After spending a few relaxing days in Timisoara, we booked a train to Belgrade, a city that I didn’t have strong feelings about visiting other than for its convenient location en-route to Sarajevo.
It was a lazy Sunday and we arrived around noon. The journey from Romania to Serbia was fairly uneventful, but we had to change trains at the border. Border control took a lot longer than any of the others we had been through, we hadn’t even shown passports on our other crossings. This time we stopped for about an hour. Surly guards came in and collected all of our passports, disappearing again without a word. After a long wait, we were delighted to discover a stamp in the passport when we got them back.
A stamp! Serbia was the only country so far on the trip to stamp my EU passport. It has been a while since I last had a European stamp in my passport.
The train from the Serbian border was a shabby locomotive that reeked of stale smoke fumes. It was hot, sticky, and unpleasant. It stopped every few minutes. Clearly the train is used like a local bus service. It was hours before we pulled into Belgrade.
Belgrade station was by far the smallest, most unfriendly station we encountered on the trip. It was so tiny I doubted that it could be the main central station of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia—and former capital of Yugoslavia.
We had instructions from our hostel that we were to walk up Balkanska street, and turn left when we reached Terazije square. I looked up at the first street sign I saw. There was a problem. A big problem.
My instructions were written in English, in the roman script. The street signs were all written in cyrillic. We had no idea if we were looking at the right street.
I asked a man on the street for help. He grunted and pushed past me. It seemed that the Serbs were as welcoming as the dreary grey concrete buildings.
On first impressions, Belgrade did not seem very friendly.
With nobody else around, and the train station ticket counter closed because it was Sunday, our only option was to walk. We headed towards tall buildings, hoping they indicated a city centre. Thankfully, they did.
We stumbled across an American couple scrutinising a map in the street and asked them for directions. By sheer coincidence we were standing on the street we needed, just metres from the hostel door.
Our initial impressions of Belgrade began to melt away with the hospitality we received at Hostel Montmartre, our lodgings for the next two nights. Our host was friendly, warm and informative, and seemed keen to introduce us to traditional Serbian cuisine.
Belgrade is a more interesting city than I expected. It is certainly not attractive by any means, but it has some pretty areas; like the fortress on the hill, proudly overlooking the convergence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Or Skadarlija the bohemian street; a cobbled haven for artists, poets and writers–and the home of the best cuisine of our trip.
Serbian cuisine was an unexpected surprise, it is homely and comforting with plenty of stewed meat and vegetables. We ordered a lovely soup, and potatoes roasted in kajmak—a thick cream found in most of the Balkan countries. The waiter brought us over a large basket of home-made bread. It was the best bread I can ever remember eating.
At our hostel we had been told about a bakery on Skadarlija, right next to the drinking fountains, that served a goulash speciality. The generous serving of goulash is heaped onto a huge, soft bread roll, and topped with either kajmak or a spicy cream cheese. It cost €2, the best €2 I have ever spent! If you are going to Belgrade then I heartily recommend it.
Another speciality we were told not to leave Serbia without trying was Burek – a gut-busting pastry filled with a choice of meat, cheese & spinach, or fruits. We were given Burek for breakfast at our hostel, and we could not eat another thing for the rest of the day!
Unfortunately, our itinerary was tight and we couldn’t spend any time in the rest of Serbia, but I foresee a culinary tour of Serbia in my future.
Have you ever been surprised by a place that you had low expectations of? Where was it? Why did it surprise you? As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts!