Travelogue: Balkans Part 1 - Belgrade, Serbia

BALKANS - Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania

What comes to your mind when I mention the Balkans? To me, first impressions or geographical imaginations of a place are very important, as it affects my expectations of a place and influences my experiences there. This trip definitely highlighted how my GI (and sometimes lack thereof) impacted my travel experiences!

This summer for my graduation trip, I'm very happy and thankful to be able to travel to the Balkans with my best friend! So just to orientate you, the Balkans is a region in Southeastern Europe. My friend and I visited the above 6 countries - all in the span of just two weeks! Time was limited, but we wanted to see as much as possible, hence we tried our best to cover a variety of stuff, breadth and depth, and it was such a great trip that I just have to jot it down in a travelogue here! So this travelogue will consist less descriptions (I'll try) and more photos, because hey, a picture speaks a thousand words, right? ;)

DAY 1 - Belgrade, Serbia

We started our trip in Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia, (in fact most of the cities that we went to are capital cities), and made it just in time for the free walking tour! We go for these free walking tours wherever we are, whenever time permits and if there is one in the city.

First stop - Trg Republike! The Republic Square of Belgrade, also the most famous square in the city.

The building behind is the National Museum. And this statue here is an important monument for Serbia. The man is Prince Knez Milaiho, and is the nation's hero because he freed the Serbs from the Ottoman rule.

Today this spot has become a very common meeting point for the locals. Tell any of them "Let's meet at the horse", and they will understand what you mean. It's no wonder that this is where we met for our walking tour too!

We moved on to Skadarlija, the bohemian quarter of Belgrade.

In the past, it used to be where the gypsies live. But in the late 19th century and early 20th century, change started to sweep this area. Artists and writers of the city relocated to this area after their usual dwelling place was demolished. Hence, they transformed the streets into lively kafanas (cafes), and their works influenced and created the bohemian character of this place.

Today, this neighbourhood is replete with restaurants and bars, similar to our Holland Village. We were there in the day so it's not in its prime moment yet, but walking down the cobblestone streets and admiring the colours and giant murals was very relaxing!

Here at Skadarlija, its past is not forgotten too. This is a statue of the famous poet Đura Jakšić, who lived and died in Skadarlija, which is placed in front of his house. It is now an important site of history and gathering place for aspiring writers.

That's our tour guide! Holding the orange umbrella. This group is relatively small, which is great! Smaller groups always facilitate more intimate sharings and discussions! :)

Next we went to Kalemegdan, which means fortresss or citadel. The grounds consist not just of the citadel, but also an Army Museum, a park and a zoo! So you can imagine how big it is!

What's interesting about this fortress is that you can actually see the different influences from the different periods in its history. For instance, the type of rocks/material used to build the fortress is reflective of the works of different rulers in the past - the bottom from the Romans, centre from the Ottomans, and top parts from the Austro-Hungarians.

At the top of the fortress, you'll be greeted with a scenic view of the confluence of two rivers - Danube and Sava river.

Was very relaxing to just sit there and soak in the view!

Fun fact! You see those 'floating houses' by the river bank? Those are actually night clubs! A few years ago the authorities decided to relocate most of the night clubs to the Sava river bank so that it'll create less noise/chaos/ inconveniences to the people in the city centre. So from 12 midnight to 5am, this place will come alive!

This statue stands at the top of the fortress too. Called The Victor, it's an important monument built to commemorate Serbia's victory over the Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians during the Balkans War and World War One.

But it's quite controversial, actually. If you see carefully, it's actually a naked man. Initially this statue was erected in the city centre. But Serbia being a conservative country, many people, especially female organisations, argued that it's 'rude' and 'damaging to the morals of ladies'. So they decided to shift it to the top of the fortress instead!

Spot me inside! Hahaha.

And this is the aforementioned Army Museum within Kalemegdan!

And some random tennis courts too lol.

The walking tour ended at the foot of Kalegmegdan, which is the start of the pedestrianised street Knez Milaihova Street. (Yes if it sounds familiar to you, it's the name of the prince on the horse at the start of this post!)

I love pedestrianised streets! Not because of the shopping, but because of the chill, happy vibes!

Restaurants, bars, kafanas, shops, souvenirs, buskers, street art - you name it, you have it!

And this IKEA Izlog which intrigued me?? Cos usually IKEAs are huge and located outside of the city. But this one was just a small showroom haha.

And now en route to dinner!

Ate at this humble little eatery serving traditional Serbian food.

Basically Serbian food (or Balkans food in general) is very very meat-centric! Which is a bad thing for me cos I'm not a fan of meat lolll.

But of course I have to try their local food. So we ordered Cevapi and Pljeskavica.

Cevapi is minced veal sausages shaped like a (very short) finger. It's sandwiched with onions in a pita bread. The meat was very flavourful (though salty) and the onions helped cut through the strong flavours. I love the fluffy pita bread!

Pljeskavica is quite similar to cevapi, but the minced veal meat is shaped like a patty. It's also paired with onions and stuffed in the pita bread.

We also ordered two sides, upon recommendation from our tour guide - Ljute Papricice, which is roasted hot pepper paprika with garlic, and Kajmak Kluga, a creamy dairy product similar to clotted cream, but made from milk. They went very well with our mains!

