The Danube fortresses in Serbia

Exploring fortresses on the banks of the river Danube in Serbia, each with their own history, myths and legends

by
Ana Stevanović (opens in new window) (National Library of Serbia)

Modern means of transport - such as cars, planes and trains - eclipse the significance that riverways once held. The Danube river, due to its position and length, was an especially important pathway for merchants and warriors, while both connecting and separating nations.

The Danube is the second longest river in Europe now connecting ten countries, just as once it connected kingdoms and empires, friends and enemies, kings and warriors. For centuries, the Danube river banks have stood witness to turbulent historical events. Fortresses and citadels built on its riverbanks are still here to tell these stories.

Citadels and fortresses of old served different purposes: defending borders from enemies, controlling riverways and trade, becoming the starting point of conquest or handsomely commanding the view from water.

Embarking along the Danube on a journey through Serbia, a traveller will encounter many fortifications built by the Romans, the Serbs, the Hungarians, the Austrians and the Turks.

Petrovaradin

The first stop is the Petrovaradin fortress in Novi Sad, nowadays recognizable for the EXIT summer music festival. Built in the late 17th century on the border of two empires, this beautiful and spacious fortress was first controlled by the Austro-Hungarians. Since it was built, it has served as a prison, convent and hospital.

French philosopher René Descartes, leader of Yugoslav Communist party Josip Broz Tito and Nobel prize winner Ivo Andrić were all prisoners in Petrovaradin. A legend claims that during the Napoleonic Wars, treasure from Vienna was hidden in Petrovaradin. However, the biggest mystery of all are its still insufficiently-explored underground halls.

Kalemegdan

The next stop is the Belgrade fortress – Kalemegdan, located in Serbia’s capital, built by the Romans in the 2nd century at the crossroads that once connected Constantinople and Thessaloniki with the Western Europe.

In the 15th century, the fortress was a medieval city and the capital of Serbian Despotate. It was renovated first by the Austrians and then by the Turks, in the 18th century. Today, Kalemegdan functions as a museum and park, and the cultural and historical point of Belgrade offering an astounding view of the confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube.

Smederevo

Further down the Danube sits the Smederevo fortress.

Built in the 15th century as a fortified city and the palace of the Serbian despot Djuradj Brankovic, it was the capital of Serbian Despotate as well as its political and cultural centre.

Many legends surround its hasty construction that had taken only two years to complete. The most well-known claims that it was built at great cost and with much sacrifice only to satisfy the caprice of the despot’s young wife, the Byzantine princess Irina, henceforth remembered as the Damned Jerina.

Ram

Only 40 kilometres down the river rests another 15th century fortress, the Ram fortress, but this edifice was built by the Turks.

Its strategic positioning enabled them to control the traffic on the river Danube, as well as for defence purposes. Ram was built as an artillery fort with thick and not extremely high walls.

Today, the fortress offers a beautiful view of the Danube which, quite surprisingly, intersects with another four rivers in this area, the rivers Karaš, Nera, Morava and Mlava.

Golubac

Djerdap Gorge is one of the longest composite gorges in Europe, and the Golubac fortress guards its entrance since the Middle Ages.

Although no accurate data is available, it is assumed that it was built by the Serbs in the 13th century, and at one time was also controlled by the Turks. Unlike Ram fortress, Golubac is a medieval fortress with remarkably high walls.

Its name derives from the Serbian word for pigeon. According to a legend, when looking from the river, its towers and walls looked like pigeons. Another legend claims the fort was named after a Serbian girl named Golubana. An Ottoman commander was in love with her, but she rejected him. To punish her, the commander left Golubana to die on a rock in the middle of the river. Known as “Babakaj”, this rock was chained to the fortress allowing the passage only to those willing to pay the fee.

Fetislam

At the end of this virtual journey, near the town of Kladovo, sits the Fetislam fortress.

Initially called Kladowa, it was built on the foundations of a Roman fortress and served as a starting point for Ottoman conquests, hence the name – in Turkish Fethul Islam stand for “The gate of Islam”.

There are twelve fortresses overall on the banks of the river Danube in Serbia, each with its own history to tell, and each shrouded in myths and legends making not only tourist attractions but cultural points as well.

By Ana Stevanović, National Library of Serbia

EXPLORE MORE: prints of the Danube from the National Library of Serbia

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.

history architecture Serbia rivers