Remember those 80s movies that portrayed the former USSR countries as cold, uninviting, and stern? Crossing the border between Bulgaria and Serbia kinda made me feel like I was in one of those movies. I suppose I could say that crossing the border went just like I imagined it would. It went a little something like this…
Arrive at the outgoing border of Bulgaria. Buses, cars, and motorcycles are lined up as far as the eye can see. Get passports out with annoying American optimism thinking that we’ll be through this border crossing quickly. (Did you know that people in other countries think Americans smile too much? It’s one of our most annoying traits. I hold my passport and try to adjust my face accordingly). Wait. Wait. Inch forward. Wait. Wait. Move a car length. Wait. Turn off the engine in despair. Turn on the engine, move forward one car length. Wait. Wait. Recieve the message that you are to take your passport into the border control station. Try really, really hard not to let that American smile creep back onto your face as your passport is inspected and then stamped by the most stern looking woman I’ve ever encountered. Drive 50 yards to the incoming Serbian border. Wait. Wait. Observe Serbian border patrol agents on what seems like a never ending smoke break. Wait. Show passport to slightly less stern looking agent.
THREE HOURS LATER drive across border (and out of the bad movie) and head to our first stop in Serbia – Nîs.
Geographically, Serbia didn’t look that different than Bulgaria, but it felt less open. The country now known as Serbia also has a long and violent history. First settled in the 6th and 7th Centuries, later part of Yugoslavia, involved in occupation after occupation (something common for The Balkans), the Serbian people have endured a lot. Ottoman occupation and violence (more on that in a second) and in more modern times, bombing by NATO (more on that later), have made Serbians not cold, but tough. After talking to several people, it’s clear that the concept of the Serbian warrior is deeply engrained into the country’s psyche. Maybe that’s why they eat so much meat. Seriously, you’ll be served giant platters of smoked meats everywhere you go. If you’re on Keto, Serbia is your kind of place!
The city of Nîs, the third largest in Serbia, has probably the darkest attraction I’ve encountered: Skull Tower. Skull Tower is located in a lovely little yellow chapel that was actually built around it and it is, indeed, what remains of a tower made with human skulls. In the days of the Ottoman occupation, Serbian rebels (who had already been testing the patience of the Turk in charge, Hurshid Pasha) found themselves engaged in the Battle of Ĉegar. Surrounded by Ottoman troops and knowing that he and his men faced certain impalement if caught, the Serbian leader blew up a powder magazine killing himself, his men and the approaching Ottomans. Tired of these Serbians, Hurshid Pasha ordered a tower be constructed of the skulls of the fallen rebels – as a warning to the rest of the Serbian people. Great dude, right?
58 skulls remain in the concrete tower and you’ll hear heartbreaking tales about how the women in the area snuck to the tower under cover of night to take the skulls that might have belonged to their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons. Even more tragically, modern science shows that most of the skulls belonged to children and teenagers.
Leaving the skulls of Nîs behind, we headed out for Belgrade. Again, I’ll be open about my American ignorance. Belgrade was far more modern and cosmopolitan than I had expected. It also had pockets of great wealth.
Belgrade is a modern city like any other with shopping malls and car dealerships on the outskirts. The historic part of town was stunning and full of history.
Situated on the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers, Belgrade is full of charm, history and beautiful Orthodox churches. We enjoyed a leisurely walking tour, including the old fortified walls, with great views of the rivers, and Eastern Europe’s first McDonald’s. Ta-Da!
It’s also worth your time to wander the city a bit more to see the large and ornate buildings and homes located in the older parts of the city. The wealth that was here at one time was genuinely surprising to me. Wealth even existed during the communist regime and wealth is still there, it’s just changed hands. The Belgrade waterfront is being renovated by the Serbian government and it’s being financed by a private investment firm in Abu-Dhabi. Like many places all over the world, including here at home, this renovation is driving up real estate costs and forcing locals out of the neighborhood.
If you’ve got time, pop into the Hotel Moscow and have a slice of their famous cake. The hotel has been a landmark and celebrity hot spot in Belgrade since 1908. In the spirit of the American dollar having a far reach in Eastern Europe, I would absolutely book a suite at this hotel next time. Since this trip didn’t include my stay in the Royal Suite, we enjoyed a delicious charcuterie board (complete with delectable pine needle syrup), some nice wine, and a piece of the famous cake.
