Travelling Europe on $35 a day!!

Europe » Serbia » West » Belgrade
June 28th 2011
Published: August 4th 2011
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Even with the state of the highflying Australian dollar, Europe can be expensive but there are always forgotten parts of a region that provide bargains for the off the beaten track traveller. These places allow you to leave the pasta and pasta sauce on the shelf. Instead, there is no need to be careful with your money you can live like a king or queen on a backpacker’s budget. That place in Europe is Serbia a place that does not reflect its reputation.

Serbs get a bad wrap from previous episodes in its recent history. I had this opinion of a slightly intimidating, unfriendly place but that was via people of other Balkan backgrounds telling me things when I was young. By the time I finished my 2 weeks here I was pleasantly surprised. Serbia immediately climbed high up in my favourite places in Europe.

In fact its one of those places that can feel like a time warp especially the capital Belgrade. Serbia is one of a few European countries with limited influence from the big corporate chains of Western Europe. This is why I like the place so much. Croatia in its attempts to join the EU don’t have as many mom and pop shops in central Zagreb and it makes the place feel generic in a way. Belgrade is not like that.

I swear that if you compare some of my photos on the streets with another person who travelled here in the 1990’s you could hardly tell the difference. Belgrade has very few modern buildings and the people have not seen new fashion since the mid 90’s. The faded polo shirt with long cream pants for example.

This is not a criticism, Serbia is poor and the people have suffered for its participation in the Balkan Wars. After only leaving Africa a week earlier I had a sense that this place could pass off as Africa sometimes in its development. Wages are awfully low for Europe at an average of $10 540 in 2009. In 1993 they had hyperinflation where a 500 000 000 000 dinar note was printed. That’s Zimbabwe like until the new dinar was introduced a year later.

But unlike Africa where I got the ‘poor me’ vibe at times. In Serbia there is a true national pride (some would say too much). And despite their economic situation, the occasional complaints about the government doing nothing and some poor roads and buses. The whole place has a very positive atmosphere.

I’m not sure if it’s because I just came from Africa after 10 months that helped heighten my feelings towards this positiveness. I did also get excited about the green land that covers the whole place.

But my impressions didn’t start like that. I arrived in Belgrade at 6am to grey clouds, a lot of rubbish in the outskirts. It looked dreary at best but the surface deceived.

Cyrillic is the font of choice here and it helps create an exotic feel as well as an initial intimidation of a font incomprehensible. But my accommodation helped me feel comfortable. Belgrade is an interesting capital for a few days and 2 years earlier there was hardly any cheap accommodation options. Now hostelworld or hostelbookers has too many options. I think the owners make fake bookings because nearly all hostels have a 90+% rating. But it is true, throughout my stay all hostels were spotless, comfortable and ideal locations.

In Belgrade the hostel provided free washing and free bike hire, which the latter I used to go out to New Belgrade. A failed Socialist idea to have the population live there and commute to Central Belgrade for work. It’s across the river and about 12km along a bike track that goes along the river through parkland. Parks are very important to Serbian lifestyle just like café’s.

Café’s are a big deal here and to support the time warp theory the café’s have no one on laptops. In fact café’s here are to communicate with one another (who would have thought this was still possible.) I have joked that since I started travelling communication in hostels have changed with introductions. From the typical question of “So where you from, where have you been, where are you going?” It’s changed to “Sorry but do you have the password for wifi?”

As well as that, Serbia hasn’t grasped the concept of making money at every opportunity. When you are short 10c or 20c they sometimes go ah forget about it. So you do the same when it comes around to your turn. This is old school Europe at its best!!

Even the government hasn’t grasped fully the concept of tourism yet. The forts around the major cities have prime panoramic views and they are free of charge. Belgrade’s fort looks out towards the Danube and Sava Rivers. In the forts moat, water has been replaced with clay tennis courts. I have never seen that before.

Tennis is everywhere here and I tried to grab a game and a potential hitting partner. I got the hostel to call up the former training ground of Anna Ivanovic but I was quoted 25 euro for one hour!! There was another court where rumours suggest Novak Djokovic trains but at that expense I wasn’t sure… I mean if it was the training ground of World no.23 Janko Tipsarovic than I wouldn’t have had a problem!!

