Nature was so generous to Western Serbia that it covered it in lush forests, torrential springs and picturesque mountains. Such is the Tara Mountain! They say that those who visit once tend to keep coming again and again. People seem to be captivated by the surroundings with typical regional features and yet so specific that it cannot be compared to any other mountain in Serbia.
FROM BELGRADE: about 180 km (via Valjevo)
FROM NIS: about 300 km (via Vrnjacka Banja)
My route was via Uzice town and Mokra Gora because I have already been exploring Western Serbia for more than a month. I turned right off the main road near Kremna village to go to Tara. Still, the fastest way from Belgrade to Tara National Park is via Valjevo town, while the Ibarska Road will take another 50 km or so (but it doesn’t have so many sharp curves!). My head was already full of information and I was eager to finally get there. As soon as you learn that 80 percent of the whole Tara National Park is actually covered in forests, you get the idea about the place you are heading to. Still, one gets so much more than what he might expect, not just the untamed nature and walks through the woods, but spectaculars views, torrential lakes and incredible flora and fauna.
TARA NATIONAL PARK It covers the territory of almost 25,000 hectares. Tara Mountain lies in the altitude of about 1,200 meters, while the highest peak is Kozji rid (1,591 m).
This is the typical forest area that is among the richest ecosystems in Europe regarding the variety of species. The so called Pancic or Serbian Spruce is of special importance. It is the endemic species that endured in Drina river canyons and that is known for surviving the most recent Ice Age. This is also the area with the largest population of brown bear in Serbia. The symbol of invertebrate fauna of Tara is the endemic Pancic Grasshopper.
The scene is still vivid in my memory – Ranko, head of Park’s tourism department was just explaining to me at the outskirts of the Zaovine Lake how Serbian scientist Josif Pancic was actually looking for the spruce for 20 years, since 1855. There are 60,000 trees along the Drina river, he says, and 58,000 of them are in the Tara National Park! This tree turned out to be so resistant that it has sometimes succeeded to endure harsh city conditions and absorb the pollution, Ranko says. That’s why it is often referred to as the living fossil of the European and Balkan flora.
The place was more than interesting. Ranko was full of information about the National Park ecosystem, giving me data about endemic species – not only the brown bear that somewhat became Tara’s trademark, but also the grasshopper. Its specific is that it doesn’t fly, it only has vestigial wings, and it occupies only the territory of the Park and can’t be found anywhere else in the world!
Before us – wonderful view of the Spajici Lake, while dark blue water of the Zaovine Lake was ruffled by the breeze behind our back. This is the central part of Zaovine village that the lake was named after. It lies in the altitude of 892 meters, and the water is pumped up from Perucac Lake on Drina river that is 600 meters below. The dam was built here on the White Rzav river and most of the houses were either flooded or moved. The lake is nowadays almost 80 meters deep. Its beautiful dark blue water gives marvelous reflections and swimmers are always flocking to one of its beaches to cool down during hot summer days.
But, the thing one finds distinctive when it comes to Tara is that the mountain is somewhat stretched. You need to be patient whenever you head to some location (try to get yourself some kind of off-road vehicle if possible) because you most certainly have few dozen km to cover. But this is when you will get the sense of how vast the Park actually is! And don’t expect to have any sense of direction or to know whether you are driving in circles or not, because you will constantly be surrounded by the same, enormous forest. (That is exactly why it is not advised for visitors to stray away off the road. They also say that the brown bear gets curious sometimes.)
To get a hint of how Tara’s settlements are far from one another, take Bajina Basta town as the starting point. From this town that is situated at the bottom of the mountain and on Drina bank, it will take you 40 km to reach the dam in Zaovine Lake. Popular Tara resort Mitrovac is 25 km away from Bajina Basta while the settlement Predov Krst is at 33 km. In order to reach another resort Kaludjerske Bare, it will take 16 km up the hill from Bajina Basta town. According to these popular resorts, it will be easy to locate famous Tara viewpoints – and you certainly shouldn’t miss these!
