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  • Writer's pictureMatthias

Picnic with bears

Having already spent more than three years in Serbia I don't have to think for long when someone asks what in my opinion is the country's most beautiful part, region or spot. More generally the southwest is altogether full of gorgeous nature – the Uvac Canyon (that kinda has become a symbol of Serbia), the wide golden hills of Zlatibor, the wild-west-like mountains of Mokra Gora as well as the river Drina that separates Serbia and its neighbor Bosnia and Herzegovina. But first and foremost the Tara National Park (Nacionalni park Tara) is the more exact answer, thanks to its untouched forests, several spectacular views and the aforementioned deep turquoise Drina right at their foot.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

The park – named after the mountain of the same name it covers – was established in 1981 and spreads out over a total of more than 25,000 ha. A good 75% of that are made of one of the richest and most valuable forest areas in Europe that rarely sees many human visitors (and vice versa). No wonder it's abundantly populated by nearly 80 plant species – among them the rare Serbian spruce, a survivor of the last ice age – 140 bird species, 23 amphibian and reptile species, 19 fish species as well as over 50 different kinds of mammals. One big furry one in particular is thriving here, but more on that later... and in the headline, I guess...

Tara's biggest difference to its national park sibling Đerdap by the Danube is that you can explore it all by yourself. Nevertheless it is obviously recommended to stick to the safely fenced off viewpoints that you can find out about (plus much more) at the park's excellent official visitor centers in Bajina Bašta and Mitrovac. In addition to info and a very good permanent exhibition the latter also rents out bicycles, protective equipment, kayaks, binoculars and hiking sticks. And even if the park's hiking trails are sufficiently marked, it's worth popping by here before you hike out. Plus in case you need it: There is also a special needs trail in close vicinity of Mitrovac.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

Anyhoo, for some basic knowledge here are four particularly interesting viewpoints. At Sokolarica at an altitude of 990 m you can look right into the densely forested Rača Gorge below and observe nesting golden eagles. Drlije is slightly more hidden, slightly more unbeaten and slightly less secure. At Bilješka Stena you can visit a picturesque little wooden hut that was built for the 1997 film "Some Birds Can't Fly" (Ptice koje ne polete) where it serves as the forest retreat for a grandfather (played by famous Yugoslav actor Bata Živojinović) and his gravely ill granddaughter. And last but not least Banjska Stena is one of those most famous and most visited landmarks – but rightly so. The view over the Drina Gorge and the artificial Perućac lake (Perućačko jezero) doesn't get more spectacular than here.

The sparsely spread human civilization around here makes it especially easy for brown bears to live and reproduce in peace and quiet. As of 2021 there are over 50 specimens under close observation of the park and the Belgrade University, the largest population of brown bears in Serbia. Therefore at this point another friendly reminder to collect more info on the most hospitable areas of the park. But if you're like me and wouldn't mind watching a bear in the wild without necessarily encountering it accidentally, you can do so on the official bear watching tours organized by the national park (4-5 hours, May-Oct, from 3,000 RSD). Under the guidance of well-informed rangers you will visit two of four feeding stations in small groups and observe the animals in their natural environment from a shelter at safe distance. And if you happen to have no luck seeing any you can choose to get a second chance or half your money back. Bearable.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

The Perućac lake mentioned above is a reservoir created in 1966 at a natural bend of the Drina that encircles the Tara mountain. It is also the location of Pontonska Plaža, the pontoon beach. As the name suggests there is no sand there, but it still offers the chance to swim and dive in the unusually clear and beauifully turquoise water. Or you can choose to rent one of the various floating river houses and make your visit to Tara (and Serbia) just the more unique!

Just a little downstream in the eponymous settlement of Perućac you can find one of the shortest rivers in the world. The Vrelo is only 365 meters long which is what earned him the nickname godina, year. (One can only wonder if one more meter would have made it leap year.) The stream springs out of a large rock in a small waterfall and is as slow as it is crystal clear. Despite its short length people have actually still managed to put a water mill, a village and two bridges on its shores.

Further downstream, in the town of Bajina Bašta you will find another highlight of Serbia, so keep your camera (or phone) ready! In the summer of 1968 a clique of 16-year-old boys were sunbathing on a quite uncomfortable rock in the Drina when they suddenly had the idea of ​​getting wooden boards as a more back-friendly base. However, those were quickly washed away, so the following year the teenagers decided to build a more stable hut. But the Drina is not easy to tame, so what you can see now is actually already the sixth river house, standing here since 2011 that has become a little legend. Also thanks to a photo taken by a Hungarian photographer that made it to National Geographic in 2012 and subsequently went viral. The history of the Drina House has even inspired a Serbian proverb: "Krivu Drinu niko ne može ispraviti – Nobody can straighten the crooked Drina". More freely translated: you can't repair everything.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

Sadly this "floating" house cannot be rented for accommodation, but if you were too late for one of the lake ones try the Mystic River Hostel run by Milan and his wife. While the multi-bed rooms are rather modestly furnished, the bathroom and communal lounge are as cool as they are cozy thanks to tasteful furnishings and creative ideas. There are also free bicycles and, if you ask nicely, sometimes even kayaks to borrow.

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