This post starts out with a story from my time in Serbia; however, if you want to shoot on down the page and just read about my top four reasons to visit the country, feel free! Anyway, here comes the tale:
John Burns, with whom I find fleeting commonality because of his tee-total nature and keen interest in sports, rather than his socialist tendencies or deplorable antisemitism, once remarked that:
“why four great powers should fight over Serbia no fellow can understand.”John Burns.
This comment is another point on which Burns and I cannot agree. The following post is the story of my first day in Serbia, followed by my recommendations as to why you should visit this beautiful stretch of the Balkans. Enjoy!
The day began in rural Romania. Curtisoara is a quaint commune in South Western Romania. It is a commune in the Romanian sense, in that it is of the lowest fundamental level of the administrative hierarchy of Romanian regions, rather than being a paradise for the hippies of the Balkans.
Having said that, allotments befitting of the British definition of a commune are ten a penny in the Olt Country within which Curtisoara resides. As Andrew, Paul, and I travelled through this region, having spent several days at the Romanian countryside residence of Paul, we were weighed down by bags of walnuts which had been cultivated in just such allotments.
Headed for Novi Sad, Serbia, I sat in the passenger seat of our VW Polo, scoffing walnut after walnut, as rain spattered its windshield in the pre-dawn dark. Whilst Paul snored away in the backseat, sprawled across the luggage overflowing from the boot, and Andy sang along softly to Watsky’s Sloppy Seconds on repeat, I observed the Banat countryside. As we drove, dense primeval forests interspersed with colourful settlements were gradually replaced with wide open plains and busy truck stops. The whole region is undulating hills and as a boy raised beneath the Sussex South Downs, I felt wonderfully at ease with the landscape.
Romania is a beautiful country to traverse and nowhere was more spectacular on this leg of the journey than the so-called Iron Gates between it and Serbia. In this gorge, jade water divides the two regions; separating mountain ranges, national parks, and countries. The road itself largely hugs the waters edge, rising intermittently for spectacular views. It is a place I’d never heard of, and yet one I would not hesitate to go back to.
Ultimately, after nine hours of slow traffic throughout Western Romania and Eastern Serbia, for a slated mere 6-hour journey, we were shattered. Actually, just Andrew and I, for we had split the journey whilst Paul caught up on a fair amount of sleep.
Leafing through my Lonely Planet Travel Guide, Andrew remarked that there was a beach on the Danube in Novi Sad called Strand, and it was one of the city’s top attractions! Peering through my tinted club masters at the shimmering hoods of cars in the oncoming lane of traffic, I agreed that a swim in the blistering sun would be just what the doctor ordered.
On arrival to Novi Sad we got a tad lost amongst underwhelming grey office blocks and seemingly empty housing estates; however, we eventually came across the river. We then drove along it and found a secluded street to park up, traded shorts for swimming trunks, and marched through a thicket of trees and down onto the banks of the Danube.
The Lonely planet Guide had led us believe that the beach was blessed with white sand, and the river with crystal clear water. Instead, the sand was speckled with litter and murky green water ate at the filthy dunes. A decomposing bird of unknown origin in the shallows was the icing on the cake. A lot of people would have upped and left at that point but we weren’t, and still aren’t, fancy lads. Our rugby ball was hoisted up into the air by Paul and an impromptu kick about commenced.
It continued for the best part of the afternoon, until a man speaking what I can only presume was Serbian approached us. He ambled over, obviously stumbling and definitely drunk. His words were slurred but as he gesticulated wildly, it became clear that one English word was recurring “Present! Present! Present!” We played an unofficial game of charades with him, his lack of control over his flailing limbs making it extra difficult to play. The man wanted our rugby ball and, eventually realising that we wouldn’t oblige him, became increasingly aggravated. At this point, wishing to avoid an unnecessary confrontation with him, we backed away and followed the beach around one of the river’s great meanders.
Coming around the bend was a little like being slapped in the face by Serbia. Before us was a scene straight out of the brochures. Before our very eyes the water turned Inexplicably clearer and a mass of beachgoers sat sunning themselves, their children frolicking in the water. Despairing at our misfortune and tired, we found a spot for the car to sit for the night and marched on to our air b n b.
The apartment was beautifully furnished with a huge chandelier and views overlooking the main square. Given that the b n b had only cost us £28 cumulatively for the night, we were all utterly taken aback by the bargain. It turns out that it’s cheaper to get a luxury apartment in Serbia than it is to pitch a tent at a site in France. All in all, I was incredibly grateful to not spend another night of sleep disrupted by the lack of a ground mat, the snoring of two rugby props, and a plethora of mosquitos and other hungry insects.
Looking out the window, The Name of Mary Church towered over the main square, its patterned multi-coloured spire illuminated by the glow of the dusk sun. Too tired to be in awe of anything at that moment, we crashed for a kip and awoke in the late evening. Most of the restaurants were closed but the cobbled streets and old stone buildings of central Novi Sad were just as authentic and handsome as in any European old town I have visited. If you ever have a chance for a short trip to the lesser known Serbian city, stop by. It’s not going to earn plaudits like Rome or Paris as European cities go, but Novi Sad and Serbia deserve a little more attention than most people would give them.
