The heart of southern Serbia

When it comes to words difficult to translate, Serbian  merak’ makes the list. It stands for the pleasure derived from the simple things in life. An old traditional song claims that the masters of merak’ are Niš locals: ‘Nišlije – meraklije’. And truth be told, Serbia’s third-largest city captivates with laid-back charm, tonnes of history, great food and music that will make you dance.

Thanks to an increasing number of low-cost flights to Niš, the city has recently popped up as an interesting stop on the Balkan tourist map. Road-trippers can hop on a train from Belgrade or catch one of the buses that leave the Serbian capital every hour. It’s also easy to get here by bus from Sofia or Skopje. Book a room at traditional Garni Hotel Duo D if you want to stay in one of the most historic streets in Niš, bohemian Kazandžijsko sokače (Tinkers’ Alley), or choose ArtLoft Hotelfor a more modern treat in the city centre.

 

Time-travelling: Naissus and beyond

Name an epoch you want to go to and Niš will take you there in the blink of an eye. Once known as Naissus, southern Serbia’s main city was the birthplace of Constantine the Great, famous for issuing the Edict of Milan and making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The archaeological site of Mediana (Constantine’s 4th-century residence) features recently renovated mosaics and other remains from the Roman period. To learn why Naissus was of one of the major stops on the ancient Romans’ Via Militaris, visit the Archaeological Hall.

Niš fortress, in the heart of the city, hides several Ottoman-era architectural beauties including the Hamam (a lavish Turkish bath turned into a restaurant) and the gorgeous 16th-century Bali-Beg Mosque. A gruesome yet fascinating sight, Ćele Kula (Skull Tower) tells the story of the struggle for the liberation of Niš in the early 19th century: yes, it was built from real skulls – the ones of Serbian soldiers – as a warning to all who tried to rebel against the Ottoman Empire.

There are more fight-for-freedom stories to be found in Niš. The Red Cross Concentration Camp is one of the few preserved Nazi concentration camps, from which the first mass escape in then occupied Europe was organised in 1942. The local spirit of liberty also lives on at the memorial park on nearby Bubanj Hill, where three gigantic fists rising from the ground symbolise fighting and sufferings of men, women and children, the victims of WWII.