We woke up feeling nice and refreshed in Niš this morning after a good night's sleep, and when we headed out to explore the town after breakfast we were pleased to see it was a warm sunny day. Niš is the third largest city in Serbia (after Belgrade and Novi Sad), with a population of around 200,000 people. It's an ancient city, famous as the birthplace of the emperor Constantine the Great, but it is also quite an industrial town which has suffered significant damage in a whole series of wars, so we weren't quite sure what to expect. We hadn't chosen to come here to see any particular sights but rather because it made a convenient stop-over point on our bus journey between Macedonia and Montenegro; we were curious to see what it would be like.
One sight which we had read about in the guidebook was the town's fortress, so we decided to try and find that first. As we left our apartment on the main street and started walking in the correct direction, the first monument which we came across was this statue commemorating Constantine.
Directly behind it we came to the Stambol Gate, the entrance to Niš fortress. The fortress was built in the eighteenth century by the Ottomans on the site of earlier Roman and Byzantine fortifications.
Inside the walls of the fortress is a very pleasant park which we were able to stroll around.
From the edges of the walls we had some beautiful views out across Niš and to the mountains beyond.
In the centre of the fortress we found the Bali-Bey mosque, thought to have been built by the Turks in the sixteenth century.
Other unusual sights were scattered throughout the park, including the remains of Turkish baths, munitions depots and a collection of first century tombstones.
We were able to climb up and walk along part of the walls, from where we had a view back across the park.
Once we had completed our tour of the fortress, we headed back into the main town because I wanted to go to the bus station and (hopefully) pick up our bus tickets for tomorrow. We will be travelling to Bar in Montenegro - which is quite a long journey - so I had tried to reserve the tickets in advance online. I'd received an email back saying that my reservation had been made and that I should pick them up from the bus station in Niš 30 minutes prior to the departure of the bus. After nearly missing our bus yesterday I thought that I would rather pick them up somewhat earlier than 30 minutes in advance and confirm that the bus was actually departing at the time on the timetable. I was also slightly worried that we might turn up and find that the online reservation hadn't worked and we didn't have tickets at all.
Thankfully that wasn't the case The lady behind the counter understood what I was saying, found my reservation on the system and we were able to purchase the tickets. Phew. We walked back into the main town and on the way came across a memorial chapel for those who died during the NATO bombing of Niš in 1999. During the bombing campaign, two containers of cluster bombs which were supposed to fall on an airport outside Niš missed their target and fell in the city centre instead, killing a number of civilians.
In the main square we found an older monument commemorating those who died freeing Niš from the Turks (in 1877) and from the Bulgarians (between 1915 and 1918). It doesn't seem to be a town which has historically had a lot of luck.
The inscription explains that these scary-looking fellows were fighting for the liberation of Niš.
By this point there was only one advertised tourist attraction in Niš which we had not seen: the Skull Tower. This is a tower made out of human skulls which was constructed following the battle of Čegar in 1809. Serbian forces (who were fighting against the Turks) found themselves in a position where they were unable to win the battle and, rather than surrender, their commander fired his pistol into a powder magazine, killing everyone in the vicinity. Afterwards the Turks ordered that a tower should be made out of the Serbian skulls as a warning to future generations not to rebel. There were originally 952 skulls in the tower. Many were subsequently taken away and buried, but 54 remain today and a chapel has been built around them. If you don't want to see a photo of the tower, don't scroll down!
Signposts suggested that the tower was 4km outside the main town centre, but once we started strolling through the suburbs we got there much quicker than we had expected, so we think the signs were exaggerating. The chapel is kept permanently locked, so we had to pay 150 dinar (about £1) for a ticket, and then the world's most miserable woman marched us over to the tower and unlocked it for us. It was an extremely eerie place. There were information boards in Serbian and English around the sides of the room, which helpfully explained that the tower demonstrated the brutality of the Turks and the courage of the Serbs.
After seeing that it was nice to get out into the fresh air and find some more cheerful sights. We located the cathedral in Niš, which was an attractive white building...
...and then went to get some lunch at a pizza place on the main street. The prices are slightly more expensive here than in Macedonia, but still a lot cheaper than at home. A glass of wine each and two enormous pizzas cost us about 1500 dinar, which is around £10. And the good news is that they serve Macedonian wine here too
That concluded our sight-seeing tour of Niš. I don't think this is a place which gets many tourists - and I don't think it's a place where you would plan to spend a great length of time - but it has definitely been an interesting place to break our journey.