Sun, squirrel, komplet lepinje. 24 hours of fresh air in the Serbian mountains.
My friend Kaca goes to the mountain as much as she can to breathe the air and regenerate herself. I always believed her when she talked about how good it is to escape the city and go up where the atmosphere feels so different. However, only after two nights in Zlatibor, one of Serbia’s famous mountain resort, did I truly understand. Getting out of the city to enjoy the mountain is the perfect addition to a stay in Belgrade.
My going to Zlatibor for two nights at the end of the summer was some sort of happy accident, an unplanned quick step away in our journey to Bosnia. It set the tone for a trip under a lucky star. Actually: dozens of stars shining brightly in the mountain sky the night we arrived at the little bus station. I took my first sight of the pedestrian city centre revolving around a small artificial lake at the bottom of the hills in the dark. My lungs filled with cold, clear air and I noticed the sudden absence of any buzzing noise in my ears.
The city/resort was built at the bottom of a hill, trees having been cut to make way for shops, houses and hotels today sadly over-multiplying. Locals will tell you how they regret the lack of overview of the building process and the lack of regulation and urban planning. A lot of investors are looking to profit from tourism and Zlatibor has become an expensive place crawling with hotels and construction sites. During high season, especially during winter and around new year’s eve for skiing, the city is overcome by flocks of visitors and the mountain loses its peace and quietness while prices sky-rocket. I’d rather enjoy a snowy day in Belgrade than battle with hordes of tourists in Zlatibor in winter.
However, out of the season, mid-September, the city is almost empty and very quiet. We saw very little cars while walking up to our guest house. In the middle of big luxurious villas and four-stars hotels, Gordana continues living in her small wooden house, renting two bedrooms and offering a true Serbian, mountainous experience. As tradition and rules of hospitality require, she offered us and water and slatko (sweet) from cherry.
Mountain food and Yugoslav monument
The following morning, the sun was already up when we got out of the house but the air was still fresh. We walked through the narrow streets of the centre to look for a bakery serving another local tradition: komplet lepinje, or “complete bread”. A round bread cut open and hollowed to be filled with a salty mix of bacon, egg and greasy kajmak. Enough to keep you warm during the winter!
Emptied of its tourists and in the early hours of the day, the city is visited by its furry inhabitants. In the many parks covered by high mountain trees, squirrels scavenge around, revealed by a warm ray of sunlight before disappearing in a blink. On the path up towards the Spomenik, the Yugoslav monument installed on top of the hill, you might encounter peaceful horses waiting to carry children around, their own young foals taking a nap freely on the ground.
The five-kilometre path upwards is open, the stone pavement drenched in the sun. At noon when we reach the top for the first time, it doesn’t feel like the end of summer anymore. We sit on the ground and enjoy the wide view over the other hills and mountains. Behind us, families and groups of friends walk around the Spomenik. The stone-made obelisk called Monument on Šumatno Hill or Monument to the Executed Partisans (Споменик стрељаним партизанима) was designed by Jovanka Jeftanović & Ana Bešlić, built in 1967 and dedicated to the wounded partisans fighters who were executed by German forces after they retreated from the nearby front in Užice in 1941.
There are many of those spomenici all around the countries of former Yugoslavia. The Spomenik Database will tell you everything about it.
On the way down, we stop in the shade of a small coffee-hut with a comfortable wooden terrace and a delicious “tea of Zlatibor”, a traditional mixture of local mountain herbs.
A shiver brought by sitting in the shadow chases us down back to the town where we wander again in the narrow street for something to eat, ending up with a salad and an incredibly cheap chicken leg bought grilled at the butcher. Eating in Zlatibor can be cheap if you’re ready to step away from the comfort of the many restaurants around and grab something in the street. For dessert, we get ourselves drinks and a box of chocolate cookies to eat on a bench in the park.
Coffee culture in the mountains
On the main square, activity has arisen with the day. It is Sunday after all and families are hanging out at cafés while the kids ride mini-cars in circles. I have always loved Serbs like to hang out drinking coffee with friends and family outside and how most places are “kid-friendly”. There is even an adventure park with dinosaurs. Groups of teenagers start going up towards the Spomenik. Couples sit next to the water of the artificial lake, in the sun, while more kids drive their little, automated toy-boats on the surface. Having coffee on those terraces is also reasonably priced, to my surprise.
When the sun starts to decline, we climb up again to watch it go down behind the mountain. The view is still wide-open and one can see all the way on top of another hill a line of motor squads going down. They will meet us later, still seated on our chair having a drink and reading a book while the sun declines. Meanwhile, two electrical bicycles pass us. According to the man selling the drinks next to the monument, he sees more and more of those outdoor machines, such activities becoming more and more popular across the region and the area of Zlatibor being particularly adapted for them.
We walk back to the guest house. By the time we reach it with groceries for dinner, the night has fallen and we feel the cold absence of the sun. Inside, we cook a simple meal and chat over coffee and raspberry rakija before retiring to our room. My head feels light after resting in the mountain air. My body is sore from all the walking yet I feel energised by the fresh and clean oxygen I have breathed all day. A one-day cure to the noise of the city.