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Niš, Constantine's Birthplace

Niš is an interesting and culturally rich city close to the Serbian – Bulgarian border. It is known as Constantine's birthplace. An attractive town with a river running through the middle and some delightful hilly countryside with views over to Bosnia. It shares much in common with Bulgaria including the renowned Cyrillic Alphabet, indeed Serbian sounds very similar to Bulgarian, its food is also of similar ilk and menus include plenty of Shopska salad.

Easily accessed by car, train or bus from Sofia or Vidin, the charming town of Niš (pronounced Nish) is an important crossroad between central Europe and other Balkan countries like Macedonia and Greece.

Indeed, the Bulgarian capital Sofia is only a 150 km away by means of a scenic toll free road, which takes you through some impressive mountain tunnels. The European motorway E75 is located on the outskirts of the city and almost all buses traveling from Bulgaria to the northwest will stop in Niš.
When you are inside of the city you can access everything wither on foot or by public transport. If you do use the bus service you have to buy your ticket on the bus and you will need plenty of small change to do this as most rides cost around 50 Serbian dinars.

Rich in history

Niš is a beautiful city with a rich history and well worth the visit from Bulgaria. As part of the Roman Empire, it was known as Naissus, which meant "city of the nymphs." It is also believed to be the location of the Greek town Nysa, a mythical place where the young god Dionysus grew up. It is also the birthplace of the famed Constantine the Great, who was the first Christian Emperor of Rome. During the Yugoslav War of the 1990’s Niš saw its share of fighting, but was the first Serbian city in Serbia to stand against Slobodan Milosevic’s government.

 

Much to see

Niš offers visitors some wonderful and interesting sites and one must-see is the incredible Skull Tower, which is literally a tower of human skulls from the 19th century. It was built by the Turks from the skulls of the Serbs killed at the battle of Cegar, near Nis, in May 1809. Originally there were 952 skulls, but today only 58 remain, the rest were either taken out of the tower for a proper burial or were lost over time. A late 19th century chapel now surrounds the skulls, which were mentioned in the French poet Alfonce de Lamartine’s work entitled "Voyage to East." Emperor Constantine’s birthplace at Mediana just outside of the city is also well worth a visit as it contains some original Roman mosaics along with the ruins of the imperial palace and several luxury villas and Roman baths. Extraordinary remains of an 18th century fortress lie on the bank of the Nišava River on the site of a Roman military camp. The fortress was built by the Turks using local labour and skilled stonecutters and bricklayers from Istanbul. The walls and gates have been well-preserved as well as the Turkish steam bath, post station, Bali- mosque, powder place and prison. Another memorable site is the Villa of the "crazy" Prince George, who was the heir to the Serbian throne. Sadly in 1926 he was committed to a mental hospital on grounds of insanity by his younger brother, Alexander, who was then, crowned king. The prince was kept locked in this spacious villa within the mental institutions grounds for 15 years. However after the Second World War the Royal Family excluding George, were declared enemies of the state by the communist regime, they fled and George was permitted to retire to Belgrade.

 

Shopping

Niš has an abundance of shops and boutiques, which will satisfy the needs of the most demanding shopaholic. Kalca with its underground shopping passage is the biggest shopping mall in the city. It is a huge, three-storey building, with stores ranging from clothes, shoes and music to stationery and computer equipment. Do remember that you will need to pay in local currency to make any purchases. Some stores will take Euros, but will give any change due in dinars.

 

Eating and Drinking

Niš is a food paradise with plenty of good restaurants and cafes. It is said to be the home of the best Burek in the Balkan Peninsula. Shopska salad is another common dish here, although the Serbian feta cheese is less sharp in taste than its Bulgarian counterpart. Another popular dish is the acclaimed "Balkans Burger," locally known as Pljeskavica; it is made from a combination of spiced ground beef, pork and lamb. Chevapchichi is also another concoction of spiced meats and is also very popular as a fast food here. There is plenty of international food in Niš including some excellent pizza and pasta.
Downtown Niš is packed with cafes and bars including some fun specialty. The local drink is one we all know from our trips to Bulgaria, so there should be no problem in drinking it – it is of course that rocket fuel known in Serbia as Rakija.

 

Where to stay

There are plenty of places to stay and a variety of price ranges to suit all budgets. The Ambassador Hotel on Central Square dominated the Niš skyline as the tallest building in the city. The hotel is a little outdated by today’s standards but rooms are far less expensive than its luxurious neighbor, Best Western’s “My Place” Hotel, which has a good restaurant, spacious and tastefully decorated rooms with additional comforts like Jacuzzi baths.
Cheaper accommodation can be found in nearby Niška Banja. This area offers much in the way of small B&B’s at reasonable prices.

 

Don’t miss out

If you’re spending a lot of time in Bulgaria, take advantage of its close proximity to cities like Niš and make the effort to see a little more of Bulgaria’s hospitable neighbours. Niš is easy to get to and the route from Sofia and Vidin passes through some wondrous scenery. It’s a wonderful city, afterall it is Constantine's birthplace, and it is one I have visited many times and  I never seem to tire of – give it a try!

 

Photographs courtesy of Monika Kostera, Poland.