In the fertile farmland of the Leskovian Valley, the southern city of Leskovac gets national attention every October for its ” Roštiljijada”. This festival is best described as one enormous barbecue, wafting the aroma of charcoal smoke and searing meat over the city’s central boulevard. Carnivores from all over the country come down to feast on kebabs, Serbian-style burgers and other mouth-watering cuts of char-grilled meat.
Leskovac has much more in store, like the ruins of Justiniana Prima, a whole city ordered by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, or natural settings lik the beautiful and ancient Hisar hill.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Leskovac:
1. Justiniana Prima
Near the village of Prekopčelica, not far west of Leskovac, are the ruins of a city built from scratch by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the 6th century.
Justiniana Prima’s purpose was to serve as the magnificent seat of an archbishopric that had authority over the whole of the central Balkans.
It existed for barely a century though, until in 615 it was sacked by the Avars making their way along the Danube.
The city has been excavated over the last 150 years and there’s much to discover: You’ll encounter baths, a sewage system, fortifications, squares paved with dressed stone, as well as a basilica with mosaics and capitals bearing Justinians monogram.
2. Leskovac Grill Festival
At the end of August and start of September hundreds of thousands of people descend on Leskovac for the Roštiljijada, a grilled meat festival that takes over the city centre.
At this time the main thoroughfare, Bulevar Oslobodjenja has an unending string of temporary grills barbequing sausages, suckling pig, cuts of pork, lamb and beef, as well as pljeskavica patties: These are like burgers, made from a seasoned blend of pork, beef and lamb and come in a bun.
Public entertainment is also scheduled during the festival: We’re talking about grilling competitions, concerts, folk dance ensembles and quirky side events like an attempt to cook the world’s largest pljeskavica.
3. National Museum
The National Museum is based in a hall on Stojana Ljubica, but this institution is also in charge of a few other buildings and sites in the region.
With more than 33,000 items in its collection, the museum has a wide scope and presents the archaeology, ethnography and art of Leskovac and the Jablanica District.
Leskovac’s city hall the museum also stages an exhibition of regional costume and traditional crafts.
The main hall has artefacts from Justiniana Prima and the 3,400-year-old settlement at Hisar, which we’ll come to shortly.
This church in the centre of Leskovac is a real oddity: It dates to 1803, when the city was still under Ottoman control.
Back then the city’s Christians were forbidden from rebuilding the medieval church that once stood on this site, so instead they built one disguised as a house.
Odžaklija has a rectangular plan, with white stone arches, and is possibly the only church in the world to possess a chimney stack.
The church was abandoned in the 20th century, and the roof collapsed in 1963 before a complete restoration was made in 1992.
5. Šop-Đokić House
Leskovac’s tourist office is housed in this fabulous early-19th-century house, possibly the finest in the city.
It is in the Balkan style, and was owned by the affluent Šop-Đokić family.
Two hundred years later that same family is trying to reclaim the property, which is now under state protection.
The house’s most striking detail is on the facade, where a wooden-framed gallery sits above the porch.
This is covered by exaggerated eaves, which are a trademark of traditional architecture in the south of Serbia.
Try to get a look at the main hall, which has a sensational carved wooden ceiling, one of only a few examples remaining.
6. Pašina Česma
When Leskovians hanker for peace and fresh air they turn to this beauty spot 10 kilometres from the city.
A bus runs to Pašina Česma from the centre of Leskovac in summer, but you could easily get there by bike as well.
Pašina Česma (Pasha’s Fountain) has 86 hectares of meadows and oak and pine woodland where people play football and tennis, go on bike rides, take light walks and even go hunting.
There are picnic spaces for 700 people here, just to give you an idea of the park’s popularity.
A new luxury hotel has also just opened at the leisure complex, with a contemporary restaurant.
A natural barrier to the south of Leskovac, Hisar is a hill climbing to 341 metres.
You could easily walk it from the centre of the city, and battle up the serpentine trail through coniferous forest to get to the top.
There are benches every now and again, and you can look down at Leskovac through the branches.
At the top the panoramas are wonderful, and there’s also an archaeological site to occupy you up here.
The hill was inhabited for thousands of years from Neolithic times to the early middle ages, and you can make out the enigmatic ruins of walls, houses and an early church.
Hardy souls can journey into this daunting massif only a few kilometres southeast of Leskovac.
This range is another outing of choice for Leskovians, and promises wilderness, adventure, sparkling air and perfect seclusion.
