After a few great days in Belgrade, Serbia, it was time to get on the road and begin the actual road trip. When I started planning this long-awaited Balkans trip, I looked into several modes of transportation. Trains = out of the question: many of the train lines were never restored after the war; the few that had been restored are outdated and take twice as long as any other mode of transit. Our remaining options: bus or driving. We opted for the latter for flexibility in travel itinerary and timing. Despite what transpired, it was one of the best travel adventures I’ve ever had.
We knew of several potential road-trip obstacles from blogs we read before the trip, namely:
only manual-transmission car
the lack of highways
one-lane roads that cling to the sides of the mountainous topography
land mines that remain on the side of the roads once you enter into Bosnia (wartime remnants from the Serb army)
And still, there were some obstacles that came as a total surprise:
a total lack of roads for some entire stretches
roads in total disrepair that were barely drivable (7 mph, max)
our cell phones not working at all in the Balkans (thank you, Verizon)
flooding caused by the torrential rains during parts of our drive
With the detour to stop in Srebrenica, our road trip journey took 8+ hours from Belgrade to Sarajevo, which is only 120 miles as the crow flies. Stocked with a great Spotify music playlist, a bagful of pastries from Belgrade, and the best co-pilot/company a girl could ask for, we had an incredible adventure – one I won’t forget anytime soon.
Part B: Stopping in Srebrenica on Yom Hashoah
I was 11 years old when the genocide in Srebrenica took place in July 1995. I had just finished 5th grade. And I remember hearing the news coverage. Hearing of the systematic massacre of 8,300 Bosniak (ethnically Muslim) boys and men age 12-77 by the Serb army. Hearing of the Dutch UN peacekeepers who stood by and watched. Here’s a link for a brief recap of the history.
It’s hard to explain why I needed to stop in Srebrenica It’s not “my” history. Perhaps as a Jew, I felt compelled to bear witness to the other 20th century European Genocide. What I hadn’t realized was that the day of our trip was Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I fear that any commentary I might write bears the risk of trivializing the experience, making it seem trite. I will just share that the memorial prayer at the cemetery, with its echoes of the Holocaust’s “never again” haunted me.
“…May mothers’ tears become prayers that Srebrenica Never happens again to no one and nowhere,”
Because it did happen, again. And in our lifetime. As the world watched, again.
In Sarajevo, Gallerija 11/7/05is a exceptional two-room gallery with a photo exhibit and a 27 minute documentary that is not to be missed. It includes the Serbian broadcasts at the time and is a must when visiting the region.
It’s not a city known for it’s beauty. In fact, it is often referred to as one of “Europe’s ugliest capitals.” But what Belgrade, Serbia lacks in aesthetic, it makes up for in personality. A city whose most recent history includes its dark role as the capital of former Yugoslavia, Belgrade is one of Europe’s oldest, and most conquered, cities. (Having been settled by Celts and conquered 38 times – by the Romans, Slavs, Byzantines, Frankish Empire, Bulgarian Empire, Ottomans for 500 years, and Hapsburgs.) It was the perfect start to our Balkans Road Trip.
With a handful of delightful pedestrian boulevards (Knez Mihajlova and the Bohemian Skadarlija in particular) scattered amongst the city’s crumbling Soviet-era cement blocks, Belgrade’s true charm lies in its under-developed tourism (and prices!) and perfectly developed, thriving nightlife.
We arrived for both the largest football match in the city (with riot police lining every street) and the Belgrade marathon (which was drastically different from my favorite day in New York).
What to do in Belgrade:
“Walking tour” There are free walking tours that run daily, or you can do what we did and create your own (click for our map), check out the itinerary below – you can see almost everything in <2 hours. Best of all, nearly all of Belgrade’s attractions are free (and are local, not tourist, spots)
Belgrade Underground – our one paid tourist activity, and glad we did it. A great (and passive) way to discover the hidden underground places from Belgrade’s 38 times being conquered, including Yugoslavian bunkers, ancient Roman ruins, and Ottoman buried wells. 12 Euro.
Serbian Nightlife! See below – don’t miss it!
Eating, Drinking, and Nightlife in Belgrade:
A mix of Eastern European with some Turkish influence, Serbian food is not particularly inspiring. The highlight was the cheese-filled phyllo dough burek pastries, which we lived on the entire weekend. Note: Almost all bakeries (pekaras) are closed on Sunday, which we learned the hard way.
Nightlife starts late in Belgrade. Begin with dinner/snacks at 10pm at a kafana traditional tavern. The best kafanas have live bohemians bands playing Serbian traditional music; increasingly-rowdy tables of guests “order” their favorite sing-alongs. Make sure to order some rakija, the traditional Serbian brandy shots made from various fruit. We had apple, pear, plum, and peach, each less palatable than the one before, but all part of the experience. Reservations for kafanas are required, even if they look empty.
Conclude the night with one (or many) of Belgrade’s clubs. We went to Plastic, which is the most well known in Serbian nightlife. People don’t start arriving until about midnight; the official party closes at 4 and moves next door to Mint, the after-party club with the same owners. As the weather warms, people walk from one to the next of the floating clubs along the river, which boast international DJs and impressive parties. There are no cover fees to enter the clubs, but reservations are required. Drinks are extremely inexpensive – with Rakija/whiskey costing $2-$4 per drink. No wonder the nightlife is so impressive!
Lastly, I have to mention the homemade wine. It’s terribly sour…but apparently it’s Serbian custom to mix it with Coca Cola, which forms a saccharine drink they call “bamboo.” Don’t ask.
Where to stay
Luxe: Located in the heart of the old town, Belgrade’s beautifully designed Square Nine Hotel is an award-winning boutique hotel. Price tag ~ $230/night.
Budget: At $54/night, our AirBNB rental a few minutes walk from the city center cannot be beat for budget travelers.
In 2011, my brother and I spent a magical week exploring souther Croatia: both Dubrovnik and Sipan Island off of the Adriatic Coast. The beauty of the coastline mesmerized us and we ate one delicious meal after another. However, we were less enchanted by how over-touristed Dubrovnik is. We promised ourselves we’d come back and explore the lesser-known parts of the Balkans. And the idea of the Balkans Road Trip was born.
We began in Belgrade, Serbia and ended in Podgorica, Montenegro, the following week. The itinerary combined equal parts history, culture, and off-the-beaten path adventure. Throw in some excellent food and happening nightlife. The ultimate Balkans Road Trip.
I wrote posts on each of the destinations, which you can link to below. With the exception of the treacherous drive from Belgrade to Sarajevo, a road trip was an excellent way to get around the Balkans and experience the region.