Packed 7 day road trip Serbia and Macedonia

Old Sep 21st, 2019, 12:41 AM
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Packed 7 day road trip Serbia and Macedonia

Following is a trip report for a one-week road trip in Serbia and Macedonia. I had been “given off” a week of holidays from my family and tried to make the most of it at a destination that I would probably not be able to lure the wife and baby. I covered a lot of ground (2,500 km in total). If you want to take it a bit slower you would probably space out the trip over a few more days. I also deliberately did not spend any time in Belgrade which I saved for a city weekend trip with my wife and the North (Novi Sad and Subotica) which struck me as “less special” in a sense that these looked on first spec more like typical Baroque Central European cityscapes rather than particularly special Balkan cities.

Driving and rental cars

I had a rental car from Interrent at Belgrade Airport. Interrent is Europcar’s budget alternative. I cannot recommend it. What you save on the headline fee they more than make up in hidden fees and erroneous demands later on. I called beforehand to inquire about the cross-border fee and was told it would be EUR6 per day outside Serbia. At the end of the trip they charged EUR9.6 per rental period day. If you do not wash your car before returning it is an extra EUR35 (this is clearly a first; in Europe or the US you never have to wash the car before return). The other rental car companies I had called before charged a flat EUR32 cross border fee (thank the EU for not having to deal with this stuff when you travel inside Western Europe).

Something else to remember when having a rental car. Most parking in Serbia and Macedonia is SMS based but for that you need a local SIM card which I did not have. You can find parking without SMS but it is most often not in the center. Most cities in Serbia and Macedonia are small so it was not that big of a problem, but it is certainly an inconvenience for foreign drivers. Also, bear in mind that in Serbia it felt like every second person was either employed as a police officer or parking controller. The police presence when driving around is really staggering. So better to play it safe and try not to park illegally. I did get a ticket in Smederova literally within one hour of entering Serbia. Good start of the trip.

I did not visit Kosovo on this trip, mainly because of lack of time. All the rental companies in Serbia I had called would have allowed to take the car into Kosovo. The one restriction is that you cannot leave or enter Serbia via Kosovo. My guess is that if you both leave and re-enter Serbia through Kosovo no one should be able to find out but whether you want to do this depends on your own risk profile.

Highway/ motorway tolls are cheaper than in Italy or France. They are about USD1 per 20 km. Still as a German where everyone including foreigners is allowed to drive on all motorways free of charge I am still not a fan of the concept of tolls.

Driving itself is part of the pleasures of a trip to Serbia and particularly to Macedonia. There is not a lot of traffic, the roads are curvy, there are a lot of ups and downs, the landscape is varied, and the highways are in great shape. Particularly the mountain pass from Lake Prespa to St Naum monastery is one of the most spectacular I have driven on. If you have a choice go for a car with decent handling like a Skoda Octavia or VW Golf.

Also, keep in mind that petrol (Super 95) is 30 cents per liter cheaper in Macedonia than in Serbia or Montenegro. Better to fill up the tank on the Macedonian site before entering Serbia.

Hotels and restaurants

This was very much a sightseeing focused trip, trying to maximize the number of sites per day. I did not spend much time looking for good restaurants or stylish boutique hotels. I used and for hotels and found both choice and value for money very good, particularly considering I was travelling in the highest of high seasons (August). I would say that hotel prices in Serbia and Macedonia are lower than in Turkey (as a benchmark example) while the quality is generally slightly higher. As I did not know where I would end up I did generally not book ahead but just looked up the hotels on the internet and showed up in the evening. There was some room for negotiations but not much.

Serbian and Macedonian cuisine is solid comfort food and I don’t think I had any bad meals on this trip but nothing that really stood out (I think staying in Belgrade might have changed this view). I enjoyed a lot of fresh salads and vegetables (after two weeks in Portugal beforehand where food tends to err on the side of frying).

Generally, the retail landscape in Serbia is better than in Macedonia. You have high quality Lidl supermarkets in every major town whereas in Macedonia everything is still more mom and pop shop based.

