Belgrade, the Modern White City

Belgrade-the-modern-white-city

Growing up in Canada and having travelled exclusively in the Americas before visiting the Balkans, I, like nearly everyone I used to know, was grossly misinformed about the realities of modern Eastern Europe. All I ever remember hearing about countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia (Belgrade is the capital of Serbia) and Albania were accounts of instability, communist despots, violence, and crime. It’s not exactly an environment that most travellers would be drawn to. Generally, the dangers of political instability and possible violence tend to repel people rather than attract them. Who would have thought?

Although the collapse of the Yugoslavian Communist state (and the fall of Enver Hoxha in Albania) was certainly a time of upheaval, unrest, and violence, almost all of that happened in the nineties. We’re now into the twenty-twenties and a lot has changed over the last twenty-some years. The narrative we’re fed back home needs to be updated. Especially given that the United States, Canada, and the majority of Western Europe now have political climates more akin to early twentieth-century Germany, Italy, or Spain than the enlightened, progressive bastions of democracy they once claimed to be.

Even though these previously “democratic” and “progressive” countries may have once been fairly decent nations, the crap they still feed their ignorant and gullible citizens concerning places like Serbia or Albania is utterly wrong. I speak from extensive first-hand experience.

In 2020 and 2021, my wife and I spent over ten months travelling the Balkans. It was wonderful, and we’ll be going back as soon as we can.

Seeing as Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro have already been covered in previous posts, this one will focus on our fantastically relaxing eight-ish weeks in Serbia.

Shall we begin then?

After a rather underwhelming two-and-a-half-month stay in Montenegro (see the post, “Something’s amiss in Montenegro” for more details), my best buddy and I decided to hop a night train from Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

Podgorica to Belgrade by rail

The ten-hour trip took nearly fourteen hours, and the toilets on board were revolting enough to gag a maggot, but we had a private cabin and spent much of the time sleeping, so the trip was rather pleasant in almost every other regard. It was also only about €36 for a 1st class ticket. We discovered, after arriving in Serbia, that the voyage was considered a right-of-passage for many Serbians. A lot of Serbs we spoke with fondly remember riding the train from Belgrade to Montenegro for summer getaways during their younger years. Horrid toilet facilities aside, it is a rather special voyage.

The first five days or so in Belgrade were spent holed up in a lovely little top-floor apartment right at the bustling intersection of Ulica Beogradska and Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra, called Rooftop Terrace. Unfortunately, we were stricken with a nasty stomach ailment almost immediately upon arriving in Belgrade and were barely able to get out of bed to make it to the bathroom. Thankfully, the malady waited to cripple us until after the train trip.

After talking with a few fairly knowledgeable people (and doing some of our own thorough research), we eventually came to the realization that we most likely contracted Giardia in Montenegro.

The tap water of Bar (the town where we had spent the night before catching the train for Serbia) is apparently not fit for human consumption. Being unaware of this, and having previously had no problems with drinking water in all the Balkans, we mistakenly assumed that the water in Bar would be safe. We were terribly wrong, and we paid the price dearly. The ill-effects of this blunder affected us for weeks after.

While incarcerated in our wonderful rooftop spot, however, one thing we discovered for sure was that food delivery in Belgrade is top-notch. It’s almost as good as it is in Skopje, Macedonia. So, though we were confined to our apartment, we were in no danger of going without.

Eventually, when we recovered enough to venture further than a few blocks from home, we discovered a city with a lot to offer.

Belgrade has been an important city for ages and still is. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet. If that impressive little factoid doesn’t make one stop and think for a moment, I’m not sure what will. Due to the age of the city, the sheer volume of history concerning Belgrade could fill a library. It has been a vibrant, major center of many different empires, from Roman to Ottoman to Habsburg, before becoming the capital of Yugoslavia in 1918.

For those with an interest in learning more about the amazing history of this venerable old place, Wikipedia covers a lot of bases, providing a veritable plethora of useful information, as they usually do.

Because of the strategic importance of Belgrade (it’s been fought over in 115 wars) and the number of times it’s been destroyed (44 to be precise), not a lot of really old buildings still exist within the city. There are a few notable structures, but very few. One notable example of lasting antiquity is Belgrade Fortress and the surrounding Kalemegdan Park. My wife and I and some drinking friends we made one night sat on a hilltop in the park, overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers until the morning sun guided us home.

One of the last ancient sites of Belgrade
Belgrade Fortress and Kalemegdan Park

Even though almost all traces of ancient Belgrade have been obliterated (on multiple occasions), there is certainly no shortage of new structures, with more being built all the time.

Belgrade (and much of Serbia, really) was experiencing a huge construction boom at the time of our visit, and new airports, railways, highways, factories, residential expanses, retail centers, restaurants, office buildings, and more can be seen in all areas of the city and beyond. This boom has definitely created divisions among many Serbian citizens, government officials, and both local and foreign investors, a subject I’ll not bother delving into further though. It’s a topic best addressed by people armed with far more knowledge about such matters than I possess.

The amount of time, money, and effort being poured into Serbia will undoubtedly change everything there. And fast. In many aspects, Belgrade ten years from now will be a very different Belgrade than what it is now, and a world away from what it was ten years ago. Only time will tell whether these changes bring about positive growth or not.

An ancient city with a young face.

