I’d been in Abu Dhabi for a month and a bit when I started to get that itchy feeling that only a traveling panda can get. You know the one- when your documentation is done, school hasn’t started, your home is set up and so the days start to stretch out endlessly in front of you.
What can else can you do but browse for flights?
And can you be helped when you find a flight to a perfectly located country which will enable you to cross a border to another country that you really want to visit?
Its almost like they are begging you to go ahead and book it since it is absolutely within your budget…
Well what I did was realise that this flight came with a catch- a 19 hour layover in Belgrade, Serbia. No not Syria as I explained to a confused neighbour. Not Siberia as I clarified to a friend who asked me if I needed to buy winter clothes. SERBIA.
It’s time for a quick PPG- Panda’s Progressive Geography lesson! (You know you love this).
Serbia is located in southeastern Europe and is bordered by the countries of Romania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Hungary. The capital city is Belgrade and the currency is the Serbian Dinar.
Prior to World War I, Serbia was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian army. After the War the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was formed and it would later, in 1929, become the country of Yugoslavia. After World War II, Yugoslavia became a communist country and in 1989 civil war was waged for years as many countries such as Croatia and Bosnia tried to break away after the fall of the Soviet Union. Of course, there was the controversial dispute over Kosovo, which Serbia claimed belonged to them, but in February 2008 it formally declared independence from Serbia. This whole debacle is one of the reasons that Serbia is not yet part of the European Union. PPG over!
Honestly I didn’t know a single thing about this country before I booked this flight (3 days before I departed). Well… I knew it was the land of Nikola Tesla and Novak Djokovic but that’s about it. But now, let me tell you something readers: I am now positively in LOVE with Belgrade!
So you know my style by know and you’re expecting the list of why I’ve been seduced by Serbia. Who am I to disappoint?! Here we go:
1. Belgrade is beautiful in EVERY WAY
To me, there is something beautiful in a city that has remained relatively untouched by tourism. Yes Serbia is not on the itinerary for most travellers and as a result, you’re not bombarded by tour groups. The city is clean, the native language is being spoken everywhere and you feel at ease very quickly.
Were you expecting a grey, drab and bombed out city because of their past conflicts with NATO? Well there are parts of new Belgrade that are that way. But on the whole- it’s lush, filled with flowers and has many parks with tall trees with golden light streaming through. Every street is picture-worthy and every restaurant is an instagrammer’s dream. My eyes were enthralled.
For a treat, head to the Belgrade Fortress/Kalemegdan Citadel. Perched on a 125 meter high cliff, the ancient Kalemegdan Citadel has always sought to protect the city. The cliff-like ridge overlooks the Great War Island and the confluence of the Sava river into the Danube, and makes one of the most beautiful natural lookouts in Belgrade…
2. The city is made for travellers
Oh yes, most European cities are this way, you argue. Well I’m not disputing that. But Serbia is made for travelers without meaning to be. And therein lies its charm. You know that handsome man with the chiselled jawline who knows he is handsome and expects everyone to know it too? Well that isn’t Serbia. Serbia is the unassuming guy in the corner of the cafe who looks as though he needs a haircut but as you get closer you take in his pouty lips and distinctive eyes.
Don’t ask me how to use the public transportation system in Serbia because all I did was walk. No place is more than 30 minutes in any direction from the heart of the city centre and with the warm summer breeze caressing my neck, I languidly walked to wherever I needed to go. There are signs everywhere- in English; everybody speaks English and as you walk, you take in the sights, watch some boys playing basketball, buy an ice cream, snap some photos, pet a few dogs and listen to the sounds of the music that pass you by. This isn’t Prague or Salzburg- the streets aren’t loud and there are no piercings sirens at intervals. Belgrade’s air is alive with the chatter of locals, traditional music and people trying (and succeeding) to sell me Nutella waffles.
