Belgrade, a capital city I’ve visited three years ago when I was gallivanting around Europe with a car. Admittedly, the city didn’t impress me much so I just passed through without properly exploring it. This time around I would with the company of my girlfriend, Kristina, who insisted on having a little adventure on the way by hitchhiking from Romania to Serbia.
Having never hitchhiked anywhere cross country before, she wanted to cross it off her list. We would make the crossing from Timisoara in Romania to Belgrade, Serbia’s capital.
It turned out to be more difficult to hitchhike than originally anticipated. It was easy enough to get a ride from outskirts of Timisoara but near the border, we couldn’t find any cars crossing to over to Serbia. We decided to walk to the closest town, Deta, we can find and catch a bus to the border. As most small town goes in Eastern Europe, getting information is a bit tricky as rarely anyone could speak English.
There was a congregation of people in a section at the edge of town who appeared to be waiting for a bus. We stood and waited amongst them looking like a bunch of lost tourist. As with the rest of my experience in Romania, somebody was asking if they could help. And help came in the form of a social media happy English speaking dude (I love Romania!).
After learning I’m from California an air of excitement overcame him. It’s as if he met the second coming of Kanye West or something. Kristina got a few chuckles at the whole thing and my face would turn red from the whole ordeal. Inside the bus, he insisted on getting a selfie with him on his Instagram account. I guess meeting somebody from California made his day! I didn’t even get the Romanian guy’s name before getting off the bus for his stop.
We got off our stop a few kilometers away from the Serbian border. From there we got picked up by a couple of Serbian guys playing loud and happy music in the car. They were a jovial bunch. But we had problems at the border during passport inspection. It took a very long time for things to get going. Our passports were given the third degree. I guess seeing an American and Russian passport gave them a reason to pause. In fact, we turned a few heads in a few countries in Europe. I apologized profusely for the hold-up but they didn’t seem to mind and happily dropped us off at the closest bus station in Vrasc.
We didn’t have any cash for the bus. The closest exchange was in a gas station nearby and they only exchanged in Euros (weird). Luckily it the ticket counter accepted credit cards. The bus ride to Belgrade would take 2 hours and upon arrival, we found a cheap hotel where the guy at the counter barely spoke English but spoke Russian.
As we were talking he snuck in a political jab about the current election: We don’t like Clinton and Americans very much. They bombed us. He then pointed out on the map where the bombings occurred and its now part of a tourist attraction and memorial monument. Kristina learned all about all the major attractions and it looks like everything can be done in a day.
I don’t usually want to get involved in the politics of the places I visit but part of the reason why I travel is to experience the culture as much as I can. To soak it all in. The good and the bad. I’ve heard from an American traveler I met in Romania that he was flat out refused a room at a hostel in Serbia after the host found out he was American.
The Kosovo war wasn’t that long ago and during which NATO bomb Yugoslavia. I may never know the extent of the rights and wrong or the politics of that war. But I feel like I have to apologize for these transgressions to whoever mentions it.
We walked around looking for a place to get coffee and walked past a park with a large concentration of Syrian refugees. You can really feel the gravity of the whole migrant crisis as you meander past the make-shift shelters and overcrowded benches. There’s a sense of escalating chaos as we go past the park full of all these hopeless people.
Most of these refugees are trapped here after Hungary and Slovenia closed its borders. I don’t really know what can be done and who’s doing what. But I can only guess with politicians at the helm lost in the quagmire of their bureaucracy, rhetoric, and xenophobia will not solve the current state it’s in. I don’t know what grim fate awaits and I feel powerless to do anything about it. It was still a disturbing to see it all happening here.
Belgrade got its moniker from Beograd which sounds suspiciously like Beowulf. And sure enough, it’s got its traces from the Celts who conquered the city from the Dacians. It was conquered by the Romans and it changed hands several times from Byzantines to the Hungarian empire until it was eventually settled in by the Slavic-speaking population.
But before I continue about Belgrade. I’ll be forthright, Belgrade is one of the ugliest capital cities I’ve been to in the Balkans. Maybe I just didn’t have the luck of light when I was there but I didn’t find it particularly photogenic.
Old decaying communist buildings mixed with quasi-modern ones drown the old classical architecture that must have been at one point, marvelous. The Kalemegdan fortress is undoubtedly its main attraction and in this regards it’s not too bad.
We crossed the river Sava to get a better viewpoint but that too is not very photogenic. Most of the time my goal when visiting a place is to take pictures. The last time I was in Belgrade three years ago, I didn’t take any. So I though this time, I’d make up for it. I scoured the place as much as I can but I just didn’t find it enjoyable to shoot.
Even if I didn’t get any decent pictures out of the visit, I really did enjoy the city. I loved the vibe. Just walking from the fortress to the Church of Saint Sava and then meandering our way through the gritty banks of the Sava river made my day. Kristina and I would stop for a beer at a random restaurant.
Debated about the bombed buildings and the politics behind it (Russia supported Serbia in the war. We’d spot up for coffee for a quick pick up after the long walks. I’d say Belgrade was one of the better places for experiences during my Balkan trip. Your mileage may vary, but I recommend Belgrade for a day.
Here’s what I recommend
Stay somewhere near the Train Station which is very centrally located between the fortress and the Sava temple (check the map). This is one big giant walking tour you can do yourself. Start your day at the fortress and from there explore the various ruins and statues.
From there make your way towards Krajina Milena street. There’s a bunch of restaurants and shops on the way so if you’re inclined to have a snack or breakfast do so. But for lunch I recommend you head on over to Skadarska street. It’s one the famous streets for food and drinks in Belgrade.
You can do a small detour to see the NATO bombed station in Aberdareva street and Miloša and Nemanjina Street. The coordinates are 44°48′20.2″N20°27′40.5″E but I’ve also incuded it on the map below for your reference.
I learned that there’s a Nikola Tesla museum nearby but as much as I like the history and intrigue behind Nikola Tesla, I’m just not into museums. If that’s your thing you definitely add a few of museums in your itinerary if you had a day in Belgrade. It’s not a big city by any means.
After the Church of Sava and the NATO bombed buildings walk your way across the bridge for a better view of the city. There’s a bunch of floating bars and restaurants in the banks of the river Sava. We watched a rather dull and uneventful sunset here of the “not so attractive skylines of Belgrade.” However, the day spent Belgrade was anything but dull and uneventful.
Hitchhike from Timisoara to Belgrade:
- You have to be on the outskirts of Timisoara to have a decent chance of getting a ride.
- Take the bus A33 towards the edge of town as far as it can go to motorway E1. Be careful it will loop around and go back to the city.
- You can catch the A33 bus in the big Orthodox Church in Town (Catedrala Mitropolitana).
- You may have to catch multiple rides as people might only go partially in your direction.
- Your goal is to get to Vrsac, Serbia so you can continue hitchhiking or catch the bus to Belgrade.
- Bring a sign, a cardboard piece of paper will do. Write “BLGRD” or “Belgrade” then smile with a thumbs up.
- Have fun!
A DAY IN BREAKDOWN:
- Hitchhike From Timisoara to Belgrade – $3 ($1.50 each for bus to the edge of town)
- Bus from Vrsac to Belgrade – $4 ($2 each)
- Hotel – $42 (a night)
- Breakfast at Hotel – Free (included)
- A la carte lunch – $8 ($4 each)
- Dinner restaurant – $14 ($7 each)
- Drinks at Pub – $6 ($1.50 a beer)
- Coffee at Costa Coffee – $5 ($2.50 each)
- TOTAL: $85 for two people