Serbia is a small country, filled with so much history on so little land. This provides the traveler with ample opportunities to visit places of immense historical interest and importance, all within easy reach. In Serbia, moreover, the traveler can experience these places in an atmosphere of quiet, unhurried contemplation, without the conveyor belt, mass tourism one often finds at tourist venues in other countries.
Not fifty kilometers from Belgrade, accessible by motorway or by nature’s oldest highway, the Danube River, lies the city of Smederevo. At one time the capital of Serbia, and the last Serbian fortress to fall to the Turks, in 1459, six years after the Fall of Constantinople, Smederevo is a must-see for any historical and fortress enthusiast.
As a visit to Smederevo’s well-appointed museum will attest, this site along the Danube has had human habitation for millennia, not least in the Roman Era, when the area formed part of Rome’s fortified Danubian frontier. Smederevo’s first vines were planted then, the start of a winemaking tradition unbroken to the present day.
Smederevo was on the northern edge of Medieval Serbia, but events brought the area to center stage. In the latter part of the fourteenth century, the Turks began infiltrating the Balkans, taking territory from the Byzantine, Bulgarian and Serbian kingdoms. In 1389, the epic Battle of Kosovo crippled the Serbian Empire, but all the fight was not yet out of the Serbs. The core of the Serbian State, hitherto in Kosovo and Montenegro, shifted northwards toward the Danube Basin, the Serbian heartland of today. Smederevo was chosen as the site for the Serbian Despotate’s capital.
In the late 1420s the Serbian Despot Durad Brankovic and his Byzantine wife, Jerina from the Kantakouzinos Dynasty, began to build the fortress. The construction included the conscription of one male from every Serbian household to complete the impressive walls, designed by Jerina’s brother, George Kantakouzinos to resemble those of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul).
Behind these walls, Medieval Serbian civilization lived out its last thirty years, creating works of art and artistry that would prefigure the Renaissance further west in Europe. Stacks of ceramic pipes in the museum, excavated from the city, show that the town in question had conveniences and infrastructure rare at the time. The city changed hands between the Serbs and Turks on a couple of occasions, but the Turks took the city and citadel for the last, and final time in 1459. Serbia would not rise again for four hundred years. Today, the vast enclosure of the fortress is an open green space where there were once the homes and shops of thousands of people, but in one’s mind, sitting on a park bench or watching children in the numerous playgrounds, it is easy in to drift back to the fifteenth century, back to a time when Serbia was one of the most literate and advanced states in Europe, where intellect and the arts flourished.
Smederevo’s citadel, known as “Mali Grad,” the “Little City,” is a very well-preserved example of fifteenth-century castle architecture, incorporating all of the typical Byzantine architectural elements, along with larger battlements and embrasures to accommodate the new technologies of the era—gunpowder and cannon. While the Despot’s Quarters are now gone, the arches and sockets for wall beams easily lead to the conclusion that the palace was large and ornate. Now, bereft of its wooden buildings, the interior of the castle has excellent acoustics, used for concerts and theater productions in the warmer months.
The castle towers provide a commanding view of the Danube west and east, the modern city of Smederevo on the hills to the south, and the flat fertile fields of Vojvodina to the north. Spots chosen for strategic value in wartime are often quite romantic in peacetime, and so it is with this site. Particularly stirring are the sunsets, with a hint of Danube breeze, as the sun drops to the west behind the mountains and river.
After a lingering visit to the fortress, walk toward the city center and stop in the Smederevo Museum, where at a quiet, unhurried pace you can take in well over three millennia of Smederevo history. Like Belgrade to the west, Smederevo served as a strategic and commercial center throughout its history. The Romans had a fortified base here, Mons Aureus, and sophisticated crafts and military equipment from this era are on display.
The Serbo-Byzantine era occupies a full floor of the museum, with replicas of the fort at its height, and various documents and frescoes depicting the high culture of Serbo-Byzantine Smederevo, a civilization, which though in political decline, was at its intellectual zenith.
After a tour of the museum, just a few steps away is the Church of Sv. Djordje (St. George), built in the 1850s. The church is a composite of styles, with Serbo-Byzantine cupolas and domes, combined with the exterior moldings and high walls typical of Serbian Orthodox Churches in Vojvodina, which experienced Austro-Hungarian rule. The interior frescoes also represent a fusion of styles, from Byzantine, baroque, and Russian influences, painted by the Russian iconographer Anreja Bicenko. In many ways, the Church is an architectural metaphor for modern Serbia, with its Byzantine and Danubian influences fused together.
Outside the Church, take a stroll down Kralja Petra Street. This is, after all, Serbia and in Serbia, there is a café for every taste, and so it is along this pedestrian zone which begins in St. George’s Square and ends, most appropriately, at the Danube, site of numerous fish restaurants either moored on ships or lining the shore. As Serbia has not been impacted by mass tourism, travelers are still a curiosity and locals are eager to test their varied and varying linguistic skills with visitors, so strike up a conversation in one of the cafés.
Smederevo should be on any Serbian itinerary because, in one location, the visitor can absorb and appreciate so much of Serbia’s history, culture, and cuisine. From the glories of the Serbian Empire to today’s subtle fusion of cultures and influences, Smederevo provides a window to what makes modern Serbia a fascinating place.
A version of this article first appeared in JAT Review, the Inflight Magazine of JAT Airways (now Air Serbia).