“Ideal” trip itinerary

I did not follow this itinerary, partially for lack of preparation and partially because I only had one week whereas this probably requires two weeks. With the benefit of hindsight and more time this is what I would have done. I would have included Kosovo and Montenegro to do a circle starting and ending in Belgrade. I am putting “nice to have” sights in brackets. I am also including some side trip options. I am marking the “can’t miss” sights with a star.

I also had spent a lot of time thinking about whether to fly into Belgrade, Skopje, or Thessaloniki. There are not a lot of good flight options into Skopje so it was a draw between Thessaloniki and Belgrade.

Belgrade * – Smederevo fortress – (Viminacium) – Golubac – (Lepenski Vir) – (Tablet of Trajan) – Iron Gate – Diana fortress – (Trajan bridge) – Zajecar – Gamzigrad/ Felix Romuliana * – Nis/ Mediana (if it reopens) – Justiniana Prima – Kosovo/ Prizren – Skopje – St Pantelejmon (Vodno) – (Taurasium) – Stobi * – Lesnovo (side trip option) – Vodocha and Veljusa – Strumica and Bansko – Thessaloniki (side trip option) – Prilep – Treskavec – Bitola/ Heraclea Lycenstis – Ohrid * – via Albania to Montenegro for Ulcini – Sveti Stefan – Budva – Kotor – Perast – Novi Pazar – Sobocani – Gradac * – Studenica * – Maglic fortress – Zica – Manasija – Belgrade

This might seem like a lot, but note that many of the sites in these places only need a few hours. I am also not speaking with great authority here so take this as one opinion among many but while the towns in Serbia and Macedonia look all very clean, pleasant, and livable I am not sure one needs to spend a lot of time in each of them to explore “hidden gem” restaurants and galleries (probably with the exception of Belgrade).

My actual trip

Day 1: I arrived in the early afternoon and drove from Belgrade Airport to Smederevo. Impressive fortress on the Danube. Some of the towers includes spolia from Roman buildings and it is fun to spot those elements. I went on to Viminacium. The site was supposed to be open until 6 pm but the last guided tour is at 5 pm and after that you are no longer allowed to visit the sites. After a little bit of back and forth with the security guards I was able to see the Roman thermae and the mausoleum. I am a bit of a fiend for classical sites but would recommend that if someone is not completely enthralled with archaeological sites to give this one a miss. I drove on to Golubac. Spectacular sunset. The Danube at that location widens and feels almost like a lake inviting one for an early morning dip. I stayed at a place called Mom’s House which has ultra-new rooms next to the river.

Day 2: In the morning I visited the Golubac fortress which is set in a little park on the river next to the beginning of the gorge. In general, all the tourist sites in Serbia and Macedonia are kept extremely well and one can tell that the governments have spent a lot of money on sprucing them up. This one was no exception.

I continued along the Danube past the metholitic site of Lepenski Vir (not sure it is worth the entrance fee as one can see the site from the entrance), the Trajan’s Tablet (which is on the Romanian side of the river so I could only see it from far away), Derdap dam, Diana’s fortress to Trajan’s bridge (one of the eighth wonders of the world though there is only half an arch left). The drive is spectacular and there are a lot of good views of the Danube. I drove on to Zajecar. The National Museum is tiny but solid, with very good display descriptions and artefacts. One of the reasons I was interested to go to Serbia was because I saw a plaster cast of the head of Galerius at the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford. The original in porphyry marble is in the museum in Zajecar. The woman at the museum was very knowledgeable and provided a lot of good explanations for the site in Gamzigrad. I ended the day at Gamzigrad/ Felix Romuliana, the palace and supposed to be final resting place for Galerian and his mother. It is a beautiful site. What it lacks in spectacular marble structures that you may be used to from Turkey or North Africa it makes up in its beautiful setting in a hilly landscape. Don’t forget to take your car up the hill to the two funeral tumuli from which you have a spectacular 360-degree view on the site and the surrounding area (it does not require a 4x4 except when it has rained). I drove further south to Nis.

