“Why Serbia?” was the reaction I heard from every single person I told about my upcoming trip. I guess something like Amsterdam, Paris, London, Milan would have been less surprising. My now fiancé (more on this later ;)) works with a Serb – Miloš, and while we like to explore less popular destinations, just having a Serb volunteering to show us Serbia was irresistible.
I did not know what to expect from Serbia. Is this country going to be postcard pretty? Are the people going to be warm and accommodating? We landed on the 6th of July and arrived at the Nikola Tesla airport (yes, he was born here), we met Miloš who came in his modified Toyota Celica (a masculine sports car considered a chick magnet in Serbia, so I was told) to pick us up. We could tell that our friend was proud of his car. He promptly opened the boot and propped it up using a wooden stick while helping our luggage into the boot. When I saw this, I knew I was in for a ride!
Day 1: Belgrade, ‘The White City’
FlyDubai’s shameful in-flight veggie croquettes starved us, so before we could even arrive at the hotel, we were whisked away to the banks of River Sava. Our friend said that there were lots of “coffee shops” and that we could enjoy a meal in one of them. Now “coffee shop” is a term used loosely in Serbia to describe a bar, a restaurant or an actual coffee shop. But then again, every coffee shop also served alcohol. We went to a floating cocktail bar called ‘Corso’ and after having to deal with a grumpy waiter (who made a fuss because I ordered from the breakfast menu just 3 minutes passed the cut-off time although he took 20 minutes to take our order), I was more than happy to retire at the hotel and take a long nap before I take in what Belgrade had to offer.
Rested and refreshed, off we went to explore Belgrade (Beograd as the Serbs call it) which means “white city”. If you are looking for a pretty and perfect city, Belgrade is not for you. Steeped in history, the city is scarred, gritty and beautiful in its imperfections. Look around and you will see sparse remains of the NATO bombing, socialist buildings, peaking domes of obviously orthodox styled architecture, graffiti in every corner and heaps of posters stuck on every wall, pole or even commemorative monuments. The city is mesmerizing and I wonder why it is not on every travelers list.
We walked to the famed Kalemegdan Citadel, passing old historical buildings such as St. Michael’s cathedral which was right opposite Princess Ljubica’s Residence – all in the center of the modern city. Kalemegdan park which is on the confluence of River Danube and Sava provided much needed shade on that hot afternoon. A short walk in the park would give you a glimpse of the relaxed Serbian urban lives – young couples on benches, stray and domesticated dogs cooling themselves in the fountain, ice cream vendors, small kiosks and general funfairs. As per lonely planet, 115 battles were fought in this fort and destroyed 40 times. We scaled the fort passing the clock tower, the Roman well and the military museum. By this time, the sun was gentler and washed the entire white city with its golden glow.
We left the mighty Kalemegdan fort and headed towards Church of St. Sava through the busy Knez Mihailova Street. We were greeted by the sound of a group of girls singing in perfect harmony with giggles in between while crossing the road. The song blurred into the sound of the everyday noise of a mixture of laughter and chatter. On my right, there was a man wearing bright pink chinos and printed shirt playing his flute, next to him a woman taking a photo of her friend in a shiny silver sequin dress. Then the sound of violins playing familiar tunes washed the entire street and I wanted to soak it all in. It was the moment you feel connected to a place and experience the euphoria of travel.
We finished the evening with a gorgeous view of the Church of St. Sava at a restaurant called ‘Marenda’. There were an endless cluster of restaurants and bars surrounding the beautiful church which is one of the largest Ottoman church in the world. I chose ‘Marenda’ as I was drawn to the faint sound of acoustic guitar coming from this cozy little corner. We had coffee and a sumptuous dinner while two ladies sang renditions of the 80’s most popular songs including one from Madonna – ‘Like a Virgin’. I was already addicted to this quirky country.
