My first stop in Serbia was Niš, where, thanks to the most incredible list of suggestions from redpantsandamoustache [check out his great blog about coffee shops in Stockholm – I’ll be following many more of his recommendations if I ever make it there!] I had learned there was a skull tower. Having done basically no research on the Balkans and what there was to do and see there, the long and detailed list he gave me was one of the best things to happen to me – I felt like I hardly needed to do any planning, as this very kind gentleman had pretty much done it all for me!
So I took the bus from Sofia to Niš, arriving just before dark. I was thinking about two things: find hostel and find food. Finding the hostel was simple enough, but finding food was more of a challenge. There were plenty of restaurants, but many were closed or looked expensive and I was looking for something cheap. I wanted to find ‘Serbian’ food, but of course I couldn’t read the Cyrillic menus – the words that I could recognise in Ukrainian and Bulgarian were different here, so knowing the alphabet wasn’t helping me. In the end I settled on a kebab – surely nothing could go wrong there. I could just point at things, right?
Apparently that wasn’t going to work – the poor woman just looked confused. Luckily however a group of girls who looked about fifteen were standing behind me and asked if I wanted help. I very gratefully accepted, and they started translating the menu board for me. Soon enough, a middle-aged couple came along and disagreed with the translations the girls were offering me, proceeding to correct them. Once we as a group determined what I was going to have for dinner, they ordered for me. The older woman behind the counter had a big grin on her face, obviously finding the saga unfolding before her shop quite entertaining. As she grilled the meat patty [strange kebab, but who was I to argue?], my teenage support group and middle-aged couple proceeded to try to teach me some basic Serbian. I have to say, it was a pretty good welcome to the country. I’d left my camera at the hostel and my phone was flat, so I couldn’t even take a picture of my group of saviours.
I was only staying one night in Niš, so I got up early to give myself time for sightseeing. My first stop was the Skull Tower – Ćele Kula or Ћеле Кула in Serbian. The Skull Tower was built by the Turks in 1809 after the defeat of the Serbs in the Battle of Cegar during the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish commander of Niš ordered the construction of the tower, decorated with the skulls of 952 Serbs killed in the battle, as a warning to the Serbs not to oppose the empire. The tower was situated on an important trade thoroughfare and so the warning was there for all to see – not just the local people. After Serbia gained independence in the late nineteenth century, a chapel was built around the tower – having previously been in the open air, it was deteriorating. The majority of the skulls had also been removed by this time, by families of the victims who wished to give them a proper and respectful burial. Today only 58 skulls remain. When I visited there was a girl working there who spoke perfect English, and she spent about half an hour telling me about the history and answering any questions that I had. This was fantastic, as I had the opportunity to really learn about the tower and about the history of Niš rather than just looking at the tower for a few minutes and leaving without any real idea of its significance.
I took the bus from the Skull Tower to Mediana, an ancient Roman site that has a tiny museum. The conductor gave me a free ride, as by the time she got to me to sell me a ticket and I said I wanted to go to Mediana we’d just passed it – she got the driver to stop again so I could get off. It’s definitely a site that’s worth visiting in season only – when I got there, all the excavations had been covered and there was a group of workers building an enclosure over the last open site. It was a luxurious villa in the late Roman period and some well-preserved mosaic floors have been found as well as a small nymphaeum. Everything of interest is in the city’s archaeological museum.
From Mediana it was another bus ride, this time with a ticket, to the Crveni Krst [Red Cross] concentration camp. The camp itself was primarily a transit camp, and more than thirty thousand people are estimated to have gone through it. Approximately twelve thousand were executed [murdered] on a hill a few kilometres outside the town. The camp is quite small, enclosed in brick walls and with one main building. The building houses a small museum in Serbian only, and strangely the majority of the photographs displayed in there were actually of Auschwitz-Birkenau, not of Crveni Krst. It was freezing cold, and I was all wrapped up in jumpers and jackets – I can’t even begin to imagine how cold it would have been for the inmates there. Crveni Krst never operated as a labour camp, and most of the time people were moved in and out fairly quickly. Most of the victims of the camp were members of the Yugoslav Communist Party and their supporters – political prisoners – although Jews and Roma were also included.
My last stop, about ten minutes walk from Crveni Krst, was the Niš Fortress. There’s not a lot of the fortress remaining other than the walls and some ruins, and it’s now primarily a park, with restaurants, bars and souvenir shops around the entrance. The fortress is ancient, with fortifications dating to the Roman period, the Byzantine period, Medieval times and the Ottoman period. Most of what can be seen today is of Turkish origin, dating to the eighteenth century. The park was quite lovely, with tree lined paths and benches as well as the occasional old mosque or statue.
Niš is a fairly small city, and has relatively few sites to attract tourists – those that it has I visited in the space of about four or five hours. That said, what it does have to offer spreads over almost two thousand years, from the early centuries of the current era up to the Second World War, indicating that Niš and its surroundings have been inhabited for a pretty long time. It’s definitely worth a day.