Knez Mihailova Street (pictured above) is the main pedestrian and shopping area of Belgrade. Until 1950s, most of the Knez Mihailova Street belonged to a couple of very rich Belgrade families. However, during communist rule those family buildings were taken away by the state. The area is now protected by law as one of the oldest and most valuable monumental complexes of the city, with a large number of representative buildings and urban houses built at the end of 1870s. Although its original look didn’t change, the purpose of the buildings certainly did. Instead of residential buildings, you will find stores, cultural centers, bookstores, restaurants and cafes.
Another place I really enjoyed was Skadarlija. It is the old Bohemian Quarter of Belgrade and dates back to late 19th and early 20th century. It was back then when its kafane (taverns and restaurants) were a meeting place for many of the greatest figures of the cultural scene of the period. The area is home to some of Belgrade’s best restaurants and every restaurant has live musicians playing traditional songs. The musicians travel from table to table and the guests often sing along. (There is a story here about a very handsome man who grabbed me to dance in the middle of the street while the entire restaurant watched and clapped along… Ah the Serbs!).
3. Serbian people are wonderful!
Aren’t you tired of me going about the wonderful people that I meet? Well I’m tired of meeting wonderful people and then having to leave them! So let me tell you about the Serbs. They’re pretty bilingual and of course they’re friendly as hell. They are always smiling and always laughing- a little like South Africans in this respect. They will strike up a conversation with you anytime and anywhere and at first I thought it was creepy (I hate being approached by strangers). But I later learnt that this normal and just their way.
A BFF and I were just discussing recently how gorgeous the women in Europe are. And they truly are beings of beauty. I was prepared for this because there are so many blogs that wrote about the beauty of Serbian women. But what wasn’t written was how Serbia takes it a step further- not only do all their women look like supermodels, the men belong on the cover of Men’s Health too! Ladies pack your pretty dresses and head over to Belgrade if you’re on the market!
In a mere 19 hours I can’t tell you how many people I spoke to and genuinely enjoyed their company. I found myself inviting these people to visit me in the UAE and if you know me, I’m not the type to just invite people to visit me 😂 The best thing was their knowledge base- they knew so much about South Africa, about the Middle East, about everything! Not stupid questions of “Are you really South African?” Or is “Abu Dhabi in Dubai?” All I can say is that their educational system is WINNING.
Even if you go to Belgrade with no language skills, no knowledge of the culture or history and no general understanding, the people will embrace you as though you were a long-lost relative who’s been wandering in the Okavango Delta, lost, for most of her life and therefore cannot be held responsible for her ignorance. They’ll verbally put an arm around your shoulder and help you wherever you go, whenever you need it. Partly so you don’t trip and hurt yourself, but mostly because they’re just pleasant and genuine. And they look you in the eye. And smile their beautiful smiles at you.
Go for a walk around the city… take a map, or use the GPS on your phone. Or don’t. Ask for directions, but since street signs are everywhere you should make it home before dawn. (Don’t worry if you don’t. This city never sleeps, and since no one seems to work here you’ll always have company as you enter a café at 4:30 a.m. and order your first espresso of the day.) You can walk across the city center in less than an hour, in all four directions if you stroll at a decent speed. It’s easy to breakfast at a café in Vracar, lunch at the Ottoman-era Kalmegdan fortress, and dine in Skdarljia. All on foot.
Belgrade is a laid-back city that perfectly suits my personality. Besides being drawn to its raw, unembellished beauty, I was also intrigued by the city’s audacious spirit. Belgrade does not conform to anyone’s expectations- which reminds me of myself.
-You can easily visit Serbia with a valid Schengen visa. You DO NOT need to enter Serbia from the Schengen zone (I flew straight from Abu Dhabi) neither do you need to have proof that you will enter the Schengen area once you depart.
-If you’re looking for a place to stay, I highly recommend (5 out of 5 pandas) this charming little apartment on AirBnb. The hosts were INCREDIBLE and made me feel like I was their long lost friend, not to mention that the place was perfectly located, cute and clean. Milo & Jelena, if you guys are reading this, please come visit me in Abu Dhabi 😀
Don’t take my word for it- Just take a trip to Serbia. Don’t be surprised if you return home with a husband, wife or friend for life.