Welcome To Niš, Serbia—A Long Tradition And History Of Delicious Food & More

I arrive into Niš, Serbia just as dusk disappears and streetlights illuminate the sidewalks and roads. Niš (pronounced like niche) with a population of just under 200,000, is Serbia’s third-largest city. Named after the Nišava River which winds its way through the city, Niš sits in southern Serbia and sits at the cross of the major trading route from east to west. It’s just over a two-hour ride to the major capital cities of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia.

With a long history dating over 2,000 years, just walking through the compact and clean city one feels the city’s rich history and cultural heritage. Dominating the city is the Niš Fortress, first built by the Romans, but battles through the centuries destroyed the original structure, the Ottoman Turks rebuilt it in the early eighteenth century.

I’ve arranged a room for a few days at the ArtLoft Hotel, a comfortable and reasonably priced boutique hotel, appointed with inspiring modern art and furniture. Conveniently located in the city center and walking distance from everywhere. Though the hotel doesn’t have parking, they let me park the bike on the street in front of the entrance where twenty-four-hour security and cameras will keep an eye on it. I’ve no concerns but always cover my bike as is my standard operating procedure.

Once settled in, I wander the city, stroll along the river and stumble into Nislijska Mehana, a local traditional Serbian restaurant. I feel the buzz of energy as waiters whisk around the front room to the back dining room and bar. At first, it looks like there are no open tables, but a waiter shuffles by me and in a few minutes moves and sets my table. I’m the only solo diner in the place. In moments I have a cold local beer, shopska salad, Punjena paprika (peppers stuffed with veal and rice), mashed potatoes and a side plate of pork sausages. Too much food for just me, but I cannot resist—the food on the plates around the room looks and smells so good.

Over the past two weeks through a referral from my friend Peter in Bela Krajina I’ve been in touch with Natalija Zivanovic who works with the Visit Niš tourist office. Because of my interest in food and wine as it relates to history and culture, she agreed to show me around the city and explore its history through both food wine. I’m particularly excited about meeting one of Niš’s—and Serbia’s—culinary television personalities.

I meet Natalija in the morning in front of my hotel, and we take a short walk through the city. In just ten minutes, we walk down a narrow street lined with homes. We walk down the block and come to the most colorful building painted in pale rose with planters flowing large green leaves on the sills of orange framed windows. More plants sit on the sidewalk along the front of the house. From an iron bracket near the door, a bland sign or shingle hangs motionless. We’ve come to the home of Nebojsa Stamenkovic, though most people in Niš and Serbia know him as Nesa Travka.

Nesa Travka— Niš’s Culinary Herbalist And Celebrity Chef Aims To Open Minds And Change Attitudes About Food and Preparation.

We pass through a wrought-iron gate into a tiny courtyard and through an open doorway framed in orange and painted with whimsical shapes of dishes, pots, and kettles. Inside I find Nesa Travka’s wonderland. A small home that at first looks like a museum, then maybe like your grandmother’s house.

The walls of the four main rooms are whimsically painted, each in a different bright color, yellow, green, orange, and red. Pots, pans, cups,, and other culinary implements hang from the walls and in some parts from the ceiling.

One wall is dominated by framed religious art, drawings, and paintings of saints, angels, the virgin, and Lord Jesus, while another displays a collection of vintage scales. There are clocks everywhere, on the walls, on tables, and tucked around shelves. Everywhere I look, there are jars filled with jams, jellies, and pickled things. Packets of dried herbs, flowers, and many plants I cannot identify sit in baskets, on shelves, and even in an old clay oven tucked into one corner. It appears organized, but then I look around and find another pile of trinkets. I wonder, does he know where everything is.

Nesa Travka’s Library—Where he studies, learns, and creates incredible new dishes based on plants — and yes, grass.

“Come,” he motions me to follow. Nesa, or as I like to call him Travka, which means grass, gets his name from his daily ritual of foraging the forests, mountains, valleys in search of edible and medicinal plants and herbs. He travels throughout the Balkans to search and discovery.

