After a great 2 days of hiking in Montenegro, I was ready to hit the “Party City” of Belgrade. I know Serbia doesn’t too often appear on the travel plans of many Americans, but I would strongly recommend including the Balkans area in general (including Serbia) on your radar. I never once felt unsafe in Belgrade (full disclosure: I was traveling with a guy, but I’m not sure I would have felt much differently if I had been traveling alone). Overall, I wish I had gotten more time there, and look forward to coming back to experience the infamous nightlife.
The bus ride to Belgrade was long: 9 hours from Zabljak to be exact. (I think I’ve learned a new level of patience from the long bus rides in Europe – 8 hours from Berlin to Munich, hours more down the coast of Croatia, and now this). I was definitely happy to have some company along for this ride at least.
We got in just before 9, so we raced to our hostel, hoping to catch a pub crawl that started at 9 too. Sadly we showed up at Republic Square and saw no sign of the group, so we crossed the street and sat down at an outdoor place, facing a group of guys drumming and a crowd dancing. It was definitely nice to be around some kind of lively commotion for a change. No matter how peaceful and refreshing the mountains are, there’s always a place for some going out. Honestly, we just spent the rest of the night wandering to different bars before calling it a night and making it back to the hostel.
The next morning we got an early-ish sightseeing start. The St. Mark’s Church (a Serbian Orthodox Church – one of the largest in the country) is a beautiful building in the middle of Tašmajdan Park. Made of natural materials, it creates a colorful addition to Belgrade’s skyline. When we first walked in, there were various baptisms and services taking place, so we didn’t venture in too far, and I think missed the main interior, which looks beautiful in pictures.
Instead, we strolled through the park just outside, where booths were set up to sell various handicrafts and goods. Mostly, though, all we saw was honey at every table. I wondered how they could get away selling the exact same thing at each table…There was also a memorial for the children killed in the NATO aggression of 1999, something you see a bit all over the city actually.
We then went to go get tickets for the Nikola Tesla Museum. It’s a small museum, so it’s definitely worth getting tickets that include the demonstration, which are the same price. As someone who has never exactly been the biggest fan of science, I found it interesting, but I know B was definitely much more interested in everything there. The museum is all on one floor of an old house and only a few rooms of carefully-chosen artifacts, unlike big American museums that tend to present the whole history in a series of big rooms.
Nearby, we explored the Church of Saint Sava, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, and definitely one that dominates Belgrade’s landscape. The interesting part about this church is that the inside still remains somewhat unfinished as of 2009, when most other construction was completed. And like other Orthodox churches, the inside is very open and empty, so it looks especially barren, which almost makes it look even bigger.
Our last “cultural” stop for the day was the Free Walking Tour, which I definitely recommend (in any city, mind you). Our guide took us throughout the city and did a great job explaining some of the history. Coming from Bosnia, I did pay a bit of attention to how they treat the questions about the war and that history. The answer is: carefully. Our guide definitely admitted that it wasn’t always the most pleasant topic, but that, for the most part, people tried to discuss it and move on, letting the past be in the past. I do agree with the general principle, but it’s obvious the history (especially so recent and so violent) still affects almost everyone here.
My favorite part of the tour was the Bohemian quarter, Skadarlija. Resembling the Montmartre district in Paris, the main street in this quarter is really only 400m long, but is lined with kafanas (little cafes where artists used to gather), beautiful drinking fountains, and cobblestone. The house of one of the most famous artists who lived and died here in the mid-1800s, Đura Jakšić, still stands, and a statue sits on the street too. Our guide explained that he one day decided to try to quit drinking- a hard feat, especially on a street where you can only imagine the raki shots flowing at each kafana. To reward himself for getting all the way up and down the street without accepting a single shot of alcohol, he took nothing else but…a shot of raki.
Since I mentioned the somewhat evasive Serbian responses regarding the recent conflict (and since it’s something that really interests me and led me to read a few different books on the topic after my return), I’ll also briefly mention our stop at the Bajrakli Mosque in the Dorćol neighborhood. This mosque was built in 1575 and is the only mosque that remains (out of 273) from the period of the Ottoman empire’s rule over Belgrade. It also represents some of the recent unrest: in March 2004, after a series of attacks by ethnic Albanian extremists against minority Serbs in Kosovo, the mosque was burned down. The Serbian media had reported heavily on the violence against Serbs in Kosovo, arguably leading to inflamed tensions in Belgrade and the rest of Serbia, and reminiscent of media propaganda campaigns by former President Milosevic. More about this incident can be found in this news article.
