Our valiant Dacia Logan with one of the best-sellers in Serbia: the locally-made Fiat 500L.
This is the second iteration of our voyage through 10 countries in 10 days with a Dacia Logan. You can see the introduction to this series and the first country explored, Romania, here. We leave Timisoara to the west of Romania to enter Serbia, our second country of the trip, on Day 3 – already one day late so we need to be fast. We’ll cross Serbia diagonally from north-east to south-west, stopping in Belgrade en route to the hills of Mokra Gora (see map below).
But first let’s backtrack to today’s start in Timisoara, Romania. When trying to enter Serbia, then Belgrade in our valiant Dacia Logan’s GPS, surprise: only Romania and Bulgaria appear as country options (see above), making it a little hard to navigate to Serbia, let alone the remaining 7 countries. Thankfully I had anticipated the Logan’s frugality before embarking on this trip and had packed a portable Tomtom GPS that would be our trusted guide – albeit at times mischievous – for the rest of this adventure. Crossing into Serbia the car landscape changes drastically: the thick blanket of Dacias becomes a trickle, as the Logan still managed to rank #2 in the annual Serbian charts in 2006 and the Sandero at #2 in 2011. But given there was no real equivalent of the modern but ultra-cheap Logan coupled with scrappage schemes to “clean” the park like in neighbouring Romania and in the apparent absence of any pollution regulations, there are still lots of 70s and 80s cars on the road in Serbia, notably the first and second generation VW Golf, and this is a sight that will come back regularly during this adventure. But if Romania has Dacia, as part of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia once had Zastava, and they are still crawling through the countryside in very high numbers. Time for a trip through memory lane to remind ourselves of over half a century of Zastava history…
Meaning flag in Serbo-Croatian and Slovenian, the Zastava brand was founded in 1953 and discontinued in 2008. The very first Zastavas to leave the Kragujevac production lines were in fact 162 Willys Jeeps in 1953. It’s however through a 1954 cooperation agreement with Fiat – similarly to Russia’s Lada some 15 years later – that Zastava would become famous around the world, sometimes under the Yugo brand name. After testily assembling the Fiat 1400, 1100 B, and AR-55 Campagnola, Zastava had its break with a licence built version of Fiat 600 called the 750 of which a whopping 923.487 were produced between 1955 and 1985. Unfortunately, almost none of them survives today and I didn’t see any until much later in this trip, in another country. After starting to export outside of Yugoslavia in 1965 (to Poland), in 1971 the carmaker launched its second iconic model: the Zastava 101 that would become the Zastava Skala, based on the Fiat 128 but with a restyled rear panel giving it a hatchback body style. This variant of the Fiat 128 was specific to Zastava and was never released elsewhere by Fiat. Taking different names through the years, the Zastava Skala still managed to rank #3 in Serbia in both 2006 and 2007, its last two full years of sales. In 2008 at the end of its production, a new Skala could be purchased for just under 4000€ in Serbia, making it one of the cheapest cars in the world. A total of 1.273.532 were built between 1971 and 2008, and it shows in the Serbian countryside with many models having been kept to almost pristine condition (see above).
Various iterations of the Yugo 45 aka Zastava Koral.
The Yugoslav brand launched its third and final iconic nameplate in 1980: the Fiat 127-based Zastava 102 that would become the Yugo 45 then Zastava Koral under a rather plasticky facelift. It originally followed the style of the Autobianchi A112 with a more squarish profile. 794.428 were produced from 1980 to 2008. This is the only Zastava sold in the US under the Yugo brand name: 141.651 found a Yankee buyer between 1985 and 1992. The eighties were Zastava’s best years with around 230.000 cars produced annually and sold in 70 countries. In 1988 the Zastava Florida, the brand’s only proprietary model, was launched but only 29.950 units produced between 1988 and 2008 with a long interruption between 1992 and 2000 due to the war in the region. Even by Serbian standards this wasn’t a top seller: it did not rank inside the Serbian Top 10 in 2006 or 2007, and quite logically as a result I saw none in the entire country during my visit.
Serbian-made Fiat Puntos in Belgrade.
The post-war, Serbian period was unfortunately fatal to the Zastava brand, even though the Kragujevac production lines have survived to this day. In 2005 the company signed an agreement with Fiat to produce a bare-bones version of the 2003 Fiat Punto Classic: called Zastava 10 and priced at 7550€, it managed to rank at an excellent #2 in both 2006 and 2007 – and sold an estimated 10.000 units – but was simply renamed Fiat Punto after the death of the Zastava brand in late 2008. Although I did not spot any, they are particularly difficult to find as the only difference is the Zastava logo instead of Fiat. Then, under the direction of newly formed Fiat Automobili Srbija which took over the Zastava Automobiles facilities in 2008, the Fiat Punto dominated the Serbian charts – even reaching 14% share in 2011 – up until 2012 when it was toppled by the new local child, the Fiat 500L (pictured in the lead photo of this article and further down below) which topped the local charts a total of four times since, but lost to the Skoda Octavia in 2018, only the second time after 2014 (Skoda Fabia) that an imported model is the best-seller in Serbia. The heritage of almost 15 years of strong Fiat Punto sales is the most blatant in Serbia and notably in Belgrade where they overcrowd the streets, but the pole position of the 500L isn’t making itself noticed as much in the car landscape. Now that we have taken you through a brief history of car production in Serbia, it’s time to talk about our impressions of the country and its capital, Belgrade.
At first sight, Serbia seems less “Eastern European” than Romania, more rallied into capitalism and less anchored to traditions than its neighbour. Under this gross generalisation I mean Serbians – some of the tallest people in the world – appear a lot less stoic and more approachable, perhaps more relatable from a Western European point of view, if a little brash. One thing that becomes clear very quickly: although friendlier, Serbians are possibly the most impatient drivers in the world. An example: in Belgrade all red lights are equipped with a timer where you can see seconds tick off before it turns green. If you haven’t already leaped forward a few seconds before the light turns green, you are sure to get an exasperated toot from the car behind you. It happened at every red light and I have to admit I have never seen that much eagerness anywhere in the world! Belgrade is a gritty, outspoken and exuberant city with a cobble-stoned old town hugging the quirky Kalemegdan Citadel equipped with hidden smokehouses, tennis courts and dinosaurs. At the iconic Dva Jelena restaurant founded in 1832 and complete with jovial waiters, the portion of Divljač (game) was so generous the two desperately hungry drivers (us) they fed it to couldn’t even finish it… Now to Serbian mountain roads…
Fiat 500L and Punto in Mokra Gora
In the first iteration of the series, I mentioned that highways are as frequent as unicorns in this region of the world. Nowhere is it truer than in the former Yugoslavian nation, where any confederate efforts to connect the region were put to rest when it was cut into different countries after the war. This is why the map at the top of the article shows it takes over 6 hours to drive just 350 km. To reach the mountainous area of Mokra Gora from Belgrade takes guts and lots of it: it’s sinuous 1 lane road where crazed drivers risk their lives at every turn in order to overtake lumping lorries to then slow down to a leisurely pace once they’ve proved their worth. There’s a noticeably and uncharacteristically pompous – but brisk – air in the small town of Mokra Gora whose touristic attractions are the fantastical village of Drvengrad and a winding, whimsical Śargan 8 train ride, none of which we had time to experience. Instead, we had to deal with disparaging waiters, a botched breakfast and a border agent asking for a leaving tax in Serbian coins – we Australians don’t do physical money anymore so we were let through with eyes rolling.
Time to move on to country #3: Bosnia & Herzegovina!