Standing on the bluffs of the Uvac Special Nature Reserve, I stared down at the dozens of kayaks, made tiny by the distance, that were cruising through the snaking waterway below.
It was a picture-postcard scene: the soft green of the Uvac River reservoir contrasting with the rocky faces of the surrounding canyon walls. Indeed, I found myself thinking, it was a vantage point the equal to nearly all that I've seen in my many travels.
I experienced this scene on a fall afternoon in Serbia, a country that until just a few months earlier I'd never even considered visiting. Lacking coastline like its popular neighbors Croatia and Montenegro and still rebuilding its reputation from the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, when the country and its leader Slobodan Milosevic became international outcasts, Serbia holds little space in the consciousness of today's American travelers.
The meandering Uvac River, home to the impressive griffon vulture. Photo Credit: TW photo by Robert Silk
But last year, the newly rebranded Air Serbia began offering the first direct service between the U.S. and Serbia since 1992 with flights from New York JFK to Belgrade. And as I discovered on an eight-day trip that was partially sponsored by Air Serbia, the Balkan nation, which is similar in size to Maine, has much to offer a visitor, and at a discount price.
Make no mistake: Serbia is no tourism backwater. The capital, Belgrade, features such familiar hotel brands as Radisson, Hyatt Regency and Courtyard. Meanwhile, Marriott is building a 120-room W Hotel along the Sava River at the entry point to Old Belgrade.
Serbia's roads are good, as are its bus and train networks. But outside of the capital, visitors won't find many high-end options.
On the other hand, those who are satisfied with accommodations that are comfortable, just not posh, will find plenty of choices at wallet-pleasing rates. For example, in the western mountain town of Zlatibor, which is a popular weekend getaway for Belgrade residents, my room at the Hotel Olimp came with a balcony, breakfast and access to the hotel's full-service spa for barely more than $50 per night.
During the two days I spent in Belgrade I found it to be a pleasant city dotted with museums, with a walkable and vibrant urban core. Farmers markets were selling raspberries so cheap that I couldn't resist buying large baskets of them even when I probably shouldn't have.
A farmers market in Belgrade offers fresh fruit at unbeatable prices. Belgrade also has many museums and a thriving nightlife scene. Photo Credit: TW photo by Robert Silk
The city's nightlife, which offers a mix of nightclubs, neighborhood bars and kafanas — Serbia's word for an establishment that combines alcohol service with light food and sometimes live music — is considered by many to be among the best in Europe. And the Belgrade Fortress, sitting strategically above the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, affords fabulous sunset views and offers a history lesson that extends to pre-Roman times.
On my second day in Belgrade, I enjoyed a free three-hour old city tour conducted by the operator Belgrade Walking Tours in which I learned about much of that history, among many other subjects.
Still, it is natural landscapes and outdoor activities that inspire me the most, so I spent most of my Serbian visit in small towns outside the capital.
I journeyed first to Donji Milanovac, a scenic town along Serbia's Danube River border with Romania that is bounded on three sides by the 158,000-acre Djerdap National Park. The park's highlight is the Iron Gates gorge. With surrounding cliffs that rise nearly 2,000 feet above the Danube, it's one of the deepest gorges in Europe.
Yet, the Iron Gates remains lightly visited. On the day of my excursion into Djerdap, I stopped by the park's visitor center where I was assigned a mandatory park ranger to guide me on my hike. I was one of just eight people to hire a ranger guide that whole day. The dearth of people was an added bonus as I stood over the gorge at the midpoint of a seven-mile hike and gazed upon a view that was even more spectacular than the one I would later see at the Uvac Reserve.
I spent the back half of my trip in the Dinaric Alps of west central Serbia, where I stayed in the resort town of Zlatibor for a night and then visited the 54,000-acre Tara National Park.
During my final two days in Serbia, I took in the highlights of the Tara and Zlatibor region with Marko Ristovski, a guide who is based in the nearby town of Uzice, where he runs the ecohostel Republik. Our whirlwind 36 hours included a 12-mile paddle down the attractive Drina River, which separates Serbia from Bosnia. We dined riverside on trout and an assortment of barbecued meats. We hiked in the twilight to a Tara Mountain vantage point. Near the village of Uvac we bought cheese directly from a farmer.
And finally, we boated and hiked through the Uvac reservoir, staring at the protected griffon vultures that soared majestically in the skies above.
Serbia, I thought, might not be a small blip on the tourist trail for long.
Air Serbia flies five times weekly from New York to Belgrade. Visit www.airserbia.com/en for more information.