We ended the tour near the Kalemegdan, the Belgrade Fortress. Since it’s within these walls that the entire population of Belgrade lived for centuries, it’s an important site. It was also controlled by the Ottoman Empire for a time. We obviously didn’t have enough time to see and wander through much of it on the tour, but it’s known for its winding walkways and scenic river views. We arrived right at sunset, so we did get to see some of those views, which were amazing. All along the river’s edge, signs read “No entry” and “Walking in this area you risk your life,” but hordes of students and young people sat with their feet dangling over, gazing at the sunset. It didn’t take long, just like our guide warned us, for an officer to come by, whistling loudly to make them all move. Oh well.
Since we ended right across from Kafana “?” (the actual name of the restaurant), we decided to eat there. The place actually got its name in 1892. The owner wanted to change the name to Kod Saborne crkve, which means “by the Saborna Church.” This of course angered church authorities and the owner temporarily hung a “?” sign on the front. Well, that stuck, and over 100 years later, the kafana is now on the Protected Monuments of Culture list as of 1981. The food was good, and the back patio was lively with groups and musicians. As a touristy spot, it is a bit pricier than others, and the food may not be as tasty or the service as friendly, but it was a good spot nonetheless. I had the Karađorđeva šnicla, a breaded cutlet of pork or veal steak and stuffed with kajmak (a type of Serbian creamy cheese), then fried. Because of the phallic shape, it’s actually nicknamed a “girl’s dream.” Hm…
On another political note, I couldn’t help but notice and reflect on some of the buildings in Belgrade. The Yugoslav Ministry of Defense building, bombed during the NATO raids in 1999, for example, sits in the center of the city as a reminder of the past. These days, it is protected by an armed guard 24/7. It’s a very interesting and strange feeling, as many tourists of my generation visiting Belgrade may notice, to walk around buildings in Bosnia, witnessing a direct visual reminder of a history so recent and so traumatizing that took place during my lifetime. Just like it was in Bosnia, it made it all the more real and more horrifying once I was in the country to imagine what living through this time period would have been like.
While the impetus for the bombings may cast some doubt on Serbian “innocence,” it’s impossible not to reflect on the civilian experience for during those months. After all, for almost 2 months, Serbs had no idea where the next bomb would fall. Tennis pro Djokovic, for instance, explains that he used to practice in the sites bombed the previous day, since “if they bombed one place yesterday, they probably wouldn’t bomb it again.” And while bridges (along with any other public infrastructure) were prime bombing targets, the “crazy” Serbs would gather on the bridges, play music, and hold rock concerts in protest.
The street art also gives a sense of the political mood in Belgrade…
Our Belgrade trip ended mostly quietly. We had a few drinks around town after that, but then went home. I’ll definitely have to come back to experience the “party city” of Belgrade. I feel like I got a good first glimpse, but definitely don’t feel like I got enough of a sense of the city in our short time there.
Above all, I would recommend to anyone to come to Belgrade, despite any misconceptions in the U.S. I’d also recommend going to other parts of the Balkans before or after Serbia. The whole history is still very much present, and you’ll get a different perspective from each place. It’s easy to see the war from one particular side, which I definitely still agree with in a sense, but destruction and horror happened in all places.
For a good sense of the feeling in Belgrade, which still mostly remains today, I think the Twenty-Something Travel’s “Bombs over Belgrade” post sums it up pretty well. I’m not sure I got as strong of this sense since I was with someone the whole time, who also happened to be Polish, but there is a much stronger sense of national pride in Serbia than I’d felt elsewhere in the Balkans – stronger in an unfriendly sense. A lot of this comes quite simply from the fact that, unlike in Bosnia, where the blame seems to fall mostly on Serbia and Milosevic’s regime, the blame in Serbia seems to fall on NATO, but more importantly, on the U.S. All the memorials to the victims of the NATO bombings, the still-bombed Ministry of Defense buildings, the oral tales of the bridge that was flooded with people and concerts so as to avoid bombings – these all seem to serve as potent reminders of aggression from a country I call home. Whereas in Bosnia, where the national pride felt friendly, as if everyone I met wanted to showcase how delicious the food was, how optimistic they still were, how beautiful the country could be, in Serbia, it almost felt revengeful. I know it’s important to separate stereotypes and “general feelings” from actual encounters, real conversations with people in each place (especially since most of this feeling probably stems from the simple fact that the “aggressor” in Serbia was my own country, unlike in Bosnia). So I’m hesitant to generalize this feeling across Belgrade, much less Serbia, but it’s something I did notice.
Until next time, things I wish I’d done, and look forward to doing next time:
- the Communist tour of Belgrade
- explore the nightlife of the city. (It is called “Party city” for a reason after all…)
- stay at the Hostelche (I’ve heard great things and apparently the crowd is really social and outgoing)
- Go to the Mikser House in the Savamala District (for now, read about Tricia’s experience visiting it on her blog here)