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Traveling to Serbia: Travel Advice for the Solo Woman

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24 July 2018 — There's something about Serbia, but that 'something' can be hard to figure out.

One thing I do know: Serbia’s time is coming around again. After nearly a decade of war during the breakup of Yugoslavia (to which Serbia belonged) and intense efforts to leave the past behind, this small country in the heart of the Balkans is open for visitors (although it still has a bit of sprucing up to do).

travel Serbia - architectural gemsArchitecture - a feast for the eyes when you travel to Serbia
Monumental communist buildings are at least as common as delicate historical ones

If you’re nostalgic for decrepit Communist infrastructure surrounded by edgy European energy, you’ll love being in Serbia (especially in its capital, Belgrade): part Balkan, part Slav and part Austro-Hungarian Empire, you couldn’t mix it up more if you used a cocktail shaker.

That meld is reflected in many areas... In the architecture, which ranges from lugubrious Stalinist to whimsical Art Nouveau, with a few pit stops in banal modernism. You'll also see it in the ethnic diversity of parts of the country - the large Roma populations in the east, Hungarians in the north and Albanians in Kosovo.

But I'm still grasping at straws because, Serbia, you continue to elude me and I can't quite begin to describe you.

Perhaps the easiest way is to say Serbia has one toe in the East, and another in the West. For example, street signs in Belgrade are in both Cyrillic (the Russian alphabet) and our own Latin script, as though the country were hedging its bets. And while many Serbs are Slavs and speak Russian, few conversations take place without mention of the much-awaited membership in the European Union (expected in 2025).

Serbia is nothing if not confusing.

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What to do in Belgrade

Belgrade, like the country around it, is difficult to pin down.

It’s not a capital of sweeping vistas or irresistible monuments. Once you’ve seen the "official tourist attractions", you might think it's time to push on, but you'd be mistaken. Belgrade grows on you, quietly insinuating itself into your life until you've adopted a daily routine without even noticing. A week in, I had the uncanny feeling I lived there.

It's not that there aren't plenty of things to do in Belgrade - there's a lot to see. You can walk around the city on your own, jump on and off the tram or take one of the many Belgrade tours on offer.

I did put on my tourist robes and tremendously enjoyed these sights.

St Mark's Serbian Orthodox Church, Belgrade
  • Skardalja is a single street that at night fills with music and the smell of competing grills – have a grilled meal there. Locals like to call it the Montmartre of Belgrade. Montmartre is a bit of a stretch, but it IS cute.
  • The Kalemegdan Citadel is a striking old fortress but I’d suggest morning to get the sun behind you – and better pictures. You can walk back into town along the pedestrian street, Knez Mihailova, which has been in use for 2000 years (and leads to what was then Constantinople). 
  • If you visit Belgrade in summer, across from the Citadel you'll see the river barges, or splavovi, where some of the city's famous nightlife happens. (I can't vouch for this, not being a night owl.)
  • Do make sure you visit one of the last crumbling buildings bombed during the NATO strike in 1999 - memories of this attack remain fresh and vivid among Serbs.
  • Belgrade is full of street art and graffiti. There are street art tours but the art is not all in one place (although I'm told you'll find quite a few specimens along the Savamala waterfront). You just stumble over it as you walk around. Belgraders (Belgradians?) seem to abhor a clean wall, compelled to paint, draw or carve any pristine surface.
  • The lovely St Mark's Serbian Orthodox Church is built in a park in downtown Belgrade. While everyone talks about St Sava, which is larger, this to me is by far the more harmonious of the two. Notice the sky and the light, which - this seems to be a special feature of Belgrade - change each minute, with the purest colors shifting with the wind.
  • So yes, St Sava is Belgrade’s largest and most famous church and a high point of Orthodoxy. Its cavernous interior was in full renovation when I visited, with scaffolding and wires running along bare concrete walls. But walk through a tunnel and down marble stairs and you’ll alight in the chapel of St Lazarus, a riot of light and art that will give you  the patience to wait for the work to finish upstairs. To see St Sava at its best, wait until the church exterior is illuminated at sunset.
  • Walk around the city's parks. Belgrade is quite green and on a hot summer day, there's nothing better than finding refuge under those shady leaves.
  • One regret I had was not visiting Zemun, which some say is the nicest part of Belgrade (if you're around on a Saturday, try a free walking tour of Zemun).
A corner of the Chapel of St Lazarus, beneath St Sava
Travelling to Serbia - street art on the streets of BelgradeA sample of street art in Belgrade