Day 2: Belgrade – Resava Cave – Niš – Vlasina
We were on a mission today. We had a lot of places to cover and tons of sights to take in (with one swollen eye because contact lenses). Our plan was to head towards the east and southeast Serbia. First stop planned was Resava Cave (Resavska pećina), 154 kms from Belgrade, then Niš, 126 kms from the cave and retire for the night at Vlasina, 77 kms from Niš. Can we make it?
When you have a Serb as a friend who also happens to be a national cycling champion, giving up is just not an option!
We drove through the countryside on what would be the beginning of an incredible way to see and experience the energy of the country. We passed many sleepy towns and cozy villages and tons and tons of sunflower fields. We had to stop in one of those sunflower fields for a few photos. I ran in for a couple of quick photos before the farmers could catch us and ended up with a bleeding shin and scratches everywhere. Oh the fun of taking perfect photos!
Did you know that drivers on the road give signals to each other on the highways and roads if there is a police car ahead? Cars in the opposite direction would often flash if they have passed a police car to warn you to slow down. I thought it was fascinating to witness this odd sense of unity amongst the people.
Resava Cave was the first of it’s kind that I have ever seen in my life. The cave system had stalactites and stalagmites in all forms as beautiful natural decorations. The cave was accidentally discovered, studied and opened to the public in the early 1970’s. However, parts of it still remains to be studied further as of today. We were not allowed to photograph inside the cave during the tour but only towards the end of the tour. It was scorching hot that day at 32 degrees but the cave was and is always at 7 degrees.
We then headed towards Niš – our friend’s favourite city. He claims that Niš women are the most beautiful and beautiful they were! The city is of monumental historic importance. This was where Constantine the Great was born after all. Niš is a modern city stripped of the glitzy facade of Belgrade. The city is original and has lots of character. I liked Niš, it felt like we could get along had I spent more time there. We stopped for lunch and walked to the fortress but with feet hurting from the previous day’s 15 km walk around Belgrade, we were sluggish. We decided to find one of those coffee shop/bar and hide from the sultry sun to regain some energy. Later in the evening, we tried to see the famed ‘Skull Tower’ but we were too late and the church was closed. The Skull Tower is, as the name would suggest, a tower of human skulls. The skulls are of fallen rebels who fought agains the Ottomans during the First Serbia Uprising. A bitter shame that we could not get to see the Skull Tower.
We left Niš for Vlasina passing through Suva Planina mountains. The evening was washed in a somber blue, very similar to the Byzantine-style frescoes painted with lapis lazuli in some of the churches of Serbia. Just before we reached Vlasina, our friend insisted that we tried the fresh water from one of their famed springs up in the mountains. We stopped in the dark night on the side of the dangerously narrow two-way curvy mountain roads for a sip of the cold natural water. The region is famous for Vlasina lake and the Vlasina river. Serbia has an abundance of water everywhere you look – from Danube river to Sava river to Vlasina lake and its countless natural springs. In fact, I have only been enjoying sparkling water throughout the trip which was ridiculously cheap and each brand I tried had a very distinct taste which I thoroughly enjoyed. Heck even Coca Cola bought the regional bottling company here so we had to stop and taste the natural spring water.
The moon and the car hazard lights were the only source of light as three of us jumped down to try this natural spring water. As we drank and our eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw one firefly, then two and then there was a cloud of fireflies all around. IT WAS MAGICAL!
We reached our hotel at Vlasina very late. Our friend left us to join his mother who was visiting their ancestral farm in a village nearby. He said that we must explore the lake during the night and take a stroll. I thought it was just an idea and that it should remain an idea. Vlasina is located at an altitude of more than 1200 metres and the night was chilly. After such a long day, I wanted to have a warm shower and call it a night. But as soon as Croy and I finished dinner, he took his tripod and was heading off to the lake to “catch the moon’s reflection on the water”. So we walked towards the lake in the dead middle of the night in a scarcely populated village with just the moon and our mobile phones to guide the way. I was happy when a stray dog decided to join us and gave us company. We clicked a few photos with the quacking of wild ducks and the sound of water slapping on the small boats to keep us company. The moon was too bright to get a reflection of on the water but the night walk was just a perfect end to another day in this wonderful country.