He leads me into his kitchen, which like the rest of the house is packed with packages, jars, utensils, and trinkets. Waving his hand, he proudly reveals a wall lined with shelves filled with glass jars. “This is my library,” he laughs. This is no joke. Travka is on a strict plant-based diet, though he admits that during Easter he will eat lamb as has been a tradition for him and his family in the Serbian Christian Orthodox church.

Natalija translates for me and tells me that on his popular television show on Kitchen TV in Serbia he takes traditional Serbian recipes and mixes them up by substituting animal products with natural plants and things found in the yard, or the mountains, and yes, even grass.

We sit down at a small wooden table. Each of the four chairs is painted a different color and sitting on a traditional red, and white checkered table cloth is a collection of goodies. He pours three cups of tea, but he does not make the tea from tea leaves. Instead, it’s made from a potpourri of dried herbs he’s collected in the mountains.

These crackers made from various seeds are delicious. Natalija and I demand the recipe—and you can have it here too (see link in the text)

Travka is no stranger to the camera, he has a popular television show on Kitchen TV in Serbia.

He offers us honey, but not from bees, it’s from safflower. We use it to sweeten the herb tea. He provides us with a plate with small crackers made of flax, sunflower and sesame seeds. I eat one so fast, I grab another. They’re tasty and perfect with the tea. Through the translation, though always looking at me, Travka is confident and sincere in these thoughts. I see why he has a television show, but he could be a teacher, too.

I hold up my cracker and say, “These are fantastic!”

“Seeds have a lot of energy. These little crackers will give you energy from the seeds. If you eat bread, you will not get energy.”

Travka tells me that most days he goes in the mountains looking for plants, herbs, and grass. “What have you found recently,” I ask. Travka scoots his chair out and runs to the kitchen, returning with a bucket full of wild cranberries. They’re sweet and tart.

He explains that before the 1999 Nato bombing campaign he ate as most Serbians do, with lots of meat and other animal products. But the bombing and the war impacted him in many ways. Mostly, he tells me, it triggered his curiosity. He would trek through the mountains and asking lots of questions. He would visit remote villages and talk to old people whose family lived for generations in the same village.

Travka shares a bit of his recent collection from foraging in the mountains around Nis.

Pulling flowers and grass from a basket, Travka is passioante about his work and spreading the word.

Natalija ponders what it means to have no limits in the kitchen for Travka’s creations.

“People are not supposed to eat meat,” he asserts. “We have a long digestive tract.” He also read more books about nutrition, plants, and herbal remedies.

“Everybody thinks meat gives us strength,” he says, “Our bodies only get five percent of our protein from meat.” Travka makes meals from plants where we can get twenty-eight percent of protein from vegetables, rice, and plants.

He explains that even in Roman times here in Niš and throughout the Roman empire, they didn’t eat meat. Instead, they ate beans and vegetables. “I learned the favorite food for Aristotle was flowers and roots—not meats.”

Before his raging curiosity, Travka never cooked. Though after 1999 he wanted to change the way he ate. “I experimented and tried different combinations. Sure, I made mistakes, but I learn.” He pulls a small round plastic container from his pocket and twists off the cap. Inside is a moist and waxy, yellow substance, like a balm. He rolls his finger in it and then rubs it into his lips and around his eyes.

“I make this from bee pollen and other things,” he tells me it’s great for the skin and has antioxidants and good for scratches and wounds.

Travka’s space is eye-food for my camera. This wall is covered with religious figures from Serbian Orthodox texts.

Looking around the room again, I wonder. Though it’s not set up like a retail store, or a restaurant, Travka sells the things he creates. There are no signs with prices, no fancy packaging or displays. If people ask, he will sell them. I buy a couple of containers of the bee pollen formula.

I wonder how living in a country where the most popular foods are meat, sausage, cheese, and potatoes how people look at his crazy concoctions.

Every Tuesday, Travka cooks meals for anyone who wants to come and eat. This is just one way he gets people to try, insisting once they taste the food, they won’t think it’s weird. After the meal, people can pay whatever they wish—or pay nothing at all. Travka doesn’t care. He just wants to feed people. Due to his television show, now people must make a reservation because seating is limited here.

