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Window on surprising Serbia

Beginning the Balkan buzz - fun, fortresses and new friendships

A chance encounter made us rethink our travel plans. 

While visiting an inner-city Sydney restaurant, a few weeks before our departure this year on a lengthy Central European and Balkans trip, we started talking to the manager about it. He told us that he was from Serbia, and I shook my head.

'What a shame, we are not going there,' I told him. 'Why not?' He was amazed.

How could I tell him politely that I was nervous? After all, for many years in the 1990s, the news seemed to revolve around Belgrade-this, Serbia-that. War, casualties, destruction, dreadful tragedies. Would it be safe to go there now? Was there even anything left to see?

During the course of our meal, he changed our minds, telling us about how the troubles are behind. Finished. And what a lovely city Belgrade has become. In fact he did such an excellent promotional job with us that I went home and rewrote our itinerary that evening. What's more, during the trip we entered Serbia twice - once from the north and once from the south. And here's what we discovered.

(Pictures: top to bottoma takeaway lunch shop in Belgrade, picnic spot beside the Danube, and view over the rooftops towards the Danube, from Novi Sad's citadel).

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The first surprise was that this is the country that gave the world the Serbian word 'vampire', now in dictionaries around the world. Go on, check Google Translate if you don't believe me!

Oops! Perhaps that's not such a good example, though, given my tentative feelings initially, but it is interesting in that the next country we were to visit, Romania, seems to have hijacked that word - at least in Transylvania. But all of that is for another story.

We entered Serbia from Hungary to the north - and held our breath. This was our first experience of a Balkan country and we didn't know what to expect. Surprise #2: a border is just an arbitrary line, and the countryside continued as it had on the Great Hungarian Plain we had just driven through. That meant eye-stretching views across flat fields on either side of the road; chocolate soil covered with swathes of fluoro yellow canola in full bloom, as if someone had swiped the foreground with a giant yellow highlighter pen.

First destination was Novi Sad, with a population of around 200,000. My  invaluable Lonely Planet Eastern Europe guidebook was easily accessible as I had downloaded it via Kindle onto my iPad. It told me Novi Sad was founded in 1694, when Serb merchants formed a colony across the Danube. 

Arriving on May 1stLabour Day, we found a relaxed holiday feel to the town. Every book I had read talked about the Petrovaradin Fortress, established by the Habsburgs as a strategic military post overlooking the city and, of course, the famous Danube, Europe's second-longest river. Only the Volga river is longer.

Surprise #3 (there were to be many more!) is that the Danube flows east, not west as I had mistakenly imagined. On this trip it popped up beside us in several more places.

As we had arrived in town just before sundown, the obvious thing to do was drive up to the Fortress, which some call the Gibraltar of the Danube and see what it was all about. Fortunately it was an easy drive (no walking, no steep steps) and good parking. The stylish restaurant has an outdoor area that overlooks the town with its magical wraparound night-time view. You can decide which you like better: there is a daytime shot, a little further on, below.

For our first night in Serbia I had booked an apartment rather than a hotel room. I used booking.com throughout, but at this stage I was still learning the ropes of dealing with the accommodation. We didn't realise that apartments usually do not have a reception desk and that I should phone ahead and arrange with the owner to meet us and let us in.

On this occasion, my Australian mobile phone couldn't seem to raise the number, and so a kind person in an adjoining cafe phoned for me on her mobile, and all was well. We discovered our hostess spoke very good English, and our apartment turned out to be a spotless compact studio with a sofa that became our bed for the night. It was ideal.

Surprises #4 & #5: Local people are usually happy to help strangers, and (biggest surprise) many people in the Balkans, especially younger ones, speak English and often exceptionally well - but not, perhaps, as young as this little fellow enjoying his visit to the fortress!

You won't be surprised to learn that after even a few hours into our time in Serbia, I was becoming much more relaxed.

Next morning we explored Novi Sad's town centre, with The Name of Mary Catholic church (above) to one side...... 

...and City Hall opposite. I'll shortly explain why Trg Slobode (Freedom Square) looks like this.

But first we needed breakfast and this, the Antina Cafe on the edge of the square seemed ideal. Our studio had a small kitchen but we had not yet exchanged out forints (Hungarian money) for Serbian dinar and not shopped for any groceries.

Another lesson. Keep a list of all the currencies with their conversion into both Euros (often accepted) and your own currency (in our case AUD). Here, the exchange rate was tricky to calculate too - 88 Serbian dinars to one Australian dollar. Good exercise for my rusty mental arithmetic.

FYI, on this trip we travelled through 13 countries, with 10 currencies and 13 languages! Keep following this site and you will see (and read about) them all, complete with Gordon's lovely videos to bring them even more alive. It took us 55 days and we stayed in 32 hotels, and crossed 19 borders. Gordon drove the whole 7300 kilometres in our rental car, on everything from potholed back roads to sleek autoways.

Is there a book in all this? Maybe.

It would be a shame to leave that church, which was rebuilt in 1893, without a closer look at the tiled steeple. How glorious are those thousands of ceramic tiles?