With all the restaurants pretty much closed, and our stash of walnuts entirely exhausted, we sat down for a Serbian KFC. It was surprisingly better than most KFC meals, or indeed takeaways, that I’d had in the UK.
Whilst sitting to eat, I checked my phone for the first time in days. Whilst I was on the worst beach I’d ever been to, my sister had been peppering the family group chat on her impending evacuation from Lombok in Indonesia.
It turns out she had been caught up in an earthquake. It was thinking about Lombok, a beautiful island marred by devastation, that I gained a little perspective on the few negatives, and overwhelming positives, to the time I’d spent with my best mates stuck in traffic, and at a little stretch of beach by the Danube in central Serbia with a man desperate to acquire a rugby ball!
So, why should you go to Serbia?
There are plenty of reasons to visit Serbia! For all of the joking about the mishaps I experienced there, I absolutely loved the country.
During my time there, I experienced the best and worst of what the Serbia had to offer. In fact, because I experienced the negatives, I think you should trust my glowing endorsement of Serbia that much more. Here it is!
Belgrade has seen everything, and you can tell. The city isn’t pristine and, whilst driving into it, you may be put off by the overall aesthetic of the metropolis. Towering concrete apartment blocks and walls of graffiti are the norm. This lends it a distinctly soviet feel in places but please don’t judge the book by its cover! The old town more than compensates for any perceived ugliness in Belgrade, at least in my opinion.
The Belgrade fortress, standing guard over the confluence of the River Sava and Danube, was first constructed in 279BC, although it has been galvanized and reconstructed many times since then. The castle is stunning and gifts you beautiful views over the city. Thus, it is a fantastic place to stop and eat your lunch!
You may very well then choose to step foot in Belgrade’s old town, Stari Grad.
It feels almost Parisian with beautiful statues, buildings, and potted flowers. This area of the city is a perfect place to grab your dinner and Serbian food really is excellent!
My favourite dish, and I tried a lot, was Pljeskavica. It was recommended by one particularly exuberant waiter and did not disappoint!
A mixed patty of beef, lamb, and pork, served with onions, cream, relish, and inside a flatbread, it is the Serbian hamburger. In my opinion though, it’s a fair bit better than your average hamburger. The one I had was huge, juicy, and the bread to meat ratio was fantastic. I whole heartedly recommend i!
- Novi Sad
Novi Sad, like Serbia, has its more and less attractive parts but, lets be honest, so does every city on the planet! It’s not like the streets I grew up on are going to appear in watercolour paintings any time soon.
My favourite building in the city was The Name of Mary Church. As I said in my story, it has a multicoloured spire which really stands out on the skyline. The square it stands on is also a focal point of the city and I guarantee that if you check a travel guide, or trip advisor, you’ll find somewhere fantastic and affordable nearby to eat, just as we did!
I will also note that, whilst we didn’t have the best experience of it, Strand, the beach on the Danube, is a great place to spend the afternoon. Follow the locals to find the best spot to sit and bathe.
It’s part of Novi Sad’s culture and you would be missing out on a true Serbian experience if you didn’t partake in a dip in the Danube!
- Serbia’s wild side!
I’m not talking about Serbia’s nightlife, although it’s supposed to be awesome and I unfortunately missed out because of time constraints. This is all about the Serbian countryside!
Uvac is one of the most picture-perfect places you’ll likely see in photos. The river’s meanders cut through rocky outcrops, the snake-like channel harbouring pristine deep blue water. If you were to visualize exactly what a winding river should look like, this would be it!
Beyond Uvac, Derdap Gorge, on the border with Romania, is the perfect place to add to any road trip. It has stunning views and ever interesting, if a little terrifying, roads. I talked about it earlier in my story so I won’t chew your ear off on the topic but it’s definitely worth a visit!
I’m sure there’s plenty more of Serbia’s wild side to enjoy but these were my highlights!
- The Price!
If you guys have read my posts before, you know I’m a thrifty traveller through and through. That means if there’s a bargain to be had, and I’ve found it, you guys are going to hear about it!
I paid about £10 for a meal and drink, although non-alcoholic, at some pretty great restaurants and never came away hungry. Moreover, you also read about the £28 chandelier and marble furnished apartment we rented in Novi Sad. If both the food and accommodation don’t shout affordable, by European standards at least, then I don’t know what does!
Get yourself a bargain of a holiday in beautiful Serbia, a fantastic country where you can really get off the beaten track!
Serbia is affordable, stunning, and an all-round fantastic place to visit! You might not hear about it from everyone, but the country is a seriously underrated travel destination. Some of the best times of my life were had on the road there! I’d love to hear your opinions on Serbia, whether you visited it or not, in the comments!