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Balkans Road Trip Part II: The (treacherous) drive from Serbia to Bosnia & Herzegovina

Part A: The Road Trip

After a few great days in Belgrade, Serbia, it was time to get on the road and begin the actual road trip.  When I originally decided that now was the right time to do my long-awaited Balkans trip, there were a few modes of transportation that I’d looked into.  Trains were out of the question, as many of the lines were never restored post-war and those that were, are outdated and take twice as long as any other mode of transit.  Our options were buses or driving – we opted for the latter for the flexibility in travel itinerary and timing – and despite what transpired, it was one of the best travel adventures I’ve ever had.

There were some obstacles we were made aware of from reading blogs before the trip, namely:

  • a manual-transmission car
  • the lack of highways
  • reckless drivers
  • 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

There were some obstacles that were a surprise:

  • a total lack of roads entirely for some 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

We took a detour to stop in Srebrenica – my thoughts are below – and so, in its entirety, the journey took us 8+ hours from Belgrade to Sarajevo, which is 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 ended up having an incredible adventure – and one I won’t forget anytime soon.

 

Sometimes there were roads...

Sometimes there were roads…

Sometimes there were not...

Sometimes there were not…

Beautiful Bosnian countryside, though we dared not step off the road to take pictures, because of the land mines.

Beautiful Bosnian countryside, though we dared not step off the road to take pictures, for fear of land mines.

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.  I remember hearing the news coverage of the systematic massacre of 8300 Bosniak (ethnically Muslim) boys and men age 12-77 by the Serb army as the Dutch UN peacekeepers stood by and watched.  Here’s a link for a brief recap of the history.

The moment we decided to make this a road trip, I decided I needed to stop in Srebrenica along the way.  It’s not “my” history per se, but perhaps as a Jew (and as a former camp counselor who brought students to bear witness at the concentration camps in Poland), I felt compelled to acknowledge the history of the other 20th century European Genocide.  What I didn’t realize until the night before, is that the day of our trip was Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I don’t want to add much commentary for fear that anything I might possibly be able to write risks making the experience seem trite.  My only note is  how particularly difficult it was to read the echoes of the Holocaust’s “never again” in the memorial prayer in the cemetery  “…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.

For visitors to Sarajevo, Gallerija 11/7/05 is a moving 2 room gallery with a photo exhibit and a 27 minute documentary that is not to be missed, despite the heavy topic.  (Because it was the 1990s, the Serbs were broadcasting much on their news coverage – which is now part of the documentary.)

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Balkans Road Trip Part 1: Belgrade, Serbia

It’s a city not known for it’s beauty.  In fact, it’s 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).

With a few delightful pedestrian boulevards (Knez Mihajlova  and the Bohemian Skadarlija in particular) scattered amongst the rest of 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.

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    With Ari’s Serbian friend Tamara in front of St. Sava church, which has been under construction for 80 years

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    Remnants from the 1999 NATO Bombing

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    The iconic Hotel Moskva

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    The main pedestrian area Knelz Mihailova

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    Sunset from the public park at the Fortress looking over the Sava and Danube rivers

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    The famous Victor monument

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    Knelz Milhailova at night

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    me & the bro walking around the bohemian Skadarlija street

 

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:

  • “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.
  • Nightlife!  See below – don’t miss it!
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Walking through the underground bunkers

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Entrance to the Yugoslavian secret bunkers

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Looking out from the fortress onto the Danube

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Ari in front of the ancient Roman ruins…in what once operated as a club

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Military remnants & the military museum

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Gov’t buildings at night

Eating, Drinking, and Nightlife:

  • A mix of Eastern European with some Turkish influence, Serbian food is, on the whole, 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.  Begin with dinner/snacks at 10pm at a kafana, which is a traditional tavern.  The best have live bohemians bands that play Serbian traditional music, from whom 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 party closes at 4 and moves next door to Mint, the after party club with shared 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.
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The band serenading patrons in the smoke filled kafana

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#untzuntz at Plastic

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#letustakeaselfie at the club

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Sour homemade wine + Coca Cola = bamboo?

Where to stay

  • At $54/night, our AirBNB rental a few minutes walk from the city center could not be beat.

Our (approximate) walking tour
1. Tasmajdan park and Church St Marko
2. National Parlament 
3. Terazije Street (with the iconic Hotel Moskva)
4. Trg Republike
5. Skadarlija  – great Kafanas!
7. Studenski Trg 
8. Knez Mihajlova – the main pedestrian thoroughfare 
9. KALEMEGDAN FORTESS – go for sunset, you’ll be glad you did! 
10. Belgrade Port 

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Balkans Road Trip

It’s about that time of year again, when I realize how long it has been since my last adventure.  Wanderlust has set in with full force and so I did what I always do and booked tickets.

With an arrival in Belgrade, Serbia and a departure from Podgorica, Montenegro the following week…are you thinking what I’m thinking (of course you are, it’s in the title): Balkans Road Trip!

Ideas for places to stay & things to do are always welcome!

balkans-political mapped

 

April 26: Belgrade, Serbia
April 27: Belgrade, Serbia
April 28: road trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina with a stop in Srebrenica
April 29: Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
April 30, Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
May 1: Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
May 2 Kotor, Montenegro
May 3: Kotor/Budva/Sveti Stefan, Montenegro
May 4: Depart from Podgorica, Montenegro

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Filed under Bosnia & Herzevgovina, Europe, Montenegro, Serbia, Travel (General)