Novak Djokovic recently created history by winning his fifth Wimbledon Grand slam in an EPIC final match where he defeated Roger Federer in the longest final match ever. That match revived a lot of my memories about the Serb, especially the trip I took last year to his homeland – Serbia. However, before I embarked on my journey, my mind was fraught with anxieties like is Serbia safe to travel, mainly for solo female travellers like me? Will there be a language barrier and struggle for vegetarian food? Serbia seemed enticing as well as frightening at the same time. Undeterred, I took the plunge. What happened next could make a good cinema plot.
Arriving in Belgrade
A dream trip started on a roller coaster ride when I arrived penniless in Belgrade from Zagreb. No, I didn’t spend all my money on the Mediterranean cruise in Croatia but was rather pickpocketed in a night train. Yes, accidents happen everywhere. Nothing to fret about. Thankfully, my bus driver (who didn’t understand a single word of English) was considerate enough to drop me at my hotel without charging a penny. I had arrived early morning, so the receptionist was having a hard time to check me in. A lot of pestering and retelling of my nightmare did the job.
An hour later I met someone who set the tone of my entire trip. I bumped into 5.2 feet tall, fair-skinned, straight-haired and almond hazel-eyed Bojana Sestovic dressed in black. She seemed like a helpful person and probably had heard my earlier conversation with the receptionist. While talking, she extended a friendly invitation to explore Serbia with her.
I gave her a noncommittal nod, wary of yet another scam, having lost faith in the people of Eastern Europe. Lacking cash, a guidebook or contacts, I was essentially a refugee in a foreign land, reliant on the goodwill of strangers.
Bojana asked why I was visiting Serbia. Without wasting a second I replied, “because it’s the birthplace of my idol, Novak Djokovic.” Beyond that, embarrassed to reveal how little I knew about the country, I made up a story with the old clichés, telling her I had always wanted to visit the land of Nikola Tesla and former Yugoslavia.
Hearing attentively she responded, “well, they are all valid reasons. However, if you want to see the heart of Serbia, you must explore it like a local.”
I wanted to see Serbia like a local but my confidence in locals had shaken because of an unpleasant incident. Reading my confused state of mind, she said she understood my discomfort of trusting strangers. But she didn’t want me to carry a bad memory about her country. And, wanted an opportunity to show the real heart of Serbia.
Hesitantly, I tried to find a face-saving excuse, “But I’m not planning to spend a lot of time here. In fact, I am just passing through here, and most importantly have no cash left to explore the country. The only thing I have right now is this.” I said, gesturing to my Eurail Global Pass, which helped me solo travel across Europe for four months.
She smiled and said, “Oh, don’t worry about the expenses! You are my guest!”
Bouncing back to life with 3S
No one knows a woman better than a fellow woman and Bojana knew exactly how to transform a person’s mood. Her secret weapon was the 3S – sightseeing, shopping and salon. A day full of indulgence and girly fun was well planned by her where we started off by touring the Savamala district and Belgrade Waterfront area, which has made Belgrade’s nightlife scene legendary.
Strolling through the old town had given birth to the hunger pangs so we headed to Mala Fabrika Ukusa restaurant – a little bistro with a laid-back atmosphere in Belgrade’s Vračar quarter, not far from the St-Sava church. As I relished the delicious local delicacies, Bajana shared how the ‘Little Taste Factory’ was started with the idea of playfully experimenting with Serbian cuisine. The cuisine was Serbian with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
With full bellies, we wandered in the maze of tiny alleyways where Bojana spent her childhood. Everyone greeted her with a hearty embrace and broad smile as she made me try different kinds of cheeses and liquors. We then visited the famous landmark of Belgrade – St. Sava Church. Being one of the largest orthodox churches in the world, it stands as a beacon of hope and unity for Serbs.
We then spent the rest of the day Sightseeing other landmarks like the National Assembly, City Council, Republic Square, National Theatre and National Museum, Knez Mihajlova pedestrian street, Kalemegdan park before winding up the day at Bohemian street of Skadarlija.
In between sightseeing, we made time for some shopping and salon treatment. Two months of non-stop travel in Europe had made me look more like a monkey than a human being.
