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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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...
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!