We drove nearly 3 hours on the route we took from Timisoara, Romania, to arrive at our first destination in Serbia – Belgrade. Once war-torn, the city has transformed itself to rival major tourists hubs like Paris, Rome, and Madrid. The top 3 differences between a western European city and Belgrade are:
- You get a lot more bang for your buck in Belgrade;
- It’s less crowded with tourists (and fewer tourist traps); and
- The locals are really nice and friendly.
Belgrade was nothing like I had imagined it to be. When I decided to visit, my mind conjured up images I had seen on television during the 1990′s – bombs dropping, smoke and flames rising up in to the night sky. I expected to see the aftermath of a war-zone. But no, Belgrade has transformed itself and it is beautiful! The city and its inhabitants have, it seems, shelved the hatred of the past and preserved only what represents good. They have embraced the effort for peace and progress.
We drove in to the city during the Friday evening rushhour. The city was lit up and bustling with young people. We had little trouble finding our way around because all the road signs were written in Serbian, which looks kind of like Greek. Helpful locals, however, made up for the hinderance by guiding us on to the right streets. Without a sweat we parked our car in a parking lot near our hostel, grabbed our backpacks and walked the rest of the way to our hostel. When we turned on to the street which had the name that matched the street name where our hostel was located we walked right up to, what should have been, the correct street number (there was actually no number outside the building).
An gentleman, somewhere in his late 60′s, answered the door while talking on his cell phone. He welcomed us in with a warm smile. Immediately, we were impressed by the decor and artwork on the walls. I told Maria – still my girl friend back then - that we got a really good deal. I mean, a private room in an extravagant apartment with antique furniture and decor collected from around the world. There were trendy cutlery and elegant coffee mugs lined up on the open concept kitchen counter. This place was for the “refined backpacker”… which we had begun to feel like after dishing out a shinny penny for our car rental with the added fee’s for crossing the border in to Serbia. For just $25 a night, covering both of us, I felt like I had finally got the hang of finding great travel deals.
Getting comfortable on a very nice sofa I leaned in towards Maria and chuckled, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we had the wrong address?” – hoping to tease her that we might have to leave our wonderful find.
The man, still on the phone, served us water and sat down on a sofa nearby. He continued to talk on the phone for another 10 minutes, leaving us confused about the customer service at this fine establishment. But he seemed like a jolly fella’, so we continue to admire the gorgeous sculptures and painting around us. Once he got off the phone, we realized that the man did not speak any English – only Serbian and a bit of French. That’s no problem, I am a traveler. I can deal with this, plus I speak a bit of French. Using all my French and sign language I asked the man where we could check in? He said something but I didn’t get it but we continued to make conversation. The man sat comfortably in his love seat and told us how he had fled Serbia during the times of conflict. He was now retired and was happy that there was peace again. I focused my ears to understand the French he was speaking under his Serbian accent. At the back of my head I kept wondering where’s the English speaking lady that I spoke to over the phone? May be she was out to get something? Worse, her shift was over?
I decided to ask the man again, this time asking him if we were at “The Hostel”? Make the “aha” sound he got up from the sofa and walked towards an open window right next to a set of staircase. I thought, finally he’s going to show us to our room. But he stopped at the window and pointed towards the building next door. “Hostel”, he noted.
We had been sitting in this man’s house for over 20 minutes. He had welcomed us in, made us feel comfortable, served us, and shared his story all without a clue of who we were! Even as we apologized for the confusion and thanked him for his hospitality, he offered us something to eat and drink. We had a nice laugh as we walked out of the door with the kind man and wondered if we’ll encounter more Serbians as welcoming and hospitable as this man. Okay… and yes, we wondered if our hostel was going to be anywhere as nice as his home. Fortunately, our experience with Serbians just kept getting better and better. Also our hostel room was beautiful, with a gorgeous view of the rivers Danube and Sava.
Belgrade is major city in Eastern Europe with a vibrant community. There’s young people and hip trends everywhere. The people there are kind, friendly, and hospitable. There are many attractions to visit, culinery experiences to be had, and be blown away with the art and architecture found all around you. Perhaps it was those dramatic images I saw on TV as young person that affected me but it felt good to be there and see what this nation and this region has managed to accomplish for creating peace and relative prosperity for it’s citizens.
Serbia, I shall return.
If you’re planning a visit to Belgrade or elsewhere in Serbia, write to me. I can probably give you some tips on getting around and finding awesome places to visit, especially in Northern Serbia.