A quick note about the currency in Serbia. You will receive many, many Serbian dinar in exchange for your USD (or Euro). I took out the smallest amount I could from an ATM in Belgrade and it was more than enough for several days in Serbia. Also note, several vendors and street artists will take whatever currency you have – especially if that currency is USD or Euro. Credit cards were also widely accepted in Serbia.
Also downtown, remnants of the 1999 NATO bombing. Belgrade and other areas in what is now Serbia, sustained extensive damage when NATO bombed Serbian military positions. The conflict stemmed from the Kosovo region and the ethnic cleansing that was taking place there. It seems, after our time in Belgrade, that the Serbian people have a very different take on the events in 1999 than the rest of the world and they do not view themselves as the aggressor. This isn’t a political blog, so I won’t comment more than to say that the link above does a nice job giving a concise recap of the history and you can certainly research more on your own.
Don’t miss the Temple of Saint Sava, the extraordinary Serbian Orthodox church. The exterior of the church was undergoing renovations when we were there. It is a huge edifice and is a golden, glittering experience on the inside. Like in Bulgaria, you may happen upon a service. Not a problem, just be respectful. A choir was singing during a service on our stop there and the acoustics were phenomenal.
You should consider taking a river cruise. Plenty of cruise providers are waiting at the city docks. These little boats afford you a reasonably priced outing on the river. You can enjoy a beverage while you float along. Know that you’ll mostly be cruising the Sava River and not the Danube (our boat did turn around on the Danube…that counts, right?), but the views of the city are spectacular and you can see the contrast between the old historic buildings and the modern skyscrapers being erected along the river banks.
Wouldn’t it be nice if vacation lasted forever? I’d go back to Belgrade to explore more.
Our next day was spent driving from Belgrade to Novi Sad with a couple of great stops in between. The first stop was another monastery in the beautiful countryside.
The Kruŝedol Monastery is a quiet oasis in the Fruŝka Gora mountains. You see it immediately upon approach because of it’s bright red color. Founded in the early 1500s, it is still an active monastery. You’ll see the monks conducting prayers in the historic chapel, running the small gift shop and tending to the most amazing succulent garden. I have a few succulents that could benefit from the monks’ care. There are some stunning frescos on the outside of the chapel that were sadly damaged in the 1999 bombings. Fun fact, the monastery is on the 5 Dinar coin.
In addition to monasteries, the Fruŝka Gora mountains produce some excellent (and inexpensive wine). We made a stop to taste some wine in the village of Sremski Karlovci. The adorable Winery Živanović (and bee keeping museum!) had some delightful local vintages and some mouthwatering honey, including honey and sesame seed which, with a little soy sauce, makes a bomb marinade for chicken. It was home to the sweetest little kitten! She was so cute we took turns carrying her on our tour. You will see quite a few stray animals in the Balkans. Many locals told us that animal shelters are not a thing, but it did seem that locals do feed the strays.
The wine is fantastic in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania and it’s cheap! How cheap, you ask? We bought three bottles of wine and five jars of honey in Serbia for about $30 and enjoyed three glasses of wine at a restaurant our first night in Romania for about $6.50…total. In the interest of trying all things local, you should also sample the local rakia/rakija/palinka. The local spirit will cure what ails you and drive the demons right out of you. It. Is. Strong. (Not unlike grappa, for those of you that have experienced that).
Last stop in Serbia was Novi Sad.
Novi Sad sits right on the Danube and has beautiful remaining fortified walls and tunnels and is the second largest city in the country. The buildings here are in the Hungarian style and the old city is absolutely quaint. The city was part of the Hungarian empire in the 11th and 12th Centuries. It was also part of Yugoslavia and sustained quite a bit of damage in the bombing of 1999.
We had just a short time here, but there are beautiful buildings and churches galore. We ate our first Serbian pizza here, a tasty sauce free crust with fresh herbs, tomatoes and cheese. Served with a side of “ketchup,” which we learned was a side of marinara when my friend, Laura, was brave enough to squirt some on her slice.
Romania has been calling my name for years and I’d soon be there!
Want more Serbia photos? Visit my Flickr album.