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City has rich cultural history

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: October 13, 2012

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SERBIA is a country keen to welcome more people in — and once the word gets out about this fantastic destination they will get the opportunity.

Everywhere I went during my visit to the Balkan country, whether in the capital, Belgrade, or deeper into the countryside there was a warm welcome and locals keen to show off their wonderful country.

A four-day visit started in Belgrade with a bus tour which gave a hint at the rich history of the city — standing, as our guide told us at the crossroads of the world, on the edge of Europe and Asia.

My visit began and ended with a night in the Hotel Crystal in central Belgrade — a modern hotel within easy reach of bars and restaurants in the city. My room had a view of the Cathedral of Saint Sava — one of the largest orthodox cathedrals in the world which is still under construction, being paid for entirely by donations. The room was spacious and clean, and staff were, (with hindsight, unsurprisingly) very friendly.

Even Belgrade's biggest fans wouldn't claim it is the most handsome city in the world — which may be something to do with it having been sacked and rebuilt 40 times in its turbulent history — but it is fun to explore whether you are looking for the amazing site of a huge fortress standing above the Danube or a fantastic value meal at one of the busy restaurants in the Bohemian Quarter. One thing that is certain is that in every bar, restaurant and club there is a warm welcome, chatty staff and locals, people having fun and everything at a more than reasonable price.

Quite surprisingly more than a decade after the war, there is still evidence of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Milosevic's Serbia. A number of buildings still lie in ruins, seemingly untouched since the air strikes. It seems strange to see an otherwise modern city, full of people keen to move on from the past, with visible scars of the bombing still so clearly on display.

When the sun goes down Belgrade becomes a party town — the nightlife is great, and at around £2 for a glass of beer it won't break the bank. A fantastic meal accompanied by a few glasses of the local spirit rakia at Rakia Bar near St Sava's Cathedral was followed by a few drinks at a jazz bar on top of the former state publishing company — now an intimidating, graffiti-covered and dark office block overlooking the city — and a night at Freestyler, one of Belgrade's packed riverside nightclubs.

My long weekend break to Serbia also took us away from the capital and uncovered a rich history and lots to see. But after seeing the extensive Roman ruins in the Nis — and hearing how much was yet to be excavated in the birthplace of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great — left me both amazed and disappointed. It seems that as things stand there is not enough money available to fully or properly excavate the huge city centre site. The image of local boys kicking a football against 2,000-year-old ruins will stay with me. Our guide in Nis, which is well worth a visit if only to see the huge scale of the Roman city which once stood there, seemed to be proud of his city and frustrated that more wasn't being made of it in equal measure.

Further north the powers that be seem to have got it right at the site of the Roman city of Viminacium near to the banks of the Danube, another huge Roman settlement, but one that is being painstakingly unearthed over years. Already an impressive sight, when work is eventually completed this will be on every historian's must-see list.

Whether your interest is a city break, a look at this country's rich cultural history or a fast-paced night out in Belgrade, Serbia has a huge amount to offer.

Those who have formed an image of this country from harrowing pictures of the 1990s war that tore Yugoslavia apart or the Kosovan conflict in 1999, are in for a pleasant surprise. I'm not sure I've ever visited a place where the welcome has been as warm and with so many hidden — or unknown — gems.

Serbia may not be on a list of obvious European destinations for a short or longer getaway. By my reckoning, it certainly should be!

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