Belgrade tourism: getting around 

Getting around Belgrade isn’t too difficult. The city's center is small, and most places are within walking distance. There's a perfectly acceptable public transit system, if you can manage to buy a Bus Pass, which is apparently available at kiosks dotted around town. I tried four kiosks and was unceremoniously waved off. I thought it was me, but no, I met a Canadian gentleman who experienced the same. So yes, you can get around, but perhaps ask a Serb to buy your pass for you – that way you won’t scare anyone with your limited linguistic abilities.

If you leave Belgrade by train, please be aware that Belgrade has two train stations – Beograd, which is the old station downtown, and Beograd Centar, which is NOT in the center and in late June looked like a newly-built mall before the shops moved in. (I found this out the hard way.)

Traveling to the rest of Serbia isn't uniformly easy. Getting to cities is simple because you can usually take a train. Towns of any size are served by bus. But much of Serbia's beauty is off the beaten path, up winding roads or through green forests and that's where things go downhill. Without a car, you'll be stuck on the most-traveled roads but you won't get inside the country's heartland. As tourism grows, things may improve but for now, the inner reaches of the country will be off-limits to you unless someone drives you.

The one part of Serbia I was unable to visit is the South, the part many call the 'real Serbia'. Next time.

Hotels in Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade accommodation: you'll definitely get more than you paid for.

Upmarket, one of the best hotels in Belgrade (the best, for some) is the Hotel Mockva, or Moscow Hotel. Apart from its snappy Art Deco exterior, it has an extraordinary history and anyone of note who has ever visited Belgrade has stayed here: Brad Pitt, Albert Einstein, Alfred Hitchcock, Ghaddafi (he reportedly brought three camels with him, which were left behind at the Belgrade Zoo…) If you can't stay, drop into the plush lobby and use the free wifi or sit on the covered terrace for a nice cool drink.

Your best mid-range bet would be Airbnb or a similar service, where for the price of a small hotel room you can live amid period furniture and soaring ceilings (but first, read what I have to say about Airbnb).

If you're looking for cheap hotels in Belgrade, I stayed in the tiny Hostel Cricket 2 in the heart of Dorcol, my favorite neighborhood. It’s a 15-minute walk to the center but… the leafy streets and scrumptious cafés captivated me. (I ate at Walter for incredibly affordable and delicious Serbian fare.)

The iconic Hotel Moskva

Novi Sad and Subotica: welcome to Vojvodina

As you will be told by absolutely everyone you meet, Vojvodina is one of Serbia’s two autonomous regions (the other being Kosovo & Metohija). Any argument raising doubts about Kosovo’s status will fail, so don't go there unless you're an historian with an expert's knowledge of the Balkans. And even then.

Just know that Kosovo's status is disputed: it voted for independence from Serbia, but the Serbs still consider it an integral part of their country.

Vojvodina, however, is another story. Autonomous it may be, but firmly Serb. 

Novi Sad

Novi Sad is Serbia's second-largest city, with a history every bit as tumultuous as that of the rest of the country. It may feel quaint, but the 'older' buildings mostly date from the mid-19th century (the city was destroyed by Hungary during the revolutionary fervor that hit Europe in 1848), and the three bridges, bombed during the 1999 NATO air raids, are brand new.

It’s difficult to list all the powers that have ruled Novi Sad but it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (or ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty) for well over two centuries. The rebuilt town reflects that architectural heritage.

This is a city of youth. It hosts the famous EXIT music festival (created to 'exit' the bad times) and has been named 2019 European Youth Capital. It was also designated a European Capital of Culture for 2021, the first non-EU city to land that title.

Novi Sad is also a city of restaurants and cafés, with a laid-back vibe and plenty of activities in the evening. To my surprise, Hungarian is spoken almost as frequently as Serbian (or Serbo-Croat), both by the Hungarians who have settled here and by those who hop the train or bus down from Budapest for a weekend.