I wanted to take on some hot shot 16 year old. I didn’t need to win I just wanted to be competitive enough for him/her to get the shits. Seeing Serbs or Croats getting the shits in sport is almost as good as seeing an English supporter after a loss. But it wasn’t meant to be as the rain was either threatening or it came down.

I do like going to dreary places at times and ex-soviet countries usually provide that but Serbia and the former Yugoslavia was not entirely part of the iron curtain. Tito (who ruled until his death from 1945-1980) defied Stalin and decided Yugoslavia will live its own version of Socialism. Stalin put sanctions on them but his predecessor made up and Yugoslavia became the envy of the Eastern bloc, with good relations on both sides and getting the best of both worlds. Upon his death his funeral brought together the largest amount of statesmen in history from 127 different nations.

Since then it has been a gradual decline. Yet interestingly Tito still has posters and his image in other former Yugoslav countries. In Belgrade you can visit his grave and some interesting museums. His grave is of white marble under the shelter of a building with a sunroof. A long lane with flowers either side is the build up to the grave. The most interesting part is the left room, which has batons from the Mass Youth Baton relay. Starting in 1945 to celebrate Tito’s birthday batons were presented in an opening ceremony style way at the national stadium. Batons came from various regions within the country to wish Tito the best of health. It continued after his death and the last relay was in 1987.

Of other significant sites St Sava Temple, which is still being completed on the inside is a Serbian Orthodox church that is the largest in the Balkans and said to be only second in size to Russia’s Church. At the moment it is a rare opportunity to see a work in progress of this scale (around 70m high.) There are a few mosaics inside but mostly a grey concrete look.

Belgrade is known as a drinking place and I entered at the unfortunate time when a new drinking rule meant shops couldn’t sell alcohol after 9pm (I think it was) and bars closed by midnight. Locals weren’t happy and later I went to Novi Sad and the locals said, “They tried it here but it didn’t work so the government gave up.” Hopefully Belgrade will do the same.

I did go to the river bars but it was a sausage fest really. With the hot girls mainly working for the bar. The scene was interesting because they had a dance area but put tall tables there. It is a unique way to get people on the dance floor. Okay there is not much room to dance but at least everyone is on the dance floor.

The no beer rule was disappointing because for $1.50 I could get a 1ltr bottle of beer. The food especially the fruit and veg were of the same ilk. On top of the price, the flavour was a blast from the past. No chemicals to increase production that the western world have to put up with. I got my ingredients for a Greek Salad – cucumber, tomato and cheese. I can’t remember how much the cheese cost but the cucumber and tomato were just over 2 cents a piece so 5 cents for 2 of the 3 ingredients for my salad.

Burek a pastry that has a bit of oil in it filled with either cheese, spinach, meat plus others - Whenever I hit a former Yugoslav country I am straight into a burek and average about two a day. In Serbia it started to catch up on me and I started to get blocked up a bit.

Australia played Serbia in the World Cup and again in a friendly whilst I was staying there. It was enjoyable hearing Serbians not accepting defeat at the World Cup because they were the better team based on them beating a German side down to 10 men the game before. What about the other games? Plus Australia missed out on progression because of goal difference after playing something like 100 minutes of 3 matches with 10 men! We agreed to disagree on that one. Retelling the Krasic booing story was good as well.

I remember at school kids with Croatian backgrounds (even now with Bosnian backgrounds) their hatred toward Serbia. I used to say, “Have you been there, have you gone back?” The answer was always no. I used to reply back, “Well then maybe you should go there first and see for yourself and then make up your own opinion.”

This is the problem with migration. The ideas of their homeland stays stagnant and they pass it down to the next generation. Whilst the people that have remained try to forgive and forget and look to the future for progress. Others like some in Australia cling onto outdated ideas.

In the 1980’s I was told tourists were 3million a year. Now its 200 000 a year and its on the up and there is good reasons why. As my Serbian trip continued I was able to gain a soft spot for the place. Heck who knows I may even barrack for Novak Djokovic… Than again… we’ll see.

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