From Celts to Serbs. In books and travelogues, it is called “the gate between the East and the West. He cradled and survived many nations and conquerors. He has seen them all go away. Today, as the largest city in the south of the country, he rests on the banks of the Nišava river, proud of its diverse heritage, old taverns and merak.
Why visit Niš?
1. Because Niš is a city of a long and turbulent history
Archaeological excavations show that the territory of today’s Niš was inhabited thousands of years before the new era. The city itself was built by the Celts in the third century AD who named it Vilingrad (Fairy Town), after the Vilina reka (Fairy river or Navissos). It was called similarly by all the conquerors.
Due to its geographical position, it was constantly coveted by many armies and rulers. After the birth of Emperor Constantine on his soil, in the second half of the third century, it gained historical importance. It became a major commercial, military and administrative centre of the province of Upper Moesia. It has been demolished and rebuilt many times. It suffered the passage of the Huns, the Barbarians, the Slavs, the Avars, the Bulgarians, the Byzantine army… It was briefly united with Serbia by Stefan Nemanja. It was the centre of almost five centuries-long fightings with the Ottomans, and in the meantime, it was even a part of the Austrian Empire. During World War I, it was Serbia’s capital. Valuable cultural treasures have been left behind by many men. Some of them deserved to have monuments built in their honour. They have given it a rich and colourful architecture.
Downtown, on the right-side bank of the Nisava river, is bustling and vibrant. In the main square, there is a tall monument with a horseman and a flag, to pay tribute to the liberators. The main promenade stretches further away from it. The striking commercials blur the vision. Brilliant, bold letters everywhere you look. Many written in a language other than Serbian. It has become more typical for English-speaking cities. In this unattractive race lacking a purpose, the city beauties fall behind. Beautiful, old, aristocratic buildings. They shyly try to push through, to make themselves visible. They will only succeed in the eyes of the more persistent and patient. Some of them have had their facades renovated. Some are debased by glass upgrades. The new age, it seems, takes a toll on beauty, harmony, language… Unheedingly.
2. Because Kazandžijsko sokače preserves the spirit of old times
The only remaining street preserving the appearance of what once was the town of Niš. And partially so. Once a Turkish artisan quarter, today an alley with cafes and restaurants. At the tavern table, Stevan Sremac greets us in a lively conversation with the literary hero Kalča. They are guarded by the faithful dog Čapa. Niš was a place of neverending inspiration for Sremac. He was fascinated by its directness, the jokes, the way of life, and the southern dialect.
The old craft shops managed to survive until the end of the 20th century when they were replaced by cafes and restaurants. Some have maintained the old charm. Some have caught up with modern trends. A trace of the English language has somehow managed to sneak into this ancient street not more than a couple of hundred meters long. What would Sremac say? Where did it disappear, that old Niš he dedicated his most famous works to?
The banks of the Nišava River are bound in stone ramparts. Clean. In the spring, they must be lively. Across the river, a completely different atmosphere. Calmer and tamer. The beautiful building housing the University of Niš, surrounded by flowers, stands out. It would have been an almost perfect landscape had there been no market, right next to the fortress walls.
3. Because Niška fortress is among the most beautiful in the Balkans
The history of the city’s fortress is about two millennia-long. So attested by the archaeological findings. The Turkish fortress was erected over the remains of ancient and medieval ramparts in the early 18th century. Solid, high, defensive walls.
We pass through a massive iron Stambol gate. Above it, there are embrasures and cannon openings. First, we come upon the tiny Nishville Jazz museum, the hammam, the oldest preserved building inside the fortress from the time of the Turks and the arsenal. Once a weapons depot, now a Digital museum. A little further forward, there are the ancient baths. The walls above are disfigured by graffiti. Street “artists” are not selective when deciding on a place for their expression. We reach the Bali-Bey mosque, the only one preserved within the walls. A pearl of oriental building tradition… Just a step away is the lapidarium, an unusual collection of tombstones from the period from the 1st to the 4th century. We walk along the ancient street featuring a basilica up to the City Garden and powder mill along the eastern and northern part of the fortress walls. Nearby are wrecked, abandoned, defaced buildings. Newer buildings as well. They ruin the overall impression, but they stand apart from the rest. History and nature in one. One could easily spend an entire day inside the fortress. And a great one at that. With a bit of woe on top.
