The first time we visited Serbia in September, 2010, my husband remarked that Serbia is not a third world country but it’s about a 2 1/2. Since then, it’s changed and so have we. After visiting three times, we’ve noticed increased construction and better cars on the road, indicating an improved economy. According to World Bank data, the average income in 2012 was $5380 per capita per year and the unemployment rate is still around 20% (world bank.org) but both indicators have shown improvement. The nation is currently seeking entry into the European Union.
To place the country in geographic context, Serbia is located in southeastern Europe in the Balkans, the crossroads of Europe and Asia and the scene of many conflicts throughout history. It’s one of six republics that made up the old Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia from 1945 until 1991 which was ruled by Marshal Josip Broz Tito until his death in 1980. The other 5 republics of the old Yugoslavia are Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro. Notice on the map that Serbia is landlocked, thus lacking access to the beautiful Adriatic Sea that attracts so many tourists to the region.
We traveled to Serbia to visit our son, Michael, who lives in Belgrade. As an undergraduate, Michael studied abroad at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and returned to Krakow to complete a Master’s Degree in Eastern European Studies and International Relations. The focus of his master’s thesis was Serbia which led him to conduct research in the country and he moved to Belgrade after completing his degree. So far, we’ve visited three times–in 2010, 2011 and most recently in October, 2013. Most of our time has been spent in the capital city of Belgrade (pop. approx. 1.7 million) but we’ve also traveled outside the city which I’ll cover in another post.
To be honest, my first impression of Belgrade was somewhat negative. It seemed dreary and dirty to me, a typical Communist-era large city with lots of gray concrete buildings erected in the 1950’s and 60’s which led my husband, Jim, to dub it Bel-gray. Then to further “cement” my unfavorable impression, we were required to register with the police within 24 hours of our arrival, a bureaucratic vestige of the old Communist state which troubled me.
Today, my impression is significantly different. We were soon persuaded by warm and friendly Serbs to change our perceptions. Then Michael gave us a book of humorous essays, A Guide to the Serbian Mentality, by Momo Kapor, which, upon reading, completed our conversion. Yes, the concrete is still there and some of those buildings still strike me as depressing, but now I see the old architecture interspersed among the modern buildings and I observe preservation and restoration efforts occurring as well. There is a lot of beauty just waiting to be discovered in both people and place.
One of the most attractive features of Belgrade is that it is likely the single most affordable city I’ve visited in Europe. We rented an apartment in a different area each time but centrally located in Belgrade
at a rate of $50-$70 per day. All three were clean, recently renovated, nicely furnished, and had internet connection. I’ve used FlipKey (click on it to see apartments and prices) to find accommodations with consistently satisfactory results.
Here are some of the sights and activities we’ve enjoyed in Belgrade. (Hover to see captions or click to enlarge the photo.)
Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan Park
The fortress, overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, was built during the 2nd century AD by the Romans, razed by invaders, and subsequently rebuilt numerous times until the 14th century (www.serbia.travel). Today, there is a military museum with weaponry from medieval times through WW2 on the grounds that is worth seeing but the description of the exhibits was in Serbian without English translation. The zoo is also part of Kalemegdan Park and although I have not visited, your nose will tell you when you’re getting close.
Cathedral of St. Sava
The Cathedral of St. Sava, named for the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. It’s been under construction for over 100 years and each time we’ve visited, scaffolding has been present inside the structure.
The Danube and Sava Rivers
The Danube and Sava Rivers offer several opportunities to tourists visiting Belgrade. Stroll along the Danube and spend some time just sitting on a bench to read, relax, and enjoy the view. You can also cruise the rivers by boat. A 90 minute boat cruise costs less than $5 or you can rent a boat for the entire day. We paid just over $100 through a private party for a half day rental including the captain who piloted the yacht. We were fascinated by the miniature vacation homes floating on the Sava and disturbed to discover that their human waste goes directly into the river. We also rented bikes at the Sportcenter on the Sava River for about $2 per hour or $6 for the day. We rode along the bike trail next to the Sava River and crossed the bridge to the island of Ada Ciganlija, where an artificial lake has been created by connecting the island to the riverbank. Ada offers beaches, treated water in the lake for swimming, water skiing, and restaurants.
Republic Square and Knez Mihailova Street with a stop for a coffee.
Republic Square is a popular meeting place in the center of Belgrade and the location of the statue of Prince Mihailo (Michael), erected in 1882. Prince Mihailo, an enlightened reformer, convinced the Ottomans to remove their garrison from Serbia and enacted various governmental reforms until his reign was cut short by his assassination in 1868. Knez Mihailova (Prince Michael) Street, a pedestrian zone filled with shops and restaurants in beautiful 19th century buildings, is nearby. When stopping for a coffee, however, whether on Knez Mihailova or elsewhere, be sure you don’t inadvertently order Turkish which has the grounds in the bottom of the cup. I learned that lesson the hard way as I picked coffee grounds out of my teeth.
The National Museum, Nikola Tesla Museum, and Tito Memorial
I admit it. I like museums and Belgrade has some gems. The first is the National Museum which has been closed due to reconstruction each time we were in Belgrade. This last time, however, there were a couple of special exhibits that were open so we jumped on the opportunity to get inside. We look forward to seeing the Prehistoric, Ancient, Middle Ages, and Modern Collections when the museum finally reopens. Second, the Nikola Tesla Museum showcases his many inventions and his Serbian origins. Tesla, not as well-known as his rival, Thomas Edison, was the inventor of alternating current, which is used today to produce and distribute electricity rather than Edison’s invention of direct current. Finally, the Museum of Yugoslav History is a memorial to Josip Broz Tito, long-time President of Yugoslavia. His mausoleum, the House of Flowers, is located there along with thousands of artifacts and documents from his rule of Yugoslavia.
The bohemian area of Skadarlija is found on cobblestone Skadarska Street. It is restricted to pedestrian traffic only and is lined with cafes, bakeries, and restaurants featuring authentic Serbian food and music.
7. Prijatno! (Bon Appetit!)
The food in Belgrade is inexpensive, plentiful and tasty. Some of our favorites are kajmak, a cross between clotted cream and butter; ajvar, a roasted red bell pepper spread; soups, known as “spoon food”; shopska salad made of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and cheese; ćevapčići, rolls of minced meat; and pljeskavica, similar to a hamburger. A cautionary tale regarding food is in order, however. My husband ate a pljeskavica from a street stand and even though we claim to have cast iron stomachs, he got sick from it. It’s good to be a little discriminating in your choice of eateries in any country.
There are many more sights and activities that we discover each time we visit Belgrade. When I asked Michael to review my post for accuracy (because he lives there and is fluent in Serbian), he reminded me of so many details that could or should be included and pointed out that I should at least mention that the cyrillic alphabet is the official script in Serbia. Fortunately, in almost all instances the Latin equivalent is included. To have a look at the cyrillic alphabet and Latin equivalents, click here.
Finally, unlike Prague in the Czech Republic which my son calls the Walt Disney World of Europe due to continuous hordes of tourists, Belgrade is still relatively undiscovered. Visit Belgrade before it becomes the next Prague.
So, to answer the title question “Why Serbia?”—Zašto da ne? Why not?