Eat and meet at Novak’s Restaurant
The biggest surprise arrived in the form of lunch at Novak 1 Cafe & Restaurant. As I entered the restaurant, a gladiator-like bronze statue of world number 1 greeted me. The smartly dressed staff with radiant smiles welcomed us. Like an excited kid, I explored all the sections of the building, the carefully collected posters of the sports legends, the cabinets full of silverware won by Novak and the merchandise for sale. The restaurant served everything from lamb chops to spring rolls, and there were an extensive vegan and gluten-free menu. The food was healthy and yummy, especially the dessert which was Novak’s favourite. However, the real deal wasn’t what I ate, but who I met. I was a lucky patron to meet Srđan Djokovic, Novak’s father, who happened to be there by chance.
My day was made! But the surprise train has just left the first station. There were a lot of surprises waiting. Sadly, Bojana couldn’t join me on my next adventures but her good friend-cum-travel-organiser, Nedeljko Stamenic Nadjo, ensured I experience the best of Serbia.
Rendezvous with the Guardians of time
As we drove for 240-km from Belgrade towards alpine-like Zlatibor in western Serbia, the scenery changed dramatically. Braids of lush green carpeted vistas hemmed with forested peaks, plunging waterfalls and pretty villages replaced the brutal communist-era skyscrapers.
After a ride of about two hours, we reached Zlakusa village, where the traditional fare of a never-ending range of interesting dishes was awaiting us. We were spoiled for choices as we dig our way through interesting dishes like ćevapčići (mixed minced meat rolls), sarma (stuffed cabbage and minced meat with rice enveloped in pickled cabbage), stuffed peppers, Serbian beans, podvarak (roast meat in sauerkraut), musaka (minced pork mixed with eggs and potatoes and then baked), gibanica (pastry leaves mixed with eggs, cheese and then baked) and proja (corn bread).
“Nothing is more important in Serbia than food”, my host-lady dressed in folk costume told me with a burst of laughter in her eyes as I accepted a third helping—sans protest—of her delicious Sarma (mince-meat wrapped and cooked in cabbage leaves). It doesn’t matter where you are and what is happening, food is always in the center! With Serbia being at the crossroads of East and West, its cuisine has collected elements from different cooking styles across the Middle East and Europe to develop its own hearty gastronomy with an intricate balance of rich meats, vegetables, cheese, fresh pastries and desserts.
The Serbian hospitality piqued my interest into knowing more about the ethnic Serbian rural life and my wish was granted in the form of “Terzica Avlija”. A typical rural household from the region dating to the 20th century. The household trip extended to a pottery school visit, where a rare form of art is still practised. Artisans were diligently working to keep a four centuries old pottery making technique alive, by making earthenware from a mix of stone and clay, using a slow wheel and open firing.
The star attraction of the day was reserved for the last. Befittingly in the twilight, we saw a glimpse of Serbia’s past through the open-air museum of Sirogojno. A 19th-century ethno village “Staro selo” near Zlatibor is steeped in history, culture and fascinating nature. It is the one and the only open-air museum in Serbia preserving the tradition of Serbian highlands life. On 50 hectares of mountainous land, there are over 50 buildings transferred from the surrounding Zlatibor villages. They represent authentic history, architecture, culture, spirituality, and traditions of the Serbian countryside life.
Next day our journey took us to Drvengrad and Šargan Eight. Drvengrad (Timber Town) was originally built by world-famous Serbian film director Emir Kusturica for his 2004 movie “Life Is a Miracle.” It’s now an eccentric ethno village of 19th century-style farm buildings with shops, restaurants, galleries and apartments to rent.
Nearly two kilometres away was an equally quirky sight, the Šargan Eight, where a 2.5hr long romantic steam train ride and an incredible feat of engineering was waiting for us. This narrow-gauge heritage railway was built in 1925 to connect Serbia to the Adriatic Sea. Locals and tourists rejoiced alike when the steam spewing and choo-choo sounding train passed through the figure-of-eight loop – 22 tunnels and 10 bridges from Mokra Gora to Šargan-Vitasi.
Tryst with nature and adventure
After experiencing the gastronomic and cultural heritage side of western Serbia, it was time to hit the adrenaline button.
Tara National Park
A jewel in Serbia’s crown, Tara National Park is known for its beautiful peaks, thick forests, and deep caves. Serbia’s largest population of endangered brown bears is found within Tara’s woods, though I wasn’t lucky enough to bump into any.
