Be honest, how many of you can point out Serbia on a map? Can you name what countries it touches? Americans; do you know anything about it besides rattling off something about Bill Clinton? Well, strap in.
First thing you need to know is that if you’re not native to similar languages, Serbian is a pronunciation test from hell. As least it is for me so, I’m glad you’re reading this and not listening to me speak. Second thing, is that this country is unbelievably beautiful and full of hospitable, kind, welcoming people. During my week in Serbia I spent most of my time in Belgrade, but also traveled to the nearby towns of Aranđelovac and Novi Sad. Both, I highly recommend!
Belgrade – The Largest and Capital City
Located at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, the city is gritty and audacious, not exactly pristine, outspoken and exuberant. Industrial and historical all at the same time. Absolutely full of life both past and present, you could spend months in Belgrade and see something new every day. While I was there unfortunately there was a ton of construction going on. Though, that lent itself to to the ideals of the city propelling itself into the future. One of my favorite areas was Knez Mihailova Street (Prince Michael Street). Beginning at the republic square, the pedestrian street is absolutely packed with locals and tourists out for a coffee or a walk just to see the day and the artists lining the cafes. No matter who I spoke to always told me; no matter what is going on in life, you will always see people out in the cafes or sitting outside window shopping and enjoying the sun. Wherever we went, people were enjoying life and their city.
If you plan to be around Belgrade, take a step on the outskirts of the city and chances are you wont miss Kalemegdan Fortress or the surrounding park. It’s a giant castle, in a giant park. Really, you can’t miss it.
I was lucky enough to be there towards the beginning of fall so I was able to see the most incredible foliage. Honestly, there isn’t any other experience like standing on top of an ancient fortress. Sort of makes you want to conquer things.
For a touch of history:
We’re talking three digit years here. The first mention of the city was it’s founding in the 3rd century BC as “Singidunum” by a Celtic tribe. Around 535 the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I rebuilt the fortress. In the following centuries it suffered continuous destruction and rebuilding. The name Belgrade (‘Beograd’ in Serbian), was first mentioned in AD 878 by Bulgarians. Not just in Serbian but in most Slavic languages, the name means “white town” or “white fortress”. The fortress kept changing its masters: Bulgaria during three centuries, and then the Byzantines and then again Bulgarians.
The fortress remained a Byzantine stronghold until the 12th century when it fell into the newly emerging Serbian state. It became a border city of the Serbian Kingdom, later Empire with Hungary. The Hungarian king Béla I gifted the fortress to Serbia in the 11th century when his son married the Serbian princess Jelena, but it remained effectively part of Hungary except for the period 1282–1319. When the Serbian state collapsed after the Battle of Kosovo in 1404, Belgrade was chosen as the capital of the principality of Despot Stefan Lazarević. After the Despot’s death it had to be returned to Hungary. Later the fortress was conquered by the Turks and remained (with short periods of Austrian and Serbian occupation), under the rule of the Ottoman Empire until the year 1867, when the Turks withdrew from Belgrade and Serbia.
There is a great deal I could cover here, Yugoslavia – the Serbian Uprising – a bunch more wars (not to make them sound insignificant). However, in the interest of time; most recently, Serbia became an independent state in 2006 under it’s own name for the first time since 1918.
History lesson over, you’ve now earned the chance to look at the pretty fortress.
The park and grounds surrounding the fortress are also ridiculously beautiful.
Everyone was doing it .. I had to take a picture on the wall!
Aranđelovac – Both quaint and vast in it’s own way
It was time to take a break from Belgrade, and this sweet little town was only about an hour away. Sitting beneath the mountains Bukulija and Venčac, this place was bursting with small town charm and gorgeous European countryside beauty. Literally everywhere had vines of vibrant flowers and painted wrought iron fences. The views were absolutely breathtaking when we went up further into the mountains. I know it’s the wrong country but I was consistently expecting Julie Andrews to come bursting through the walls singing about the hills being alive.
Of course, my favorite part was the food. We ate “brunch” at Divljakovac, a restaurant situated in basically the cutest most pristine countryside. Fresh proscuttios, cheese, kaymak, and bread baked that morning. I only put “brunch” in quotations as I have yet to come up with a contraction that encompasses all three main daily meals. The amount of food was aggressive and perfect. Accompanied by an outlook tower to see far and wide across the country, you really can’t beat the location.
Our group of friends continued to be way too ambitious, as later that day we had another delicious and meat filled meal. Roasted and smoked in the open air, we had a lunch of the most ridiculous pork you’ve ever tasted. Apparently, you can’t smoke pork like this in the open air in any other place, which really is a travesty. I can’t say anymore – I’m still full.
