By now, you've probably heard a thing or two about the European Migrant Crisis. While it's much more tense now in light of the recent tragedy in Paris, a few weeks ago we had more or less assumed that it wouldn't affect our travel plans. The vast majority of these folks are just regular people trying to get out of a bad situation back home.
But then, the numbers started skyrocketing and the southern European countries began to buckle under the strain of hundreds of thousands passing through their borders. One by one, panicked measures were being put in place to contain the stream of humanity. A mere three days before we planned to head from Croatia to Hungary via train, the Hungarian land border was closed.
We surveyed our options with the little time we had left in Croatia. On the one hand, we could stick to our original plan to take the train and hope that the situation had improved by the time we reached the border. On the other hand, Air Serbia was offering a cheap flight to Budapest that connected in Belgrade with a 7 hour layover. Excited for this unexpected detour, we pounced.
Wheels down in Serbia
Our layover would give us just enough time to get a classic Balkan lunch and a comprehensive walking tour of the city. We hopped off the plane and hitched a cab to start sinking our teeth into Belgrade.
Almost every meal in Serbia involves two things: generous cuts of meat (chicken and fish are considered vegetables) and paprika, thanks to a lengthy Ottoman occupation. We scanned around some menus in the city center and found a place where we could dig in to some sausage, pork loin, and skewers below the swirling cigarette smoke of the regulars.
Out on the town
After mopping up the last of our heavy lunch, we set off to meet up with a walking tour and learn a little bit more about the city. On our way, we were struck by the stark simplicity of the communist-era buildings.
As our tour guide would explain it, “all roads lead through Belgrade.” The city's advantageous position, on the way to several different imperial cities and at the junction of the Danube and Sava rivers, made it irresistible to invading armies. Belgrade changed hands so frequently over its long history and was damaged so badly in these exchanges of power that it was almost completely rebuilt an incredible 44 times.
This meant that instead of the parade of neogothic churches and old monuments we'd seen in other major European cities, our tour would consist more of an oral history as we strolled past modern buildings and relics of communist rule under the former Yugoslavia.
But for all the austerity of its architecture, Belgrade isn't without its cultural quirks. We made our way through the Bohemian neighborhood of Skadarlija, past dozens of Kavarnas hoping to entice us with their food, strong turkish coffees, and fruity rakija (Serbia's most popular booze). As we passed through the streets, we noticed a street sign posting the distance to other Bohemian neighborhoods such as Montmartre and Grinzing, but oddly enough it also included the moon. Apparently, Serbians think it's a pretty hoppin' place.
We kept on walking through the now-quiet and respectful streets where Serbian mobsters once received their kickbacks under communist rule and continued on to the Fortress. This massive area perched on a hill is surrounded by the original city wall and contains remnants of its many owners over the centuries in its layers and layers of fortification.
Refreshingly, instead of being closed off to anyone but ticket-holding tourists, it's a popular public spot for locals to hang out for the afternoon. We stood next to other Serbs on the old city walls and looked out at the meeting of the rivers Danube and Sava, then passed a couple of basketball and tennis courts which seemed so welcomely out of place in this ancient monument.
The tour concluded with a discussion of Serbian pride in its athletes next to the oldest basketball hoop in the city. And they are seriously proud. All over town, you can find the Serbian Basketball team plastered on nationalistic posters. Even the slightest mention of Belgrade’s native son, Novak Djokovic, will win you loads of points with your Serbian pals in the Kavarna.
Back on track
The sun was starting to set and our departure time approached. Our guide was kind enough to call us a taxi to the airport so we were quickly whisked away, excited to head to our third country in a single day.
We definitely hadn't started our week with a visit to Serbia on our to-do list. But after our trip threw us a curve-ball, she was there for us with a smile, time for a lovely walk, and a giant plate of meat: the best kind of friend to have.
We're wrapping up Europe with a stop in beautiful Budapest!