There is a chance that you are reading this post because you stumbled upon one of Tara photos, the one where the breathtaking view is stretching over Drina canyon through branches of an old pine tree. (Believe me, it’s that surreal even in person! Drina reflects some turquoise color, it’s like it has been painted in a Photoshop.) There are five official viewpoints in Tara Mountain: Banjska stena, Crnjeskovo, Biljeska stena, Oslusa and Sjenic. (Ranko and Marija from the National Park who came to pick me up that morning, seemed to have been listing even more than five, but it was impossible to write them down – not while jouncing in the back seat going from Oslusa towards Sokolarica.)
All the info about how to safely visit these spectacular viewpoints is available at the Tara National Park check points – in Bajina Basta, Mitrovac and Perucac, or you can just visit the Tourist Information Center of Bajina Basta. It’s easy to get the idea of the type of vacation you can experience here when you learn that it’s possible to rent a bike in the Park (about 1.5 Euros per hour, 4 per day), a kayak (for 2 Euros per hour or 5.5 per day), a binocular, hiking poles, you can also hire a guide, or book a brown bear watching tour.
And that’s not all! The last morning in Tara I found out that there are also the so-called off road tours. I spent few days at the Mijailovic’s Mountain House in Kaludjerske Bare and Natasha was telling me over coffee that mostly foreigners were interested in this kind of vacation. They would call in advance and book the lighter or the heavier version of the ride. Being a tour guide herself, Natasha also accompanied tourists to Uvac, Zlatibor Mountain, Mokra Gora. Israelis were especially interested in participating in making a traditional pie in one of the households in the nearby village, she says.
DRINA Although there are numerous rivers in the area, namely White Rzav, Raca, Derventa, Brusnica, there is one that dominates. Drina encircles Tara on the north and the northwest and it goes all the way from Montenegro, being the natural border between Serbia and Bosnia, to become the largest affluent of the Sava river. It is famous for its riffles and rapids, spectacular meanders of its canyon, dams and lakes. Regarding the canyon depth (from 700 to 1,000 meters) it is the first in Serbia and the third in the whole world. This once wild river brought rafting in focus, but it’s also very popular among fishing lovers.
Drina Rafting is probably the best known of its kind in Serbia. It takes place every third week of July and it quickly became massively attended. The festival began 25 years ago and is often accompanied by various conquests – in making a traditional fish soup, in diving from the bridge. But, don’t think that there’s nothing else to do when visiting Drina river in the summer. Well, if you don’t believe me, just stop by the beach at Perucac Lake! When the 461-meter-dam was built here, the lake emerged. It’s 50 km long and 85 meters deep. When water reaches 22 degrees in July and August, it’s hard to find a single free spot at the Perucac beach. There are also small floating houses to be seen by the Drina bank, numerous boats and fishermen, and those who enjoy water sports.
Make sure to stop by the small river that is, as locals would say, “as long as the year itself”, at the very center of Perucac settlement, 13 km from Bajina Basta. It stretches for only 365 meters! I had the chance to visit Vrelo river earlier, but the weather this summer made it so strong that I could barely believe it was the same, tiny river!
All the Western Serbia waters turned large this summer, every spring was spouting with a roar, water was bursting from almost every rock, because it was constantly raining until the beginning of August. This is when the actual summer began giving few consequent days a chance to stay dry. That is the reason that this small Vrelo river also became huge. Such a short flow with such a noisy roar! This is the shortest river in Serbia that tumbles down into Drina in the form of the lovely 10-meter-high-waterfall.
Here is another thing to do while visiting Drina. Remember the canyon that we saw from the Banjska stena viewpoint? Yep, you guessed it – this time we are taking a cruise from Perucac Lake through the very same canyon all the way to Visegrad in Bosnia. And there we are off to see the famous bridge on Drina and the town dedicated to Serbian Nobel prize winner Ivo Andric.
While you hear the guide Nedjo’s voice on the boat explaining through the speaker why it is “so good to be a brown bear in Tara” – not only that it is the protected species, but it gets food from locals and “if it does any damage to nearby villages – the authorities cover the costs”, you can’t seem to believe what an astonishing view is arising before your eyes. The passage through steep Drina banks gets pretty narrow at times. On the left there is the spot where another Bistrica river is flowing into Drina. You can feel a chill breeze coming from there. Then you pass by Zepa river and you see few medieval necropolises that were put on UNESCO heritage list in 2016, along with those found in Perucac.
The owner of Tara Tours agency, the one that organizes the cruise to Visegrad, told me how he bought the boat in Belgrade a year before and renovated it from scratch. “It bears the name of Grizzly now”, Goran Glisic says. This cruise took place for the first time in 2017 and it was a genuine promotion of the area with more than 200 guests on board.