Outside in the square is this fellow who appears to be admonishing the church. Did he not approve of the colour scheme of those tiles, perhaps? No, he is Svetozar Miletić, 19th-century Novi Sad mayor and champion of Serbian political rights.

Those booths you could see earlier in Freedom Square were part of a Food Fair. This was Day One and it would run for the entire month of May. Many countries were represented, serving their iconic national foods, but of course I zeroed in on this one.

Other booths sold trinkets and souvenirs or specific food such as this honey stall. Just look at the amazing number of items using honey. In a country with so much agricultural land the local bees must literally have a field-day!

Due to head on to Belgrade, Serbia's capital, an hour or so away, we needed to see the Fortress by day.

What better weather for the Labour Day weekend? Sunny and 20C, but as the weather people say 'feels like 25C, and everyone was out to enjoy it. 

The cafes and restaurants were busy, but not overcrowded.

 
Keep your eye on that clock in the observation courtyard...

...and, as promised, there is that view across the Danube, which we later saw one last time before leaving town.

The clock. Do you notice anything unusual about it? The story is that it was made with the length of the hands reversed (long for hours, short for minutes) so that fishermen down on the river could get an idea of the time. Of course it is nicknamed 'the reversed clock'.

The Serbian clock-making industry is said to be around six centuries older than Switzerland's.

Several people had told us that we must visit The Strand before leaving, and true to its name, we found a river 'beach' and adjoining park filled with families enjoying the great sunshine. You will see deck chairs set close together like a theatre on many European beaches, and here was no exception.

Fun for small children too. In August 2016, the inaugural Strand Fest celebrated local culture for all ages, and it returns in 2017.

Our Serbian is almost nil, but it is easy to see what is not allowed here. The Danube's waters are icy, having originated far west in the mountains of Germany, and authorities say the water is not clean enough due to its primary use for water transport of all sizes.

We left the river to head south towards Belgrade (or Beograd as it is called by the locals). With his back to the view, deep in the newspaper, this man didn't even notice me taking this farewell-to-Novi-Sad picture. 

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Busy Belgrade

Unsurprisingly we found Belgrade (ten times the size of Novi Sad with a population of around two million) to be still much of a work-in-progress. Some of it was stunningly beautiful; some parts downright gritty.

Badly damaged during the Second World War, then again in the Kosovo War of 1999, there was much destruction. Less than two decades later, we found much had been restored, but plenty more to do as well. The city reminded me of an elderly lady, still with 'good bones', and beautiful even though time has taken its toll.

One place that survived unscathed of course, was Belgrade's Kalemegdan Fortress, established in the third-century BC on a high cliff overlooking the Great War Island and the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.

Here on the fortress parapets they are doing what young people do around the world, taking photos and selfies and generally loving life. The past does not seem to weigh heavily on the younger generation. Happy, friendly locals told us they 'love tourists' and Dobra dan (good day) always raised a special smile.

I had my own smile whenever I said 'thank you'. In Serbian (and I was to discover in many other Balkan languages) the word is hvala, which is pronounced kvala. I discovered if I said 'koala' quickly and in the appropriate context, no one seemed to notice  - or else they were too polite to comment. In any case it gave me a giggle to be thanking them with the name of a furry Australian marsupial!

The statue at the end of this park, is simply referred to as 'The Victor' - unnamed, yet symbolising and celebrating the bravery and determination of Serbian people.

This is the ideal high spot for a photograph or a place to sit and dream and consider all that this city has witnessed.

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Despite everything, the city's food scene is alive and very well. We stumbled across Smokvica (OK, tipped off by Lonely Planet) and loved it. With a sunny courtyard and named after my favourite fruit, we felt we were in safe hands here.

The interior looked like it had been styled for a glossy magazine...

..... and the courtyard was strenuously channelling casual Med-chic.

In Belgrade we were staying in another self-catering apartment - this time like a small house, with a kitchen - but I was not yet up to speed with the catering, so next morning, our initial attention was focused primarily on breakfast. Smokvica's magnificent 'homemade muesli' had it all: red fruit jam, apple, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, yoghurt, honey and much more. It was beyond good.

With funky music, a chef and wait-staff who really cared about their food, this uber-cool place is somewhere I would come back to again - if I am ever lucky enough.

Obviously others agreed with my feelings about this part of town. As we wandered the nearby laneways, a man stopped in the street to inform us proudly: 'this is the epicentre of Belgrade'.

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Ivan, the restaurant-manager we had met in Sydney, had given us the name of a friend of his who happens to own Langouste Restaurant (Dining Room Faust when we visited), one of the city's best restaurants. So of course we met with Goran and immediately found ourselves headed for a day of finding out about the local food scene as he rang people on his mobile and noted down names and addresses for us. Best of all, he invited us to dine at his ultra-stylish restaurant perched high above the Danube, that night.

I know you want to see what we ate, so I'll show you here, then get back to how we spent the rest of our day in Belgrade.

Many restaurateurs prefer not to serve bread and butter preceding a meal. They would prefer our appetites to remain sharpened, ready for the dishes on the menu. Here, however, the chef's handmade plum bread and truffle butter is a delight not to be missed, and actually an 'appetiser' in the truest sense of the word.