4. Because the Holy Trinity cathedral in Niš is magnificent
It is huge. The third largest Orthodox temple in Serbia. It is slightly unusual in appearance. It is characterised by mix of styles – Serbian-Byzantine, Romanesque-Byzantine and Turkish, with a touch of Baroque and Renaissance. It was built in 1878 and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. It was severely damaged by the Allied bombing in 1944 and later burned down in a fire in 2001. It was restored five years later. A fresh iconostasis. Radiant.
Inside the churchyard, there is also the small cathedral, the temple of the Holy Archangels, dating back from the Ottoman rule, at the beginning of the 19th century. According to the laws upheld by the conquerors at the time, it had to be partially buried and a single storey building to prevent their rising above the mosques.
Perhaps the most beautiful complex in the city. Quiet, nestled between the flowers and the trees. Peaceful.
5. Because Bubanj memorial park speaks of horrors
More than 10,000 shot to death during World War II. On the Bubanj hill, not far from the city centre, three hands made of concrete are raised in clenched fists. Monolithic. Of different heights. They represent a man, a woman and a child. They symbolise defiance and resistance to the atrocities. Not far away is a relief carved in marble with compositions depicting suffering, rebellion and fighting. The verses of the Nis poet Ivan Vučković are engraved: “We were shot but never killed, never subdued”. Another horrible site of massive killings in Serbia left behind by the perpetrators. Memorial to the victims and an ode to freedom.
Bubanj Memorial Park is one of the largest green areas in Niš. A place to spend time in nature and be active.
6. Because the Niš barbecue is unparalleled
For now. We have not visited Leskovac yet. Niš teems with cafes and restaurants. The inhabitants of Niš are known for their hospitality and a trait of indulgence. We choose Orač. Quite ordinary on the outside, upper-class looking on the inside. Warm atmosphere and fireplace. We skip the hot stew, even the tripe soup, the twisted gibanica and sprža, a southern speciality similar to duvan čvarci quite ravenous, we eye the grill. Mixed meat, a little of everything. The meat is fresh, juicy and soft. Rated 11 out of 10. And mućkalica too. It is not an original mućkalica from Leskovac, but a southern type. Spiced perfectly. Excellent. And moravska salad. Whatever you order, the salad is a must. Refreshing, goes well with anything. Finally, a plate of fruits and a cake. Called by the house. Hospitable, generous and skilful hosts. Genuine Nišlije (people from Niš).
7. Because Medijana is Constantines’s lavish villa
Luxurious suburb, along a once important road route. Summer residence of the great emperor Constantine and a farmstead date back from the beginning of the fourth century. Today, among the most important archaeological parks in the country. Elements of two early Christian churches, military barracks, a wine cellar, and a water tower. Remains of a luxurious villa with a peristyle, the main building, separated and surrounded by high walls, with richly landscaped gardens, fountains and pavilions, small dining rooms for receptions and feasts, and spas with warm, healing water coming from the nearby Niška Banja. Hundreds of square meters of floor mosaics. Unique, they say. We haven’t seen them. Nor did we walk along the Medijana. It’s closed. It says: until further notice.
It is located halfway to Niška Banja, where we intend to spend the night and relax, before we embark on new adventures in Niš at dawn.
8. Because the water ni Niška Banja is warm
And healing. It has five mineral sources of radon-rich water, which eases many health problems, especially rheumatic and cardiac. There are also rich sources of beneficial mud obtained by grinding tufa deposited in springs. It is shrouded in the surrounding mountains by northern winds. Excellent climate. In good times, it is very lively. Visitors can swim in the indoor pool, relax in a jacuzzi or sauna, have a massage, walk the health trails, breathe in the conifers. Here, health is gained through the mouth as well. At the end of the promenade, a fine restaurant, Gurmanova tajna (Gourmet’s secret) that will satisfy everyone’s taste. And the Letnja pozornica (Summer stage) inn serves some chubby kebabs. No, you won’t get chubby, you’ll just eat until your belly-full. Health, time outdoor and nature. Only ten kilometers from Niš. A lucky turn for the people of Niš, but also for all the guests.