Day 3: Nis is a pleasant town which combines Socialist town planning with a beautiful setting surrounded by hills. The National Museum has one room holding artifacts from Mediana, the key Roman site. There are some nice examples of sculptures from the villa in Mediana and a bronze gate from the house shrine. Sadly, I learnt at the museum that Mediana is currently closed to the public for reconstruction. The fortress in Nis is a nice place to see the continuity between Roman, Byzantine, Serbian, and Ottoman structures all in one place (apart from affording nice views on the river running through Nis). The remains of the Roman thermae have now been turned into a night club! I skipped the concentration camp and some of the other sites advertised by the tourist office (which is at the fortress entrance).

I continued my journey to Justiniana Prima, a town and religious center founded by Justinian. It is a very remote site but again in a beautiful Central European setting. The site is heavily restored which may or may not be to your liking. I normally have my reservations about heavy handed restoration but in this particular case I did find it useful to better understand the town planning of city and acropolis. There are not that many examples of pure Byzantine town planning (that are not an overlay of previous Greek and Roman sites) so I do highly recommend stopping by.

I continued to Macedonia. The South of Serbia is landscape wise the most spectacular in my mind and I would have liked to spend a day more there. It is also interesting how towns change and to every church you now have an accompanying mosque. Crossing over to Macedonia was fast and easy. There are no customs forms, etc. that need to be completed like e.g. between Georgia and Armenia.

I stopped by for a few hours in Skopje to look at the Old Bazaar, the old hammam (now a gallery) and the new “town center”. The government is trying to forge a new identity for Macedonia, one that is obviously built on a lot of Ionian columns! I also liked the old Socialist structures (like the post office and the area around there) and the new prime minister’s office (a blend of White House and Versailles). I am not sure I would spend more than a day in Skopje but the restaurants along the river promenade looked enticing and the kebab smelled good. I ended the night in Bitola.

Day 4: Bitola was the second most important European city for the Ottoman empire and apparently a hundred consulates were located in the city. It was pleasant to walk around. A lot of rundown old mansions and mosques that have been restored with the help of the Turkish government. The Shirok Sokak, the Champs Elysees of Bitola is now a pedestrian zone and invites to sit down for a coffee. My main reason for coming to Bitola was Heraclea Lyncestis, one of the more rewarding classical sites in the Balkans. The site has spectacular Christian mosaics (probably some of the most beautiful outside North Africa and Eastern Turkey).

I continued from Bitola via Lake Prespa to St Naum monastery on Lake Ohrid. The mountain pass through Galichica National Park is truly one of the most stunning drives in Europe. Highly recommended. St Naum combines one of the oldest churches in Lake Ohrid with a beautiful beach that is also close to the source of Lake Ohrid. You have the warm water of Lake Ohrid and freezing alpine fresh water running into the lake all at the same spot allowing you to alternate between cold and warm water swimming. The water at Lake Ohrid is shallow and crystal clear, an almost ideal swimming lake. The beach is well kept and there are very inviting restaurants just in the park between the Lake Ohrid well and the lake.

I finished the day in the old town of Ohrid. Ohrid town is a beautiful, well preserved Ottoman town dotted with spectacular Byzantine churches and high-quality restaurants and hotels. I only stayed for one night but wish I would have had a second night to explore the Western side of Lake Ohrid. On a practical matter, you cannot take your car into the old town but there is a large parking lot at the front gate which was free (despite sign posting that one needs to pay; not sure this was a temporary or permanent situation; better ask the guards at the gate to the town entrance whether parking is still free).

Day 5: I started the day early to beat the crowds and visited St John first (the setting is really lovely which is why St John is on the cover of every guidebook or tourist brochure on Macedonia), followed by St Patelejmon, the Ancient theater, Holy Mary (breathtaking frescos), and as the crowning finish the cathedral of St Sophia (in my view one of the most spectacular Byzantine buildings anywhere outside the Hagia Sophia, St Demetrios in Thessaloniki, and Mistra).

