TRAVEL REVIEW: Look beyond festival to see heart of Serbia

Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad, the venue for the Exit music festival
Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad, the venue for the Exit music festival
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The big summer festival is a staple of many a music lover’s calendar - but suddenly around the middle of the last decade, simply booking a ticket to Leeds or Reading didn’t quite cut the mustard any more. Instead festivals in warmer climes across Europe and beyond began to divert the attention of fans lured by less costly tickets, top headliners and guaranteed sunny weather.

Of course countries such as Spain - with its successful Benicassim and Primavera gatherings - topped the list of the popular destinations.

But other events have proved a hit among festivalgoers with a little wanderlust - including Exit, in Serbia, which next month celebrates its 15th anniversary.

Started in 2000 as a protest against the Southeast European country’s Government, the festival now pulls in attendances of 200,000.

The dance arena is probably the biggest draw, but recent acts on the bill have included Arctic Monkeys, The Prodigy, Pulp and David Guetta. The venue itself is the unique setting of the Petrovaradin Fortress, a sprawling site in the city of Novi Sad by the River Danube, the thousand-mile waterway which crosses a huge swathe of the continent.

Understandably, grim news reports of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s still loom large in the memory when Serbia is mentioned in Britain, but the country has rebuilt itself rapidly and is clearly fostering a modern, forward-looking mindset - notwithstanding its reliance on the obscure Serbian dinar currency (near-impossible to change back into Sterling in the UK).

So there’s a clear argument for combining festival revelry with some sightseeing, too.

Direct flights run from London Heathrow to capital city Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport - the Serb inventor Tesla is a source of national pride, as is champion tennis player Novak Djoković.

Spending a day or two in Belgrade before heading to Novi Sad is strongly recommended. The enormous church of Saint Sava is one of the largest Orthodox temples in the world, while Belgrade Fortress and Kalemegdan Park are thriving museums of the city, offering stunning views of the spot where the River Sava meets the Danube.

Much of city life is focused on the riverside - in particular the ‘splavs’, floating bars and restaurants which stay open until morning.

Meanwhile, Novi Sad is close to the Fruska Gora national park, a lush mountain range populated by monasteries and vineyards, which produce bermet, a dessert wine. The wineries also provide ample opportunity for long, leisurely lunches. Serbian cuisine itself is meaty to say the least, and vegetarians might be left struggling.

Pork, especially of the grilled or barbecued variety, dominates restaurant menus, while dessert trolleys can boast an array of treats for the sweet-toothed, from baklava to Vasa’s torte, an extravagant, nutty cake, rich in chocolate and orange flavours.

There’s also the national drink, rakia, a fruit brandy concocted as an alternative to absinthe. Home-brewed varieties are said to have a mind-boggling alcohol content of up to 90 per cent.

With all these distractions you might even need reminding there’s a festival to attend...

Richard flew with Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines from London Heathrow, and stayed in the Jump Inn in Belgrade and Hotel Centar, Novi Sad. Exit 2015 runs from July 9 to 12. Artists this year include Emeli Sande, Faithless and Clean Bandit. Tickets £115. Visit www.exitfest.org for details.