Laced with hundreds of kilometres of marked and wild tracks and over 60 strategically placed overnight trail huts, Serbia is a natural for hikers wishing to stretch their legs: popular treks include the Djerdap National Park (home to the rugged Iron Gates gorge, shared with Romania), Fruška Gora near Novi Sad, where an annual 111km ultramarathon is held each April, and the eastern Mt Rtanj, a mysterious 1560m-high pyramid that attracts both New Age pilgrims and old-school trampers. The Dinaric Alps, the Rhodope mountains, the Carpathians and the Balkan range all cross the country: the Midžor peak, on the border with Bulgaria, is Serbia’s highest at 2169m, and a favourite of amateur alpinists.
Canyoning is a new sport for Serbia, but ideal locations such as Trešnjica Gorge and Seoski Potok have been millions of years in the making. The 19,175-hectare Tara National Park in Serbia’s west is a favourite all-rounder: with its steep forested slopes, deep ravines and ridiculously rewarding scenic views (not to mention resident bears), there’s an adventure here for everyone.
Calling all powder hounds! Kopaonik in Serbia’s south is a rush you can’t afford to miss. A hitherto well-kept secret among the ski-and-snowboard set, ‘Kop’ – overlooking the Serbia–Kosovo border and clustered around the 2017m Pančićev Peak – has almost 70km of alpine runs, an excellent lift network, 200 days of sunshine per year and snow cover from November to May, all at a fraction of the cost of other European resorts.
Over in the west, Zlatibor offers milder slopes and extensive cross-country trails; at nearby Mokra Gora, the small Iver ski and snowboard centre is attached to the eccentric, endearing wooden village of Drvengrad, built entirely by award-winning Serbian director Emir Kusturica for his film Life is a Miracle. If your idea of a winter workout tends more towards elbow-bending, après-ski in Serbia is a hale and hearty affair… and nothing warms the bones better than rakija.
How to: Cop a sneak peek at Kopaonik at infoKOP and Turistički centar Kopaonik; Zlatibor Tourism Organisation has heaps of links and information on the Zlatibor region. A one-day ski pass costs between €15 and €30. Boarders can start planning their trip at SnowboardSerbia.com.
Serbian nightlife is an extreme sport in itself, but if you need a breather from party boats and festivals, stagger off to the greener pastures of the country’s countless trapped-in-time villages (sela) and bygone northern homesteads (salaši). There’s more to a rural homestay than piling on the kilograms (you won’t escape a local table without downing at least three helpings) and getting woken by roosters: Serbia’s clean, green hamlets offer hands-on, homespun experiences by the wooden-bucketload.
Most popular activities include hiking, fishing and exploring local monasteries, but arcadian adventures can be tailored to suit every whim: try donkey riding up Mt Tara in Serbia’s west, caving in Homolje in the east, galloping across Vojvodina’s plains (or, for the more sedate, kicking back in a horse-drawn carriage), or learning the secrets of the scythe with the famous farmers of central Rajac. While English isn’t always spoken, hosts are by nature accommodating and keen to immerse guests in life, ye olde Serbian style.
Serbia is a paradise for pedallers of all persuasions. For long-distance riders and sightseers, the Danube Bike Trail – a 2857km-long cycling path which skirts Europe’s second-longest river through nine countries – clocks up a total of 1040km in Serbia, passing through Novi Sad, Belgrade and scores of picturesque villages, where overly hospitable locals bearing mounds of home-cooked food will put your stretch shorts to the test. Hardcore wheelers won’t want to miss the annual Tour de Serbie, a long-distance road race that follows a differently themed route across the country every June.
Mountain bikers will find rough-and-ready adventure in almost every corner of Serbia: the monastery-studded hills of Fruška Gora in the north, the literally breathtaking Stara Planina – home to a demanding annual Mountain Marathon – in the east, the saddle-shaking slopes of Zlatibor and Tara in the west, and Mt Radan in the south, where well-marked trails deliver the bravest of bikers to Djavolja Varoš (Devil’s Town), a mysterious collection of eerie stone pyramids.
How to: For general information on the Danube Bike Trail, check out EuroVelo 6; the National Tourism Organisation of Serbia offers more detail on the Serbian routes. Panacomp runs regular mountain-biking trips which include village homestays.
Wet and wild
Serbia may be landlocked, but you’d be mad not to pack your togs. Criss-crossed by fast-coursing waterways, the country seems almost purpose-built for rafting. Top splashdown spots include the Drina, Lim, Ibar and Uvac rivers: difficulty levels range, but for the most white-knuckled white-water experience, strap on your helmet in spring, when a deluge of melted snow sets the rapids roiling.
If you’re in Serbia in July, head west to Bajina Bašta for the annual Drina Regatta, where a raucous and ramshackle contingent of daredevils takes to the river in anything that floats (and often things that don’t) – check out this video on Vimeo. If peaceful paddling is more your style, daily kayaking tours run out of Belgrade and Novi Sad and follow the Sava and Danube rivers; it’s a great way to experience a different side of the cities’ wild life.
How to: Rafting trips start at about €20; the experienced at crew at Serbia Rafting can help tailor your trip. For kayaking in Belgrade, check out Belgrade Adventure; in Novi Sad, Dunavski Rafting are your best bet.
If you know your bearded tit from a short-toed treecreeper, it’s time to pack your bags: twitchers in the know have billed Serbia as one of Europe’s most exciting birdwatching destinations. The country is home to about 360 bird species – 40% of which are of European Conservation Concern – and thanks to Serbia’s small size, it’s possible to tick off at least 150 species in a short junket. Lest anyone dismiss birding as boring, consider this: prime birdwatching regions include the dramatic Djerdap gorge, the vulture habitat of the Uvac river gorge, and the lofty Mt Tara (part of the Dinaric Alps) where brown bears and wolves share an equally voracious appetite for silently stalking their quarry.
If you’re not one for muddying your boots, urban birding in and around Belgrade (the city’s 25-storey Ušće Tower is a fantastic vantage point) promises about 130 species, including the threatened pygmy cormorant, skyscraper-roosting cranes and soaring white-tailed eagles.