You need a sure grasp of history to tour around Serbia, otherwise everything just merges into a muddy series of assassinations and invasions. According to Dejan, my driver, more than 40 different armies have marched through this flat open country, all of them successful. "It is easy to conquer Serbia," he says. "It must be. We Serbs managed it."
Dejan is one of four young Serbians leading the UK's first tourist trips to a country with perhaps the worst public image in Europe. As we arrive in Nis, I get another lesson in its troubled history, this time from Dragana, my guide and translator. It is dark when we pull up outside Banovina Palace; the river Nisava rushes furiously by. "This is where King Peter moved his government in 1914," says Dragana. "He was worried that the Austro-Hungarian army could be in Belgrade within days. He was not wrong."
Banovina is a smart, sober place, more like government offices than residence. Next to it stands an Ottoman fort that was only finally abandoned in 1878 when the last Turkish soldier left southern Serbia. "Turks out, Austrians in," says Dragana.
The sprawling stone fort now functions as a municipal park; its small domed hamam is an art gallery. "The Turks built on top of the Roman fortress where Emperor Constantine was born in AD272," says Dragana. "Goths and Huns destroyed it when they were making incursions. Emperor Justin, who was also born in Nis, restored it and then the Slavs destroyed it again. Any time you try to dig in Serbia, you hit history." Dragana should know. She trained as an archaeologist but moved into tourism early when she saw her country had no money to finance digs.
It's cold tonight. The three of us turn our collars up against the rain and find a meal in an old cobbled street called Kazandzijsko Sokace. It means Blacksmiths' Lane but the word sokace comes from the Turkish sokak (street). The Ottoman Turks left more than a fort behind.
The next morning, on the road that leads from Nis to Istanbul, we find another souvenir of the 600-year Turkish rule. It takes a while for us to track down the Cele Kula (Tower of Skulls) because of what we've started referring to as the Tourism Prevention Service. Nothing is signposted here and if it is, it's misleading. "During the Nazi occupation the Partisans turned all the signposts round," Dragana explains. "I think they never turned them back."
Dejan parks up by a square, cream-coloured chapel set back from the road. A royal coat of arms stands over each of its four doors, framed by the symbol of a white skull on either side. The big gruff curator, a man called Predrag, lets us in and I come face to face with a wall of skulls. The tower was a rough-hewn deterrent built in 1809 by the Turks after they put down an uprising at the battle of Cegar. The skulls of 952 decapitated Serbs were set into the mortar on the roadside. Perversely, Cele Kula became something of a national shrine. Local families buried the heads they could still recognise and turned the rebel vojvoda (or duke), who cost the Turks some 6,000 lives, into a hero. There is a bust of Vojvoda Stevan Sindelic immediately outside the chapel and his skull is preserved in a glass case inside.
"When he saw the battle was lost and their trench was overrun, Vojvoda Sindelic fired his gun into the Serbian gunpowder and blew up everyone, Turks and Serbs," says Dragana. "It was his joke on the Pasha, no?"
Dragana and Dejan have a gallows humour that comes not just from living through 78 days of Nato bombing in Belgrade, but from being born into a culture that sees itself as the victim of every other nation's aggression. I've learnt that you don't mention the Srebrenica massacre, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo or the shelling of Dubrovnik.
Borec is the next stop. We drive through a landscape of pan-tiled farms, crumbling fin de siècle train stations, unfinished houses in orange breeze-block, muddy farms and vineyards. At the village of Knic we pick up our guide and the local tourist board rep. "It is like travelling back in time," says Dragana. Certainly there are a lot of bomber jackets and Trabants.
Our guide to Borec is called Dule. He has the rugged face and rugged voice of an old poet. He grips my hand as we stand in front of Borec's "hidden church" and tells me, via Dragana, that in Roman times Borec was bigger than London. His tone, though amiable, carries with it a sense of grievance that were it not for London's sheer, downright pushiness we'd be standing in the middle of a bustling metropolis now, rather than the ruined graveyard of a church that since its founding in 1350 has regularly been smashed up by invading armies. The church of the Virgin Mary looks as if it has been regularly glued back together. It hides at the bottom of a sheer cliff of black volcanic rock, which used to protect the fortress of Borec from invading armies – but never for long. When the Ottomans finally got up there they reduced Borec to its foundations. Today, the hidden church is locked. Only the priest has a key and no one knows where he is.
Dejan senses that I'm struck by the desolation of this place. "Whenever the Turks or the Austro-Hungarians wanted to try out who was the stronger, Serbia was where they fought."
After taking Dule home, we call in at a convent in Kamenac. Its beautifully manicured gardens are incongruously tranquil after the ruins of Borec. Conifers, flowerbeds and lawns line the walk to the small church. Dragana and I are invited in by three serious young nuns draped in black. Every inch of wall space is covered with 19th-century frescos. They are not very good, which is a shame because in the 16th century the nunnery church was renowned for its frescos. "Unfortunately some Ottoman soldiers plastered over the human figures," says Dragana. So the nuns had the bright idea of a complete makeover during the relatively peaceful 19th century. The nuns indicate that they'd like us to stay for coffee, but it is nearly 2pm and we're late for lunch. Dejan drives us up into the hills, churning up mud all the way to Guberevac, where we are met by Prvoslav Aleksic, a jovial farmer who makes some of the best rakija (a white grape brandy) in Serbia and has the medals to prove it.
Prvoslav steps out to great us. His head and chin bristle with white stubble and his whole body with energy. This man is a direct descendant of one Djurina who built a hut up here in 1740. The hut is still there, surrounded by gardens now, but we are entertained in the guest house which is huge, modern and immaculate, just like the rakija sheds we were shown before. Here large aluminium vats store the plum and pear brandy which is distilled annually then stored in oak barrels in the new bright cellars below.
I drink some of the plum variety with lunch after we go through the formality of eating a spoonful of jam or honey. An obligation, I am told. With the rakija I don't have much choice either. Dragana drinks only orange juice. Dejan is driving so one of us has to be a good guest. It is superb, the perfect accompaniment to the cheese and cured meats that Prvoslav's wife, Vladanka, produces. I like it so much I buy a litre bottle to take home.
Our next stop is the royal tombs at Oplenac, another pleasant surprise. The mausoleum, built from 1910 to 1912 on the orders of King Peter I, was immaculately decorated with 60 million mosaic tiles, mostly representing saints and Serbian kings.
"The line of medieval kings stops in 1459," says Miladin, our guide. "Because in that year the Turks took Smederevo and the medieval Serbian state fell." Always history and always to the disadvantage of the Serbian people. Yet the Mausoleum of St George is actually a celebration of modern Serbia and the Karageorgeviches, the dynasty that won the incessant in-fighting during the 19th century and even married one of its sons to a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
As Dragana and I emerge, the rain has stopped and the white marble of the mausoleum glows in the late afternoon sun. Dejan reminds me that next we have a wine-tasting scheduled. There's a local wine named Oplenac after these very slopes on which Peter I tended his grapes. Dejan strongly recommends that I try this. He may even join me in a glass.
This is how Serbia should celebrate its past. We leave the sleeping kings to their rest and head for the vineyard.
How to get there
Travel the Unknown (0845 053 0352; traveltheunknown.com) offers new seven-night tours of Serbia from £1,400 per person. The price includes return flights to Belgrade, accommodation, ground transport, some meals, entrance fees to sites and a contribution to Climate Care to offset emissions. The first scheduled tour departs on 15 May 2010.