Throughout our road trip, we have averaged between booking 2-3 night stays in each place we visit. Occasionally, we will book somewhere for a single night in an effort to alleviate the long drive between destinations. As we approached our next stay in Belgrade, I realized we had booked four consecutive nights in the same place, which sounded like an eternity to me.
Although it was our longest stay yet, I left Belgrade feeling like I had the least amount of things to say about it.
I was becoming more interested in Serbia as we approached our time in the country, in large part because of the role it played in the Yugoslav wars, and throughout history. Serbia was involved in all 4 of the wars throughout the 1990’s, fighting for total control over Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. They lost all four wars. Additionally, most of the planning and military decisions came out of Belgrade. When NATO intervened during the Serbia – Kosovo conflict in 1999, they did so by bombing Belgrade, and I knew that we would be seeing the aftermath of this.
I had a mixture of feelings heading into the country considered the lion’s den and the main aggressor of the former Yugoslavia, one that had seen so much chaos only 16 years ago. In the grand scheme of wartime, 16 years is not a long time. I was also told that under no circumstances should you ever mention the war in Serbia while in Belgrade. I guess it is still a pretty sensitive topic amongst Serbs (which is understandable, yet difficult when you can still see the physical evidence all around), because of how heavily they are still impacted from it.
As interested as I was in all that, I also wanted to experience Belgrade for itself and try not to judge it only through the lens of its war history. Belgrade is the both the largest city and the capital of Serbia. It is an extremely popular European destination, and I was determined to like it.
But, even with my best intentions, things didn’t start out that great for us in Serbia.
On our way to Belgrade, we had one of the most intense first night stays I’ve ever had. It is too long of a story to fully share here, but we ended up being locked inside the creepiest home I’ve ever been in (which was completely isolated in the middle of the woods), and had to cut ourselves out of a screen using a butcher knife to run out of there and find a new place to stay.
When we crossed the border (which looked abandoned and as though nobody had passed through in over 20 years), we were asked to step out of the car by a Serbian border control agent. He demanded to know how we found this particular border stop, and we desperately tried to explain what happened, as if he would sympathize with the plight of two Americans who had made a poor judgement call on an Airbnb booking. He reluctantly let us through, probably reasoning that we were too lost and foreign to know any better.
Once we got through the border, the first thing we saw was a giant mushroom home, exactly like the beautiful red and white one we had stayed in Montenegro. The only difference is that this giant mushroom was completely abandoned, painted pure black, and riddled with bullet holes. I wanted to take a picture, but we were too terrified to stop.
I told Al after we saw the mushroom of death, that it felt like we had entered the upside down version of the Balkans (if you’ve seen Stranger Things, you get it).
So, it was a weird way to start off our time in Serbia.
But things started turning around after we entered Belgrade. Belgrade was (and is) the biggest city we have been to on our trip so far. We both agreed that regardless of our shaky initiation into Serbia, it felt good to be back in a huge international city again for a change.
We spent four days in Belgrade, and I truly enjoyed each day we spent exploring the city. There are communist blocks next to buildings from the Ottoman empire, right across from urban coffee shops and hipster-esque restaurants. There is a huge mix of cultures, a very lively nightlife, and it’s easy to see after just four days there, that Belgrade is a city on the rise.
On our second day, I started slowly warming up to the city. Al and I were at a vegetarian restaurant enjoying freshly baked tofu spring rolls, and I told him that I almost felt like we were back in Chicago. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why, but it just had that Chicago feel to it.
As we were getting our check, our waiter asked us where we were from, and we told him that we were from Chicago. He instantly smiled and said, “Yes! Chicagooo! Little Serbia.” We were obviously confused, and he explained that amongst Serbs, Chicago is known as little Serbia. It turns out that the #1 largest population of Serbs in the world is in Belgrade, Serbia. The #2 largest population, with over half-a million Serbian immigrants, is in Chicago, Illinois.
It made sense to me now, why I felt pieces of home amongst Belgrade’s crazy diverse streets.
Despite our rough beginning, I left Belgrade with nearly all positive memories, and was easily able to find the good in Belgrade.
Here are some of my favorite memories from our four days:
Worlds Colliding in the Bohemian Quarter
Our time in Belgrade happened to overlap with one of our family friends from the US. Diane was leaving Belgrade the day after we arrived, and we knew we had to meet up. Diane had been living in Belgrade for a month as part of her Remote Year program, so she was practically a local to us.
We met her for some red wine at a bar in the Bohemian Quarter, which is a gypsy settlement from the 1800’s, but is now a popular street in Belgrade for tourists.
We loved being able to connect with a little piece of home in a beautiful part of Belgrade, and were even able to meet up with Diane later that night at a rakija bar (which we have no pictures from, but instead the memory of a hangover that will last a lifetime).
Belgrade’s Beautiful River Walk
Belgrade is known as the ‘city on two rivers.’ The city is defined by its placement along the convergence of the Sava and Danube rivers. It is recorded that the city of Belgrade has seen over 115 battles in its history, all of which were fought in, on, and around the banks of these rivers. At one point in Belgrade’s history, it was regarded at as the most strategically placed city in the world due to its position between the two rivers, and in the middle of both the Eastern and Western world.
In a perfect example of how time changes everything; the riverbanks are now the place to take a long, lazy stroll, or enjoy a fresh cup of coffee in the morning, or a cold beer in the evening.
Street Art and Street Smarts
Part of the fun of walking the streets of Belgrade was taking in all of the colorful street art. I read that the street art movement started over the last few years and has only been exploding since. We really enjoyed getting lost in the streets of Belgrade, and discovering all the different interesting neighborhoods.
History from every century
Belgrade is a really, really, really, old city. The history in this city runs so deep, you can see it in every building and with each step you take along the streets.
Belgrade’s fortress is one of the oldest fortresses in Europe, and used to encompass the entire population of the city within its walls. It was fun for us to walk around and imagine all of the history that has taken place here.
For me, Belgrade wasn’t the kind of city that you can just show up to and fall in love with. It wasn’t as stunningly beautiful, it was a little rougher and grittier, and it took more effort to connect with than any of the other places we’d been to. The people weren’t as welcoming to us, there were no rolling green mountains or stunning coastlines to ogle at. Unexpectedly, this was part of the appeal of Belgrade to me. I had to work a little bit harder to understand it, and to find the good parts. In the end, I left with a fondness for Belgrade I never anticipated having.
I guess I had plenty to say about it after all.