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So as I previously mentioned, my friend’s family very kindly took me under their wing while I was in Belgrade. I ended up not being able to travel the rest of Serbia and I didn’t get to visit everything I wanted to see in Belgrade, but it gave me the chance to meet and hang out with a bunch of really awesome people and I ended up seeing and doing things I wouldn’t have even thought of doing. Life is full of little trade-offs.

So the first day I arrived in Belgrade I was completely exhausted. I slept an hour or so on the bus from some random border town to Belgrade and arrived at the ridiculous hour of about 8am where I was picked up by Ilija and Goga. When Ilija took me back to their apartment I crashed for a couple more hours since I was exhausted. I think Ilija was glad of that because he’s not exactly a morning person either! When I finally managed to drag myself up to join the world he told me we were going to meet up with his mate and then go check out Kalemegden Fortress, which is basically a giant ruin complex thing. Within the old city fortress walls is a couple of bars, a zoo, an art walk and a giant park. Apparently there is also a military museum, but we missed that. We spent ages just having a drink (I think I met the only Eastern Europeans in the world who aren’t very big drinkers) and walking around, checking out the fortress, the views and walking along the art walk exhibition while the boys pointed out different parts of the city, told me their names and why things were called what they were (like the River Sava, named after a very important saint who was martyred in Beograd).

After the fortress we walked around a little bit more in Old Belgrade, but didn’t do a lot of sightseeing as it was beginning to get dark and I was still exhausted from the mornings travel. Instead we went back home where we decided to go get another drink at a hotel within walking distance of the flat so that Ilija didn’t have to drive. It seemed to be a hotel mainly for business people because it was a bit out of the way but they had a lovely rooftop bar where you could see an almost 360 degree view of the city. That was made a touch more exciting by the fact that we seemed to have caught the eye of some random drunk Croatian guy. He decided to join our table while Dimitrija (Ilija’s friend) was in the loo and kept asking us what we were doing in Belgrade in either English or Croatian pending on whatever his sodden mind fancied I suppose. Dimitrija and Ilija kept responding ‘We live here’ (I didn’t speak at all) and he would nod his head and say “And how long have you been visiting for?” Eventually a waiter came and told him to go back to his room, but it made for an interesting first day in Belgrade nonetheless.

During the rest of my time in Belgrade we visited the old town and just walked around, we walked through the ‘Bohemian Quarter’ which very largely caters to tourists now. Though it did look to be a fun and happening place regardless, we walked all over places I probably never would have walked on my own (I would have gotten so lost), I had my first taste of kaymak (a cheese-like spread that is heaven on a sandwich) saw their parliament building and we walked all the way to Sveti Sava, which is the Orthodox Cathedral I mentioned earlier. It is INSANELY huge, the largest Eastern Christian cathedral in the world and one of the 10 largest church buildings in the world. And it’s still a shell. The outside of it is beautiful though. You would look at the outside and never guess that it wasn’t finished on the inside. I walked inside and was very much reminded of the Hagia Sofia in size and shape, though I think the dome may actually be higher here than the Hagia Sofia. It’s a construction zone with no massive iconoclast yet (partly finished), though you can find pictures of religious figures littered throughout which many a worshipper stops at to pray.

One of the reasons it is taking so long to finish is because it took them a good quarter of a century to agree on plans in the first place (if not longer). After they finally agreed, wars and what not kept it from happening. Once they were recommitted to building, World War II came about and Hitler’s regime put a stop to the building of an Orthodox Church so they could use it as a car park. It has only really been worked on regularly for the last 28 years, is entirely funded by donations and they don’t have the benefit of unlimited slave labour like Emperor Justinian did. After a long day of walking we were all pretty exhausted and ready to head home. Only problem was that we had to walk ALL THE WAY BACK to the car. Oh well, it’s good for me I reckon.

Basilica of Sveti Sava

One night we decided to go down to the river bars. Belgrade has a ton of floating bars and clubs along the river. Apparently, some of them are super popular and expensive (and run by the mafia I am told) and you have to call ahead and book a table and are required to spend a certain amount. None of us really fancied that so we decided to go to a quiet little place called Verde Gato “The Green Cat” which allowed us to relax, have a couple of drinks and just chit chat (without the inflated prices of the more popular clubbing places). I was also forced to order a banana split (before going home to have dinner) and it was the largest banana split I had ever seen in my life. Seriously, it wasn’t served in a bowl or on a plate, it was served on a serving platter! I couldn’t even eat half of it, though Ilija had no problem finishing off what I couldn’t eat (and seemed to still be hungry). I have no idea where he puts it all.

One evening Ilija’s parents took us on a bit of a field trip outside of Belgrade to a place I myself would have never thought to go (but am glad I did). We drove about an hour outside of Belgrade (the long scenic way) until we arrived at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Mt. Avala. It’s a beautiful, scenic area in the hills between the valley Belgrade is in and the mountains in the southern part of the country. We spent some time walking around there and you can still see the bullet wounds on the tomb from the Yugoslav War.

After the memorial we went to Avala tower, a giant radio tower rebuilt after the war with a viewing point and spent a little bit of time checking out the amazing 360 degree view. It was a perfect, clear day so we could see for miles and miles. It wouldn’t have surprised me if I was looking across the Romanian border at one point! Afterwards we went to the grounds where Serbian royalty once lived (apparently during a major European war, WWII I think, they ran away to the UK and have been pretty useless since). The grounds were beautiful and the weather was spectacular. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t live there at least part of the year, especially considering they had a fairly beautiful vineyard. On top of that we stopped at Serbia’s original parliament and courthouse in the village next to the royal grounds which I was admittedly excited about! They are very well preserved actually.

Afterwards Ilija’s parents took us to a traditional rural Serbian restaurant (they litter the landscape, you really can’t miss them) which was spectacular! There was soooooooo much food and it was delicious. We ended up taking a bunch of it back home with us and eating it for leftovers. If you are driving through rural Serbia and you pass little restaurants with a spit out front and they are roasting whole lamb or pig on it, I highly recommend stopping and eating. Make sure you have an appetite. You could order cuts of meat, you could order any part of the animal you wanted, you could order these delicious breaded chicken stuffed with who knows what (Goga ordered that) that I very willingly finished off when we had them for leftovers. I really should get the name of those.

We also went to Tito’s Mausoleum which also has an ethnographic museum and a museum with changing exhibitions attached. While we went they had an Olympic Exhibition and an exhibition to the development of Serbia from the 40’s or 50’s until today. They had an English translation on everything which was awesome for me. It was a really good museum and I highly recommend going. I very much enjoyed it.

I really wanted to go to the Tesla museum and the Ivo Andrič museum (a Yugoslav author from Bosnia who immigrated to Belgrade). Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to go, but it made for a good trip to Serbia all the same.

Montenegro

I ended up agreeing to go with the guys to Budva, Montenegro which made for a freaking long road trip. We stayed one night in Zlatibor, a national park in Serbia and then spent the entire next day driving to Budva. Montenegro is a beautiful country, and the mountains there are spectacular, but I absolutely hated the beach. It was full of tourists, ridiculously overcrowded (though thankfully not insanely overpriced like the Croatian coastline), the beaches weren’t sand and I find pebble beaches to be an abomination after living in Australia and it was extremely difficult for me to deal with so I spent a large chunk of my time hanging out on the beach reading with the Serbs I was with or drinking on the balcony of my room and contemplating life and all that that implies.

Street poling in Serbia at Zlatibor National Park

Due to the fact that I didn’t do a whole lot in Montenegro I’m not even going to bother posting anything about it. I think if I had gone to the mountains and visited there I would have liked Montenegro a lot more than I did. Next time I go to the area I’ll definitely pay a visit to the mountains and let you all know how it goes.

What I’m reading now: The Little Lady Agency by Hester Browne

What I’m listening to now: The Lord of the Rings – Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien

Please vote on my next destination on the poll at the top right hand of the screen!

