Serbia: Out beyond the red roofs of Belgrade
I suppose it can be described as a serendipitous encounter when the taxi driver bringing me to the airport informed me he had lived in Belgrade and that the city was wonderful and the people living there were even more wonderful.
He didn't lie. I had never been to Serbia and from my geography lessons I always thought of Belgrade as the capital of Yugoslavia. Which, of course, it was until things got moved around at the beginning of the century. It's now the capital of Serbia.
We based ourselves at the very central Hotel City Savoy -a small but perfectly formed home from home. Belgrade is the sort of city where you feel comfortable very quickly. The people are friendly, most speak perfect English, and getting around is easy.
Sampling the local cuisine is part of the excitement of arriving in a new destination and Belgrade has a lot to offer.
Our first of many wonderful restaurants was Manufaktura on Kralja Petra where we shared various meats and cheeses for starters alongside pastries with cheese and spinach followed by medallions of beef in a mushroom sauce and 'koh' a local dessert comprising sponge cake soaked in milk and vanilla extract. It was all washed down with wonderful local wines.
Fully sated, it was time to explore the night life. Wandering the streets at night here is a delight - they are full of bars and cafes, all with outdoor areas, and there's a distinctly bohemian feel. Brightly coloured funky chairs add to the ambience.
But beware the cobbles. I happened to be wearing high shoes and I know I previously mentioned how wonderful the wines were and without reaching any conclusions, I ended up flat on my face on the cobbles. And a voice above me asked in a distinctly familiar accent 'Are you all right?'. It turned out to be a girl called Maeve from my native city of Cork. It just shows how discerning the Cork traveller is.
The last Crown Prince of Yugoslavia, Alexander, has lived in Belgrade's Royal Palace since 2002. After 1945, during communist rule, presidents Tito and Milosevic lived here, and the state still owns the property. Alexander is the only son of the last king, Peter the Second, who didn't abdicate, and therefore should the monarchy be restored, he sees himself as the rightful heir.
Prince Alexander's palace is open to the public, and tours are available by booking via the palace's website. He wasn't at home when we visited but it seems that if he is he likes to meet and greet visitors.
Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Queen Elizabeth and Richard Nixon have all stayed here. The frescoed hall, the Baroque Blue drawing room and the opulent dining room are all very impressive. Family photos abound. But what stood out for me was the basement. Designed by two Russian architects, it's home to a billiard room and a private cinema. Popcorn remained from the last screening.
Food is always uppermost in my mind when abroad, and the beautifully designed menu and wonderfully zany decor at Hyde Park restaurant is enough to whet your appetite - and the food is pretty good too.
With miroch cheese and ham wrapped in zucchini for my starter, duck fillet with celery puree, pear sauce and polenta for my main course and a dessert of reform torta (a rich, multi-layered cake with chocolate cream filling), once again I was defying every rule of my slimming diet.
Belgrade has suffered five bombings - twice in the First World War, twice in the Second World War and again in 1999 during the Kosovo War. As a result substantial damage has been caused to the city. Among the buildings bombed were the Hotel Jugoslavia, the Avala Tower, the Chinese Embassy and hospitals. Some buildings have been left in their bombed state as memorials.
Several beautiful buildings remain, including the St Sava Temple, a Serbian Orthodox Church. It's one of the biggest Orthodox churches in the world with room for 10,000 worshippers. The dome is 230ft high, and no less than 800 singers can be housed in the choir gallery.
Avala Mountain, just outside the city, is an area of great natural beauty and provides wonderful 360 degree views. The walk up the 80 steps up to the black marble Monument to the Unknown Hero isn't as bad as it seems and well worth the minor exertion. Eight caryatids - large marble women - in traditional attire from different regions of Yugoslavia guard the tomb.
Belgrade is located at the confluence of two rivers - the Danube and the Sava - and the areas by the rivers are a hive of activity. We strolled past the bars and restaurants at night to the sounds of jollity and music. A vibrant buzzing city has emerged from the grim communist era.
Art is big in the city and visits to both the National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art are a must. A painting by Renoir was stolen from the National Museum in 1996 but recovered after four days. More than 400,000 items are housed here including sculptures, weapons, helmets, coins, medals, paintings, manuscripts and maps. What particularly struck me was an old map of Serbia with a vast coastline. The country is now landlocked.
Another definite must is a trip to Zemun, a lively suburb. Freedom Quay is on the riverbank and in the evening its bars and restaurants are buzzing. Some of our gang undertook the task of climbing up to the observation platform at the Millennium Tower. I, on the other hand, sipped some more of that delicious wine.
Later that evening we found the most wonderful bar right in the centre of the old town called Club Svetskih Putnika. It's underground and was once a secret venue for political activists. Atmospheric and funky, it's like being in somebody's living room. In fact a lot of bars in the city have that sort of aesthetic.
Kalemegdan, the park that houses the fortress, is a lovely place to spend a few hours and as there's so much to see I would recommend a tour. The Monument of Gratitude to France, the Church of St Petka and the huge 15th Century Zindan Gate are but few of the other sights to see.
There was an air show in the city the day we were there and we enjoyed watching a spectacular display as fighter planes flew over our heads in formations..
About 80km down the road is the city of Novi Sad. And despite its name there's nothing sad or even vaguely unhappy about it. It will be the European Capital of Culture for 2021 and is such a worthy venue.
If you're hiring a car stop off at the sweet little town of Sremski Karlovci and visit the bee museum. The honey is divine.
Wineries are predominant in this area and after a wonderful lunch at the Kovacevic Winery, where a generous tasting of five wines to go with each course cost just 750 dinar (a little more than €6). The meal itself was reasonably priced too.
There's a very laidback vibe in Novi Sad. Again the fortress here is well worth the trip, with its panoramic views and 15km of underground tunnels.
Novi Sad hosts the Exit music festival in the fortress every year and has won the prestigious 'Best Major European Festival Award'. In recent years acts such as Guns N' Roses, Duran Duran, Emile Sande, The Prodigy and The Killers to name but a few have all performed here.
The fortress is the second biggest in Europe and 40m bricks went into its construction.
A cluster of pedestrian streets leads you to Freedom Square and the City Hall, a magnificent building. Straight across from it and even more spectacular is the The Name of Mary Church.
Both Novi Sad and Belgrade are great for a city break and it's very easy to take in both as they are within an hour of each other. A visit is well worth it for the wonderful food, the great and reasonably priced wine and the hospitable people. The Serbian word for 'cheers' is 'Ziveli' which quickly became 'dribbly' to us. So 'dribbly' to a wonderful trip.
Take Two: top attractions
Wines and nibbles
Serbia has hundreds of vineyards and every wine I sampled was very palatable, and I loved ajvar — a relish made from red pepper, garlic and aubergine, which is served with most meals (and makes a great gift).
Beton Hala is a buzzing area on the Sava River. During the day a stroll and lunch or coffee is a wonderful way to spend a few hours. At night the bars and restaurants are heaving and atmospheric.
Regent Holidays’ reservations number: + 44 2076661244 or see their website at www.regentholidays.co.uk
A tour of Serbia with Regent, costing £882 per person, includes:
* return economy class flights from Dublin with KLM via Amsterdam
* two nights at Hotel City Savoy, Belgrade
* one night at Hotel Centar, Novi Sad
* private return airport transfers
* private transfer between Belgrade and Novi Sad
* half-day private tour of Belgrade, including the House of Flowers — the location of Tito’s tomb
For further information about Serbia log on to www.serbia.travel
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