After traveling through western and central Europe, Claire and I had gazed upon many of the continent’s wonders. We had lazily walked the streets of Seville, embraced each other at the Eiffel Tower, bicycled around the canals of Amsterdam, became intoxicated with the lanes and beer halls of Munich, and soaked ourselves in the baths and riverfront views of Budapest. Then came Serbia, its architecture uninspiring, its attractions unsuccessfully attempting to take our breath away, and natural landscapes far too ordinary. At the surface, Serbia felt dull, unworthy of being pinned destination for a year long trip that would take us to so many epic places. But to our surprise, Serbia truly does have something to offer its visitors that will be difficult to ever forget: big, warm Serbian hospitality.
We had made our way into Serbia via Budapest to Serbia’s second largest city, Novi Sad. Upon entering the city, it was immediately apparent that we had traversed into an entirely new region of Europe. Street markets became more of a norm, Orthodox churches became abundant, and liquor had replaced the taste for beer and wine. Serbia, the most populous country of the Balkans, had flipped our view of Europe upside down.
With Western and Central Europe behind us, Novi Sad felt rather dull and uninspiring. The city’s main square, while filled with neo classical buildings, is rather small, quickly fading into dull and gray concrete buildings. The fortress across the river that holds the EXIT festival each year, is a good walk around but compares to none of the castles and fortresses found elsewhere in Europe. Looking for some nature, we caught a bus and headed out to nearby Fruska Gora National Park. To our disappointment, the park had been overdeveloped, making it difficult to connect with nature and lacked the inspiring views that you would expect from a nationally recognized park. In summary, Novi Sad, in terms of attractions, was one of the less memorable places of our travels.
The one thing that did stick with us after leaving the city however, has the amount of hospitality displayed by our host. It was the first time an airbnb host had offered to pick us up and drop us off at the bus station. We were very grateful for the gesture and were unaware that this would become the trend for our stay in the Balkans. In addition to this, our host payed very careful attention to us during our stay, making sure we had everything we needed. From here, the hospitality we experienced would only grow.
After hearing so much hype about Belgrade, I felt a little bit let down after walking around the city. By no means an eye appealing city, Belgrade lacks the jaw dropping features that many European Capitals can brag about. In reality, the big draw card of the city is its world class clubs and drinking establishments. With Claire and I not being interested in the clubbing scene, we were left with very little to occupy ourselves in the city. The fortress makes for a good day, with its views along the Danube but again, it is not something to write home about. The grand Orthodox Church that dominates the skyline while impressive, is still just a concrete shell from the inside after being over a hundred years in the making. By the end of our stay, the capital city had done little to change our feelings of Serbia established in Novi Sad.
Again, the thing that would stay with us after departing the city was the hospitality of the people we interacted with during our time there. Our stay at Hostel Bongo would in turn become the highlight of our visit to the city. The hostel was run by a group of women that were more like family than coworkers. On several occasions, several shots of homemade Rajkia, the national drink of Serbia and much of the Balkans, would be offered to us and other guests as we would sit and chat for hours. The hostel served as a meeting point for their friends and family to join in, as the hostel at times felt more like a family home than the hostel it actually was. This, we would soon find out, was just typical Serbia.
Tara National Park
After hitting up the cities, Claire and I decided to hit up one of Serbia’s largest natural attractions before crossing over into Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tara National Park. Advertised as one of the must see natural wonders of the country, we (ok…me rather than Claire) were excited to get there and hit the trails.
To my disappointment, the national park didn’t live up to standards. Much like Fruska Gora, the park isn’t as ‘natural’ as expected. Much of the trails are actually roads, taking away the adventurous feel (and desire to use your feet), and much of the landscape has been altered by human actions. There is no denying the beauty of the parks main attraction, Banjska stena, but the atmosphere surrounding it is less than appealing. Lots of forest has been slashed down in the nearby area, and roads practically lead up to the view point, creating a hiking trail that lacks views and tranquility. While the park has its moments, they were few and far between.
Like elsewhere, the kindness and generosity of those around us would be our lasting memory (picking up on the trend?). Due to the size of the park, getting around using public transportation, especially in the winter time, is downright impossible. This left us with no other choice than to hitchhike our way around. To our surprise, this proved to be a very simple and easy task in Serbia. The majority of cars would stop to inquire where we were going with the odd exception or car that was already full. Even in the remoteness of the national park, we easily found a ride within twenty minutes upon looking. Each experience proved unique as we learned about different people, the culture of Serbia, and the stories of others. I will remember those conversations for far more longer than any of the sights I gazed upon in the park and will be forever grateful for the kindness and open warmheartedness displayed to us over those few days.
The Serbian Heart
Serbia humbled us in a very different way than other countries we had traveled through in Europe. The people of Serbia had shown to us a level of hospitality and kindness that he had not experienced in the rest our travels through the continent to this point. Perhaps with so much recent conflict in the region and the Balkans as a whole, people just wanted to be happy and share that with others. The people of Serbia seemed to live more openly, seize the moment, and cherish the companionship and comradery of friends. The Serbian heart had made our trip through the country memorable and a virtue that would become the norm as we made our way through the Balkans.