Sipping Rakija in Old Belgrade
If you are in need of a little humbling as to how little you know about the world and how big it really is, just travel someplace you know almost nothing about. Leaving Bulgaria behind we skirted further into unknown territory – Belgrade, Serbia. That the country was formerly a part of Yugoslavia and that the capital is Belgrade pretty much tapped out the extent of my prior knowledge regarding this country. As soon as we crossed the border I fired up Betty the Nook and started reading With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia to gain a bit of a reference point. It ended up being a great read for the setting as it followed the lives of over a dozen Serbians during the years 1999-2004 when the country was in turmoil. As our train slowly, VERY SLOWLY, chugged its way up from Sofia to Belgrade I was able to get a small feel for and a few perspectives of this place we were about to discover.
Immediately upon arrival we realized we needed to change our 2 night reservation and stay at least another night and promptly revised our stay with out hostel. With a little more time on our side and a blank slate with which to explore we set off to find some Serbian dinner.
Enter Luis. He’s fantastic at quickly finding a few good options for dinner using a few apps on his phone and a good instinct for food. All I have to do is give him a few parameters. Do we want to walk a bit and stretch the legs or stay close by? Something quick and cheap or more of a dining experience? Do we need to make sure they take credit cards or do we need to build in an ATM stop?
Wallah. An hour after arriving in the city we maneuvered the hilly streets of Old Belgrade and sat down to enjoy a hearty Sunday-style Serbian meal (pot roast, potatoes, bread & wine) in a restaurant that was designed and decorated like the interior of an opera house. Well done!
Free Walking Tour
Having enjoyed our Free Walking Tour of Plovdiv we decided to join the Old Belgrade version to get a lay of the land. We walked from the main square, down to the restaurant/nightlife area called Skadarska Street and ended walking through the Kalemegdan Fortress, now their central park. As we walked we learned a bit about Serbia’s place in both the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and later communist Yugoslavia and a bit about how they weathered the more recent Balkan War.
Rough Times Evidenced in the Architecture
After the tour and in the days that followed we continued to walk the city. While there are a few interesting and lovely buildings in the city center, such as those in Republic Square, we found it to be more of the exception than the rule. Most of the buildings are bland and identical, signature traits from the days of Communism. Many buildings have clear signs of damage and destruction suffered after years of violent and difficult times.
The Sava & the Danube
A rewarding stop in the fortress / central park is the lookout area over the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. Belgrade has often been the economic, cultural and political center of the Balkans and with the confluence of these two mighty rivers, it has also oftentimes also been a strategic river port of the region as well. Far off on the other side of the rivers lies New Belgrade, an area we didn’t explore as it is all industrial and residential.
Rakija, a strong fruit brandy is the national drink of Serbia. The same liquor can be found throughout the Balkan Region although in other countries it can be found spelled rakia, rachie, or rakiya. There seems to be a lot of friendly, neighborly banter as to where the spirit was first enjoyed and who truly owns the claim to fame, but one thing not in question is that Serbians love their rakija. On our free walking tour, even though it was only 10am, our guide pulled a little flask out of her backpack and passed it around for all of us to try. Despite a few protests she claimed that a bit on an empty stomach cures a number of ailments, or so the old wives’ tale goes. All restaurants offered a rakija menu and served the spirit in a traditional little tumbler.
A Toast to Belgrade
I don’t remember how to say “Cheers” in Serbian but with a glass of chilled rakija in hand I’ll raise a toast to the city of Belgrade. Despite an abundance of rainy weather we still managed to get out and enjoy a bit of this interesting city. What it lacked, perhaps, in structural or physical beauty it made up for in culture. We enjoyed sitting in sidewalk bars and cafes, watching the trams and trolleys wizz people about. We learned that Nikola Tesla was a Serb and found his childhood home turned into a museum. We found great similarities between Mexican and Serbian food. The cozy hostel we stayed in had the nicest staff in all our trip. We loved checking out your grocery stores, farmers’ market and national beers. Cheers to you, Belgrade!