Klub Fest and Fuzz Box
Whats a vacation without a good rock concert? The venue – Klub Fest. The band – Fuzz Box. A thoroughly rough group of men, probably only one full set of teeth between them. However, the greatest hits have never sounded so good.
Of course, being Europe, the venue was thick with smoke and I wanted to throw away everything I wore there. But it’s all about the atmosphere – and once the music starts you barely even notice.
Back to Bohemian Beograd
History, flavor, adorable cobble stone streets – Skadarlija has it all. In the bohemian quarter of Belgrade, this vintage pedestrian wonderland is absolutely the hub for a great restaurant or a twilight stroll. If it’s traditional Serbian food you’re after, look no further than Dva Jelena (two deer). Dishes you need to try? The veal soup, chevap, fresh garlic bread, karadjordjeva steak. Again, an oppressive amount of food that you wont regret for a moment. Maybe just the few immediate moments following the meal – but no other moments. I promise.
The area of Skadarlija has quite a few more shops and restaurants and is absolutely worth a full evening. While I was there the weather turned uncommonly cold for the time being so regrettably I didn’t walk around as much as I had hoped. Nevertheless, I do recommend spending more time in this quarter to get a feel for a different pace of life.
Getting Out of Town to Novi Sad
Also very well known, yet a bit less expensive so more popular for students and young families in Serbia. The city of Novi Sad is as quaint as it is bustling. On a nice day one can spend hours just walking around town or sitting outside at a beautiful cafe enjoying the life and the people. Everywhere had at east one live musician, at least a million drink specials, and at least six million reasons to stay and enjoy your afternoon. No exaggeration there, I swear. It also helps that the architecture of the city is of a toweringly epic nature and with an almost gothic style it almost insists you stay and daydream. You really have no choice but to love Novi Sad.
A Fortress Straight Out of Disney
If you’re looking for a place so beautiful it’s literally magical – look no further than Petrovaradin. This second most well known Fortress in Serbia is in the city of Novi Sad and is much more vast than Kalemegdan in my opinion. The cornerstone and seemingly “main” part of the fortress is sat on top of a hill lending itself to absolutely incredible views of the banks of the Danube river and town of Petrovaradin. It sits on such a large and interesting plot of land that since 2001 it has become home to the summer music concert EXIT Festival. EXIT has grown from being the largest festival in South-Eastern Europe, to being officially proclaimed as the ‘Best Major European Festival’ at the EU Festival Awards in 2014. I feel another trip in my future.
Following the brief excursion to Novi Sad my trip wound down and I did, unfortunately, eventually have to leave. The time change kicked my butt and nobody likes leaving a vacation, but I can definitely say I’d return sometime soon. Serbia is an evolving and vibrant country, and I can’t wait to see what the next few decades have in store for it!
A few extras I just have to throw in here:
-Nutella Pie: this country has a deep and committed relationship with Nutella, also EuroCreme, and I don’t hate it. A pie, or more like a flaky pastry of happiness, filled and baked with Nutella inside, is all you’ll ever need to be content.
-Pljeskavica Gurmanska: better than any hamburger, cheeseburger, philly cheese steak, meatball grinder, or meat filled sandwich thing you’ve ever had.
-Lake Ada: a great way to spend an afternoon, another ridiculously picturesque area of the country, and potentially a great place for a swim or boat ride if it’s warm enough!
-Everyone speaks English: or most everybody for that matter. But, I was definitely embarrassed at many points asking someone if they spoke English before talking and the answer was always a resounding “… of course?”.
-Coffee sucks: unless you’re a pure espresso drinker, this is a common European theme. In Serbia you’ll need to order a “filter coffee” if you want what we consider to be ‘normal’ brewed coffee. Still, it’s not the most amazing thing. Stick to espresso drinks and be happier and peppier. Don’t get me started on the prevalence of instant or the obsession with Turkish coffee – if you’re a fan of chewing your drinks though, this might be for you.
-Kaymak & Chevapi: this is the best meat and cheese stuff combo you never knew you needed. Yes, I realize all of these extra tips are regarding food. The seasoned meat is so savory and salty and delicious and when you add the melty rich cheesy kaymak – the world just seems ok for that moment.
–Crna Ovca: Black Sheep ice cream in Belgrade is equally as tasty as it is famous. With new and innovative flavors – honestly, who doesn’t love a perfect scoop of ice cream? Really this is more like gelato though. I thoroughly recommend Sesame-Coffee!