26 May – 27 May, 2014
I was tired, sad, and scared when I said goodbye to my boyfriend, Zac, and boarded a mini-bus at 7:30 am bound for Belgrade. I’d never traveled by myself, and here I was, about to go to a place I knew fairly little about, with an alphabet I could barely read, and a Turkish man who spoke no English sitting next to me. Pretty daunting stuff.
What I didn’t know then was that I was going to be fine. I was about to embark on a truly life changing experience, and discover one of my new favorite cities. I’ve got to warn you, this will be a fairly long post. I spent 4 days in Belgrade, much longer than any guidebook or traveler will tell you to spend there. It’s a pretty small city, and it’s landmarks and museums are not famous or particularly noteworthy. But by spending so long there, I was able to get more into the heart of the city, spend more time with locals, and really get attached to the place. It turned out to be a really good move, and I was able to take a little time adjusting to traveling on my own before setting off again.
To get from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, to Belgrade, required flexibility, patience, and the kindness of strangers. To cross the border you need your passport stamped both from the Bulgarians for exiting and from the Serbians for entering, and once again my passport was hard to scan and got a few funny looks from the control officers (my Turkish neighbor kept muttering “Passaporta” and shaking his head, commiserating with me over the amount of time it took). Then the Serbian control officers had to check everyone’s luggage. By hand! I tried to give my fellow passengers sorry looks as the Serbian officer rifled through my 5 weeks of luggage and had me unzip every single zipper. Once officially across the border, I had no Serbian dinars yet, and the Turkish man kindly paid for me to use the restroom at the rest stop (free restrooms is something we definitely take for granted in the states). I had to change buses in the Serbian transportation hub of Niš, and discovered that it is also common to pay extra to board your bag on a bus. Which I guess is not so strange now, considering that we have to pay to check luggage on planes, but I wasn’t expecting it. It cost 500 DIN to stow my bag, only around 50 cents, but I had no dinars yet! I explained this to the bus driver and attendant. The bus driver kind of ignored me, and went on checking other bags and taking other tickets. After a minute the attendant, an older man with a kind face, looked around and then quietly put my bag in the storage and I just got on. Thank god for that man! I suppose I could have gone to an atm but this bus was leaving soon and I’m doubt they would have waited. On the bus, I was next to 3 Turkish teenagers who’d spent a few weeks in Serbia doing some sort of youth project. They were really sweet and tried to teach me some Serbian, but trying to understand how to pronounce Serbian through a Turkish accent is hard! Once in Belgrade, we parted ways, them to their consulate and me to my hostel . . . which turned out to be across the street from the bus station. Score!
I was actually in Belgrade a night earlier than planned, but luckily the Green Studio Hostel could fit me in to their second hostel, a couple of 4-bed rooms above their lounge. The real hostel was quite charming and homey, but the rooms above the lounge were basically a glorified crash pad with only one other person besides me, and was loud from the music downstairs. Not a welcoming sight to someone in a new city new to traveling on their own. I put down my stuff, and for a few minutes felt lost. What do I do now? This sucks. No, it doesn’t suck, you’re just tired. And sweaty. Take a shower. When I got out of the shower, Ana, who worked at the hostel, was putting clean sheets on my bed. She told me to come down for a cup of coffee, so I did. Ana had taken my passport to book me in, noticed that she was born two days after me, and decided we needed to be friends. Within minutes, we were talking nonstop, and hung out for the next few hours. So it turns out that it is really quite easy to make new friends as a solo traveler.
It was a good thing we got on well, because suddenly it began to drizzle, and the drizzle quickly turned into hail! Ana ordered us some food from a takeout restaurant, and I enjoyed my first meal in Serbia with her, a chicken stew and a sweet pancake for desert, while watching the hail fall outside. Those first few hours also proved how cheap Serbia is. That meal was a few dollars, and my bed at the hostel was only $8 per night. As Ana said, Serbia is very poor, but Serbians are welcoming and speak good English, so I’d be alright. This turned out to be so true.
After the hail stopped I went out for a bit to walk around the city. I had the best luck with getting around in Belgrade; even the first night I could find my way back to my hostel without looking at a map if I was in the vicinity of the city center. My first impressions were that Belgrade was definitely the most European city I’d been in so far. The center has great pedestrian walking zones, expensive cafes, arty fountains and statues, and lovely historic buildings side-by-side with hulking Communist ones. I had some fancy gnocci with red sauce at an outdoor cafe a few blocks over from the center. This “red sauce”, mind you, was not Italian marinara. The fun thing about eating “Italian” food in the Balkans was that there was always its own regional spin on it. In this case, the sauce was seasoned with paprika, and had ham and fresh grilled veggies. This meal, like everything else in Belgrade, was very affordable. After dinner, I successfully made it back to my hostel and hung out in the lounge with a couple of guys, a Serbian artist who works there, who I just call Re (his artist name, I could never understand or remember his real name), and Martin, a slightly awkward, slightly overweight Austrian who’d come to Belgrade 3 weeks before and hadn’t left yet. Once Re found out that I was involved in theater and Martin in film of some kind, he invited us to visit him at his studio the next day and we agreed to do so.
Sleep in the room above the lounge was difficult to come by, as the music never stopped and it sounded like some midnight beer pong game happened, but I still got up in the am to down some coffee with Ana and Martin and to take the free walking tour. I’d been recommended by several people to try to do walking tours in new cities, and I heartily agree. Usually there is a free one going on, and as a solo traveler I found it to be a great way to meet people and see a new city. I only ended up doing two walking tours on my trip, but both were fantastic, with really informational and entertaining guides.
