07 April, 2018: On the train from Budapest to Belgrade, I sat in a cabin with a retired Serbian couple. We eventually started chatting, and I was impressed with their pride in their city. “You will love Belgrade” they said. “It is the best city in Europe.”
They told me all about the food, and taught me a few Serbian words, and assured me that there would be lots for a young person like me to do — “Every day you can go out, hear music, go dancing and to clubs on the Danube until 4:00 in the morning if you want! Every day! And there are plenty of bars and cafes, and nice parks, and many nice young men.” Clubbing until 4am isn’t exactly my scene, but I appreciated the sentiment.
I got off the train around 9:30pm and caught an ancient tram to the stop near my new apartment. I was staying right next to Skadarlija, which is a pedestrian cobblestone street on the edge of the Dorcol neighborhood, in Stari Grad (the old town). It’s the bohemian area, with lots of cafes and bars and street art and bookstores.
My host, Hristina, met me at the apartment and spent about an hour visiting and chatting and helping me orient myself in the area. She was such a sweetheart – in her twenties, very well-traveled, fluent in several languages, and so kind and friendly. We became friends and spent a few days together while I was there, which was so lovely! She also introduced me to some of her other friends, many of whom are artists. It was nice to have some social time with such welcoming Serbian people, especially after a month around very reserved Hungarians. We’ve kept in touch since then, as well — hurrah for travel friends!
My apartment was amazing – on the 6th floor in an old building with tons of character, high ceilings, huge windows, and a cute little balcony. It looked out over the old town and across at a derelict smokestack. Many of the buildings haven’t yet been rebuilt since the NATO bombing in 1999.
I really loved Belgrade; it’s one of my favorite cities so far. I enjoyed walking around Kalemegdan, which is the old fortress overlooking the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers. It’s also now a park, and very lively at night with groups of young people playing music and enjoying the view.
There’s also a ton of art in Belgrade — street art is everywhere, like this one tucked away across the street:
I really liked this portrait series, scattered around Dorcol:
These murals were on the flat walls of buildings on Skadarlija street, and made it quite magical:
I saw two very good gallery shows while I was there as well — one was a very well-curated video art exhibition, and the other was a really good retrospective for a couple artists I hadn’t encountered before, who work together under the name Artterror.
The Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art was also interesting, both architecturally and content-wise. I think it was the first contemporary art museum I’ve seen that was intentionally nationalistic (for better or worse) — all the artists exhibited were Yugoslavian. It introduced me to many artists I had never heard of, and I liked seeing a comprehensive overview of the development of recent art in one particular region/culture, along with commentary about what was happening socially and politically at the time. And of course there was some Marina Abramovic, hurrah!
I also went to the Tesla museum, and got to see a Tesla coil in action and learn a bit about his life. It also had some of his personal items, like the suit and gloves he wore and the bag he carried, and a little shrine with his ashes.
The food in Serbia was really good — lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and lots of meats. I had delicious cevapcici, which is a type of little sausage, and wonderful fresh sweetbreads at my host’s favorite local restaurant (she said she would only eat them when her mother made them, or there). They also make a slightly overwhelming dish called pljeskavica, which is basically a big meat patty of mixed pork, beef, and lamb. To top that off, they like to wrap the patty around a thick slice of smoked ham, which is in turn wrapped around a hunk of cheese, cook the whole thing up, and serve it in a round bread the size of your face. It is not for the faint of heart.
There are lots of other things too, though, like sarma, which are grape or cabbage leaves wrapped around ground meat and veggies, and kajmak, which is somewhere between yogurt and clotted cream and served as a spread or dip, and byrek, which is a stuffed flaky pastry, and proja, which are delicious cornmeal muffins, and palačinke, which are basically crepes. There’s also the most amazing creamed baby spinach you’ll ever taste in your life — I miss that every day. My host brought me to a local deli, which serves fresh local food in a fast-moving get-a-tray-and-point-at-things line to the office crowd — it was fantastic.
My absolute favorite dish was a sandwich from my favorite coffeeshop (which featured green velvet couches and Edison lights). Oh, and by the way: the coffee in Serbia is AMAZING — the best I’ve had so far in Europe. Anyway, back to my sandwich — it was two slices of nice hearty bread, covered in creamed spinach, with a fried egg in the middle and a slice of prosciutto on top, and a side of herbed kajmak. I ate so many of those that the barista started bringing me one as soon as I sat down, along with my iced cappuccino.
Oh, and there’s cheesecake! It’s usually made with a Plazma crust, which took me a long time to decipher, but Plazma is a brand of biscuit, along the lines of a less-sweet and more-crunchy graham cracker. They’re delicious crumbled up in yogurt, and appear in lots of desserts as a crumble or topping or filling or crust.
My second-favorite coffeeshop (which was three stories with indoor/outdoor seating) also had my all-time favorite salad, which was a pineapple Caesar with lettuce, bacon, shaved parmesan, grilled pineapple and tomatoes, and chicken. It was so good.
Perhaps the best thing about Serbian food, though, was their word for tomato, which is paradajz, pronounced paradise. You can order a paradise salad. Isn’t that nice?
One day I took a long bus ride out for a ‘hike’ at Avala Mountain. The word ‘mountain’ is charitable, but it is a very nice hill and it took me a whole half hour to walk to the top! There’s a nice tower with an observation deck (rebuilt after the bombing), as well as a couple monuments and memorials. It has a very pretty view over the countryside.
Another day I took a long walk along the Danube to the neighboring town of Zemun, which has another pretty little tower with a view:
Belgrade also has tons of beautiful orthodox churches. They’re gorgeous inside, and the priests do a lot of singing/chanting while swinging incense. It’s very lovely.
The old cathedral was more beautiful and full of character inside than this newer church, but there were services going on both times I visited the cathedral and I didn’t want to be rude by taking photos.
Overall, I truly loved Belgrade, and I would go back in a heartbeat. It had friendly, welcoming people (aside from the unfortunate deeply-held prejudices against other Balkan ethnic groups, which does make the Serbs much less attractive as a whole). It had beautiful art and architecture, tons of cafes and nightlife, lots of walking areas and parks, and wonderful food. I hope to visit again one day!