It’s hard to describe Belgrade, Serbia in a nutshell but I can try to sum it up by explaining my first hour there:
It’s late when our buses roll into the terminal after a long trip from Prague. We plop into vans for transport to our accommodations and eat sandwiches of (mostly) bread, meat, and cheese — a combination otherwise known as the Belgrade Diet (spoiler: ineffective).
At my stop, I exit onto a dark street and meet my absurdly tall landlord, who escorts me to a sketchy graffiti-covered building marked with a Cyrillic address. We squeeze into a rickety elevator and at the fourth floor, climb two dark flights of stairs. I am convinced my new home is a dusty attic and pray for good wifi.
He opens the door and leads me through a bright, modern apartment. It’s cool and spacious. It has a patio. It’s not at all what I anticipated. The same can be said for Belgrade, a city barely on my radar before it landed on the Remote Year itinerary.
If cities are people, Serbia’s capital is the quiet one in the back of the room who doesn’t say much until you get to know them. When you do, you find out they’re quirky and cultured and like dancing to house music until 6AM at floating nightclubs, or splavs, along the Sava River.
They also smoke everywhere, all the time, on the streets and in bars and coffeeshops and airports and bathrooms, but that’s just a habit you live with.
The city is funky. It’s gritty. Belgrade has a rough history but has begun to turn around in recent years. Scars of its tumultuous past are visible on its streets, but so are its efforts: crumbling buildings sit atop quaint cafes, shops, an array of restaurants. Evidence of violence is still there. One building stands out in particular; its side is completely gone, destruction preserved as a memorial of the 1999 NATO bombings that destroyed it.
September was a busy month and I left Serbia twice: once to hike in the Slovenian mountains and again for a calm weekend retreat in Munich otherwise known as Oktoberfest. Even so, I liked Belgrade and would visit if/when I find myself back in Eastern Europe. Here are a few highlights:
Biking the Serbian countryside: Biked 40-50 miles through the countryside and towns outside Belgrade, (“Serburbia”), slept in floating hotel rooms, dropped in on a wedding, and ordered a lot of meat for lunch — too much to fit in a takeout container, so we put it in a garbage bag and tossed it to puppies and goats along the way.
The best part? Wandering into a local restaurant and being welcomed into someone’s family party — I think. Nobody spoke English but they were so incredibly friendly, brought us food and beer, and encouraged us to sing and dance with them even though we had no idea what was going on. I’m always nice to travelers but now, inspired by these lovely Serbians, I’ll be nicer.
The second-best part? Stopping at a water park in the middle of nowhere on the ride home.
RAS volunteering: A powerful experience I had this month was volunteering with Refugee Aid Serbia (RAS), working with people fleeing countries in conflict. We hear a lot about Europe’s refugee crisis in the US, but it’s easy to feel removed.
Serbia is host to 7,000 refugees and asylum seekers who pass through en route to western Europe. We were no longer removed from the problem. We were seeing it every day. So we helped – giving refugees food and clothing, talking with them, helping them feel comfortable.
This was sobering, frustrating, heartbreaking. Sometimes when you try to help, you can’t. Sometimes there isn’t a pair of pants to fit a ten-year-old Afghani boy who just crossed into Serbia, where chilly fall evenings lead to bitter winters. Sometimes I had to say no. That was hard.
Novi (don’t be) Sad: Day trip to Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city about an hour outside Belgrade. After stopping at a monastery, wandering city streets, seeing traditional Serbian dancers and learning about the local fortress, we enjoyed a wine tasting/lunch in the cellar of a local winery, hosted by the world’s most precious old woman.
This was the same day I learned Belgrade is not as LGBT friendly as others I’ve lived in. The early morning streets were empty, save for lines of police in riot gear. Our city manager explained this was because of the day’s pride parade, which apparently leads to violence.
Other Belgrade adventures: There were a lot of random things I did in Belgrade and I’m slowly realizing how long this post is (I’m also on a Cambodian bus and currently getting carsick):
Learning about Serbia’s extensive, complex wartime history at the Military Museum.
Spotting beautiful/angry/intricate graffiti while walking the city streets.
Getting cheesy at our monthly fundraiser, a grilled cheese competition, by making piles of macaroni-and-cheese-BBQ-sauce sandwiches.
Sipping rakia, the local liquor, and sitting in a parking lot surrounded by bars because that’s where people hung out (it has since shut down, which makes me sad).
Working from Smokvica, Aviator, 19 Grams, Lemon Chili, and Black Sheep, which has the best gelato in Belgrade and maybe the world.
Running along the Sava River and past the aforementioned floating nightclubs after leaving them eight hours prior.
Going to restaurants and pointing at the menu with no idea what I’m ordering, only to have a lot of meat arrive shortly after.
Asking for iced coffee “without ice cream” because Belgrade has a sweet tooth.
Dancing all night at Apgrade in Kalemegdan Fortress, because where better to have a music festival?
Then seeking mental and physical detox post-festival, renting a car, and driving across three countries to hike in Triglav National Park.
Coming soon: Oktoberfest, otherwise titled The Time I Went To Munich For My First Beer.
Bonus! More random photos from Serbian September, AKA Serbtember AKA Septerbia: