Serbia: A Travel Journal

The Road to Belgrade

Do you like the Chinese Highway? asked our guide. We were on a bus ride from Sofia to Belgrade and had just crossed the Bulgarian/Serbian border.  Our guide tried to explain the Chinese connection in order to give us some background of Serbia's complex geopolitical history.  The airstrike by NATO in the late 1990s destroyed a portion of transportation infrastructure and industrial facilities in Serbia and fueled an anti-Western sentiment. Serbia looked to the east and tried to maintain an alliance with Russia and China.  China invested in the infrastructure of Serbia and became a great ally in the Kosovo dispute, one of the issues being negotiated over Serbia's acceptance into the European Union (another complex issue, but worthy of a mention because it kind of answer our question why the process of going through the Serbian border took longer.)

The bus ride was lovely, with a stretch of green flatlands and rolling hills and mountains. It was an exhilarating ride especially the part where our bus skirted a small band of land between the mountains and the river and went through tunnel after tunnel after tunnel and under the hanging rock arches.



Nis

Two and a half hours later, we arrived in the ancient city of Nis, the birthplace of Constantine the Great (the founder of Constantinople) and two other emperors. Still, on the subject of roads, the topic turned into the Roman ingenuity for road construction. Our guide explained how the roads running from the North, from central Europe, from the west converged into two major roads at Nis: the southern road leading to Greece and the Dalmatian coast and eastern leading towards Sofia and Istanbul. Little did we know that we had partially traveled through a Roman road.

Our guide directed our eyes to the Roman archeological site and pointed to different parts of the city like the communist block buildings on one side of the road and the main city square. Our guide’s narration about the city’s history got interrupted when we saw a bunch of kids in costume. He could not explain what it was all about and could only assume that they were celebrating the end of the school year. We had an hour to explore the city on our own. From the main city square and past the shopping center, I attempted to explore what was behind the Roman arch and walls across the river with my new found friends. We found a carnival-like atmosphere with ice-cream and popcorn stands and a bunch of teenage kids running around. I spent the rest of my time taking pictures of the administrative buildings along the river. Later I joined the group for our first authentic Serbian meal or Balkan food.

Traditional Serbian dish (Peppers stuffed with minced meat)


Belgrade

It was raining on and off when we arrived in Belgrade, our bus headed directly to our hotel. I don’t normally mention places I stayed in on this blog, but our hotel (Hotel Moskva) was worthy of a mention for its elegant ambiance and vintage look and for its restaurant famous for serving the best coffee and pastry. We had a couple of hours to rest before dinner, but I spent my time having coffee and pastry at the hotel

Later, we headed to the restaurant in Skadarlija, the Bohemian part of town, for dinner. It was a charming place with the cobble-stone street lined with flower shops and restaurants and where we found a rakia stand that offered rakia tasting for a minimal price. Dinner consisted of great rakia and wine and plenty of meat and excellent musicians who sang in different languages including Chinese. Everybody had a wonderful evening.

We began the next day with a city tour of Belgrade. It was raining hard when we left the hotel that I decided not to bring my big camera. Not pre-occupied with taking pictures, made me listen to the local guide’s own version of history or I should say “other people’s point of view”. I was content with the memories of the sites. The rain stopped when we reached St. Sava Cathedral, one of the famous tourist attractions in Belgrade. It's one of the biggest Orthodox churches in the world. The main floor was closed for renovation, but we got to admire the decorations and the beautiful chandelier in the church main copula downstairs.

Belgrade was a great walking city.  And I observed lots of people walking not only from the town center but everywhere in the city. We walked the Knez Mihailova Street to the most famous tourist site in Belgrade: the Belgrade Fortress, which consists of the lower and upper towns and the Kalemegdan park on both the lower and upper towns. So, strolling in the park was part of getting to the Fortress. The fortress itself was rich in history (1st - 18th century) and had been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. Our local guide mentioned that the history of the fortress was basically the history of the people of Belgrade. But it was easy to ignore the history behind the fortress as we reached the top of the hill and was greeted by a stunning panoramic view of the confluence of the Sava River and Danube River, dividing the city into an old town and the more modern part of the city. At that moment, I regret that I did not bring my big camera to capture the spectacular views. Thank goodness, I found a gelato place in Knez Mihailova that gave me an excuse to go back.



It was around four in the afternoon when I headed back to Knez Mihailova Street to get some gelato. Then I continued walking to the park and the fortress to take pictures of the views that I missed to capture during our group tour.

Our last night in Belgrade was spent cruising the River Sava. Again, there was a threat of rain, and it did rain when we left the hotel, but it cleared up as soon as we arrived at the dock and for the duration of the trip. It was supposedly a dinner cruise, so I assumed that it would get dark and I would be able to take night photos. Instead, it was bright and the lighting was good for taking pictures from a distance so that I was able to capture the views of the walls of the fortress, the bridges and other city landmarks from the river. And nature never disappoints! The play of light in the clouds, and water syncopation as the dark clouds lifted provided a dramatic layer to already stunning scenery. We had a few cocktail drinks on the small boat and tapa-style dinner at a restaurant by the riverbank. I was having dinner when our guide came to get me so I could take photos of the river at sunset and as the sun sank into darkness and was replaced by the city lights.


Novi-Sad.

The next day was dedicated to driving to Novi-Sad, the second largest city in Serbia. The scenery was repetitive – a stretch of green farmlands. Novi-Sad was a lovely town with imposing citadel and gorgeous churches: a combination of Serbian culture and Austro-Hungarian architecture. We did a walking tour that started with a moderate climb to the Petrovaradin citadel and was greeted at the top by the stunning panoramic view of the city.



We were walking down the path bordered by spring flowers when we ran into a bunch of school kids (on an excursion perhaps). Then we proceeded to the main square to see the churches up-close.  It was the same scene as in Nis: happy kids, plenty of ice-cream and popcorn. Finding that the highlight of my trip to Serbia was not about churches, castles and the remnants of war, but eating gelato and seeing happy kids and friendly people goes to show that I've been traveling too much. But that was all I needed to see to be optimistic about the future.









Press play and enjoy the journey.


The Road to Belgrade





Belgrade Fortress and Cruising the Sava River




NOTES:
  1. Videos and photos by the author
  2. I have not received any compensation for writing this post and have no material connections to the brand and products mentioned in this blog.

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