The thing that sticks with you is that the atmosphere on the boat is great, there is some pleasant music in the back, some breeze on the deck, breathtaking scenery all around while you chit-chat with crew members. One-day cruise is 18.5 Euros per person and you should reserve your seat in advance since the boat has 140 persons capacity. It goes at 9 am, with the name call up and ID check (Serbian citizens can travel with the national ID, while others should have passports and check if they need visas since Visegrad is in a different country – Bosnia). After cruising for three and a half hours you will get more than two hours to spend in Visegrad and visit the famous bridge and Andricgrad (Andrictown). You will be back to Perucac around 6.30 pm.
Andricgrad is pretty charming. It’s also known as the Stonetown, referring to the Woodentown in Mokra Gora that was also built by the famous Serbian film director Emir Kusturica. The town was opened in 2014 and it is full of symbolism. Every building here has something to do with Andric, so much so that the bookstore bears the name of his favorite book Either/Or written by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. You can visit Turkish Kasaba restaurant for kebabs or have a cake at the Secession pastry shop.
Next to the town entrance there lies a new statue to Sokolovic brothers – to Mehmed Pasa who built the famous Drina bridge in 1571, and Makarije who was helped by his relative to become a patriarch of the restored Serbian Patriarchate of Pec in the middle of the 16th century. As for the Drina bridge, that’s another story. I felt like stepping back in time! If you haven’t had a chance to read The Bridge on The Drina by Ivo Andic who got the Nobel prize for the book, this is the time to do it. It will all become clear afterwards!
BAJINA BASTA The population of the town according to the 2011 data is around 26,000. It lies at the foot of Tara Mountain, on the right bank of Drina. It was established in the mid-19th century when former Serbian ruler Aleksandar Karadjordjevic issued such an order in 1858. There are various legends regarding the name of the town, but the most common one is that there was once a Turkish man named Baja who had a vast garden (basta in Serbian). The intensive economy development has started in 1966 when the hydroelectric power plant Perucac was built.
The most important monument here when it comes to history and culture is the Raca Monastery that lies on the Tara slopes, 6 km from Bajina Basta. This is where the river by the same name comes out of its picturesque small canyon. According to beliefs, the monastery dates back to the 13th century when Serbian king Dragutin erected it. It was destructed twice throughout history, while todays appearance originates from 1835. This is where the renowned Miroslav Gospel was kept during the WWII, the oldest 12th-century Serbian book. King Dragutin remains are also kept at the monastery. The famous school was here, at about 40-minute-walk up the Raca river. Monks were copying important manuscripts but also drawing decorative book illustrations. The school was closed in 1690.
For those of you who know the town, I am sure that the first thing that pops up in your head when mentioning Bajina Basta is the House on Drina, right! The river has a habit of getting wild sometimes as it did few years back when the house was just washed away to the unknown direction. Still, locals always manage to build another one even prettier, they say, and to place it on the top of the rock again. You may wonder what the rock is doing in the middle of the river? Well, that’s another thing related to the folk tradition. According to legend, Serbian hero Marko Kraljevic who lived during the Ottoman rule and was famous for his strength, didn’t want his horse to get wet. So, he got up to the mountain and threw a huge rock, placing it in the middle of the river. It only took two jumps for the horse to cross over. They say that there is still a hoof trace to be seen on the rock.
When it comes to cuisine, Tara and Bajina Basta are full of Western Serbia specialties such as traditional buns with kaymak, prsuta, fish, various cakes. Of course, it has the national rakija drink as well! Actually, this is the town where one of the oldest and the biggest rakija distilleries in Serbia is. It produces the “BB klekovaca” brand. The moment you step inside, you will smell the alcohol. You will be told that there are 200 tons of rakija stored here at the moment, the pleasant host will take you on the tour around the facility and by the huge barrels. Before you realize what’s going on, you will notice that you have already tried “few samples” – the old plum rakija, the one made out of quince “that stayed in the oak barrel” and the young one “that is still tingling”, made of blackberries and raspberries the region is famous for…
Just try to find someone to drive you up those mountain curves afterwards!
Next destination – Pozega and Uzice
The full Weekend In Serbia section
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