Living in Bulgaria means one is spoilt for travelling choices in the region. Due to this country's position at a geographical crossroads, one only needs a few hours to reach fascinating places like Istanbul, the Gothic cities of Romania or some of the best beaches of Greece.
Eastern Serbia is not usually included in this group. Undeservedly so. Located northwest of Bulgaria, the region is rich in exciting sights to visit, enjoy, and explore. Most of them are concentrated along the Danube at the Iron Gates Gorge (called Đerdap in Serbian). This region has the raw and menacing beauty of nature untamed, and is packed full with prehistoric, Roman and Mediaeval sites created by the generations who travelled, fought, traded, lived and died there.
Đerdap National Park
Divided between Serbia and Romania, this 134-kilometre stretch of the Danube has for millennia been arguably the most dangerous part of the river's course. The accounts of travellers who passed through it are full of descriptions of hair-rising whirlpools and wrecks that claimed countless lives. The construction of two dams in the 1960s-1980s in the gorge changed the river forever. Its waters were calmed, and travel became easier. Even so, the cliff-like banks of the gorge remain an impressive sight, a combination of the fearsome and the beautiful.
The dams are not man's first effort to tame the Iron Gates Gorge. The Romans built a road along it, using beams fitted into the rock.
Today, a road runs along the whole course of the gorge, allowing you to enjoy the scenery in the moments when you are not busy negotiating its curves and bends.
Guarding the entrance to the Iron Gates Gorge, Golubac Fortress epitomises the idea of a mediaeval fortification. Its turrets and walls rise from the rocks of a bend in the river, as menacing and massive as they might have looked when they were built in the 14th century over the remains of older Roman and Byzantine fortifications. Throughout the centuries it changed hands numerous times, often violently, among all the major power in the region, mediaeval Bulgaria included. More recently, the ruin became infamous for another blood-thirsty inhabitant, the particularly aggressive local mosquitoes.
Today only the highest parts of the fortress are visible, as the rest was flooded after the construction of the first dam at the Iron Gates in the 1960s.
Giant Decebalus Monument
This is a Mount Rushmore-style portrait of Decebalus, the ancient leader of the Dacians. At the turn of the 1st and the 2nd century he opposed Emperor Trajan. Trajan did defeat him and to celebrate the victory he erected his famous column in Rome. The huge head of Decebalus was carved into the steep walls of the Iron Gates gorge in 1994-2004 by a Romanian entrepreneur.
It is 42.9 m high and 31.6 m wide and claims to be Europe's tallest relief.
The best way to see the giant Decebalus, which is actually in Romanian territory, is from the Serbian bank of the river.
Lepenski Vir Archaeological Site
In the Mesolithic period, about 11,000 years ago, people lived by the banks of the Iron Gates Gorge. They were itinerant hunter gatherers, but would return regularly to settlements they made along the river. Their existence was discovered in the 1960s, during the construction of the first dam in the gorge. Archaeologists surveying the area at Lepenski Vir that was about to be flooded were astonished to discover a settlement of strange, trapezoid huts and stone sculptures depicting bizarre creatures combining fish and human features. Dating from about 6,000BC, at that time they were the oldest known examples of large-scale sculptural art in history.
The dam was considered more important than the prehistorical settlement, but Lepenski Vir was saved. The whole site was lifted, huts and all, from its original place and moved to a higher location, similarly to Abu Simbel when the Aswan Dam in Egypt was being constructed. It is still there, a modern exhibition space, sponsored by the US government, where you can stare at the strange fish-like sculptures straight in their goggly eyes.
In 298 AD, the Roman Emperor Galerius celebrated his victory over Sassanid Iran in a truly imperial fashion. He created a whole city at his birthplace, near the modern town of Zajecar. He called it Felix Romuliana, after his mother Romula. The city had everything required for comfortable living - from baths with hot mineral springs to temples to fortifications. Soon, however, history proved that the location of Felix Romuliana had been chosen too optimistically. The city stood in the path of continued attacks by the Barbarians, and was abandoned after a Hun raid in the 5th century. Today Felix Romuliana, albeit far from its past splendour, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A combination of mediaeval fortification and a place of worship, the Manasija Monastery is the closest of Serbia's great monasteries to Bulgaria. Founded in the early 15th century, it is protected by a massive wall with turrets, recently restored to its full height. The Holy Trinity church, which is in the ornate Morava architectural style, has also been restored, but it still preserves genuine mediaeval murals, including a portrait of the founder of the monastery, Prince Stefan Lazarević. The pastoral landscape of gentle rolling hills around is a bonus.
Located on the Danube and built in 1427-1430, Smederevo Fortress was initially the centre of Serbian resistance against the Ottoman invasion of Europe. It did not hold out long: in 1456 the Ottomans took the fortress, putting an end to independent Serbia. Due to its strategic location, however, Smederevo Fortress was preserved and enlarged in the following centuries. Today only old photos show the past expanse of the structure because in the Second World War it sustained heavy damage in bombing raids. What has survived is still worthy of a visit: an empty shell of a fortification walls by the Danube, frequented by locals for weekend walks and picnics.
The Wine and Graves of Rajac
Just over the border from Bulgaria, the village of Rajac combines fun and contemplation. A place of beautifully preserved traditional houses, Rajac is locally famed for its wines, available for tasting in taverns, cellars and even residents' garages. The local tourists love it. Rajac cemetery is a completely different matter (although there is a wine cellar nearby). Its grand and weathered old tombstones are elaborately carved with symbols of Christianity and paganism, and the fact that they largely lack inscriptions make them even more fascinating.