“They are open, I try to open their minds,” he explains. “One hundred years ago, there was not so much meat. People were poor and only ate meat for festive events. And in the Orthodox religion you are not to eat meat, only fish and vegetables. Nothing from animals—except frogs and snakes,” he laughs as he tells me. I’m not sure if he’s serious.

Once a week Trakva opens his home to anyone who wishes to experience his plant-based menu—pay what you feel, or pay nothing, he doesn’t care as long as you come and try.

We try a spread or jam from a jar. Natalija tells me it’s based on a traditional Serbian recipe, but Travka changed it up and made it from mushrooms. He calls it sweet mushrooms—a word I’ve never used to describe mushrooms. They are sweet and deep in flavor. It’s mushroom season, and he loves foraging the forest for delectables. After doing this so long, he knows where to go.

He presents a board of mushrooms of all sizes and shapes. Pointing to each one, he knows the benefits they give beyond satisfying the appetite. “This is the queen of mushrooms,” he says, and from it he makes tea. He shows us another, “This is good for your immune system and blood pressure.”

Mushroom season

Travka’s space here in Nis is a holistic herbal market, but it’s not blatant and I figure I should just ask!

When I ask him how he earns his money, he answers he lives from love. “Man needs little to be happy,” he explains then adds, “Women also… it all depends on attitude.”
Women as well. It depends on your attitude,

The camera is Travka’s friend, as I take photos, he is very comfortable and yet doesn’t pose unless asked. His television experience, combined with his genuineness makes him a fascinating subject and a wonderful host—even if we don’t speak the same language.

Trakva explains that it’s best to pick flowers, herbs, and plants based on the moon. He shows us papers how he tracks the phases of the moon and how it impacts what her forages and when.

Travka makes wine and Rakija too. He pours a couple of glasses of a herbal rakija made from thirty different herbs—and grass. Then puts three large plastic bottles on the table. Each a different wine. The first is not made from grapes, it’s sweet but not high in alcohol.

It’s not yet 11 am but it’s okay, we’re in Serbia and it’s time to try Rakija ala Travka! Legendary!

“I have no limits in the kitchen,” he says. “I see possibilities, and I’m trying all the time something new.” In the mountain villages, Travka caught to talk to the older people who lived in poorer and more rustic times. There were few doctors, so what they ate also had to be medicinal. Tavka brings these ideas to his recipes and culinary creations. I also think many of the people he talked to must be grandmothers and their homes perhaps packed with antiques and trinkets like here.

Though I imagine people think he is doing something new, he admits this is not new. His creative way of preparing food is like what mountain villagers did over one hundred years ago—before markets, supermarkets, and convenience stores.

I cannot resist another seedy cracker and ask for the recipe. It’s easy for him, he just recites it from top of his mind. Natalija scrambles for paper and a pen and jots it down. The recipe can be downloaded here as a pdf file.

There’s much more to talk about, but we must continue our exploration for more Serbian tradition and food. Though I promise to come back and join him and others for a Tuesday night Travka feast—something I’ll be happy to pay for.

If you are heading to Niš, and you should, be sure to connect with Travka and arrange a Tuesday night meal, it just might change the way you think about creative cuisine and expand your culinary curiosity.

Niš — The City of Burek & The Brankovic Bakery

Burek Meisters, or the Nis masters of burek show me how they make the legendary pie that originated here in Nis some five-hundred years ago.

One thing that fascinates me most about traveling is exploring history through food. Whether it’s finding how Asian immigrants influenced Peruvian cuisine, or in Eastern Africa how man dishes use spices from India and Arabia, and here in the Balkans I find tasty food impacted by the Romans, Ottoman Turks, and Serbians.

One of the most iconic dishes found from Turkey to Belgrade to Sarajevo and Ljubljana is the iconic Burek. Burek is a film-like flaky pastry savory pie made of many layers of thin dough and stuffed with a variety of things from cheese, minced beef or pork, and even vegetables.

In the 15th-Century the Turks made dishes like Burek in a variety of sizes and shapes. Today most Bureks are round. Sure, you can find Burek all over these parts, but it was here in Niš in 1492 that a Turkish baker named Mehmed Oğlu developed the original recipe for the round Burek pie. Soon after this circular savory pie spread all over the Balkans much like the way pizza spread all over Italy. And like the Neapolitan pizza with its roots firmly planted in Napoli, the Burek is a tradition that belongs to Niš.