Pictures from Serbia and Montenegro can be seen by clicking on the country.

 

So my friend Ivo has some family members who live in Belgrade, Serbia and when they found out that I would be in the area they very graciously offered to host me while I was there. Not being one to pass up living with locals, home cooking and cultural immersion I accepted the offer. This proved to be a wonderful but very challenging experience for me. Ivo’s cousin Ilija is around my age and so it gave me a local to hang out with and chat with and show me around and we also hung out with his friends, which was great fun and led to some fairly hilarious experiences. It was challenging because my time was literally no longer my own and time to myself was at a minimum. For an introvert such as myself that wore me out as I need time alone to recharge my batteries and it also meant that my previously planned schedule for traveling around Serbia was thrown out the window.

Luckily, Ilija has a similar sleep schedule to myself. Stay up late, sleep in until 11. I imagine it would have been slightly nightmarish had he wanted to get up and do stuff at 6am every day. Ilija and friends were super amazing about showing me around and Ilija gave up something like a week of his time to chauffer me around to different sites and things to do in Belgrade from day one. They took me to Kalemegdan fortress, took me out for drinks, showed me the river walk, different sites and museum’s around town, including Tito’s mausoleum, and what will be the world’s largest Orthodox Cathedral, Sveti Sava, when finished and it will be a site to rival the Hagia Sofia in size. Don’t hold your breath though, they’ve been working on it, from planning to the current state of it for over 100 years and it’s still pretty much just a concrete shell. But that will all be for a different post.

It’s always interesting spending a lot of time around locals, especially youth, because it gives one insight into the culture, both traditional and more modern. It also gives a good insight into what they learn growing up. Most people never realise just how biased their education is growing up and will never see it for various reasons. Textbooks are often edited by either the government or interest groups who have a significant amount of sway in what is portrayed in the books and how texts are edited. One example can be seen by a few very radical Southern Christian fundamentalist groups who believe that history books should be changed to give their skewed perspective of American and World History or the many conservatives who believe that Creationism should be taught as a Science under the guise of “Intelligent Design”. Another example is the denial of Armenian genocide in Turkish history books or the very recent introduction of Aboriginal studies in school textbooks in Australia.

Once again, I digress. So the attitude and interesting historical perspective I heard from the Serbians I was hanging out with regarding the rest of the Balkans makes me want to get someone to translate Serbian history textbooks for me to read. It also made me very keen to speak with youth in other Balkan countries about their attitudes towards Serbians.

For anyone who has been living under a rock for the past 20 years, there is an ongoing conflict between Kosova and Serbia. Kosovan’s are of Albanian heritage and generally speaking ethnically Muslim while Serbs are Slavic and ethnically Serbian Orthodox Christian. Serbians claim that Kosova is their’s and have been trying to cleanse the area of Kosovan’s for over 100 years. Under Tito, Kosova was given pretty much free reign to do as they pleased under an autonomous government. When Tito died the government decided it was high time to stage another ethnic cleansing. While I was spending time in Serbia with Ivo’s family they did their best to try to keep me from going to Kosova by saying it was dangerous, the people there attack buses and people coming from Serbia, they hate Serbians, Women travelling alone are frequently attacked, etc.  Needless to say this made me even more keen to visit.

When we were on our way to Montenegro I was asking them why they don’t go to the Croatian coast on their holidays. The response I received was “They hate us there. If they see a car with Serbia plates they vandalise it and they won’t give us good service anywhere.” When I asked more about it they said it wasn’t all Croatians, just the really young nationalists who were generally under the age of 18-20. Speaking with Croatian youth it would seem that there is truth in this. My generation says it’s a stupid conflict, it’s done, it’s in the past and everyone should move on. Plus so many people are of mixed heritage (Ilija himself is half Croatian half Serbian and most of his friends are part something) that they feel it’s ridiculous. It’s apparently a younger generation who was born during the war that seems to have this grudge against Serbians and actually do vandalise the cars and refuse to serve them or provide them with decent service in restaurants, etc.

