The Danube River is one of the most important in Europe. In Roman times it separated the civilized Roman world from the barbarian north. From early medieval times until the locomotive age it constituted the single most important trade and communications link between Central Europe and the Orient. Not surprisingly, the Danube has traditionally been one of the world’s most heavily fortified rivers. Nowehere is this more true than the very heart of the river, which runs through Serbia. Here are concentrated some of the most magnificent castles located along the Danube. Among the best are Belgrade Fortress, Golubac Fortress and Smederevo Fortress.
The Danube River region in Serbia has been fought over since ancient times. Wars were recorded even before the Roman showed up. Some of the earliest known fortifications were those built by the Celts in what is now Belgrade. The first major defenses were built by the Romans as a base for the fourth legion. The site was later fought over by Romans, Germanic tribes and Huns. According to legend, famed barbarian leader Atilla is buried somewhere in the area. By the time things calmed down in the 6th century, the region was in the hands of the Byzantine Empire, who built a major fortress on the site.
Belgrade changed hands a ridiculous number of times throughout the Middle Ages. It was controlled at times by the Byzantines, Bulgars, Austrians, Hungarians and various other Slavic tribes. It finally fell to the Ottomans in the 16th century, who maintained possession for well over three hundred years. Throughout this period, the Belgrade Fortress was regularly rebuilt, expanded and maintained. The last major renovation took place in the early 1700s, under the auspices of the Austrians, and much of the current fortress dates from this era. In 1867 the Serbians nominally achieved independence, took Belgrade for a capital, and adopted the ancient city as capital.
During the early 14th century, the Ottoman Empire crossed into Europe, and began a long, inexorable push northwards. In response to this threat, the various cities and states in the Balkans began to strongly refortify their territories. This was especially true along the Danube. One of the strongest of these was the Golubac Fortress. Almost from the time of its completion in the mid-1300s, the highly strategic Golubac was fought over and changed hands between the Serbs, Hungarians, Ottomans and Hapsburgs. It became part of the fledgling Serbian state in 1867.
One of the few major fortresses along the Danube not constructed by Europeans is the Smederevo Fortress. After the Ottomans had conquered most of the region in the 14th century, they established a protectorate in part of Serbia with a capital at Smederevo. A new city and fortress were built from scratch, making Smederevo one of the youngest major fortresses in the Balkans. Like the other castles in the region, it remained an Ottoman possession until Serbian independence in the 19th century. For long one of the largest intact castles in Europe, Smederevo was badly damaged during World War II. Unfortately, despite major efforts in the post-war period, much of the castle remains unrestored.
Belgrade Fortress crowns a low, grassy hill top close to where the Sava River flows into the Danube. It mostly dates from the 19th century reconstruction, and because of this is more of a gunpowder era fortification than medieval. The earth-backed outer walls zig-zag their way around the site, with the main bastions facing the river. Clumps of trees partially obscure the battlements, making it difficult to fully appreciate the fortress from the outside. Some elements, notable the Stefan Tower, are much older. From the standpoint of nationalistic pride, the highlight of the castle is the towering Statue of the Victor, which commemorates victories over and independence from both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
Golubac Fortress is one of the most imposing castles along the Danube. Although actually not particularly large, Golubac is built on a rocky promontory with multiple levels that stretch from the hilltop to the riverbank, making it appear bigger than it is. The road along the base is interwoven with tunnels and caves that give the castle an even more dark and adventurous appearance. The interior of the castle is not in quite a good shape as the exterior, but much of it was recently cleared, though not fully restored, and much of the site is now fully accessible to visitors.
Smederevo Fortress is one of the largest castles in the Balkans and one of the few castles in Europe that is a completely Ottoman-built structure. Standing at the confluence of the Danube and Jezava Rivers, Smederevo forms an almost perfect triangle anchored by a main fortress where the rivers meet. A long moat protects the third wall. The impressive walls are lined with two dozen towers. Unfortunately, a large chunk of the southwestern part of the castle is still in ruins from damage incurred during World War II. Once home to a small enclosed town, most of the interior is now an open, grassy space interrupted only by a museum/visitor center.
Belgrade Fortress is part of Kalemegdan Park, a beautiful urban park located between the city center of Belgrade and the river. It is also home to gardens and a zoo. Golubac Fortress is located along the riverside highway just outside of the modern town of Golubac, approximately fifty miles east of Belgrade. It is easily accessible as the highway literally runs beneath the castle. Smederevo Fortress is located close to the city center of Smederevo, almost exactly half-way between Belgrade and Golubac. As of this writing, no visitor information was available for any of these castles. Web: www.beogradskatvrdjava.co.rs (official website of Belgrade Fortress); www.serbia.travel/golubac (official website of Golubac Castle).
Although it did not make the top three, the 18th century Petrovaradin Fortress, located in Novi Sad uprover from Belgrade, is arguably the best gunpowder-age fortification along the river.