Updated: Mar 8
Once one of the most famous and architecturally stunning hotels of the Yugoslav-era, Hotel Zlatibor in Užice, Serbia sat for years in a state of neglect after the 1990s. In 2020, the process of gutting and dismantling the hotel's interior began with the aim of transforming it into apartments. Today I accessed the hotel for one last glimpse of this icon of Yugoslavia.
In the center of the Serbian mountain town of Užice is the towering concrete skyscraper known as Hotel Zlatibor. Sitting right on Partisan Square in the town’s center, this massive hotel complex was unveiled in 1981 by the design of famous Montenegrin female architect Svetlana Kana Radević [profile page]. Standing at 60m tall and 16 story high-rise tower, the structure is undeniably imposing, especially considering its bare-concrete facade and rocket-shaped form. Hotel Zlatibor, which is named after the nearby mountain range, existed during the Yugoslav-era as a shining example of the country’s architectural achievements and creativity in the arena of urban modernism. However, after the 1990s, the complex experienced privatization and began a slow decline into neglect. Yet, new proposals as of 2019 have instigated a movement towards redeveloping and renovating the building into a contemporary mixed-use apartment/office building. As I arrived at Hotel Zlatibor in late February, the building was already being gutted and stripped of most of its former Yugoslav-era furnishings. Before I start explaining what I found explore the hotel, let us first look at a bit of history about the site.
A series of vintage images of the hotel's interior during its more formative era
The idea for a hotel at this location on Partisan Square was conceived as early as 1958, during the very early planning phases of the Partisan Square redevelopment project for Užice. However, while Partisan Square was completed by the early 1960s, the process of creating a hotel on the square was put off for many years, most likely due to budgetary constraints. By the mid 1970s, efforts began in earnest to put into motion the creation of the hotel. In order to choose the design of the hotel, the planning commission for Užice organized a closed competition between the two female architects Svetlana Kana Radević and Jovanka Jeftanović. Both were accomplished architects, with Radević distinguishing herself after building the award winning “Hotel Podgorica" in what was then Titograd, Montenegro, while Jeftanović had herself created the notable “Hotel Kragujevac” at Kragujevac, Serbia. Radević subsequently won the competition, with her striking proposal being commended for its visual strength, its choice of materials, as well as for its furthering architectural innovation in Yugoslavia.
Construction on the hotel began in the spring of 1979, with the project being funded by the Užice company UTP "Sloga" at a cost of what would today be roughly 1.5 million euros. The work was completed just over two years later and was finally unveiled to the public on September 24th, 1981. The first unique character of Radević’s design is the bare concrete facade that spans the whole structure. This dynamic concrete shape erupts from the ground in sharp angular slopes which converge at the center of the mass, the shoot upwards into the sky in thin lines, tapering at its summit. The building’s thin stacked windows further contribute to the feeling of energetic upward movement. As a result, this dramatic shape lends many viewers to compare the building to a rocket ship aiming at the stars, inspiring themes and symbols of optimism and positive future outlook. Upon its unveiling, it was instantly recognized as one of a kind, going on to win several awards and recognitions from the state. It would go on to be Radević’s greatest work and the architectural creation she would be most lauded for during and after her life.
With its exciting shape and large size, 120 rooms and 280 beds, the hotel immediately became a landmark and status symbol for the town, with its two restaurants, ballroom and bars becoming exclusive places for a night out on the town. Even many tourists were drawn to the hotel, who came to the region to utilize the nearby ski resorts at Zlatibor. But interestingly, the hotel’s large size and ambitious scale is something that was not initially intended by its architect. Anecdotes relate that architect Svetlana Kana Radević originally only designed the hotel to be a modest four floors, but after the mayor of Užice, Petar Antonijević, met with her personally, he convinced her that she should dream bigger and create a massive skyscraper hotel. This led to the Hotel Zlatibor being sometimes referred to by people with the playful nickname “Devojački san” (Girl’s Dream).
