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Culture and Cuisine in Serbia

[Nis & Pirot, Serbia, Sept 19, 2018]

I’ve been adding side trips to my Bulgaria visits since 2014. Since then. I’ve visited London, Hamburg, Berlin, and Greece on the heels of a trip home. This year, I wanted something super close that we could do as a day trip, and the city of Nis in our western neighbor Serbia fit the bill.


Serbia is not in the European Union but luckily, I didn’t need a passport to cross into it. Due to a bilateral agreement with our neighbor, we only need our state-issues ID cards to cross. We had to exchange Bulgarian levs into Serbian dinars, and I was surprised and delighted to see a woman on one of their bills.

The Serbian border is only about an hour from Sofia, and the crossing was pretty smooth. There is a highway connecting the border with Nis, and the only place we didn’t have two lanes each way was in the Sicevo gorge. The gorge is carved by the river Nisava, for which the city of Nis, located on its banks, is actually named. Near Nis, a sign on the side of the road proclaimed that Nis is the birthplace of Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor who ruled between 306 and 337 AD. He was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity and during his time, Christianity became tolerated in the Roman Empire – Christians were generally persecuted before. Nis is the third largest city in Serbia after the capital Belgrade and Novi Sad. Its population is about 180,000.

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Once in Nis, we stopped at a gas station to the Nis fortress, one of several major attractions in the city. Google maps was giving us crazy directions, so we thought we’d get help. However, the attendant at the gas station had a hard time understanding what we were looking for, which surprised me. But he eventually figured out what we were looking for and gave us directions. We found parking close to the fortress and walked over.

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Once we got there, I started to understand why this fortress was not on any of the signs of tourist attractions in the area and the gas station attendant didn’t know what we were talking about. The Nis fortress is free to enter, there is a city park inside, there are several bars just inside the gate, signage is minimal, there is no map or brochure about it – in other words, the fortress is not treated as the kind of tourist attraction we were expecting. There was a little kids’ trolley that took people around the fortress, so we hopped on it to take a look at the whole thing. It definitely could benefit from a little tender love and care – more signage and care for the plants and grass inside, among other things. When we returned, we left dad at one of the bars inside the fortress, and mom and I walked around a bit.

Views of Nis from the fortress. This area has been inhabited for several millennia

The current fortification dates from the early 18th century, when the area was still under Turkish rule. It was erected on the site of previous fortifications. The fortress has a polygonal floor plan with eight bastion terraces and four massive gates. The fortress is pretty big and was surrounded by a moat, part of which survives to this day.

Do you see the graffiti in the photos above? I just wrote a whole post about graffiti in Sofia, but clearly they don’t belong on this fortress. Unfortunately, this is one of the unintended results of free and open entry to the fortress.

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This monument inside the fortress, in the shape of a rifle bullet, celebrates the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Nis from the Turks in 1902

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After spending about an hour here, we were ready to go to the next attraction – Skull Tower. We had seen signs for it along the way, so I was sure it would be easy to find.

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The tower dates from the early 19th century, when the Serbs, like many other people in the Balkans, were starting to become more active in their resistance against the Turks and were fighting for their independence. In 1809, during the First Serbian Uprising, a major battle in Cegar near Nis claimed the lives of 4,000 Serbians and 10,000 Turks. The Serbian leader, knowing that he would be captured, chose to detonate a powder magazine, killing himself, his fellow rebels and lots of Turks. In order to scare the Serbs into submission, the Turkish leader Hurshid Pasha ordered a creation of a skull tower on the outskirts of Nis, on the road towards Tsarigrad (today’s Istanbul). The tower is 4.5 m (15 ft) high and originally contained 952 skulls embedded on four sides in 14 rows. Only 57 skulls remain today, but the tower is not any less creepy. I haven’t seen anything like this before; it was pretty eerie to imagine this tower “greeting” visitors to Nis and reminding everyone of the great loss of life in the Battle of Cegar.

The Serbs gained their independence from Turkey in 1878, the same year we did. The tower stood in the open until 1892, when a chapel was built around it. There was a little old Serbian lady checking tickets and acting as a tour guide of sorts at the chapel entrance. There was a couple already there, and when mom and I arrived, she told us the story of the skull tower. She spoke in Serbian but our languages are so close that we could easily get the gist of the story.

There was also a monument for the Serb leader, Stevan Sindelic, added in 1938.

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After this, we headed back to Sofia, but we needed to grab lunch on the way. We stopped in the small town of Pirot since my dad heard from a friend about a really good restaurant there. Before I tell you about it, I have to explain that the Balkan version of BBQ is a huge deal here. Each Balkan nation has its own set of traditional BBQ. Ours is called skara and its most popular items are kufte and kebapche, both made of spicy ground meat. The Serbs are well known for superb skara, and my dad was excited to try it at the restaurant his friend had recommended, called Ladna Voda (literally means Cool Water).

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The sign for Ladna Voda. If you travel in the Balkans, I’d recommend you familiarize yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet, since most signs lack their Latin alphabet equivalent.

The restaurant was tucked away from the street in a little courtyard that also featured an ethno-museum. It was the cutest little place with outdoor seating only.

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Once again, the proximity in our languages came handy. We weren’t sure which of the Serbian grill items to order and our waiter, picking up on this, offered to bring us a selection. This is what arrived not too long after, together with a home-made bread. There were two different kinds of ground meat and two different kinds of sausages. Everything was super delicious and we washed it down with some Serbian beer (well, just a taste of beer for me since I was driving dad’s car). My dad, ever the skeptic, has now been converted to a complete Serbian grill fan, and will be coming back here again.

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Although we got off to a little bit of a rocky start in Nis, I’d say our day trip was a resounding success. All you need is Serbian grill. 🙂

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