9. Because you can pay for fuel from a car at PS in Niš
On the outskirts of Niš and numerous historical sights, there is a NIS Petrol-branded petrol station. However, despite everything, it is a modern and state-of-the-art petrol station.
Its main “attraction” is the option to pay for fuel without leaving the car. Just launch the Drive.Go app, click a few times and your account will be settled. Then you can keep going ahead to embrace the old stories that Niš just cannot hold in.
10. Because Sinđelić is always watching over the Niš from Čegar
Insurgent Serbia. A rayah has risen against kuluk and haratch. Organized, finally. After a few centuries. It attacks the Ottomans across the country. In the spring of 1809, it takes Niš by storm. The insurgents are deployed and entrenched in several high positions. Stevan Sinđelić chooses the most conspicuous place, on the hill Čegar, not far away from the city. While the insurgents hesitate, the Turks attack the duke, who is left alone. At dawn, on the last day of May. The rebels resisted all day, although the Turks were constantly bringing reinforcements. At dusk, when they realize they cannot overpower the huge Turkish army, Sinđelić lures many of them into the fortification, fires a shot at the ready powder magazine and blows everything up. Himself, his comrades-in-arms and a multitude of enemies.
On the site of the trench, a tower rises today. To honor the heroic feat and the freedom fighters. “To Vojvoda Stevan Sinđelić and his undead heroes.”
11. Because the Skull Tower is the only one of its kind in the world
Constructed from the skulls. Human skulls. Of the Serbian warriors who died on Čegra. Though the Turks prevailed, it proved to be a pyrrhic victory. The then Ottoman commander of the city, Hurshid-pasha, got infuriated. He ordered the skin from the heads of the fallen Serbs be skinned, stuffed and sent to the sultan as a war trophy. Skulls to be cemented by a little sand and lime in the tower on the main road to Constantinople. 952 skulls. For all travellers to see. To intimidate and warn rebellious Serbs. The Ottomans were mistaken, as were many before and after them.
Later, the Serbs secretly removed and buried the skulls. Some have succumbed to the ravages of time. Today there are 58 of them. In the chapel. One stands separately, on a pedestal. The skull of the leader of the brave fighters – Stevan Sinđelić.
There are countless places of oppression on Serbian soil. But, like no other, the Skull Tower testifies, in a terrible and faithfully way, to the suffering of the people fighting for its freedom.
Every visitor leaves horrified. It was visited also by the French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine, who wrote:
12. Because the temple of king Constantine honors honours the making of Christianity an official religion
It is surrounded by the greenery of St. Sava park. Dedicated to the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, born in Niš, and his mother, empress Helena. The foundation stone was laid during the NATO bombing. It was built to celebrate 1700 years since the issuance of the Edict of Milan, by which Constantine forbade the persecution of Christians and gave them freedom of religion.
It was built in the Byzantine style. It is still unfinished inside. The iconostasis is complete, and only the altar is painted. Vast space and bare walls. Exterior clad in white stone, without special features. Somehow it does not look like other Orthodox temples in Serbia. It seems, to us at least, as if lacking in spirit.
13. Because the prisoners of Niš concentration camps were the first to jump over the wire
In enslaved Europe. The first organized escape. A few months after the camp was set up, on 12 February 1942, 147 bare-handed prisoners attacked the guards and fled for their lives. 105 succeeded. Prisoners were horrifically tortured, abused, exposed to cold and hunger… During the occupation, more than 30,000 Serbs, Jews and Roma, were placed behind the wires. One third was killed on Bubanj hill. The fascists left the camp a month before Niš was liberated in September 1944.
Today, it is the Memorial museum “12 February”, also known as the Red Cross camp. It is one of the few preserved fascist concentration camps in Europe. The complex is surrounded by a high wall and a barbed wire. It still preserves the buildings of the former kitchen, dining room and baths, the guardhouses, the lookouts and the main camp building, which was converted into a museum. There are rooms where the prisoners were once kept, their touching, strong messages on the walls, personal belongings, letters, photographs … Solitary cells on the top floor. A chill oozing from all around. A dreadful setup. Well exhibited. The cold still seems to attack the visitor from the thick walls which never let the sun shine in. For many cut off too soon. May it never happen again!