ROADTRIP EASTERN SERBIA
In this itinerary, I cover Eastern Serbia. Along the border of Bulgaria - from Niš/Pirot all the way north to Zaječar. I started out from Sofia and crossed the border to Pirot. That's where I spent the first out of two nights. I just went for a weekend, but managed to see a whole lot! I did have a rental car, which makes sense because with public transport, you're severely limited in Eastern Serbia. Yes, you can get from town to town, but it gets a whole lot harder to get to any sights inbetween. For car rental in Sofia, I recommend Savoy Rent a Car near metro station G.M. Dimitrov. I spent my first night at Villa Lola & Nikola, a warm-hearted couple and a comfortable place to stay. There's several other good places to stay, mostly guesthouses - apart from the large Hotel Ana Lux. Pirot itself is a pleasant little Serbian city with some good restaurants in the center and the Nišava river splitting the city in half. Just outside Pirot, you're right in the Stara Planina mountain range, which continues into Bulgaria.
STARA PLANINA MOUNTAINS
Right north of Pirot, I visited the Zavojsko lake and tried to get to the villages Gostuša and Topli Do. The road, to the lake is fine. However, the road leading to these villages was unpaved and I couldn't get there with my small rental car. I could walk but as I was short on time, I decided to skip on these remote villages. Then, I also passed Temska village and the monastery just north of town, which is actually on the way to Topli Do village. At the monastery, priests sold Rakija and anti-dandruff lotion. I drove on north and passed the Ethno Village Stara Planina. A complex opened in January 2017 - ideal for a stay of up to 30 people. I was shown around and took the pictures below. There's an excellent restaurant 0n-site, and plenty of well-equipped rooms. The owners, Snezana and Aleksa, were just lovely. The man of the house, Aleksa, is a fan of music and played me some songs. This was true hospitality!
The surroundings are very pretty and there's quite a lot to see - such as the Bigar waterfall (Водопад Бигар in Google Maps) and Sv. Onufrije monastery up into the hills - at 1,2 kilometres from the waterfall. No need to climb to the waterfall - it's next to the parking lot. I got to Knjaževac, which dates back all the way to the Roman period. It then fell under the Ottoman empire, until its liberation in 1833. The town was actually named Gurgusovac until it was renamed to Knjaževac in 1859. This is the fourth largest municipality of Serbia, with many hills and even the second tallest mountain of Serbia, Midžor, on the border with Bulgaria. The town has a pretty little center with plenty of places to have a good coffee. Then, it's time to hit the road again!
ON THE ROAD
Just 43 kilometres north of Knjaževac is Zaječar. I arrived at dark and have no pictures of the city. I drank a small draft, local Zaječarsko beer and walked around - then continued to Boljevac, where I'd spend the night in Etno Kuca Stanojevic.
Certainly, Zaječar has a fine central square with some good restaurants. I particularly enjoyed restaurant 'Serbian House', in Hotel Srbija.
The city again has a long history, archaeological site Gamzigrad is a good example of that. Travel to Zaječar and you'll find you like it - there's lots to do around here! The village Gamzigrad is home to the ancient site Felix Romuliana, which has remains of fortifications, a palace, basilicas, temples and even hot baths. A huge ancient site (40.000 square metres) which is unique - yet so little visited by tourists. During the 7th Century, Slavs entered the area and formed the tribe Timočani, named after Timok river. During the 15th Century, this city fell under Ottoman reign and was liberated in 1806 - only to be retaken and liberated in 1833. The popular Timok Uprising then led to bloodshed. During a part of the First World War, the city fell under Bulgarian hands and after that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It was occupied by Germans in 1941, to eventually become Yugoslav again in 1944. Quite an extensive history for a town you'd otherwise just pass on the road - there's more than meets the eye!
So, I spent the night in Boljevac. At Etno Kuca Stanojevic to be precise. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about life in Serbia - the hosts welcomed me with some homemade rakija and explained me all about the place. I had a comfortable room in the cozy house and slept like a baby. The next morning started with a harty breakfast and some strong coffee. The view over Boljevac was pretty - a typical Serbian town surrounded by hills and the pyramid mountain named Rtanj in the distance. I walked up the hill and had a good view of the valley. I wished I could have stayed some more days, this is a true place to relax. With my hosts, I looked at the road map and they suggested me all kinds of places to see. Because I had only one day and needed to get back to Sofia at night, it boiled down to two choices - either to visit Sokobanja or Rajac - the place to be for Serbian wines. At least, that's what my hosts told me. I was about to find out for myself - I had to try some Serbian wines!
I drove to Rajac, about 82 kilometres northeast of Boljevac. I took the road through Halovo and many other small villages. It took far longer than it would have if I'd taken the main road - yet this was prettier. The landscape is rural with hills and vast stretches of land that are still maintained by hand. Friendly people waved and turned around as I drove past, probably wondering what I was doing in these parts. The road to Rajac is not too good - however there's no sense in rushing here. It's best to drive slowly and take in the scenery, also it's more cautious because I saw several pigs and chickens on the road!
As I arrived in Rajac, I looked for the Rajačke Pimnice, the local wineries. I found a sign pointing in the right direction, next to the village church. If you can't find the sign, ask someone. Even though this is a very quiet place, someone might be in the square. I drove up and saw the stone houses - I directly felt like I was in France or Italy, only many years ago. I came in October and that surely explains why the place was so quiet - yet it is easy to see that there's little tourism. At least from outside the Balkans. Traveling to Rajac to taste Serbian wines - it's yet to be discovered! I found just a few open wineries. I greeted a friendly lady called Marijana. She directly poured me a glass of red wine, called Crna Tamjanika. Although this might just be the name of the grape itself. I enjoyed my conversation with Marijana, she explained me about the wines and life in Serbia.
I took several bottles as I really enjoyed the wine I tasted. Then I walked through Rajac, on the way back to the car. I noticed how some wineries had become abandoned over the years - apparently young people left the place and mostly people of age remained. It's a hard life of manual labour and knowledge passed from generation to generation and I truly hope the winemaking in Rajac will flourish. More attention from abroad might just be what the place needs. I had never tasted a Serbian wine, even though I'd lived in Bulgaria for years and often visited Serbia. The wines are good - so are the people - so is the food. There are countless reasons to visit Eastern Serbia. You'll feel like an explorer. You'll be hosted by some truly friendly people that show you their country. You help keep traditions by coming to visit a small winery and taking some bottles to enjoy at home. You get an insight into an, to many, unknown and underrated country. And, once more, you get to peek inside the lives of the Serbs. A friendly people with a good sense of how to enjoy life - and how to treat guests!