The highest peak in the range is Vlaina, at 1442 and this can be conquered on a 28-kilometre trail that starts in Leskovac.
The entire massif is wreathed in dense mixed forest of oak, beech and pine.
The trails are also traced with wild herbs, and people even make excursions just to pick the rosemary and sage.
Also, on the north side of the Kukavica is the Vučjanka River, bending through a canyon 300 metres deep and two kilometres long.
9. Sijarinska Banja
Close to Justiniana Prima, this spa resort is in a crucible of low, beech and oak-covered peaks that rise to 1,000 metres.
The Romans were the first to cotton onto the health benefits of these waters, and the resort was reborn under the Ottomans in the 1600s when they set up a communal pool and spa complex.
A total of 18 springs burst from the ground at Sijarinska Banja at temperatures between 32 and 72 °C. In the colder months you can see the steam rising off the water, and in summer the pool complex throngs with bathers.
Most people just come to soak and unwind, and to see the geyser, which shoots hot water more than eight metres into the air.
10. Cathedral Church
Back in the centre of Leskovac, the orthodox cathedral is next door to the Odžaklija church, and was took shape during the 1920s.
The church’s consecration in 1931 was attended by Alexander I of Yugoslavia.
The design is Neo-Byzantine, and if you’re clued up on the region’s monuments you may detect a similarity to the UNESCO-listed Gračanica Monastery in Kosovo.
This is deliberate and the church mimics that Serbian-Byzantine style in its long, slender windows and domes resting on lanterns.
11. Memorial House of Kosta Stamenković
Also managed by the National Museum in Leskovac is the humble home of the revolutionary, communist and workers’ rights campaigner, Kosta Stamenković.
A national hero in some quarters, he had always been a part of the labour movement but became increasingly engaged after he lost his left arm in a mill accident in 1926. By the 1930s Stamenković was a prominent political figure.
That was until the Second World War when he lost his life fighting with the Partisans against the Chetniks who at that time were collaborating with the Axis powers.
This small worker’s cottage sheds light on domestic life in the first half of the 20th century.
Items owned by Kosta and his daughter Lepša remain where they left them, and there’s also memorabilia from the labour movement up to 1942.
12. Summer Leskovac
This event takes place around mid-summer and is a two week-long ode to the city’s traditional culture.
During this time Bulevar Oslobodjenja is closed off to road traffic, and street performers and musicians entertain people taking evening promenades on this central artery.
There also parades, both religious and secular, while the main hall at the Šop-Đokić House is an atmospheric stage for concerts and dance performances.
13. Vlasina Lake
Serbia’s largest man-made lake is a day out to remember.
This immense body of water sits at high altitude, on a plateau 1,211 metres above sea level.
It was born at the start of the 1950s when an embankment dam flooded a peat bog at the confluence of the Vlasina and Vrla Rivers.
There’s nothing but unblemished nature on the shores, where wild horses gallop through birch and evergreen forest . The lake water has a glassy quality, and with temperatures rising to the low-20s in summer it’s heaven to swim in.
One of the lake’s more bizarre features is its floating islands, chunks of peat that are covered in vegetation and are pushed across the lake’s surface by the wind.
14. Visit a Kafana
These taverns are a Serbian and Balkan institution.
Kafanas aren’t just a way to get to know the cuisine, but are also an introduction to the region’s culture and customs.
People normally visit kafanas for lunch, but as a meal here entails six courses it’s an activity for the weekend rather than a working day: There’s a meze, warm starter, soup, main course, dessert and coffee.
And that’s without mentioning the rakija (potent Balkan brandy), or the spirited performances by folk bands playing at these establishments.
15. Food and Drink
As you may have gathered, grilled meat is big in Leskovac: Kebabs, chitterlings, pljeskavica (Serbian burgers) and bacon-wrapped chicken are a few of the delights to taste at the Grill Festival.
On a different tack, red bell peppers are grown across the countryside in the Leskovac region.
And these are the main ingredient for the city’s most famous preparation: Ajvar is a paste made from baked red peppers, garlic, aubergine, sunflower oil and chilli.
It’s a homemade treat, usually prepared in October or November when the peppers are harvested.
Families will come together for this custom, producing many jars of ajvar that will keep throughout the winter.
And we can’t leave without mentioning rakija, Sebia’s national drink, which is a brandy made from quince, plum, apple and apricot.