Wild adventures in Serbia


Rob McGovern discovers beautiful countryside, a bacchanalic wine festival and delightful people on a trip to Serbia

The average annual rainfall in western Serbia’s mountainous Zlatibor region is between 700 and 1,000mm a year, and most of it seems to be falling the afternoon we drive down from the capital Belgrade to Užice.

The windscreen wipers of our little hire car are struggling to keep up, managing only to increase visibility from nothing to the end of the bonnet every three seconds. The road is carved into the side of a mountain and on a normal day ought to be a wonderfully scenic drive. Now, however, the deluge has turned it into a sort of slip ‘n’ slide corridor of death, made worse by fearless lorry drivers bowling down the road with reckless abandon. 

Suddenly, a large rock loams in the not-so-sweet spot of the narrow two-lane road, appearing and disappearing every few seconds as the rain continues to pour. Slamming the brakes could be suicide, so we try to navigate around it, but all we manage to do is position the boulder straight into the driver-side tyre.

Hazard lights on, we ‘pull in’ to the cliff face. As we stand holding a lug wrench, a car stops ahead of us. A man jumps out, takes the wrench and instructs us to get the little warning triangle from the boot of the car. He changes the wheel in minutes and, as he hands the wrench back, says: “I am Zoltan, from Užice.” He shakes our hand and strides back to his car. Our yells of appreciation disappear in to the rain in the manner of a weak-kneed damsel thanking Superman as he flies off. 

This takes place some 35km from our destination, Viljamovka campground (Kremna Village, Mokra Gora, 31242 Kremna, +381 63 8429 808; viljamovka.weebly.com), and thankfully the weather has cleared up dramatically by the time we arrive. The small campground has a recently renovated chalet and room for 15 tents, five of them able to accommodate campers and trailers. It is also home to a small pear orchard that owner Ljubisa Carevic uses to make his version of rakia, the very potent Balkan fruit brandy. He gives us the hard sell, but he is also charming, so not buying a bottle seems a bit mean.

Views from Kremna, towards the northwest, are of the gently sloping foothills of the Tara National Park and Mount Tara, which lies in a bend in the Drina River. Legend has it that Slavic god Tar chose the mountain as his home because of the immense natural beauty of the region, and who are we to argue with a deity?

Rising early to get a head start, Carevic appears with an offer of breakfast. For around $25 we are presented with shepherd’s lepinja, a seemingly simple combination of scrambled eggs, gravy and kaymak (a soft cheese or slightly aged salted clotted cream) served in a hollowed out bread roll. The result is significantly more than the sum of its parts.

Gleefully full from breakfast, we drive to the nearby village of Küstendorf (31243 Mokra Gora, +381 31 3152021; mecavnik.info), also known as Drvengrad. Meaning ‘wooden village’, the enclave was constructed by Serbian director and double Palme d’Or winner Emir Kusturica as the set for his 2004 film Life is a Miracle. Today it’s used for seminars to help budding artists learn how to make films, concerts, ceramics and painting. “It’s the place where I will live and where some people will be able to come from time to time,” says Kusturica. The village is also host to the annual Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival (kustendorf-filmandmusicfestival.org) held every January. We have coffee at the quaint village coffee shop and walk around what, unsurprisingly, feels like a film set. 

Leaving Küstendorf, we head west into Bosnia and turn south towards Montenegro, driving alongside the Drina until its source. Crossing our second border, we continue along the Balkan Riviera and around the bay of Kotor and eventually make it to the coastal town of Budva, where we spend the night. 

Though the countryside is beautiful, Budva, notable for its medieval history and well-preserved old town, is somewhat forgettable. After an average night’s sleep we happily start the six-hour drive back to Serbia and the Župa wine region.

With a viticulture history that dates back around 3,000 years, the Župa wine region has a past longer than that of Serbia itself. It may boast a Bordeaux-like climate, but historic instability and the more recent rise and fall of communism haven’t provided ideal conditions conducive to development. They are, however, making up for lost time. Nikolić Vineyards (Vinogradi Nikolić, Vitkovo 169, Aleksandrovac; vinogradinikolic.rs) is a winery and vineyard a few miles outside Aleksandrovac, the heart of the Župa region. It offers not only wine and accommodation, but also a full range of experiences including lavish Serbian meals.

There are two apartments and a two-bedroom house available at Nikolić Vineyards. Decked out with exposed wooden beams, wooden floors and ornate furniture, the view from the balcony of our apartment is beautifully pastoral. Bottles of wine are scattered around the main room and we are invited to drink as many of them as we like. As we sit on the balcony, admiring the sun as it sets over the vines, the two family spaniels writhe around and playfully hump one another.

Aleksandrovac is home to the Župska Berba harvest festival every September (zupskaberba.rs). This is the oldest wine festival in the country and showcases the region’s best wines through competitions. A highlight, as we discover, is that for the duration of the festivities the town offers free libations – often from the local red grape, Prokupac – to festivalgoers, courtesy of a hedonistic fountain of wine. 

There are several other wineries in the area, as well as others spread around the country. Handily, the National Tourism Organisation of Serbia has a simple but effective map of the eight wine regions and routes to follow (visit serbia.travel to download it). 

Given its war-torn past, Serbia may not be first on your travel list, but if, like us, you’re adventurous with your wines and destinations, it’s recommended for anyone wishing to discover a beautiful part of the world that feels untouched by foreign tourism. 

How to get there
Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) fly from Hong Kong to Belgrade via Istanbul from $7,256 (inc tax) per person. There is a full range of international car hire firms at Belgrade Nikola Tesla airport. Alternatively, buses or taxis can take you to the city centre for other transfers. 

Where to stay
Although camping is a wonderful way to see the Serbian countryside, there are inns and guesthouses all over. Rates vary, but are usually very reasonable. A tent pitch at Viljamovka campground is $132 per night; the chalet is $197 per night, including half board (camping.rs).

Accommodation is also available at Küstendorf ($600 half board for two people; mecavnik@bestsolutions.rs) as well as Nikolić Vineyards ($465 half board for two; vinogradinikolic.rs).


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