With an estimated population of over 260,000, Niš is Serbia’s third-largest city. Authors of long-defunct guidebooks to the former Yugoslavia talk of a large ‘dull and dirty town’ and an air of ‘grey, grim abandonment’, but this is misleading as these days Niš is no longer an industrial wasteland but a lively university city with a handful of interesting sights. Its manufacturing pedigree has meant that it is not the prettiest of places but, then again, neither is Belgrade.
What to see and do in Niš
The fortifications that exist today date only as far back as the beginning of the 18th century, but the Turkish fortress on the north bank of the river that survives was built on the same site as earlier fortifications of Roman, Byzantine and medieval origin.
The fortress, which was constructed between 1719 and 1723, extends over an area of 22ha, with 2,100m of wall 8m high that has an average thickness of 3m. Outside the walls is a moat, the northern part of which still survives. Of the original gates, the southern Istanbul Gate (Stambol kapija) – the main entrance today – and the northern, Belgrade Gate (Beogradska kapija) are the best preserved.
The hammam by the Istanbul Gate, dates from the 15th century and is the oldest Turkish building in the city. Water would have been brought to the bath from the Nišava River by means of underground wooden pipes. Formerly a restaurant, the hammam now serves as a Jazz Museum dedicated to some of the artists who have performed at the Nišville Jazz Festival.
A little further on, standing alone at the centre of the fortress area, is the early 16th-century Mosque of Bali Beg, now an art gallery. A library once stood next to the mosque but only a ruin remains today. Close to Bali Beg’s mosque is the lapidarium, a small display of Roman gravestones and sculptures found within the fortress area and gathered together here. Beyond here to the north, along a path that leads off to the right, is the City Garden (Gradska bašta), a peaceful courtyard with flower beds and a pergola in the middle.
This grotesque memorial was erected by the Turks as an example to others of the folly of opposition to their rule. Its construction followed the Battle of Čegar Hill in 1809 at the time of the First National Uprising when the Serbian General Stevan Sinđelić – ‘The Falcon of Čegar’ – fearing an ignominious defeat, famously blew up himself and his outnumbered troops, along with a large number of Turks, by igniting a gunpowder store. It is estimated that about 3,000 Serbian soldiers were killed in the explosion, along with at least double the number of their Turkish counterparts.
The tower was the Turkish response to this defiant yet suicidal act. On the order of the Turkish paša Huršid, the Turkish commander at the time, Serbian skulls were gathered from the battlefield and skinned before being mounted in rows on a specially built 3m-high tower. Originally there were 952 skulls embedded in the tower and past visitors to the monument have written of its eerie quality.
This is the main café-lined pedestrian street, otherwise known as Obrenovićeva, which runs from Trg Kralja Milana, with the tall edifice of the Hotel Ambasador and an equestrian statue dedicated to the Liberators of Niš, south past the Kalča Centre to Cara Dušana.
There are several wealthy merchants’ houses along its course, like that of Andon Andonović at number 41 built in 1930 in a neo-Renaissance style. At the bottom end in the small plaza at the western end of Kopitareva is an interesting and photogenic bronze sculpture that depicts two traditionally dressed Serbian men sitting at a table. Kopitareva, also sometimes referred to as Kazandžijsko sokače (‘Tinkers’ Alley’), dates back to the early part of the 18th century and was originally a street of tinkers and copper craftsmen.
Emperor Constantine the Great, who was born in Niš, is said to have returned a few times in his life. At Mediana, alongside modern-day Bulevar Cara Konstantina, the Niš–Niška Banja road, a luxurious villa was built at his command in the early 4th century. What remains today are the foundations of several buildings spread over an area of 40ha: a villa, a baptistry, baths, lesser villas and a granary. Much of the site has now been covered by a roof to protect the remains and mosaics from the elements.
There is evidence of a street that ran in an east–west direction, connecting the various buildings. The central area was taken up by the palace, nymphaeum and baths, while to the west was the granary and to the north, a building with octagonal and circular rooms. Domestic buildings lay to the south of the complex.
The museum has mosaics and an exhibition of various Roman artefacts found on the site. At the time of writing, both the site and museum were temporarily closed to the public, but they will hopefully reopen in the near future.
Logor Seven karst (Red Cross Camp) Museum
The camp was first built as an army depot in 1930 but was adopted by the Germans during World War II as a transit camp for Roma, Jews, Partisans and communists who were thrown in here prior to torture and/or execution or their deportation to death camps.
It is a grey, sombre place that seems full of ghosts, as well it might. Despite hopeless odds, a desperate escape bid was made on 12 February 1942 when an attempted breakout was made by scaling the walls. At least 50 prisoners were machine-gunned down immediately, while another 100 managed to escape to freedom.
The main building on the right shows the conditions under which the prisoners had to live – on concrete floors with straw for bedding. The solitary confinement cells in the attic are perhaps the most chilling. On the walls are numerous photos of the inmates taken in happier times, their smiling, handsome faces blissfully unaware of the fate that was to befall them, making them all the more poignant. Another photograph shows the leering face of the camp commander, Kommandant Schulz, nicknamed ‘Stick’ because of his taste for beating inmates to death with his cudgel. All the captioning is in Cyrillic but this hardly detracts from the sheer existential horror of the place.
There is also a room that has paintings done by children from a local school, which graphically depict the scenes of horror in the camp – attempts on the wire, beatings, rapes, torture – in the earnest, unflinching manner of children whose imagination has been painfully awakened.
Getting to Niš
Niš is easily reached from all directions. The main A1 autoput bypasses the city en route for North Macedonia and Bulgaria. Numerous daily buses link Niš with Belgrade; over 20 run south to Leskovac, and a similar number go southwest to Kuršumlija and southeast to Pirot.
Three daily buses run as far as the Bulgarian border at Dimitrovgrad. Three buses cross the border into Bulgaria and on to Sofia, two go to Priština in Kosovo and a dozen leave daily for Skopje in North Macedonia.
The bus station is just around the corner from the fortress, beyond the market area to the left of the Istanbul Gate. There are comprehensive timetables showing departures and arrivals inside the ticket-office building.
Niš is also on a major railway line, although trains are not as frequent or as reliable as the buses. As well as regular services going to Belgrade and Novi Sad to the north, there are train services west to Prokuplje, east to Pirot and Dimitrovgrad, and south to Vranje and Preševo.
The railway station is some distance to the west of the city centre but the bus stop opposite on Dimitrija Tucovića provides a service to the city centre.
Just 3.5km from the centre, the city’s airport, now known as Konstantin Veliki (Constantine the Great) Airport, was reopened in the autumn of 2003, having been put out of action during the 1999 NATO air war.
The airport currently offers Air Serbia flights to Rome, Bologna, Gothenburg, Salzburg, Ljubljana, Tivat and several German cities, as well as Ryanair services to Corfu, Stockholm, Vienna, Milan and Malta, and Wizz Air routes to Vienna, Munich, Mälmo, Dortmund and Basel.