So it’s fitting I find and taste the original Burek here in Nis. But before I dig my teeth into one of the famous pies, I’m curious to see how they make Burek. You can find the cheesy and savory pie most anywhere in Nis, but I look for some of the best Burek artisans—Burek Meisters — who bake the tastiest Burek in Niš, the “Home of Burek.” The name Burek comes from the Turkish word “Bur” which means twist, and that’s Burek artisans must do to prepare the dough for baking.

Before they let me walk into the prep kitchen of the Branković bakery, the hand me a white gown and cap. Led by Biljana Cvetkovic the chief technologist of Branković, we walk up a flight of stairs and into the prep kitchen where three men, Burek Meisters are spinning and tossing the dough into the air. And with each throw, they spread the dough, making it thinner each time. I know they expected my visit because the music is turned down low. Yet, with the dynamic and acrobatic motion of throwing dough, I know these guys typically work to the jams of loud music.

It’s fascinating to watch as neither of three guys drops the dough. When they roll it out on the table, it’s almost as thin as a sheet of paper. Because they must make the dough extremely thin, it’s impossible for a machine to replicate what a meister can do by hand. When I ask one of the “Meisters” how many Burek pies he makes in a day, he is confident and tells me precisely sixty-seven.

The Burek Meisters must go through a year of training before they can work in a place like Branković, The first Branković bakery opened in 1885, today they have seventeen bakeries. All the pies are prepared by these guys. They spin, roll, and then lay four layers of the micro thin dough into a baking dish. They are then boxed and packed on rolling carts which they load into a fleet of delivery trucks.

Each of Branković’s bakeries has ovens. Like pizza, Burek is best when it’s baked fresh and served hot. One Burek Meister who has worked for Branković for eighteen years tells me his biggest challenge in making the pasty is to make it so thin with no holes. I watch these guys for fifteen minutes, and I see none with holes. They are professionals, for sure.

When I ask for a photo with these legendary Burek Meister Bakers, before leaving, I reminded once again just how tall Serbian men are, remembering pictures with Milos in Fruska Gora and Tomislav in Belgrade. At five feet and eight inches (about 173cm), I’m not that tall, but I’m not short either. Yet these guys tower above me.

In the bakery downstairs, Natalija and I order Burek with the yogurt I think is a must with the piping hot dish. I order the cheese as it’s the most traditional. It’s creamy, flakey, and delicious. I figure this must be the ultimate late night post-nightclub snack, or perhaps the sure cure for a hangover in the morning. In Niš, you can have Burek most anytime as Brankovic has several locations open twenty-four hours seven days a week. To be sure, I’ll be back sometime to sample some meat and vegetable Bureks—it’s the thing to do when you’re in Niš.

After filling up on Niš Burek, Natalija and I walk through Tinkers Alley, an old cobblestone street once home to a craftsman, coppersmith, and artisan bazaar in the early nineteenth century. While the city renovated the road, it has preserved the architecture and feel. Today Tinkers Alley is home to both upscale and casual cafes, bars, and restaurants.

Though I’m tempted to sit down and grab a beer, we walk off some Burek calories and explore Niš’s number one attraction, the Niš Fortress.

Once surrounded by a moat filled with water by the adjacent Nišava River, there were once four entrances to the Niš Fortress. We walk over a small bridge through the towering Belgrade Gate. The Fortress has a long history dating back to the Roman period. Today most of what I see dates back to the mid-19th Century when the Ottoman’s reinforced and built on top of the original Roman floor plan. Octagonal in shape, the inside of the fortress covers about twenty-two hectares, and the highest walls tower over twenty feet.

Nisville—Serbia’s Leading Jazz Festival

Entrance to the Nis Fortress is free, and there are cafes, restaurants, and bars inside. It’s the social hub of Niš where throughout the year where they hold popular music and cultural festivals along with live theatre and dance. Inside, we stop at the Niš Jazz Museum, which focuses on the legacy of the Nišville International Jazz Festival, one of the most popular and longest running in Nis. Held every August for ten days and attracting over 20,000 visitors each day who can experience hundreds of performances on twenty stages throughout the Fortress.

