While it is sometimes debated whether it is Serbia’s second or third largest city — the consensus seems to be that Novi Sad is a shade larger — the south-eastern city of Niš lies well-off most travellers’ radar. While the capital Belgrade has the lure of bright city lights and Novi Sad has style and undeniable baroque charm, Niš (Ниш) has always been something of a poor relation. Having a reputation that is often associated with industrial decline has certainly not helped matters.
Despite its modern veneer, the city is undoubtedly very old. Originally a Celtic settlement, the city that came to be known as Naissus went on to become one of the largest Roman centres in the Balkan region. This was always a city with connections; the Roman emperor Constantine the Great was born here. A millennium or so later Niš would emerge as an important centre of Ottoman power. The city’s historically important location, in a natural corridor en route to what was formerly Byzantium and later Constantinople, remains strategically important even today. Head towards Istanbul from anywhere in central or Western Europe and the most direct route will invariably lead you through Niš.
For the first-time visitor there are sights that should not be missed. The Turkish fortress and the ruins of Constantine’s villa at Mediana on the road to Niška Banja are obvious draws. There is also the gruesome ‘skull tower’ or Ćele kule — which commemorates an Ottoman victory over Serbs — and the ironically named ‘Red Cross’ concentration camp just outside the city. Atop a hill south of the city is the Bubanj Memorial Park, which marks the location of the place where mass executions took place during World War II that resulted in the death of at least 10,000 Serbs, Roma and Jews. These last three sites are all rather grisly in one way or another. Stark reminders of the horrors of war and the suffering it brings, they are memento mori in concrete and stone that reinforce the image of a city with a troubled history.
Parks and piazzas
The beauty of returning to somewhere that is reasonably familiar is the liberation that comes with not feeling obliged to have to tick off a list of requisite sights.