Locked in between the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains, the Iron Gates and Timok Valley regions ought to rank among Serbia’s cultural and natural highlights.
The branching tributaries of the Timok River irrigate the hillsides as they flow north towards the Danube, merging into one and briefly forming Serbia’s border with Bulgaria. And to the west, the mighty cliffs of the Danube’s scenic Iron Gates gorge overlook the Romanian bank of Central Europe’s iconic river.
This fertile borderland has been inhabited for millennia, and prehistoric sculptors have left their mark on the country jut as much as Roman emperors, medieval overlords or even 18th-century wine merchants. From what might be the oldest urban settlement in Europe to peculiar but merry wine cellars, kashkaval tourist presents 7 sensational sites in eastern Serbia!
1. Sentinel of the Iron Gates: Golubac Fortress
Whether you’re arriving from the west from Belgrade or the east on the winding road along the Danube, the sight of the Golubac Fortress’s ten towers is sure to stop you in your tracks. Built in the 14th century at the strategic western entrance to the Iron Gates, the castle controlled river traffic at this key location in the Middle Ages. As such, it’s no surprise Golubac was the site of epic sieges and bloody battles from the Middle Ages on.
Today, Golubac’s gorgeous location and imposing architecture make it possibly Serbia’s most attractive castle. As of early 2018, entering the fortress’s inner yard was impossible because of ongoing renovation, but you can admire this Danubian bulwark from the surrounding gardens of the modern visitors’ centre.
2. Stone villages of wine: Rajac & Rogljevo wine cellars
Hidden in this faraway corner of Eastern Serbia are Rajac and Rogljevo, two of the country’s most peculiar and charming villages… namely, villages inhabited not by people, but by casks and bottles of wine and rakia! Okay, admittedly, there’s also people around, but the main inhabitants are most definitely the beverages.
These compounds of hundreds of wine cellars with a characteristic stone architecture were established in the 18th century. Then, vine-growing and wine production in the Timok Valley were booming and even French merchants appreciated the quality of the local wines. Today, only a handful of the cellars in Rajac and Rogljevo are open for tastings, but the captivating architecture and the atmosphere of old are still there to be experienced.
For a pleasant stay in Rajac, including delightful homemade wine and superb Serbian hospitality, Zoran and Emina Milenović’s bed and breakfast comes highly recommended!
3. The Danube at its most scenic: the Iron Gates gorge
Few locations along the Danube can match the natural splendour of the Iron Gates gorge. There, Central Europe’s grandest waterway enters its lower course, meandering along steep cliffs, its waters finding their way through narrow passages between the Carpathians and the Balkan Mountains. Shared in this section by Romania and Serbia, the Iron Gates part of the Danube is a protected area on either side of the river. At the Iron Gates, Romania’s Porțile de Fier natural park to the north meets up with the Đerdap national park along the Serbian southern bank.
The coolest way to enjoy the Iron Gates’ incredible waterscapes has to be from the river itself, whether it’s on a cruise ship or a kayak. But both river banks are traced by panoramic roads, briefly interrupted by little tunnels dug in the cliffsides, so a road trip along the riverside ain’t a bad idea either!
4. Paleolithic dwellings and fishlike idols: Lepenski Vir
Whether early humans appreciated the Iron Gates canyon for its beauty remains debatable, but they certainly took advantage of the region’s fertility and natural conditions. After all, it’s no coincidence that Lepenski Vir, what might be Europe’s oldest known “urban” settlement, sprung up at the banks of the Danube just there.
Lepenski Vir was founded around 6500 BC by a mysterious people that exhibited a remarkable degree of culture for the time. It might be a settlement of basic dwellings, but it featured an impressive level of organization. In fact, there’s strong indications that the Lepenski Vir site was built according to an urban plan, with a square and a temple in the middle. And in each house, the residents placed bizarre stone figurines of fishlike creatures around the fireplace.
After the construction of the Iron Gates I Dam, the Lepenski Vir site was relocated and conserved at a different location a few kilometres upstream. Nowadays, it’s one of the must-see places on a tour of Serbia’s Đerdap National Park or a Danube cruise.
5. Ancient Roman grandeur: Felix Romuliana
Ancient Roman Emperor Galerius was native to this part of the Balkans. So when the time came to commission a magnificent palace complex complete with temples, thermal baths and elaborate fortifications, he chose today’s Gamzigrad near Zaječar. And why not name it Felix Romuliana after his Thracian mother Romula while he was at it!
Construction commenced at the turn of the 4th century AD, but Felix Romuliana was never completed in full. It was abandoned only a century later due to the incessant barbarian raids. However, the Gamzigrad site remains remarkably well-preserved, with traces of sophisticated mosaics and ancient sculptures visible to this day. Furthermore, Galerius himself was likely buried nearby at the Magura site, next to his mother.
6. Oddity of medieval Orthodox architecture: the church in Donja Kamenica
In the Middle Ages, the Timok Valley of eastern Serbia was regularly under the vassalage or direct control of the First and Second Bulgarian Empires – and specifically, the mighty lords of Vidin. The unique little Orthodox church in Donja Kamenica near Knjaževac might be one of the best examples of Bulgaria’s cultural impact on the region in the 14th century.
Named after the Holy Mother of God, the Donja Kamenica church exhibits a stunning castle-like façade complete with two highly unusual sharp-pointed stone towers. This design has practically no analogue in local Byzantine-based church architecture, so the inspiration likely came from the Catholic architectural traditions of Hungary or Transylvania.
And although the church in Donja Kamenica might be most notable for its distinctive architecture, the 14th-century mural paintings inside are no less awe-inspiring. Depictions of saints, biblical scenes and multiple donor portraits adorn the building’s interior walls. By all means climb the little stairs to the second floor right of the nave entrance to make sure you see them all!
7. Rumbling stopover in the Balkan Mountains: Bigar Waterfall near Stanjinac
Mostly untouched by ambitious ski resorts or waves of tourists, Serbia’s part of the Balkan Mountains has retained its verdant, forested slopes largely intact. Excluding Kosovo, these are Serbia’s most significant highlands, reaching 2169 m at the peak of Midžor on the Bulgarian border.
And where there’s lush vegetation and mountain slopes, there’s often (surprise!) breathtaking waterfalls too! Thanks to its location just next to the road, the Bigar Waterfall near Stanjinac is a fitting introduction to the wonderful nature of the Serbian Balkan Mountains. At this place, the mountain river cascades 35 metres downhill in two separate streams, creating an extraordinary natural sight. And those chilly waters must be super refreshing in summer!