I meet Željko and Ćira, two of the organizers of the festival who take me through the museum. I’m amazed at how many international legends have played the festival including Billy Cobham, Dr. Donald Byrd, Incognito, The Brand New Heavies, Larry Coryell, Victor Bailey, Lenny White. It’s here in the Jazz Museum I first learn about the King of Romani music  Saban Bajramović, where every year they pay homage to the legend in a “Friends to Saban” memorial performance in the amphitheater.

Before I leave, Željko gives me a Nišville magnet and t-shirt, for which I must promise to return to Niš during Nišville. I will.

After walking through the grounds of the Fortress, Natilja and I wander through the Nis Market, a large covered structure where farmers, merchants, and craftsman sell their wares. Stands are piled high with fruits, vegetables and I notice a seller with stacks of mushrooms, though they look nothing like the Queen of Mushrooms I saw earlier today at Travka’s.

I wield my camera and look for interesting subjects as there’s nothing I like more than wandering markets—anywhere in the world. I stop at one table where an older gentleman greets me with a smile. We chat and make jokes even though I know no more words in Serbian than for cat, dog, and tomato. He shows me his homemade Rakija. He’s taken back after I tell him I’m from California and riding the world on a motorcycle, and hands me a big bottle of his precious homemade Rakija. “A gift for you, my friend.”

“I’ve never seen that someone gives away Rakija at the market,” remarks Natalija. It’s crudely bottled in a recycled plastic soda pop bottle, and it’s leaking. I’m warmed and honored by the gesture and thank him before moving on.

Niš is perhaps the most walkable city I’ve visited so far on this journey. We wander back through Tinker’s Alley, pass several monuments including one memorializing soldiers from Niš lost during World War I.

Galija — The Traditional Serbian Kafana Experience.

After exploring Niš, Natalija suggests we take the late afternoon to indulge in a longstanding Serbian tradition of “Kafana” at one the oldest kafanas in Niš. If one were to look up the English translation for Kafana, it would probably say “Tavern.” But Kafana is much more than a place, it’s an experience. To be sure, the place matters, and that’s why we’re headed to Galija a cozy Kafana with a patio on the pedestrian promenade in the historic part of Nis.

As Natalija explains it, Kafana is an event and a tradition. Typically Kafana is where businessmen get together outside the office to discuss deals, solve problems, and debate opportunities. I will soon learn that Kafana in these terms is “taking a long lunch” to another level—or levels. Because at Kafana there are at least four levels to every meal—that is if you include beginning and ending with many drinks of Rakija as part of levels one and four.

Our server seats at a large table on the outdoor patio of Kafana Galija. Sure enough, before we’ve scooted in our chairs, we’ve got two glasses of Rakija in front of us. It’s about four in the afternoon, the sun is still high in the sky, and many people are walking the promenade. The occasional young Romani boy shuffles by looking for a handout, while lovers walk by hand in hand. I lean back in my chair, relaxed and raise my glass Živili (cheers) and the first level Kafana begins—and it’s going to a long and satiating experience.

For our first level, we’ve ordered the usual first-course traditional fare including cured meats, proja (Serbian corn muffins), a delicious sheep cheese called ovciji sir, and another Niš original and tradition a Moravska salad. All of this is served with a healthy helping of Kajmak, a cheese made by bringing cow or sheep milk to boil, and as it cools, they skim the thin layer of cream that rises to the top. It’s creamy and tasty. I spread it all over a Proja—yummy.

Another drink of our plum Rakija and a warm salad of eggplant, tomatoes, parsley, and cheese. The table is full of plates, and there are just two of us eating. This is still level one. Soon after we  Milutin, the owner of this restaurant sits down and joins us. I urge him to dig in as there is so much food on the table, and more is coming as we’ll soon move to the second level.

Kafana Level I: Nothing like Rakija and proja—the only thing missing in this photo is the kajmak cheese!

The local Moravska salad—so good!

Eggplant salad—it’s the Kafana experience. Indulge!