I continued my journey to Stobi, the most substantial classical site in Macedonia with several beautiful Byzantine basilica remains and the most spectacular baptistery mosaic outside of Sbeitla in Tunisia. Sadly, it was heavily raining when I visited the site, but it could not take away from the formidable Byzantine town planning and nice setting.

I spent the night in Strumica which apparently is the agricultural center of Macedonia. Think generous socialist town planning and lots of tractors.

Day 6: I started the day with a visit to the Roman bath in Bansko, about 15 kilometers away from Strumica. The bath was locked but from the elevations around it one could get a very good impression. I continued to visit the monasteries in Vodocha and Veljusa. Veljusa has a spectacular setting on a hill top. The sister that showed me around spoke good English and gave a lot of interesting information about life in the monastery.

I drove onward to Prilep to look at the churches in the little village of Varos. Up a little hill is the Archangel Michael monastery. One of the columns of the exonarthex has the oldest known Cyrillic inscription. The church of St Nicholas (one of the most picturesque churches in Macedonia) was closed and I was unable to retrieve the key from the neighboring houses. I managed to visit the church of St Demetrius which is built on an incline which makes for an interesting architectural challenge. The church of St. Athansius is only a shell and at the foot of the Archangel Michael monastery.

I drove onward to Treskavec monastery. Again, a spectacular drive up the mountain slopes with spectacular views. Sadly, the monastery is under reconstruction, but one can still visit the church and look at the frescos.

I continued to Tauresium. There are only a few fundaments left but it is the birth place of Justinian and as such it seemed important to pay homage. The site itself is on a hilltop. You need to park your car (other than a 4x4) on the bottom of the hill and climb up. The site is not visible until you reach it but is behind a small vineyard. Do not forget to wear long trousers for this climb as otherwise your legs will be covered in scratchy vegetation.

I drove further North to St. Pantelejmon in Vodno, the hill above Skopje. The hill affords fantastic views of Skopje and the church itself is a beautiful example of a 12th century Byzantine church.

I finished the Macedonia leg of my journey with a stop at the Skopje aqueduct. While the aqueduct is well preserved, the area it is in is not the most scenic part of Skopje. Hopefully, this will change as Macedonia continues its path towards EU membership and further prosperity.

I crossed again over the border to Serbia without problems or delays and stayed the night (or whatever was left of it) in Novi Pazar.

Day 7: Novi Pazar gives the impression of an eminently livable town. Think socialist-islamic 1970s architecture, the usual Ottoman fortress and hammam, and ancient Serbian Orthodox churches. The Peter and Paul church is the oldest church in Serbia, built in the 9th century. Not much of the interior frescos have survived but the setting on a hilltop does make up for it. I also visited Sobocani monastery with its spectacular frescos. Again, a very pleasant, winding drive along the Raska river and past the ruins of Stare Ras (only a few fundaments of old Ras town are left). There is a wonderful modern swimming pool next to Stare Ras which would have been really inviting if I had not been pressed for time).

Next was Gradac monastery (after an offroading detour up a hill on a narrow dirt road after I entered Gradac into Google maps rather than Gradac monastery!). A beautiful mix of Gothic and Serbian-orthodox architecture.

Following was the undisputed highlight of the trip, Studenica monastery. A fully preserved fortress church with the best sculptural work in Serbia and a spectacular marble façade.

I ended the day with the Zica monastery complex with its colorful exterior and spent the night in Krusevac.

Day 8: In the morning, I visited the Lazarica church in the fortress. There is not much left inside, but the brick and stone exterior was a beautiful start of the last day. My last site was Manasija, the best preserved of all the monastery fortresses (though the church itself is less impressive than the other churches I visited).

I took the motorway to Belgrade, washed the car about 5 km away from the airport and returned the car with a few minutes to spare, before taking my flight onward to Munich.
Mila2017 is offline  
Old Sep 30th, 2019, 01:02 PM
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Great report, very detailed, very useful. Thanks for sharing!
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