Belgrade (English)/Beograd (Serbian)
September 28 – October 4, 2015
Kyra: Our friend Nikola passed along an article entitled “History of the Present: Belgrade,” which I cannot recommend highly enough. It’s dynamic, thorough, and incredibly well written.
Ben: Not an article, but this is the kind of music we enjoyed on the 5 hour bus ride to Belgrade.
How we got there
Kyra: At the end of September we booked a train to Zagreb and a flight out of Dubrovnik about a month later, with no plans in between. I had written an Ole alumna from the area asking for suggestions on how to use our month in Southeastern Europe. She mentioned Belgrade and I became fixated on finding a way to get there. Ben, who is as calm, collected, and logical about travel as he is about everything else in life, acknowledged but never committed to my desperate pleas. Ben’s hesitancy was well founded; we had heard that the roads from Zagreb to Belgrade weren’t exactly well maintained; despite the proximity on a map, the trip would take 6-7 hours by bus. Much to my delight, on our second morning in Zagreb, I awoke to an eager and proud Ben, who showed off a cool apartment he had found in Belgrade.
Ben: Although we planned to take the train from Zagreb to Belgrade, when we arrived at the station we were told they weren’t selling tickets outside of Croatia because of the border situation. Well, really, we went to the ticket window, asked for two tickets to Belgrade, and the nice woman behind the counter simply said, “No, bus?” Croatia’s borders had closed earlier that week due to the refugee situation.
Kyra: When we arrived in Belgrade, the weather was grim, there were tents for refugees set up in the dirt surrounding the bus station, and the nearby building were filled with graffiti. Ben and I have a running joke that travel days always involve rain, particularly when we’re walking to and from our lodging.
It was a marked departure from Zagreb, which had a cozy European charm to it. Belgrade, on the other hand, felt grittier.
Where we stayed
Ben: We stayed in two quite different places during our time in Serbia. Originally our stay was Monday-Thursday, but we enjoyed Belgrade so much, we booked a second AirBnb until Sunday.
Kyra: As mentioned above, Ben found a real gem of an apartment in Belgrade.
Ben: The first place was in a very central location and quite well decorated (the owner is an art historian). Kyra and I have really enjoyed being together on this trip, but it’s always nice to have a bit more space to do our own thing. This place certainly allowed for that. It was also near quite a few good restaurants, bars, kebab shops, and bakeries, most of which we tried.
Kyra: Our second stay was in the Vračar neighborhood – a very nice, residential neighborhood near the city center that our friend Angela also lived in.
Ben: This apartment was new and clean, but a bit further away from town. The lister wasn’t around when we arrived so his mother (who spoke no English) began talking to us very rapidly in Serbian. We did the typical laugh, smiled, and said “Ah yes, yes” to any of her comments laced with a few English words. We stopped by a “Chinese food” place right after arriving, not really expecting Chinese food, but not disappointed with what we did get: chicken, cabbage, and rice with an asian-like sauce. For only $2, it wasn’t bad at all. On that note, let’s continue to the food portion of the blog.
Kyra: When we arrived to Belgrade it was pouring. Luckily Ben found a Chipotle-type place called Burrito Madre near our apartment where I ordered a spicy meatball burrito. While eating, we tried to sort out the conversion from USD to Serbian Dinar based on what we had pulled out form the ATM (not a helpful metric). We estimated that each burrito cost about $6-7 then were overjoyed to find that they were in fact only about $3 each, once we used the internet to check conversion rates (a helpful metric).
Ben: This is the main food of the region: grilled sausages inside pita bread with onions, cabbage, and sour cream on the side. I found the best fast food Cevapcici place on TripAdvisor and we split a large plate of the dish. It was a simple meal, but the sausages were very well cooked, and the combination of ingredients tasted great. On top of that, the total bill for the meal was $4 – Belgrade was quite cost effective.
Jamaican Immersion Dinner
Ben: Kyra found a great store/restaurant called the Supermarket that seemed like it had been air lifted from the North Loop in Minneapolis. The place had kitschy items for sale, was very well decorated, and served food that was a bit “out there.” After we grabbed lunch, we noticed they had a cultural festival going on that week and the next meal was Jamaican food, cooked by chefs from the embassy. We jumped at the chance and dined there later in the week, eating some jerk chicken, soup, and fried bananas accompanied by a fruit punch cocktail. The place was trendy, inviting, and not too expensive.
Kyra: The only language I can speak fluently is English, which is almost embarrassing in comparison to all the people we meet abroad. So really I have no right to post this but it’s my favorite bad English translation yet.
Chicken with couscous
Ben: After treating us to an all day bike tour of Belgrade, our new friend Nikola offered to cook dinner as well – how could we say no? We listened to some Bob Marley and traditional Serbian music as Nikola cooked chicken with couscous and we prepared the salad. The dinner was excellent. He learned most of his cooking skills from his girlfriend, saying that in Graz (where they both attended University), they cooked all the time. It paid off, the meal was delicious, Kyra and I learned a new card game, and had a great time with a new friend.