Kafana Level One! Are you hungry?

With Natalija helping translate, Milutin shares the rich history of Kafana Galija in Niš. He explains that Galija translates to a galley or an oar-powered warship. With that context, he tells me the story of Vujic, a young man who worked at a Niš Kafana in the early 1900s. However, like many young men from Niš at the time, Vujic received word he must leave his job and fight as a Serbian soldier in World War I. The army sent him to the Thessaloniki Front where he suffered injuries in battle. Along with other wounded soldiers, the army sent him on a boat—a Galija—to a hospital in Tunisia.

Before Vujic made it to the hospital, somewhere in the Ionian Sea near Albania, a German submarine U-boat torpedoed the ship and blasted it into pieces. Most everyone on the boat died, but Vujic and the other soldiers who survived the blast persevered by clinging to part of the ship and floating to the Albanian shore. Sadly, the Albanians shot and killed most of his shipmates, but for some reason, the Albanians spared Vujic his life and offered him bread and water.

Kafana Galija owner Milutin engages us in stories that span the centuries.

Vujic eventually returned to Niš where he continued to work in a local Kafana. He saved enough money until in 1920 he bought the land and built this Kafana naming it after the ship that allowed him to survive, Galija.

Though I don’t understand the words, I sense the seriousness in the cadence and tone of Milutin’s voice. He explains that Vujic was married but never had children. So when he died his wife sold Kafana Galija to a large Serbian hospitality company that owned several hotels and restaurants throughout the country. Milutin worked for this company for many years during the time of Yugoslavia and socialism when there were few private restaurants, and private property was not possible.

Level two begins when our server brings us two large plates, one of pork grilled with peppers, another with smoked pork and french fries and a basket full of bread. “We make all the bread fresh here,” Milutin tells me.

Cevapi and sausages and more. We’re still in a Kafana overdose!

Natalija in good spirits and I am so thankful for her help in translating the Serbian language and navigating Kafana decorum.

“In the 1980s there were no cafes,” he explains, “young people would come to Kafana. At the time, one of Galija’s regular customers was an aspiring rock band. At a loss to come up with a name for their band, they decided to name it after the Kafana where they liked to hang out. The rock n’ roll band Galija soon rose to stardom, becoming the most popular in Serbia and to date the biggest selling band in the country. Hanging on the wall of the dining room inside is a gold record they earned. The lead singer decided Kafana Galija was the most appropriate place to display their milestone award.
Tomorrow there will be a massive feast at Galija. They will roast a whole pig for a big celebration. He lists off the dishes they will serve and insists we come back to try.

The waiter brings a bottle of wine to go with our second level. It’s a Prokupac from a town not too far from here. Milutin eventually bought Galija and today he and his son Zoran operate Galija and another restaurant near the fortress. He bops back and forth and works at both.

With two restaurants and serving guests fresh and tasty food for hours at a time, I know the work is demanding and with late hours. So I ask Milutin what the most challenging part of owning the business is. He ponders, looking up at the sky, and thinks. While talking, he pours himself a half glass of wine, then he pours sparkling water to fill the glass.

Milutin is passionate about his business after spending a lifetime in Kafanas.

“Spritz,” I explain with excitement, yet astonished he is diluting this beautiful and fruit forward Prokupac wine. He explains that Gemist, as I had in Mokolo in Croatia, is made with spring water, whereas they make Spritz with sparkling water.

Returning to the question, Milutin tells me the biggest challenge is when customers don’t leave. “Sometimes customers stay all night until morning—7AM.” I’m surprised that he lets this happen explaining that restaurants in the United States are not so subtle when trying to get customers to leave. They’ll turn off lights, put chairs on the tables, or vacuum and sweep.

They would never do such things at Galija. “These are good and regular customers. We expect this!”
I switch the question around and ask, “What do you find most rewarding about the restaurant business?”
It doesn’t take long for him to answer. “There is love, life, music, and spirit!” He smiles and tells me that as a child, he would tag along with his father, who sold seltzer bottles to Kafanas, restaurants, and bars. He has spent his entire life in Kafanas. “I love meeting new people, seeing people in business meetings, enjoying the food, and smiling.”