The Belgrade free walking tour begins in Trg Republic (Republic Square) at the base of a statue of Prinz Mihalo, a Serbian prince who had expelled the Turks in the mid-1800’s. But most Belgraders just call it “the horse” since he is riding a horse and it is the main place to meet up with someone in Belgrade. As in, “Hey are you going to that party tonight? Meet you at the horse at 8!”. I loved Jovanna, the spunky, funny guide for the tour, who had great anecdotes on the sights we saw. Some highlights include: seeing the National Theater, which has never had a dark day, not even during the wars; learning about drinking customs and getting to try some plum rakia, which I liked, but was too strong for most of the other people on the tour; seeing bullet holes in a wall from World War I, where the earliest battles of that war took place; learning about the neighborhood known as Silicone Valley, named such for the trophy women who would prowl the area looking for a rich man with a nice car after Communism fell; and lovely views of the Sava and Danube rivers from the old fortress on the hill. During the tour, I made friends with Chris, a skinny, gay Polish guy living in London. Afterward, we went for a bite together at Ćići, a fast-food type place that Jovanna recommended. In Eastern Europe, fast-food means something different from in the US. Rather than a disgusting chain of crummy, cheap food, fast-food in Belgrade meant a grumpy old woman grilling mince-meat fingers, or ćevapčići, putting it inside a pocket bread with a smear of kajmak, a type of cream cheese. This food was so quick, filling, delicious and cheap (around $3 and it really fills you up!) that I would eat ćevapčići practically every day in Serbia, and many times in other Balkan countries as well.
After lunch with Chris, we made plans to meet up again for dinner to check out the Bohemian Quarter, and I met Martin back at the hostel to go visit Re at his studio. I was very surprised with how quickly I’d become so social. Martin had his car, so we drove to the studio. Riding with Martin was an experience. He’s Austrian, which means his taste is pretty questionable. The car itself was older and pretty run-down looking, but on the inside it was tricked out. The steering wheel, floor mats, seat belts, everything had this bright blue metallic trim, and the techno was bumping, aided by the subwoofer Martin had put in the back seat. Yes, there was a subwoofer in the back seat.
Re’s studio was in Inex Film, an abandoned film studio on the edge of town that has become an artists squat/collective. It is covered in graffiti, murals, and ivy, and as we poked around it was pretty dark and quiet inside. We were worried about not being able to find Re but on the second floor Martin spotted a painting he’d seen a picture of in a small studio, and we found him! He gave us a little tour, and showed us an exhibition in the upstairs gallery, which had a crazy abstract artist juxtaposed with one of the most amazing realistic painters I’ve ever seen. He had these paintings of soldiers that were almost photographic in detail. Inex film does a lot of different things. They let artists used the studios to work, but also hold exhibitions, concerts, film screenings, free vegetarian food nights, and even run a local preschool for Roma children. It was quite an amazing place. We hung out for a while with him and some artists, who claimed to be cleaning up the office but were really just drinking beer and rakia and listening to electronic music. At 6, there was a circus training held, so we watched a bunch of punked-out Serbians learn to juggle and attempt to ride a unicycle. The whole experience was truly magic and surreal, and not something that most visitors get to do.
I met Chris the Polish guy back in Skadarlija, the Bohemian quarter, with a Dutch girl named Simona that he’d met on another free tour. We strolled the street, now bustling with other diners and tourists looking to pick a kafana to eat in. A kafana can mean many things in Serbia, from a dive bar to a fancy restaurant, but all are serve traditional food and drinks and many have live Serbian music. We ended up at the first one on the street, a very old place, a bit fancy but a nice experience. What was interesting about the kafanas was that you did not only see tourists, but also local Serbs dressed up for a nice meal out. As with any new group of travel companions, we talked a lot about travel, and compared notes on our meals. Chris loved the sausages and said they were almost as good as in Poland, and Simona, a vegetarian, had a really pretty soup and cheese plate. I had moussaka, a Balkan specialty with meat and eggplant, and tried Cockta, the Soviet version of Coca Cola, but a little fruitier.
After dinner, I bid farewell to Chris, and accompanied Simona to meet up with Alexander, an acquaintance of her’s from Holland who was studying in Belgrade and who lived right by my hostel. Alexander’s apartment was owned by a middle-aged Serbian woman, and was a bit old and grand, filled with antique furniture and dusty leather books. He was in Belgrade working on his PhD, which strangely enough is on Couchsurfing! I guess if you are an anthropologist you can do a PhD on that sort of thing. We had great conversation about traveling, Belgrade, Couchsurfing, and he even shared my enthusiasm for mundane things around the world like sugar packets and toilets. Yes, toilets. I had a conversation with a Dutch man in Belgrade about toilets around the world and how they are all different (next time you travel, you will notice this too). Maybe it was the long day of sightseeing, all the beer and rakia I’d consumed or just the time, but by midnight we were all a little sleepy. I gave them each a hug and headed around the corner to my new hostel bed in the quieter room. There are very few things that I regret about my trip, but one is that I failed to keep in touch with Simona or Alexander. Who knows if I’d ever see them again, but they were very cool people and wonderful to talk to, and some of the first friends I made traveling on my own.
But wait, there’s more on Belgrade to come. . .
Good Luck and Happy Travels,