Towering across the Danube from the city center is the mammoth Petrovardin Fortress, which hosts the city's many celebrations (including EXIT) and has plenty of cool spots to avoid the summer sun.

A short bus ride away is the small but sweet village of Sremski Karlovci, in the heart of the Fruška Gora region, which is dotted with vineyards and monasteries. But like much of Serbia, getting beyond the village on public transport becomes tricky and having your own car is the only sensible way to get around. But the village itself is worth the 20-minute bus ride.

Views of Novi Sad

Subotica 

I've been pronouncing this wrong for so many years... turns out it rhymes with pizza.

Architecture, one of Serbia’s proud and endearing features, comes into its own in this small town, and the influence of nearby Hungary is visible throughout town.

A stunning example is Subotica's synagogue, the only one in Europe with elements of Hungarian Art Nouveau. After World War II, during which 4000 of the city’s Jews died in concentration camps, not enough Jews survived to maintain the building so the city took it over. It had been recently renovated when I visited but was closed to visitors. Still, just seeing the exterior was a delight.

Subotica synagogue
The Raichle family palace. Ferenc Raichle was an architect (of course!) and designed his home in Hungarian Art Nouveau (beautiful architecture is one of the joys of Serbian travel)

Food: Serbia specialties worth smacking your lips for

You won't go hungry in Serbia if you eat meat (more on vegetarians in a moment). I ate extremely well and cheaply throughout my stay. I don't know if it's the spices or the fact that the distance from farm to plate is quite short, but it was all lipsmacking.

These are the dishes I liked best:

  • pljeskavica is the local version of a hamburger, the meat nicely spiced with onions on the side. It seems so simple - yet it's so yummy!
  • cevapci, found throughout the Balkans, are grilled ground meat patties shaped like fat fingers and often served with homemade bread.
  • sarma is similar to the cabbage or grape leaves you'll find in Greece and Turkey, usually stuffed with rice and ground meat (my grandmother used to make these!)
  • burek, which my Turkish father introduced to my French mother, is basically phyllo pastry filled with whatever you can get your hands on, my favorite being cheese.
  • ajvar is basically a puree of red peppers, with added eggplant and garlic (and, if you're lucky, lots of chillies).
  • kajmak is a bit strange - I was utterly convinced it was butter (which didn't in any way stop me from eating it) but in fact it's a light yoghurt-type cheese. I slathered it on everything.

Greek salad is, of course, wonderful after all that meat, and if you like your food spicy hot, try the Serbian salad – similar to Greek salad but the feta cheese has been replaced by stinging green peppers. Yum.

Finally, if you’re a vegetarian, Serbia loves its fresh vegetables so get used to tasty salads, or eat in one of the many Italian or Middle Eastern restaurants that aren’t exclusively meat-based. That said, many meat restaurants will offer vegetarian goodness, and meat-free eating is growing in popularity.

Reading up on Serbia's history (to little avail)

In some countries, you can glide through history. It has an inevitable impact, but it isn't the most visible defining core of a society.

Not so in Serbia, where stories of battles won ten centuries ago are told with today's urgency.

Paramount in this small nation’s history is location, location, location.

Serbia is at the crossroads of Europe and its list of invaders is long: Byzantium, the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, the Axis powers... and all this even before the 20th-century upheavals around Yugoslavia's breakup. 

Belgrade, too, is impeccably positioned at the edge of the Balkan peninsula and the beginning of the Pannonian Plain, and at the confluence of two major rivers, the Danube and Sava. This has ensured its invasion and destruction many times. (Here's a timeline for you history buffs.)

History, though, is a complicated mistress in these parts and the truth can be murky,  an impossible challenge for the uninitiated like myself.

Of present-day politics and recent history, here's what I was able to glean:

  • Most people I spoke to expressed dissatisfaction with their present government.
  • Everyone will remind you - in a friendly manner - that several major Serb cities were bombed by NATO in 1999.
  • As I mentioned earlier, there is no discussing the issue of Kosovo: as far as Serbia is concerned, the breakaway province is an integral part of Serbia, period.
  • That said, Serbia has made some compromises on the issue in return for progress on talks in joining the EU.
  • Serbia's economy tanked after Yugoslavia broke up - it experienced one of the most severe hyper-inflations in history - but it's back on its feet, with many people hoping entry into the EU will improve things even more.