When I was asking about Montenegro there was more than a hint of Serbian bitterness at the independent little country. Under Tito, Montenegro had an autonomous government. The words in Montenegro tend to be slightly different from those in Serbia, though not as different as those in Croatia. When I asked about this they said that Montenegro wants to separate themselves from Serbia. They definitely weren’t happy about it. They said that Montenegro was ALWAYS a part of Serbia but suddenly they decided to break away and now they are in cahoots with Kosova. I found this interesting as Montenegro was never Slavic. The coast was actually originally settled by the Illyrians and the eastern mountain ranges have large pockets of Albanians. The Slavs didn’t move into the region until later. I found this a rather interesting viewpoint and this is why I’d be interested in reading their history books.

Needless to say, I didn’t ask anything about Bosnia. I decided to wait until I went there to see what their attitude is towards Serbians. If nothing else, it was a very interesting first look into the perspectives of those living in the aftermath of Yugoslavia and I was very interested to travel other Balkan countries to find out their perspectives as well.

What I’m reading now: Lonely Planet Guide to Morocco

What I’m listening to now: The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle by Missy Higgins

Please vote on my poll about where to go next!

I loved Romania. Romania has to be one of my favourite countries that I visited in Europe. I loved the gritty rawness of Bucherest. I love the fact that when you are in Bucharest you know you are in eastern Europe. It’s cheap, it’s grimy, it’s wild and the people appreciate enjoying life. Work hard, play hard. I loved the pristine beauty of Braşov. The dainty, clean old town surrounded by old soviet buildings and dodgy looking shops. I loved being back in mountains after the extreme flatness of the rest of Eastern Europe. When you grow up in the mountains you always appreciate the beauty of them and the mountain air that comes with small towns nestled in them. It’s refreshing. I loved the youth and awareness of Timişoara. A small university town near the Serbian border with a lazy Sunday feel (it was Sunday after all) but electricity in the air when a large group gathered to protest something political (not sure what, I don’t speak Romanian).

Braşov

My first stop after Bucharest was the small town of Braşov, popular with tourists nestled in a valley in the Carpathians. It’s a picturesque town that appears to have lost some of its originality and character at first glance thanks to having so many tourists. The old town is pristine and what can only be described as ‘cute’. It’s in sharp contrast with the rest of the city (which I decided to get lost walking around in, completely by accident). As soon as you left the main tourist areas but before you reached the outskirts where the wealthier families built nice houses you had dirty apartment buildings and small, dingy shops filled with mostly cheap crap. There’s a “Braşov” sign at the top of one of the surrounding mountains that is obviously copying the “Hollywood” sign. It’s all a bit gauche. Overlooking this though, Braşov is full of great little surprises you wouldn’t expect which make for some wonderful people watching.

Welcome to Brasov!

 

One of the first things you notice about walking through Braşov is that the locals are just not overweight at all. It is actually one of the most (if not the most) active town in Romania. Every park is filled with those exercise machines, there are a ton of sports fields and none of them are ever empty. I sat for a while at one of the track fields I passed and watched people training for sprints, field events and football while reminiscing about my high school days. They also have a massive church (in which I missed visiting hours) and a synagogue (also missed visiting hours) alongside a slew of Romanian Orthodox Christian churches which I read make for an interesting visit. I also walked past “Europe’s narrowest street”, which in my opinion is a pretty big call. I’ve been on some narrow streets, and while there is no doubt that it was the narrowest (barely wide enough for me to walk down without turning sideways) it was never technically a street. It was simply a narrow opening for the fire brigade to pass through in case of fire in that specific area. Should it be called a street? Your call.