The park’s highlight is the vertigo-inducing Drina River canyon, the third largest of its kind in the world. The gloriously green river slices through the cliffs, offering prime panoramas and ripper rafting in Perućac and Zaovine lakes. Drina river originates in Montenegro and passes through Bosnia and Herzegovina before entering Serbia. It is here in Serbia, it enters a beauty contest competing against the Tara mountain. By circling the mountain, the Drina has carved a magnificent canyon. ⠀
Have you ever been to a place that was so stunning and untouched that you struggled for words and emotions to express its beauty?
For me, that place was Uvac Canyon. A protected reserve area in Serbia with many beautiful lakes and caves, one-hundred-year-old forests, and rare flora and fauna comprising of 219 species of plants, 24 types of fish and 130 bird species including the endangered griffon vulture.
The Uvac river spectacularly meanders through the 75-sq-km Uvac nature reserve in southwestern Serbia. The incredibly green river snakes through steep limestone rocks in a zigzag manner – a feat of nature that’s best admired from high above. Getting there was little tough – I had to first drive for two hours from Tara National Park, take a speed boat for over an hour and then hike for 45 minutes before enjoying the splendid views of the Uvac Canyon.
Kayaking in one of the world’s shortest rivers
On my way back to Belgrade, Nedeljko Stamenic Nadjo had planned some surprises.
We first enjoyed kayaking in the 365m long Vrelo River, which is the shortest river in Europe and due to its length (same number of meters as days per year), it is often referred as the Godina (meaning “Year” in the Serbian language).
The last pit stop on my Western Serbia adventure was literally a picture-postcard stop. Bajina Basta, a small town at the foothills of Tara mountain, became famous for the house perched on the rock in the middle of the Drina River since 1969. Talk about resilience in the choppy waves. Bidding goodbye to the beautiful alpine Zlatibor was a bitter-sweet moment. I was sad to leave behind such a beautiful place but I was also looking forward to meeting Bojana.
So, is Serbia safe to travel?
As my trip ended, I thanked my stars for meeting Bojana. She made me realise that sometimes a friendly invitation is simply an invitation, and your worst moment could spark your life’s best moment. Locals like her are the real heroes who can make or break your trip. And, they would rather help you than hurt you. The key is to trust your instincts. Not everyone wants to scam you. And, Serbia is definitely a safe place to travel. Rotten apples are everywhere. You can’t let them paint a universal picture. Serbia is a place I would go back in a heartbeat for its unspoiled nature and bighearted locals.
When are you visiting Serbia?
Tips for Serbia Travel
Language: English is not widely spoken, especially in rural parts of Serbia. Therefore having a local helps.
Currency: Keep the local currency Dinar (RSD) handy.
Visa: visa-free entry for Indians
Flights: Air Serbia and other leading airlines operate regular flights to Serbia from India
What to eat
Ćevapi (grilled minced meat), Kajmak (cream cheese), Sarma (Cabbage rolls), Ajvar (Serbian Roasted Red Pepper Sauce), Kobasice (Serbian sausages), Prebranac (bean soup with meat)
Where to eat:
Belgrade: Mala Fabrika Ukusa, Novak’s, fish restaurant on the Danube in Zemun, Tri sesira in Skadarlija, and Manufaktura restaurant
Western Serbia: Zlakusa village, Zlatibor Hotel Mona in Zlatibor and El Gusto in Bajina Basta
What to shop
Traditional Serbian Pottery from the Zlakusa village, Rakia (a fruit brandy), Bermet (dessert wine), Serbian wine, traditional Serbian jewellery, local honey, ajvar (red pepper dip) and Licider heart is the signature Serbian souvenir
Where to stay
Belgrade: While there are all kinds of accommodations available in the capital. I stayed at Belgrade City Hotel. It’s a decent four-star hotel located centrally, right next to the tram station and bus stop. Room was clean but wasn’t sound-proof. Staff was courteous and responsive.
Zlatibor: Hotel Mona Zlatibor, on the other hand, was a fantastic place to stay. A four-star hotel that could easily pass as a five-star property. A great place for anyone looking for wellness, romantic, adventure or a simple leisure weekend. Also, a perfect venue for holding business events and meetings.
Interested to know more about Serbia? check out the following articles:
- Belgrade, Serbia: Why Europe’s greatest yet most underrated city should be on your bucket list
- Danube River Cruise: Exploring the unexplored side of Serbia
The abridged version of this story has been published in Mail Today from India Today group and The Patriot.
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I was invited by Serbia Travel. However, all the views expressed above are based on my personal experiences in the country during my visit. Images used are shot by me. Please do not copy anything without written permission.