Local View and Lessons Learned
Kyra: In one section of the Yugoslav Museum, photos of buildings around Belgrade lined the walls. The installation showed a dichotomy of how spaces around the city are used today as compared to how they were used during World War II. Some buildings bore witness to mass shootings while others were used as prisons. Today, most of them have been renovated into grocery stores or other retail spaces. The project brought up a point I hadn’t yet considered about how (and if) tragedy should be acknowledged by a building’s architecture or design.
Ben: Once again, one of the best treats of this stay was meeting new people. Both Angela and Nikola were welcoming, engaging, and gracious throughout our stay. Many times I’ve heard complaints that it’s quite hard to meet new people after school and it seems to be due to the lack of adventurous or new situations that are shared across a group. Work sometimes contributes these scenarios, but its rare due to the preexistent work relationships. Travel opens that possibility again, as meeting people from a different country or background once again opens the “newness” that is so enticing. They do things differently, speak differently, have a completely different lens through which they see the world. This lens allows our own lenses to shift and tint into new ways and many times its exciting to share these transformations. So if you want to meet people in a similar fashion as schooling and organized sports allowed, I’d recommend travel.
Kyra: Our second day in Belgrade we met up with Angela, an Italian transplant in Serbia, we met on Couchsurfing. Originally from Palermo, Sicily, Angela is doing part of her masters program on Balkan History, in Belgrade. She is fabulous and her infatuation with the city was contagious. After grabbing a drink, we walked back to her place to grab dinner and beers. From there we ended up at an incredible bar where we ordered our first Rajika. Up a residential street with a car covered in turf is an unassuming house. Angela led us up the steps and into the bar’s fabulous interior. Old record covers fill the space between rafters on the ceiling, disco balls hang throughout in a not tacky way (quite a feat), and there are a number of cozy rooms with various types of chairs.
Ben: In order to meet as many folks as possible, we also attended a Meetup one of our first few nights in Belgrade. The meetup was UX focused and included many attendees that were building startups in the Balkans. The talks were o.k., but as always it was meeting and chatting with attendees and presenters afterward that was most fruitful. Both guys who spoke lived in Chicago and had worked with or built companies there so it was interesting to see their take on Belgrade versus what we’d experienced. We were able to share some tips about the city and although they gave us a great dinner recommendation, we ended up opting for a cheap (but amazing) chicken sandwich instead. All in all, it was great to chat with some midwesterners and build new connections.
Kyra: Ben’s Dad’s friend is from Serbia. Dan was kind enough to reach out to his friend and ask for suggestions about what to see during our time there. Boris recommended a wine tour in the tunnels of Belgrade that easily fit into our budget. Following the tour, we met up with Angela and her friend Nikola at a jazz club in the city. By the end of the night we had acquired two others, Irish friends from the wine tour whose Dad works in Fairbault. We ended at one of the city’s famous boat bars along the Sava, 20/44.
Ben: This was a low light for Kyra, but I thought I’d describe it anyway as the experience was pretty far from our expectations. On one of our first nights in the city, we decided to grab a drink. Walking past countless bars and restaurants, we stumbled across the Black Turtle Brewery. Thinking it was like finding Fulton, Bauhaus, or Surly, we stepped in, only to be marauded by cigarette smoke and heavy metal. We found a small table in the middle and ordered two beers, I got the Amber and Kyra got the Strawberry. Both beers were underwhelming at best, a far cry from the craft breweries of Minnesota. We wondered if the quality was due to a different brewing technique and hastily drank our brews. Sorry Black Turtle, I guess MN has ruined us for many a craft beer abroad.
Kyra: One of my favorite days on the trip thus far was spent with Nikola at Ada Ciganlija, a man-made peninsula in Belgrade with every sport imaginable. As mentioned in my Yugoslavia post, Nikola is brilliant, passionate about Serbian politics, and speaks incredibly impressive English (as in he knows more English words than I do, easily). He is the perfect person to befriend, especially when you want to learn about Serbia. He showed us our first Serbian hamburger, illuminated why Belgrade is not biker friendly, and trash talked one of the teams at a U.S. embassy pickup baseball game like a pro. After our afternoon biking, Nikola invited us back to his place where he prepared dinner from a Jamie Oliver recipe. Really and truly, I hope we see him again.
Kyra: At night, a number of the parks were filled with people drinking, chatting, and making out. It seems there is a direct correlation between places were it’s common to live with your parents for longer and the number of people making out in parks. Our friend Nikola told us that the police are, unfortunately, cracking down on park drinking, so it may not be around for much longer, but for the time being, all the activity makes parks very lively.
Kyra: Appearance is of the utmost in Belgrade. The city is reminiscent of New York in many ways, including the passion for fashion. It may be the limited wardrobe I’m working with right now, but continually found myself in awe of the outfits that passed us. In addition to the physical appearance of Belgradiens, interior decoration was on point. Almost everything looks grungy from the outside, but the interiors of restaurants and bars are meticulously decorated.
Ben: As Kyra said nearly everyone on the street was dressed well and we later found out that being well dressed is a semi-requirement when going out anytime in Belgrade. This didn’t work too well given our 1 backpack of clothing situation.