However, after the Yugoslav-era ended, the hotel began having a new nickname directed at it, “Sivonja” (Grey Ox). This name came as a result of the increasingly depressing and dilapidated state the hotel descended into after its privatization in the 1990s. Once a source of pride for Užice citizens, it slowly transformed into an object of embarrassment, as the once exclusive hotel was downgraded to 1-star status and fell further into disuse and degradation. Towards the end of the hotel’s operation in the 2010s, the reviews for the establishment on Trip Advisor were excoriating, with some users calling it a “dreadful, Faulty Towers nightmare”, while others dubbed it the “worst hotel I have ever stayed in”. Locals often joked that during this period Hotel Zlatibor only hosted two types of guests: those who didn’t know about the state of the hotel and those who had nowhere else to go. Many people angered at the hotel for acting as a blight on the town often spoke about the possibility of demolishing the building, but due to its immense size, such a prospect would have realistically been almost impossible. Other’s compare the fate of the hotel to be symbolic of the fate of Serbia itself: “During the eighties it was the trademark of a carefree Užiče, then from the nineties until recently, it symbolized misery and sorrow.”
By 2019 the Hotel Zlatibor closed its doors for the last time. At that point, the hotel’s owner, local Užice businessman Milan Čeliković, began work on redeveloping the degraded hotel into a new complex. His tentative plans call for the the hotel’s 166 rooms being converted into dozens of residential apartments, student housing units, along with several ancillary hotel rooms. When I arrived at the hotel in late February of 2020, the demolition work was already well underway. While the lower levels of the hotel still remained untouched, occupied by the old restaurants, ballroom and offices, the upper levels of the hotel rooms are currently in the process of having all of their furnishing and features torn out, as the photos accompanying this article illustrate.
While I am saddened that I was unable to photograph the hotel rooms while they were still in an intact condition, it is nonetheless a unique experience to be able to witness the process of the hotel changing from one state to another. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Hotel Zlatibor may very well have been the very last remaining of the great Yugoslav hotels that still remained operating in its original unaltered state (however poor of a state it may have been). As a result, the redevelopment of this hotel can be thought of as the end of an era, with no places left where one could go to get a glimpse of the unique and distinctly Yugoslav modernist design aesthetic that was the hallmark of that time period.
In the weeks since I first published this article, a traveler named Witold Urbanowicz reached out to inform me that he had been one of the last people to stay at Hotel Zlatibor in May of 2019. Not only did he provide me with a great written description and account of his stay there, but he also took a nice selection of photos documenting the condition and state of the hotel in its final months of operation. He has kindly allowed me to share his words here [translated from Polish into English], as well as those photos. What follows is Urbanowicz's description and images.
Traveling in the Balkans is always a challenge, primarily in logistics and communication. The limited network of connections significantly reduces travel flexibility and extends the travel time - often you can simply be left without transport. One of the goals of this year's expedition, covering Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria, was the Bar - Belgrade train route, rightly considered one of the most beautiful in Europe, mainly due to the majestic mountains, especially on the Montenegrin section. Inevitably, therefore, the option was limited to only one train choice. As in the Balkans, the journey does not take place at dizzying speeds - the travel time from Podgorica to Belgrade is 9 hours. The invaluable traveler "Kami and the Rest of the World", as usual, advised me: "why go directly to Belgrade, how interesting Užice is along the way - boiling over with Yugoslav socialist modernism and brutalism, which is reflected in the cosmic-looking Hotel Zlatibor at its center." This seemed like a great proposition, especially since it significantly shortened the entire route towards Bulgaria. A great option, as I understood Kamila, seemed to be the idea of making a stay there at Zlatibor Hotel - although it was only later that it turned out that she had not actually slept in the hotel before.
A disadvantage was the fact that the hotel was not available on the standard internet booking websites. Also, not too optimistic were the online reviews for the hotel - just in the last few months the reviews contained stories about getting stuck in the elevator for an hour and a half or suggestions that the hotel should be closed. However, it turned out that Hotel Zlatibor had its own website with a correspondence address. The hotel quickly responded in English that it had free rooms within the given dates. When asked about rooms with a nice view, the receptionist pointed out that rooms on the 8th and 9th floors were offered. All you have to do is confirm your booking and give it a try!
