What’s so special about Nis? OK, there is an old, cool looking fortress, a charming riverfront, and a mountain top Trem framing the city landscape that is totally worthy of being on a postcard. What distinguishes Nis from the dozen of other interesting and historical places are its stories of a dark past and smell of the promising future that breathes out of every decaying facade building that you can encounter on the streets. It’s the only place where people, walking by you on the street, have the potential of becoming your life-long friends, if only you point a striking smile in their direction, without a particular reason. This is the story of Nis, the city of unique contrasting energies, marked by the living and the dead.
The city marked by the dead is not exactly the description that any tourist destination would like to have alongside its name. But there are hefty reasons to call Nis as such and trust me, they make it much more worth visiting. The three main city attractions are quite intimidating, and all tell the stories of incredible suffering, pride, and fighting, that people who lived in this city sustained throughout the past, for around 2200 years, since it was settled.
The most recognizable obscure sight and world’s biggest building made of bones, according to the American magazine Mental Floss, is the skull tower Cele-kula. The tower was established as a warning to all the people who disobeyed during the Ottoman tyranny in the 19th century. The tower was a symbol of the bittersweet victory of the Ottoman army in the battle of Cegar, where both sides lost more than 10.000 soldiers, during the First Serbian Uprising. Coincidence or not, the aftermath instilled even bigger and untamable urge for freedom within the Serbs, serving as the foundation of the future Serbian fight for freedom, that led to the final liberation in 1878. A monument to the dead? I would rather call it a monument of life and freedom.
A little less known but equally horrifying and awe-striking sight is The Red Cross concentration camp. The concentration camp dates back to mid-1941 when it was established and operated by the German Gestapo. It mostly served as a transition camp for encaptured Serbs, Jews, and Romanis during the Second World War. The infamous part of modern history left its footprint in this part of Serbia, as the concentration camp detained as many as 35.000 people during the war and brought an end to the life of more than 10.000. A sad monument to the dead? I think not so. Let’s dedicate it to the brave living, as it was the only concentration camp where 105 people succeeded in the organized escape!
When the Second World War was finished, a monument Bubanj was built in remembrance of all the people who lost their lives in the Red Cross concentration camp. The theme behind the monument carries much of an unpleasant sentiment - it shows large sculptures of three fists: a woman’s, a child’s, and a man’s. The location is symbolic as well - it was the place that German soldiers used for mass executions of the camp prisoners. This hill is also the very place where the battle of Cegar happened, making it an unofficial epicenter of the Nis’ dimmed history.
Is it the city’s turbulent past or the fact that it always ended up “shadowed” by Belgrade and Novi Sad, but somehow the city of Nis developed a very unique personality. For a city of many tragic events, the people who reside there today are extremely positive, always ready to share whatever they have with the guests - be it their time, food, or the stories. In the later years, with the investments of foreign companies and the opening of the regional airport, Nis is slowly retrieving the spotlight in the tourism world.
Don’t let the stories of the dead frighten you, with all the knowledge I have on the city, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of it is the sound of jazz, amazing nature, and ultimately fun people. I, therefore, declare Nis the city of the living, prideful of their dead!
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