Another thing that I loved, loved, loved about Braşov was the food. There’s a restaurant called “Restaurant Transylvania” that serves traditional rural Romanian food (which may or may not have contributed to my excessive weight gain) like, Ciorbă (a traditional Romanian sour soup that you can get in various flavours), Mămăligă (translated into ‘corn mush’ in Moldova and similar to Italian polenta) and tochitură ardelenească (the Transylvanian version of tochitură which is basically pan fried beef and pork). This restaurant (also a wine cellar or something) is so cheap I got a massive meal for all of about $6, including a local beer. You can get local wines and homemade wines for about $2 a litre as well if you really want to. Highly recommended. For afters, there is a crepe restaurant on the main pedestrian drag that does extremely delicious crepes that I at first thought were overpriced until I ordered on and received a crepe the size of my head.

Braşov is also a very popular area with hikers. I would have loved to go hiking while there but I had a limited amount of time and I had to be in Serbia by a certain date so I wasn’t able to. Just watch out for the bears. If you would like more information on hiking in the area, google it because I unfortunately don’t have that information.

The main reason for me going to Braşov? DRACULA’S CASTLE!!! While it is totally awesome saying that you have been to Dracula’s Castle I should probably make a few disclaimers. First of all, the castle isn’t terribly impressive in comparison to some that I have seen. It’s quite small, but it’s still quite nice looking and it’s surrounded by fairly impressive scenery. I also have no idea why it is called “Dracula’s Castle” as Dracula may possibly have visited it once for a night at some point during his life, but he also may not have. Regardless, I’ve been to Dracula’s Castle! It’s actually used as a museum for the families and royalty that did live there and I did enjoy the visit and spent a couple of hours there. There are a ton of little stalls selling extremely kitschy souvenirs, but there’s a bit more variety there than in the town of Braşov and the items are marginally cheaper. If you’re there, might as well pick some up. I’m wishing I had.

It’s amazing I haven’t been arrested yet.

Timişoara

Timisoara was pretty much just a stopover on the way to Serbia as it’s a border town and the trains between Braşov, Timişoara and Belgrade, Serbia don’t really match up very well. Even if they did, the train would probably be late anyway so you wouldn’t get into Timişoara in time to catch the train to Belgrade. I could have got in that night and then caught the 6am train to Belgrade, but in general, bus and train stations are about the dodgiest places you will see while travelling, especially in smaller towns and I didn’t fancy having my shoes stolen while I slept on a concrete floor and then miss my train anyway. So I did what any sensible girl would do when faced with such a dilemma. I booked a hostel for that night, asked to store my luggage and being as reception isn’t open 24 hours at the hostel in Timişoara, hung around in the common room until I had to leave at 4am to walk to the train station (super creepy at that hour). Wearing a backpack at that hour (for a 40 minute walk I might add) when the crazies tend to be out sort of screams “Come over and freak the crap out of my by talking to me, hitting on me or following me.” Lucky for me, the worst I got was a vendor at the station asking if I wanted to buy a sandwich.

Anyway, Timişoara was sending me mixed signals while I was there and it was deeply confusing. At first it appeared to be a sleepy Sunday town where most everything was closed and even most of the café’s didn’t stay open long enough to serve lunch, which made sense considering it was Sunday. I didn’t do a whole lot except visit a church, buy my train ticket for the next day and eat at a restaurant called Restaurant Flora that came highly recommended by lonely planet (also one of the only ones open) but ended up being overpriced and underwhelming. I was not impressed with the food at all or the price I had to pay for it. By Romanian standards it was pretty expensive. I spent a good few hours there regardless getting some work done and when I left I had to walk through the main square. Much to my surprise, Timişoara was no longer the sleepy little town. There were hundreds of people gathered in the square having some sort of political protest or rally. They were against something that was apparently happening in some sort of Romanian politics but I couldn’t tell what as the only word I could understand on the signs was ‘No’ and true to the pragmatist in me, I decided to avoid the rally just in case anything happened and my insurance didn’t cover it. I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised considering Timişoara is a university town, but it was quite a 180 flip from what I had seen the entire rest of the day.

What I’m reading now: Nothing My Darling Nothing by H. Manice

What I’m listening to now: Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs

Photos from Romania can be seen here.