The hotel from the slightly deserted railway station could not be missed. In fact, from every place in Užice you could see this 14-story colossus, which was the dominant feature of the city's landscape. The road to Zlatibor was not so difficult. After opening the entrance door into a fairly dark lobby, we easily tracked down the reception, which though looked more like a gatehouse. The service man spoke only Serbian, but fortunately we were able to roughly communicate [speaking Polish] - after all, it is Slavic. He gave us the room key on the ninth floor, ensuring a great view, which made us particularly happy.
Having left our luggage, we decided to go into the city with others in the group to withdraw money for the hotel bill. When we pressed the elevator button to go down, the light lit up but the elevator never came - moreover, it didn't sound like it was coming at all. After a moment of waiting, we decided to go down the stairs - after all, nine floors is not much. The lower we went down, the hotel slowly began to feel more abandoned: the carpets were getting dirtier, the corridors were full of dismantled and unnecessary equipment. Paint was peeling in open rooms, the paintings were dismantled, additional mattresses and blankets were stored, and pigeons could be heard here and there. Although at the same time - which is worth emphasizing - the rooms were not demolished. As if they were left behind these few years in the hope of the sudden arrival of such a number of guests that Užice had not seen for a long time. So it turned out that the hotel only offered rooms on the 8th and 9th floors.
After going down, we told the receptionist at the desk that the elevator apparently only works one way - up. The nice and helpful gentleman pointed out that the next time we could use the freight elevator, which is accessible via the large kitchen and telephone exchange. We gladly agreed, because going down the abandoned floors nevertheless stimulated the imagination a bit too much - more than the stories about emergency elevators (fortunately the system with a bright passenger elevator going up and the freight elevator going down did not disappoint us for the rest of our stay).
When we settled the payment for the room - in the amount of PLN 130 (about 30 Euro) for one night - the gentleman from the reception asked what time we would be leaving. At the same time he announced that the reception is open only until 24:00 [after which point the entire hotel is locked, which prevents guests from leaving the hotel] until the next day - where it opens back up from 8 in the morning. Here a problem arose, because the bus - the only one that suited us, departed at 7:50. The gentleman from the reception quickly said, however, that there is no problem - and he just gave us the key to the entire hotel. Then he showed how to open the door. This gave rise to the suspicion that we are the only guests of this intriguing object.
In the evening, being out in the city, we looked back at the hotel looking for lights - deducing whether or not maybe someone else was staying at Hotel Zlatibor. But no, it quickly turned out that there was only one light visible in the whole building - and it was a corridor on the ninth floor.
After an evening walk we said goodbye to the receptionist and just in case - even though we had the whole hotel to ourselves - we locked ourselves in our room. Our stylish bathroom, lined with brown tiles, illuminated by symmetrically arranged balls, also stylistically corresponded to the period of the hotel creation. That was its only advantage. The outflow of an extremely stylish sink turned out to be leaking: all the water was pouring onto the floor, but this was not the biggest problem of our bathroom yet. Ten minutes after turning the tap on the tub it turned out that there was no hot water, which deprived us of hope for a warm bath. Cold radiators were another disadvantage. May nights turned out to be quite cold. An electric radiator was mounted - which was probably the only innovation since the hotel was commissioned. It even warmed up a lot, but nonetheless the drafty windows did not let up. The extra comfort was a slight consolation.
Despite some inconveniences, Hotel Zlatibor was an interesting adventure (although I would like to mention that there was no full agreement on this topic within our group). It is true that PLN 130 (roughly 30 Euro) per night in an old and already used room - without efficient heating and above all without hot water - may seem a lot (especially since there were cheaper options in Užice). However, if you look at it from a different angle - PLN 130 for the entire 14-story hotel in a fully preserved style from the end of Tito's time - that's a pretty good price!