Our server brings more food to the table. This time his hands are full of plates with sausages, sliced cured ham, spicy peppers, and soup. Milutin is full of stories, and Natalija is an excellent translator. We laugh as more food comes while reminding ourselves this is still level two.

I try one of the peppers. They’re very spicy, my mouth is on fire. It then cools down. I try another, this time careful of the seeds. They are fiery hot but tasty.

Founded in 1920, Kafana Galija is the oldest and longest continuously operating Kafana in Niš. They have preserved the tradition and emphasize the quality of food and fresh ingredients. He has relationships with farmers and butchers and demands the top cuts, and most fresh. I believe him. So far, all these dishes I’ve tried are delicious, served hot and fresh. I only wish I had a bigger stomach!

Every night you can listen to live music at Kafana Galija. Milutin insists we return and explains that the music acoustic, without amplifiers and never too loud. “I want my customers to hear and speak with each other,” he tells me. They play Serbian folk music using traditional instruments. He’s right because I love live music, I must return.

As we move to level three, I have made room for another Niš specialty, a veal tail goulash. Rich, dark, and so tender with incredible flavor. We’re now in level three. Next, our server brings a large plate of cevapi, the legendary kebabs made of spiced minced meat.

Just one part of level four is my veal-tail goulash. Wow!

Milutin is quite a legend, beyond being a great storyteller, he tells us he competes in the Senior Olympics—for men and women over sixty-five years old. He competes in soccer, basketball, speed-walking, and chess. Last year he won a silver medal in darts.

“Would you like another bottle of wine,” he looks at me, shaking the empty bottle of Prokupac on the table. We’re still in level three, and I remember there is more Rakija coming in level four, so I decline. “Thank you, but no I’m good.”

He mumbles something to our server, and in five minutes there is a fresh bottle of wine on the table. Oh well. I resolve to myself, this is Kafana, and I’ve been here three hours already. Later, Uroš Parlić, the director of the Tourism Organization of Niš, joins us and though he’s not hungry enough to help us with our level three Kafana, he has a glass of wine.

Soon we move into the fourth Kafana level, dessert, and more Rakija. The server brings us slices from two different cakes served with homemade ice cream. It’s another toast to life—Živili—and more Rakija. By now, I’m acclimated to Rakija and like it. Just as we pour another glass and toast again, Milutin returns to the table with a new sealed bottle of Rakija and presents it to me. I’m excited to carry this bottle to Greece and then fly home with a bottle of traditional Serbian Rakija. Even better, the bottle isn’t leaking.

It’s time for level four and I have no choice, it’s two cakes and two scoops of house-made ice cream.

By the time we say goodbye and move on to the next location, I realize we’ve been sitting, eating, and drinking for almost four hours. Welcome to Niš and welcome to Kafana—another Serbian tradition and there’ no better place to enjoy the authentic experience than at the oldest Kafana in Niš. If you find yourself in this beautiful city, you must make the time to enjoy the katana experience at Kafana Galija, but come in the evening to enjoy the energy and live music—and you can stay all night until sunrise!

Today I’ve enjoyed and experienced the history and tradition of Niš through its food. From culinary herbalist Nesa Travka’s creations, to the Niš classic Burek pies, and a Serbian Kafana here at the legendary Galija. There is much more to explore in Niš. So stay tuned.

It’s dark, but the night has just begun. So I join Uros and Natalija for an evening walk to our next destination where we will enjoy a taste of Niš nightlife at the Hush Hush Lounge & Wine Bar.

Nesa Kravka—Kuća čaja

Karadžićeva 3
Niš 18000
+381 63 646400

Pekara Branković— Brankovic Bakery (there are 16 other locations in the city)
Trg Kralja Milana 5
+ 381 18 241-870

Kafana Galija
Nikole Pašića 35
Niš 18000, Serbia
+381 62 402491

ArtLoft Hotel – Nis
Oblačića Rada 8A/7
18000 Niš
+381 18305800;

Nislijska Mehana

Entrance 1: Prvomajska 49
Entrance 2: Kralja Stefana Prvovencanog 22
Nis, Serbia
+381 18 511111

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