Beauty spot for 9,000 years

SerbiaBA'Bill Auckland at Djerdap
SerbiaBA'Bill Auckland at Djerdap
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EUROPE’s largest river gorge, Djerdap, in Serbia, where the mighty Danube flows between towering rock walls 1,000ft high and more, is a magnificent sight.

No wonder people have been coming here to admire it for 9,000 years.

Here, in the shelter of the gorge on the banks of the Danube, archaeologists found evidence of a human settlement dating back to 7,000 years BC, when mankind was emerging from caves and starting to build homes and develop agriculture.

The settlement, known as Lepenski Vir, was uncovered in 1965, when work was about to start on a hydro-electric dam that would raise the water level of the Danube by many metres.

Archaeologists investigating the site due to disappear under water found mesolithic sculptures, buildings and settlements.

The entire settlement has been relocated into a striking modern pavilion above the waterline. It’s one of many treasures Serbia has to offer tourists.

Landlocked Serbia, in the central Balkans and at the crossroads between Europe and the East, has been torn apart by conflict time and time again over the centuries and is still licking its wounds after war followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the early ’90s.

Now peace has returned and the country is keen to attract visitors.

Apart for the glorious Djerdap national park, excellent walking country with adventure sports and wildlife, Serbia has much more.

The summers are hotter and more reliable than ours - 30°C and more. There’s a wealth of history and culture and, crucially, food, drink and accommodation are affordable.

Capital Belgrade is internationally famous for nightlife. The Lonely Planet guide ranked it number one in the top ten world’s best party cities. But we’ve plenty of exploring to do before we reach Belgrade.

Our trip began by heading east towards the Danube gorge.

In the expanding resort at Silver Lake, beside the Danube, hotel rooms are only about 16 euros a night. The pale but strong local Jelen beer will set you back £1 or so a pint and a pizza in a restaurant is about £4. There’s plenty of water sport.

Moving on, the towering remains of Golubac fortess guard the entrance to the Iron Gate, where the Danube surges between the sheer rock walls of the Djerdap Gorge.

High above the Danube with a glorious view over the town of Donji Milanovac lies one of the most unusual holiday apartment houses you’ll ever see.

Kapetan Misin breg, named after a local sailor and philanthropist, is a farm, restaurant and art gallery, in grounds full of bizarre sculptures and ancient farming equipment.

Here, in an open-sided gazebo, they serve hearty rustic food; stinging nettle soup, goat cheese, corn bread, huge platters of grilled meat with home-grown salad and aggressive chillies. Clean, basic rooms are from 16 euros a night. What a bargain.

The Romans made themselves at home here in Serbia, too.

At Viminacium you can explore the remains of an extensive Roman city and military camp from the first century AD. The site was uncovered during opencast mining for coal for power stations at Kostolac.

Treasures recovered are in the National Museum in the pleasant little town of Pozarevac.

There you can see the site of the historic peace treaty that ended the war between Turkey, Austria and the Republic of Venice in 1718.

It’s worth a look round the gallery dedicated to local artist Barilli Milena (1909-1945)

Back on the trail of the Romans, there’s the imperial palace of Felix Romuliana, built around the end of the third century AD.

This huge structure, with evidence of double fortifications and up to 20 towers, poses a riddle for historians. It was the retirement palace of the Emperor Gaius Valerius Galerius Maximianus, at his birthplace, but it resembles a military installation.

You can see baths, sculptures and colourful floor mosaics.

Overseeing the site and the national museum of Zajecar is Bora Dimitrijevic, a huge man, long-haired and bearded, with a booming voice and boundless enthusiasm.

You could imagine him taking up arms to defend this heritage.

After all this history, you might fancy a 21st century night on the town.

Capital Beograd, or Belgrade as we call it, is a city of more than a million people at the confluence of the Danube and Sava. It has more than 500 clubs, boat clubs and cafes.

Saturday night out starts in the area they call Silicone Valley, where the beautiful people meet.

Eyeing the crowds thronging the bars, a journalist colleague said: “All these women have tried to kill James Bond at some point.”

You could see what he meant.

The beer’s only a couple of quid a pint in trendy venues.

To blow away the cobwebs the morning after, it’s bracing to stand in the pleasant parkland within the Belgrade Fortress and Kalemegdan, the former historical and urban centre, high above the Sava and Danube confluence. It occupies the ridge with views of Novi Beograd, Zemun and plains of Pannonia.

The Romans built a fortress here in the first century AD. It was destroyed by the Goths and Huns, rebuilt in the first decades of the VI century and destroyed by the Slavs within a century. Rebuilding and destruction has continued down the centuries. There are Serbian, Turkish and Austrian fortifications.

The Turks ruled Beograd for three centuries until the Austrian-Turkish war. Under the Austrian rule, from 1717-1739 the fortress was one of the strongest military fortifications in Europe.

Back at base, the view from my bedroom window in the opulent Hotel Crystal is dominated by the magnificent St Sava’s Church, one of the ten largest places of worship in the world – 270ft tall to the tip of its golden cross.

Work on the church began in 1935 but was repeatedly interrupted by war, conflict and lack of funds.

The amazing feat of hoisting the 4,000 ton central dome was completed in 1989 and now the beautiful exterior is finished, although work continues on the fine details inside. As it does in the rest of modern Serbia.