After a perfectly grilled scallop with apple pariesienne poached in butter and served with a lemon gel, my dish of monk fish came, as you can see (above) on a puree of parsnip and pinenuts. It was an inspired combination which showed both the adventurous tastes of the chef, as well as her assurance. The quinoa supplied the ideal textural balance, and that drizzle of salsa verde added eye- as well as taste-appeal. Our meals were paired with fine Serbian wines of course, and Montenegrin olive oil was added where needed.

The desserts were, as you can see, rich and tempting, and I have to tell you they tasted even better than they looked, especially when paired with a Serbian sticky wine. Here we have a chocolate tart with morello cherries and morello cherry ice cream.

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Back to the outside world and just a block from Faust we pass this church - the 19th-century cathedral of St Michael and the Archangel. Despite centuries of conflict, oppression and destruction (Belgrade was razed 44 times) religion and church attendance has been central to Serbian Christians. Unlike many other churches we were to see the interior of this church was restrained with beautiful murals reserved for the area around the altar and its ceiling.

And then there are the urban coffee bars. Yet another surprise throughout much of Europe and especially the Balkans is that bars serve coffee and alcohol, including strong spirits, but very little food.

In European cities, you need to be prepared to walk. A lot. Often there is no car access to the central areas, and even if there is, parking is almost impossible to find.

In order to arrive at the next place on the list Goran had given us, we chose to walk and it was a good idea as we came to wide and lengthy Prince Michael Street (Kneza Mihaila), a meeting point for locals and tourists. Filled with street art (like this above) outdoor dining, shops, restaurants and entertainers, it is the vibrant hub of this city.

One place we wanted to see was this upmarket hotel where we met with Nikola, the sales and marketing manager. Despite being a member of Leading Hotels, this is very much a family-owned boutique hotel with just 45 rooms. The hotel's success is grounded strongly on its personal approach, and all dishes in the restaurant are made in house with an emphasis on fresh and local produce. The owners' aim, we were told, was that guests would feel as if they were in their own ultra-luxurious home.

Back to the street, past more streetside bars, passing this one a bistro...

... and on to the area around Skardalija Street, one of Belgrade's oldest streets, finding our way to this place, nearby in Skadarska.

Goran had again worked his magic and organised for someone to show us around this magnificent old restaurant, Dva Jelena, which has been open continuously for close to 200 years.

Some of the rooms inside are dark and moody, lined with heavy hand-hewn timbers that must have been here since the beginning. In places there were displays like this one. Take your own virtual tour....

Outside, the mood is cosmopolitan and relaxed, with diners from all countries enjoying a meal on the terrace under the trees.

This short street has many other cafes and restaurants too, even one (just beyond the one above, on the right) that allows you to enjoy the company of its cats!

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Belgrade means 'white city' yet not many buildings are white, apart from this grand Orthodox church, the Church of Saint Sava, which was undergoing extensive restoration when we visited. It is one of the largest churches in the world. It can accommodate 10,000 visitors daily.

Fortunately the crypt was still open to visitors.

Here we discovered an Aladdin's cave of precious artifacts, murals, and chandeliers....

... and we stayed here longer than perhaps we should, dazzled by so much gold.... 

...brilliant lighting and crystals.

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There was one further place we wanted to see even though the day was ending (and we had a dinner date at Faust Restaurant, remember!) so we drove to the Museum of the Revolution (sometimes called the Museum of Yugoslavia) south of the city. The extensive grounds have several purposes, one of which is to honour and acknowledge Josep Broz Tito - who most of us have heard of as just Tito.

As we climbed the steps to his mausoleum, we passed through one part of the park given over to various gifts and sculptures which had been given to Tito during his lifetime, such as this statue of the man himself.

All dictators are complex people, and often arouse conflicting opinions. Here is one person's letter, on display amongst many others in a small museum near his final resting place.

And here he lies - a simple tomb for a man who had so much influence on modern Yugoslavia.

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For us, the best part of any trip is meeting the people of a country. Whether you can speak the other person's language or not, it doesn't matter. Our final surprise for this part of the trip: meet my new best friend Ljuba, owner of Apartment Gajic in which we stayed for our two nights in Belgrade.

She spoke no English. I had only mastered hvala (thank you) but when it was time to leave, we hugged and did the traditional Serbian three kisses on the cheeks. She gave me a final pat on the arm and I told her we were 'sisters'. She agreed.

It's not surprising that we felt welcome. According to international polls, statistically Serbia is the world's most hospitable country.

Goodbye, Belgrade! Danube river, we plan to see you again on our journey.

Sometime soon on this page we will look at the very different but just as fascinating south of Serbia, which we visited after we had completed a circuit of Romania and Bulgaria. Stay with us!

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Fellow travellers - have you ever had your negative ideas about a place challenged or overturned? Please Comment using the Comment box, below, and share what positive surprises you discovered.

 


Text & pictures: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

Gordon and Sally travelled to Europe, self-driving and booking all accommodation independently. The car-hire company was Europcar and Apartment Vas Raj in Novi Sad, and Apartment Gajic in Belgrade were booked through booking.comAll opinions remain our own.

 
 

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