So you see, it’s not simple. You’ll inevitably make a historical faux-pas or three, but it won’t really matter and as a foreigner, you'll be forgiven for your 'ignorance'. The conversation - many young Serbs speak English - will move on and you'll wonder whether the encounter even took place.

Other things you should know about Serbia

So yes, there's a feeling about Serbia, something that sets it apart. But don't get comfortable. If you thought you were beginning to understand this complex country, think again.

Take the extreme right-wing stance espoused by others in Eastern Europe: I expected to find it magnified here but, no. While Serbs remain socially and politically conservative, they seem less extreme than some of their neighbors.  

I was in Belgrade on World Refugees Day and small demonstrations took place - amply guarded by armed soldiers. This one, I'm told, is about prisoners in Kosovo.

The police cordon is intimidating and its mere presence shows how fragile freedom of speech and dissent are in this part of the world. But at least this was allowed. In Hungary now, helping refugees is considered a crime (a prohibition which in itself is a crime, in my opinion).

I was also present for the (extremely modest) 2018 Pride march, which has been conflict-free for several years, a definite improvement on the first march in 2001, which was attacked by hundreds of skinheads and other reactionaries. I watched as about 20 marchers, two rainbow flags, 30 police and at least as many TV cameras milled around city hall getting ready to hit the streets. It's commendable that in this highly homophobic region Serbia makes an effort to respect basic freedoms but again, the massive police presence showed those rights aren't sturdy yet.

A few additional (and imprecise) observations I made during my stay...

  • Watch Serbs lose it when they win a sports game, the same Serbs who will stand at the curb obediently until the pedestrian light turns green (even if the nearest car is over the border in Romania!) 
  • Serbs don’t smile at strangers – but they do TALK to them. No Serb will be left standing at the bus stop or sitting on a bench alone for very long. Someone will come by, and they’ll soon be chatting like they've known one another for years. It happened to me all the time but sadly my language skills encouraged more hilarity than information.
  • Most conversations end with conversations about war – all the wars, not just the Kosovo War, not just the 1999 NATO bombing, but wars that took place centuries or decades ago and that are remembered today in excruciating detail. There’s no animosity, just a serene conviction that Serbs were on the right side. And don’t even hint otherwise, because Serbs are proud and can be a bit touchy. 
  • Yet Serbs are easygoing when it comes to enjoying life, spending hours in cafés with friends.
  • Finally, Serbs tend to be traditional, with men occupying the lead within families in this patriarchal society. That said, women are independent-minded and considered equal in the workforce - but also expected to cook and care for children. 
  • And yes, every one of these points is a gross generalization, easy for a visitor like myself. Each has its exceptions so take them all with a grain of salt, please!

Is Serbia safe?

It's a common question among women travelers and a valid one. When it comes to Serbia, I saw no reason to worry, other than the usual admonitions not to go out at night alone in less frequented parts of large cities, hold on to your handbag in crowds and make sure the taxi driver uses the meter. In my opinion your greatest risk of bodily harm is on a Serbian road - they're narrow, poorly maintained and the driving is aggressive and erratic.

Another major threat to your safety in Serbia comes from passive smoke. You thought that was last century's issue but no, in Serbia, smoking is all the rage.

People smoke on the streets, in bars and restaurants, under your window. They’ll find you absolutely anywhere you seek refuge and when you get back to your room, you’ll have to wash your clothes out.

There are a few establishments that don’t allow smoking and quite empty as a result. But every Belgrade spot has a terrace in summer (what on earth do they do in winter?) and if you can’t smoke inside, the bulk of the crowd will converge by the door and puff there. This usually means the smoke works its way back in.

So yes, Serbia, there's definitely something about you. Something catchy, addictive even, always surprising and unpredictable, whimsical even, and capable of bursts of beauty that confirm, in my heart, that you are indeed special.

Just please, Serbia - ditch the smokes!

Wherever you go, don't forget your travel insurance! I use World Nomads whenever I travel and recommend it if you're under 66 (70 in some countries). If that birthday has come and gone, click here for travel insurance that covers you at any age.

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