Serbia, what to say about Serbia… Skylar and I have been having a great deal of trouble encapsulating our experience in this country at the heart of the Balkans. It’s not that we didn’t like it, but we definitely didn’t enjoy it as much as the other countries we’ve been to on this trip. We visited some very cool places and met a few lovely people, but also had a number of negative experiences. Perhaps it’s because when we arrived, Skylar had an ear infection and we immediately got ripped off by a taxi driver to the tune of four times the normal fare.
Our first stop in Serbia was its capital city and cultural center, Belgrade. Due to its strategic position at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, the city has been conquered and completely destroyed literally dozens of times from antiquity onward. Most recently it was by NATO in 1999, but we’ll get into that in our future post on Kosovo. As such, the city is filled with a mishmash of architectural styles and cultural influences. There’s also a gigantic fortress on top of the highest hill that was slowly expanded by each successive army passing through. Our apartment was the best value we’ve had so far and our host was incredibly generous with his time. For the price of just $29 per night we got a small, but well laid out apartment with all the mod cons, just steps from the major pedestrianized street.
As I mentioned above, Skylar developed an ear infection on the day we arrived, so we asked our host for a clinic recommendation. He not only directed us to a quality private clinic, but offered to steer us through the bureaucracy and act as a translator with the doctor. I think he got more than he bargained for when the doctor inserted a very long piece of string covered in brown, gross looking antibiotic goop deep into Skylar’s ear canal. He also warned us that since it was a private clinic it might be expensive; being Americans, we thought he meant hundreds of dollars. However, what he really meant is that we had to pay anything at all. The total price for the first visit, a follow up two days later and ear drops from the pharmacy costs us barely $35!
As with many of the places we visit, we spent most of our time walking around the city and visiting the occasional historical site. Perhaps the most curious thing we noticed in Belgrade was the very public display of Serbian nationalist iconography, especially images of Gavrilo Princip. While his reputation in Sarajevo was at best ambiguous, in Belgrade he is worshipped as a national hero on par with the Founding Fathers in the US. We also saw a few t-shirts lionizing some of the villains of the Bosnian War currently on trial in The Hague, but this was by far the exception, not the rule.
Of the historical sites we visited, our favorite was definitely Marshal Tito’s mausoleum. It’s located outside the city center at what used to be his summer home. In addition to the grave itself, it features displays about his life and accomplishments. However, it doesn’t cover “Tito the leader,” so much as it covers “Tito the man.” The display cases are filled with many of his personal items, clothing, gifts from other heads of state, etc. We both got the impression that he was a magnanimous host and a lot of fun at big, fancy parties. Apparently, he was also an avid photographer and if I say so myself, he had a pretty good eye. The best display was absolutely a sampling of the relay batons presented to him each year by leaders of the communist party’s youth brigade; supposedly, the full collection numbers in the tens of thousands. Skylar and I enjoyed competing to find the most phallic one we could and arguing the merits of our choices. It came down to one shaped like a torpedo and one that looked sort of like a large wooden pepper grinder.
After two days exploring Belgrade, we took a bus several hours south to a smaller city called Niš, hometown of local boy made good, Roman Emperor Constantine. We knew almost nothing about the city, but the descriptions we had read made it sound interesting enough, so we took sort of a shot in the dark. As it turned out, we had a great time and serendipitously arrived the day before the city’s famed jazz festival began. I can also say unequivocally that Niš has the best cheap eats we’ve had on our trip so far. The burek was heads and tails above the other versions we’ve had and I had a delicious ćevapi sandwich, although I don’t think Skylar liked the sandwich since I accidentally squirted her pants with grease when I took my final bite.
The historic sites in the city veer from grim, but interesting to downright horrific. About four kilometers from the center is a site known as the Skull Tower. I know it’s about four kilometers because we walked all the way there in the heat after a woman at an information booth told us it was a short 15 minute walk and I saw a directional sign after we took the bus back to the center. As the name suggests, it is a tower imbedded with human skulls. It was constructed by the Ottoman army as a warning after the defeat of a Serbian army defending the city. The tower originally had almost 1,000 skulls, but only about 60 remain. According to the guide, the heads of the other 9,000 Serbian soldiers killed were sent to the Sultan in Istanbul. Niš is also the site of one of the best preserved Nazi concentration camps. Neither Skylar or I had visited a concentration camp before and we both hesitated about visiting this one. It was, as expected, a pretty horrible place to visit, but also very different from the massacre sites I visited in Rwanda. I think I was most surprised by the fact that it was just a ten minute walk from the city center. The guide was also oddly cheery, which completely threw us for a loop. Watching the sunset over some strong drinks and checking in on the jazz festival helped the recovery process.
From Niš we took a bus to Novi Pazar, a city near the border with Kosovo. Novi Pazar is very much an outlier in Serbia and unlike just about anywhere else in the country since it is a majority Muslim community. Nearly everywhere else Serbian Orthodoxy is the dominant religion and is closely tied to Serbian national identity. Aside from Islam, Novi Pazar stands out for the funkiest hotel in all of the Balkans, Hotel Vrbak. It’s such a strange site that it’s even listed on all of the tourist maps. I can only describe it as a 1970s space castle that has seen better days, but is still holding on to its past glories.
There’s not really much to the city, but we enjoyed doing some people watching and hired a taxi for several hours to see some of the outlying historical sites. Unlike the city itself, the most important historical sites are Orthodox monasteries and churches, the oldest of which was built in the 9th century. The church and one of the monasteries had beautiful frescoes that covered every surface of the walls and ceiling. We also bought a small bottle of wine made by the monks, but it proved so sweet that we had to chase it and make spritzers with some sparkling water. The views from all of the sites were amazing and made all the more atmospheric by the sound of distant cow bells.
Our time in Serbia ended on an incredibly sour note and is probably the reason we have some negative feelings about the place. From Novi Pazar, we intended to take a bus to Kosovo’s capital city, Prishtina. We always knew that this leg of the journey was going to be a little complex because Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, but we didn’t expect to have the trouble that we did.
We arrived early at the station to find a large crowd of people waiting for the bus. Due to the crowd’s size we assumed it would be a large bus capable of handling such a popular route. To our dismay, it was a minibus that didn’t look like it would hold half the people waiting. In the scrum to get seats, the person in charge refused to let anyone aboard not going to the bus’s final destination in Macedonia and wouldn’t answer any questions. As it turned out, there was room for everyone, EXCEPT FOR US! Our only option at that point was to hire a taxi and simply deal with the large expense. In the end we made it to Prishtina just fine, but it cost us a whopping 85 euros, significantly more than our budget for an entire day of travel. So yes, we left Serbia on a very sour note.
Ultimately, I think we had a good time, it just didn’t end as we would have liked.
Stay tuned for posts on Kosovo and Albania!