Travel: Sublime Serbia

The church in Drvengrad, Serbia
The church in Drvengrad, Serbia

Celebrating a decade of independence, Serbia is shaping up to be a must-see destination for 2016, says Frances Wright

Often overlooked in favour of its popular neighbour Croatia, Serbia doesn’t really register as a top choice for a holiday.

I have to admit, my own knowledge of the country, which celebrates a decade of independence this year, is patchy.

Aside from Slobodan Milosevic’s well-documented years of tyrannical rule in the Nineties, when the country was part of the former Yugoslavia, I know next to nothing about the place.

But images of hardship belong to a distant past; instead a trendy and affordable short break destination is emerging.

After a two-hour flight from Heathrow, I arrive in Belgrade. The Serbian capital has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 40 times, resulting in a patchwork of architectural designs lining the streets. I gravitate towards the Savamala district with its bohemian bars and riverfront clubs. The streets are heaving with young, cool and creative types.

Seeking penance after a hard night on the tiles, I head west of Belgrade to the Pustinja Monastery in the village of Pocuta, surrounded by steep hills. Originally built in the 13th century during the reign of King Dragutin, the monastery now standing dates back to the 17th century.

I’m greeted by a group of resident nuns, who appear to be almost as old as the monastery itself. They welcome us with a traditional offering of honey and hot water and lead us on a tour through the building decorated with frescoes of Serbian saints, including St Sava.

Even more unusual is fairytale village Drvengrad, part of the picturesque Zlatibor district, surrounded by the Tara National Park and a three-hour drive from Belgrade.

It was built in 2003 as a film set by the acclaimed Serbian film director Emir Kusturica for his film Life Is A Miracle, and is now a fully functioning village where Kusturica still lives and even hosts his annual film festival, the Kustendorf Film and Music Festival, famed for not having a red carpet.

Kusturica grew up in war-torn Sarajevo and has said his desire to build Drvengrad was born from the destruction of his own town.

He also hoped to use it as a means to encourage young people to embrace film.

All the streets are named after people Kusturica respects and admires, such as footballer Diego Maradona, martial arts star Bruce Lee, revolutionary Che Guevara and, of course, national hero and tennis ace Novak Djokovic.

Locals are eager to tell me Johnny Depp once visited while filming in Serbia.

The bizarre settlement has 25 timber cottages where tourists can stay, a church, the Stanley Kubrick cinema and an ideological prison, where imaginary inhabitants include those who still live among us, such as George Bush.

I’m particularly enamoured by the church, a small wooden structure with portraits of Madonna and child.

Delicious traditional Serbian food is served at the village restaurant, where I dine on meat, cheese and lots and lots of bread - including a cornbread called proja. Another local dish I sample is kајmak, an indulgent dairy product, similar to clotted cream.

Dishes are inspired by a number of cultures, borrowing from German, Greek and Turkish cuisine. Best of all, it’s really cheap - I have a three-course meal with wine for roughly £6.

Near to Drvengrad, on the border of Serbia and Bosnia, is the stunning river Drina, where I take a rafting trip. The water is calm and still, so the experience is nothing like the white-knuckle ride I’d been anticipating. We calmly float past rural orthodox churches, until we reach an isolated house on stilts in the middle of the river, near the town of Bajina Basta. The small wooden house was built by a group of local boys in 1968 and has been standing on a rock for nearly 50 years, surviving multiple floods.

After we’ve finished gazing at the curious house, we clamber off the boat to a nearby restaurant to sample some trout fresh from the river, which is absolutely delicious. Serbia really feels like Europe’s best-kept secret, with weird and magical and experiences around every corner.