Obviously, a person can find whatever they need in Belgrade, from food and drink to fashion, cars, electronics, and whatever any modern soul might require. And one doesn’t have to go far to find any of it.

As with everywhere in the Balkans, restaurants abound. The food culture of Belgrade is great, with delicious traditional Serbian food all over the city, and nearly every other type of popular cuisine as well. Almost all of it is well prepared and reasonably priced. There are so many good restaurants in Belgrade (we ate at many in a short period of time, and ordered in from even more), and they were almost all excellent. In Stari Grad (Old Town), they’re absolutely everywhere.

One thing I would recommend when looking for good places to eat (in any country) is to avoid the super touristy restaurants and look for spots with a lot of locals. A restaurant full of locals means it’s good, and with so many great places to choose from in cities such as Belgrade, the locals don’t generally congregate at sub-par establishments. Better yet, if staying somewhere for a length of time, after meeting a local or two and establishing a measure of trust, just ask them where to go. This approach has worked perfectly in every single town and city I’ve ever visited.

Because we were only healthy enough to be out and about in Belgrade for such a short time, and we ate and drank at different places every time we went out, we didn’t get a real chance to establish favourites. Though, because it was indeed rather memorable on the single visit we did make to it, one eatery must be mentioned. Polet, located at Kralja Milana 31, near the Rooftop Terrace apartment we stayed at, served up two absolutely divine meals.

I can’t remember what they were called, but they both tasted like Grandma had been working her magic in the kitchen all day, and we were blessed enough to have popped by for a bite. Amazing! Another place that blew our minds (though we just got delivery) was Holy Smokes, a Texas-style BBQ house that wowed us every time we ordered from them.

Belgrade Center has more than enough on offer to fill many days with its endless shopping opportunities, museums, universities, restaurants, etc., etc., etc. But those things are just the tip of the iceberg because when the sun goes down in Belgrade, the real fun starts.

Belgrade, even in the throes of Covid mania, knows how to get down. There are too many bars and clubs to even attempt to count, so I didn’t. What my wife and I did do on a few occasions, however, was go out until the wee hours of the morning. In this city, it’s far too easy to stay out well past when you meant to. It’s got a bit of a reputation for having some of the world’s best nightlife. And actually, it’s difficult not to stay out all night, every night. The following after-pain is worth the preceding merriment that causes it. We suffered our share of both.

For anyone who’s never had a similar experience, let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like checking out of a rental apartment after zero hours of sleep (with savage hangovers), only to pull all of your belongings along the sidewalks for forty minutes because no taxi drivers will stop for anyone with that much luggage.

At least when we finally arrived at our next place our host realized that he’d already booked the perfectly-located lodgings, and the torturous trek we’d just suffered was all for naught. No worries, a four-minute ride in an unofficial cab that charged around fifteen euros (avoid unmarked taxis; they’re all crooks) got us to our eventual destination. It was more expensive than the previous one, but no discount was offered for their mistake. Oh well, the place was quite nice.

After staying in the Stari Grad/Belgrade Center for around tennnnnn-ish??? days (I can’t remember exactly how many), we felt like a bit of a break from the hectic pace, so we moved across the river to Novi Beograd (New Belgrade). After arriving, we aggressively committed to hiding out. Our intent was to relax and recover from the busyness of the past few weeks since fleeing Montenegro.

Although this area of town, with its shiny new buildings, luxury car dealerships, shopping malls, restaurants, and everything else a person might want or need, probably has as much to offer as central Belgrade, we barely saw any of it. For this reason, I am able to mention one particular restaurant in our neighbourhood that we visited more than once. I choose to mention it not because it was the only restaurant whose fare we sampled (we ordered in from probably twenty), but because it was noteworthy and mentionable, like Walter Mitty. Welllll, maybe not quite that noteworthy and mentionable, but close.

Restaurant 369 on Bulevar maršala Tolbuhina, in Novi Beograd, was perfect. It’s a fairly upscale joint on a not very upscale street, and they absolutely nail everything they do. Like the fluorescent-lighted slogan on their wall says: Fuck social media, I’m dope in real life. And they are. Whoever they are and wherever the talent comes from, they kick ass. Everything they did was top-notch and the service was exceptional.

Eff

Eventually, after a very relaxing two weeks in our tiny apartment in Novi Beograd, with our batteries now charged up, we decided to move to a different location. We felt it was time for a bit of a different perspective on what the country was about, and, before ever setting foot in Serbia, we’d been told by many Serbs that the “real” Serbia wasn’t to be found in Belgrade. I’m not sure if hearing so many Serbs say the same thing really influenced how we felt about Belgrade, but, whether it did or it didn’t, though Belgrade is a fairly remarkable city, it didn’t captivate us with that “magic” that cities like Skopje and Tirane had.

We packed a lot into our Belgrade experience, from illness to a short, hectic exploration of the city center, to living as two recluses in New Belgrade, but when we caught our breath, we decided it was time to move on.

In our quest to discover the “real” Serbia, we hired a driver to take us roughly an hour’s drive north to the lovely city of Novi Sad, which did captivate us, and by the time you read this, that experience should be available to enjoy in the following post. If we hadn’t chosen to continue on to Novi Sad, our alternate option was to take this recommended tour from Belgrade to Budapest.

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