Stooping down, bent nearly double I felt my way along a pitch black underground tunnel silently cursing my lack of head torch forethought.
Little did I know such equipment would be an essential item for a cultural zip around Serbia’s central and eastern regions.
But then there is a lot about the heart of the former Yugoslavia that is surprising.
Viminacium, a vast archaeological site of a former major Roman city and military camp, 90km east of Belgrade, is as good as place as any to start.
Built in the 1st century AD, and at the time home to 40,000 people, the 450 hectare site contains remains of temples, streets, Roman baths and hippodromes and what’s more, visitors can stay here. Tourists and amateur archaeologists can eat, sleep and dig alongside the pros for as little as £25 a head.
And if that isn’t an experience enough you can pop in and visit Vika. The 60-year-old hairless mammoth was discovered in her entirety in 2009, having been wedged deep in silt and sand for over one million years. She is the main attraction of the, as yet basic, prehistoric “Mamut Park”, built on the Viminacium site, which experts hope to expand over the next few years.
And what is encouraging, and entirely refreshing, about Serbia’s approach to tourism, is the ability for visitors to actively engage with the attractions and history strewn throughout the landscape.
Visitors are encouraged to wander through the precious archaeological discoveries, crawl through ancient tunnels and wander over the original tiled floors at partially excavated ruins such as Felix Romuliana – an ancient Roman complex close to the Bulgarian border.
There are also opportunities to experience the bafflingly under-sold “first city of Europe”.
Lepenski Vir is a Mesolithic archaeological site just two hours from Belgrade.
However, the downside to Serbia’s unique approach to tourism, in comparison to Croatia and Montenegro, the tourist hotspots it borders, is the relative difficulty in getting from place to place.
Public transport is yet to catch up with the increase in tourism and hiring a car is the best and surest way to explore the country beyond Belgrade and its outskirts.
Hugging the Danube as you depart the gridlock of Belgrade’s jammed thoroughfares, the road takes you to Viminacium, before a recommended pitstop at the fairytale Golubac Fortress.
Cresting a rocky outcrop precariously hanging over the Danube, the medieval fortress is being painstakingly restored and will be a must see tourist destination from this year.
Travelling further east towards Kladovo takes you through the Derdap National Park and by Lepinski Vir. We stayed in the small town at the popular Hotel Aquastar.
Venturing south in search of a taste of traditional Serbia we found a tiny hamlet almost completely enveloped by overgrown greenery.
At Sveti Trifun you’ll find an atmospheric restaurant with rooms. Served banquet style, on a long communal table in the dark, stone dining room, dinner consists of plate after plate of traditional Serbian dishes.
Served with lashings of “samples” from the Rajac wine cellars, the continuously replenished feast includes classic dishes such as “tobacco crackling” – thin wisps of aired pork fat, cured meats, hunks of freshly cooked bread and a mountain pork dish cooked confit style.
A must when back in the city is uber-cool Manufaktura slap bang in the middle of the soon-to-be completely pedestrianised heart of Belgrade.
And you can’t discuss the thumping heart of the city, the empowering sense of excitement of a country driving towards a prosperous future without sliding a mere decade into the past. The scars of war cut through the physical landscape and are woven through the history and soul of the country but the horrors of the, not-so distant, past should not define a country that has so much to offer. n
KLM flies from Edinburgh to Belgrade via Brussels (www.klm.com, 020 7660 0293) with prices starting from £500 return. A double room in the City Savoy in Belgrade starts at £69 (www.hotelcitysavoy.com, +3811 324 0200) with a stay in Hotel Aquastar in Klodovo starting from £45 (www.hotelkladovo.rs, +3811 981 0810). Fiona also stayed in Nis at the contemporary Art Loft in the city centre which costs £35 per night (www.artloft.rs, +3811 830 5800)