festival – and Nišomnia – a rock/indie/dance festival, not on the scale of Novi Sad’s Exit Festival but still a popular draw.
The heart of Niš is Podeba, a pedestrianised shopping street with a line of pavement cafes running down the middle. There are a number of international chains and up market stores on the street but you get the feeling that few of Niš’s citizens spend their money here, preferring instead to window shop and have a soft drink or a coffee. There’s very much a café culture but not really the money to sustain it so cafes appear to have little problem with customers who order one small drink and sit for an hour with an empty cup. At first glance it may look as if people have money to spend but if you spend a while in the same place you will see that a single drink is made to last a long time. You will also see people carrying shopping bags from designer boutiques, reinforcing the impression that there is money to spare, but if you look closely, you’ll see that the bags are old and slightly tatty, having been used countless times since the one frivolous luxury splurge.
Historically Niš is an industrial city though much of that industry is long since gone. On the outskirts of the centre there are lots of scrap-yards where rubbish is sorted into piles for the day when – hopefully – the money will return to recycling and the rubbish can be sold on. There are large numbers of Roma in Niš and you often see young men using horses and sometimes pedal bikes with trailers to haul rusty metal around the city. In spite of its industrial heritage, Nis has not lost its ties with the countryside – as, indeed, is the case across Serbia – and everyone seems to understand and appreciate the seasons and the land. One place to get a good feel for this is the central market which is north of the river, beside the fortress. The market takes place daily – even on Sundays – starting early and going on until early evening.
A ten minute walk from the market is a former Nazi concentration camp now open as a museum. It’s a small site with only one building now open to the public; the old kitchen and officers’ quarters are now offices. As I intend to review it separately I’ll be brief here and say it’s worth a quick visit if you happen to be in this part of town.
Another chilling tourist "attraction" is the Skull Tower; it’s situated a couple of kilometres from the main square and a bus stops opposite it. The tower was built in the early part of the nineteenth century as warning to invading Turks; again, I'll be reviewing this attraction separately.
Perhaps the most important historical site is Mediana a place where the Romans built an imperial palace in the 4th century. It’s on the same road as the skull tower, but another couple of kilometres further out of town. There you can see the excavated remains some eighty buildings including some spectacular mosaics.
The architecture of the city centre is a mix of crumbling concrete monsters, a handful of wonderful Soviet style classics and a few elegant nineteenth century buildings nestling between them. There are a couple of vast squares containing decrepit modern fountains filled with litter and one or two statues of Serbian national heroes. Even in showpiece squares the pavements are in poor repair. My favourite of the squares was trg Kralja Milana where you’ll find the towering Hotel Ambassador which looks in danger of collapse at any moment; having used its toilets on the ground floor I’d suggest that might not be such a bad thing.
Outside the city perched on up on Bubanj hill is a striking monument to the ten thousand Serbians executed here by the Nazis during the Second World War; three fists make a defiant statement. You can take a bus that passes close to the bottom of the hill and then make the fifteen minute climb on foot. There is plenty of good walking outside the city centre and the hills are not too demanding. If you want a bit more relaxation you could travel the 12 kilometres or so to Niška Banja, small spa town which is reasonably well developed in tourism terms.
Niš now has more accommodation than at the time our Bradt Guide was published; only one hostel was listed and we didn’t bother to do further research before booking online directly with Hostel Niš. It was a fair enough place but others have opened since the book was published and some sounded rather good in comparison. Although there are some quite new shiny looking hotels in the centre of Nis, I suspect they might not be as great as they look; customer service in Serbia still has some way to come and you are more likely to get good service from everyday people or those working in small enterprises than in larger establishments.
We had a really enjoyable couple of days in Niš and will definitely back at some point to visit Mediana and to take in some of the museums we didn’t get round to this time. I’m also keen to spend a day at Niška Banja and in the Niska valley. In spite of the interesting things to see in and around the city, Nis isn’t yet overtly touristic and would be better suited to more adventurous travelers.
I was really pleased with my first taste of Serbia; Niš is fun, laid back and, in spite of looking somewhat forbidding at first, colourful and characterful. I found most people friendly and helpful and in spite of obvious hardship, people seem to be making the best of things. I would recommend Niš as an excellent stop off between Istanbul or Sofia and Belgrade for backpackers, and as an interesting two night trip from Belgrade if you have time.