What I really like about the food here (or just everything in general) is that prices are low! This meal cost us around S$8 in total!! Perfect for budget backpackers like us hehe.

DAY 2 - Belgrade/Zemun, Serbia

First order of business - breakfast! Got a corn muffin that was piping hot wew!

Checked out a local market because what better time to go than in the morning?? Whoop we're such suckers for local markets!!

We were so amazed at the abundant cherries!!!

 AND STRAWBERRIES!!! They're in season now hence the large supply and low prices! It's seriously very cheap - about S$1.70 per kg!! In comparison, the strawberries in SG go for ~$3.50 for 250g. WOW RIGHT.

This cute lil mutated strawberry~ They were sooo sweet ahh, we were so in love!! We bought only 250g to eat on the spot, and we actually had a hard time telling the stall owner that we only wanted that amount... Cos apparently no one buys anything less than 1kg!! LOL #kenajudged

Walked to a nearby hip neighbourhood, and just at another bend, we saw this half-demolished building from the war. Love the juxtaposition!!

Now time for another free walking tour! This time to another part of Belgrade called Zemun, which used to be outside the municipality of Belgrade.

This building above was the Air Force Command Building of Belgrade, and unsurprisingly, it's shaped in the form of an aircraft (from the aerial view). Sadly, this building is another evidence of Belgrade's war destruction, as it was bombed by NATO in 1999, where NATO accused Serbia of carrying out ethnic cleansing against ethnic Albanians in the then-Serbian province of Kosovo (which is now internationally recognised as independent). This is one aspect of Serbian/Yugoslav war history that really intrigued me!

Zemun is quite different from Belgrade - it's much more peaceful, less roads, more greenery. And the people there are very proud of their hometown! They dislike identifying themselves with Belgrade because, yes, they see themselves (and Zemun) as having nothing to do with the capital city.

This is already one of the main roads in Zemun! Which is a huge contrast from the very busy and sometimes congested roads in Belgrade.

Sundial! So rare to see one these days!

An old house that used to be an entrance to an underground tunnel used during the wartime. Now, sadly, it's been abandoned and there are no plans to do anything about it...

Love the quiet streets in the residential area!

We climbed up to the top of a hill...

And here's the view up there!

With our very friendly walking tour guide who's around our age too! We were lucky that day because we were the only ones on the tour so she's like our private tour guide hahaha.

Back to Belgrade and we visited the city's most iconic landmark - the Church of Saint Sava! It's the second largest Orthodox Church in the world (the biggest being Saint Isaac's Cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia) and largest in Eastern Europe!

This is my first visit/exposure to an Orthodox church and I'm pretty awestruck! Especially the architecture and the design. This church is said to be the 'Sagrada Familia of Eastern Europe', because it's forever in construction too!

On the outside you can't really tell, but when we went in, true enough we saw a lot of scaffolding and construction work being done. Without the construction, this church can actually hold up to 10,000 people inside! That's scarily a large number of people!

Admiring its beauty from all angles.

That day was 25th May, which is coincidentally the birth anniversary of Yugoslavia's famed leader, Josip Broz Tito. There's a May 25th museum about Tito's life and rule over Yugoslavia, so we thought it's such an apt day to visit!

I really learnt more about Tito as a ruler and how he was sooo well liked by the people of Yugoslavia! When his birthday draws near, a relay race will be conducted and uniquely-designed batons will be carried and passed until the day of his birthday, where the batons will be presented to him as a gift.

Remake of his office.

Tito's mausoleum.

Another museum we went to was the Nikola Tesla Museum! Nikola Tesla is a Serbian-American that invented the DC-current. Ok this jolts a bit of my Physics memory hahaha.

Super charged as I got to experience electricity running through my veins wew!

DINNER TIME!! We were famished (it was 8 plus) and we remembered that there was this pasta shop that we passed by the night before haha. And so we headed straight for it!!

If the menu stated correctly, each portion consists of a whopping 500g of pasta!! It was a large serving man omg. But SO DELICIOUS YUM!! My friend and I being die-hard pasta fans, we silently tucked into our food because we were too overwhelmed with the simple but tasty pasta!!

Time to catch our overnight bus to Sarajevo! This is the public tram that we took to Belgrade's main bus station. We had to buy our tickets at the bus station itself (no online purchasing) and I admit that this was quite a shock to me! And I realised how used I was to buying tickets online in advance. It didn't occur to me that there are parts of Europe that still does things the more 'traditional' way!

Concluding thoughts on Belgrade, Serbia: Belgrade being my first entrance into Yugoslavia/the Balkans, was quite refreshing for me! I like how it's different from Western Europe because it's got its own culture that's heavily influenced by the Ottoman rule, thus bringing some Eastern influence into its architecture and religion. And it's considerably less developed than Western Europe too but that's perfectly fine! The streets are very busy and crowded and the buses are always packed! Most notably I was drawn into the Yugoslav war history, because it involved the other former territories of Yugoslavia too, which are the places that we'd be going next! So it was very interesting to compare the narratives that each territory tells. ;)

Stay tuned for my next post on Sarajevo! :)