Day 1 in Serbia is a wrap. Almost. It’s 7 pm local time when I’m writing this and the plan here is to go out to either Belgrade Beer Fest alongside 100,000 of our new countrymen or find a Splav along the Danube or Sava rivers that run through Belgrade. But after 14.5 hours of travel across three flights, the last of which landed at Belgrade at 8:25 am Friday morning, we’ll see how long our night lasts.
But the long day of travel was worth it. Serbia and its people have lived up to the hype so far. The generosity and selflessness that this country has are already showing. We were greeted at the airport and driven to our Airbnb by two locals: Friend of the show Miroslav, you know him from Serbian Corner, and Luka, you know him as @Lykos011 on Twitter. They took us to our apartment close to downtown Belgrade and began to give us a feel for the city that we’ll call home for the next week.
We paid our host, in all cash, then got settled and went searching for food. Miroslav directed us to a local Burek spot near our Airbnb. Burek is…interesting. It’s a thin flaky dough, kind of scone-ish, filled with meat, cheese or potatoes. It’s the perfect drunk food I’d think. Ours was filled with a cheese that tasted like it was from the feta family. We also got a side of yogurt, at the recommendation of our guide Goran who runs a touring company here in Belgrade. He’s an absolute legend who knows everything about everything. Apparently, you’re supposed to eat (drink) yogurt with Burek, which we did. You drink it straight from the container, as a chaser. It’s…again, interesting.
Goran took us through downtown Belgrade and what I’d call the city’s shopping district. If you’re traveling with your girlfriend, wife, partner, whatever, come here. We walked by Hotel Moskva, the oldest hotel in Belgrade and through the city’s main squares — the architecture here is beautiful by the way — and wound up at Belgrade’s oldest restaurant, “?.” That’s just what it’s called. “?” The story, as Goran put it, is that ?’s owner wanted to name the restaurant, “By the Saborna Church,” which it’s across the street from, but the church said no to that. So it just became “?” It was built in 1823 and its ceilings are colored black now from all the tobacco smoke that’s been puffed there over the centuries.
We drank beers and ate meats and cheeses. It was a great first meal in Belgrade.
Next up was the Belgrade Fortress. Simply put, it’s the historical core of the city that’s been at the center of a lot of Serbia’s conflicts over the years. Now, it’s more of a park/museum that reminds you of Serbia’s past. In wartime, you took the Fortress, you took the city. There are walls throughout the Fortress that still have indents from cannon balls. There are gunshot holes still in the walls of some buildings. Monuments reference historical figures from Serbia’s past. There are retired fighter jets and tanks on the grounds too. When you walk to the Fortresses’ far end, you get why it was such an attractive target in wartime. Check out Kalle Sorbos’ Photo Journal from Day 1 for better photos than I could take of the Fortress and everything else we saw.
The rest of our day was spent at the river. Belgrade lies on two massive rivers, the Sava and Danube, and these rivers are the center of the city. For centuries, they’ve been the fabric of Belgrade but also have connected it to the rest of the world. Along the riverfront are restaurants, bars and a beach that attracts every walk of life: Men, women, young, old, families, partiers, and those old-timers who are tanner than tan and walk the strand every day in a speedo with their stomach hanging out over their waistband. You know the type.
Then, we met Ognjen, in front of a bungee jump over the Sava. We learned that he not only owns the bungee but is also the “Nikola Tesla of Bungee Jumping.” That’s an exact quote. It’s what he calls himself. I think it goes back to how he created and manufactures the best bungee cord in the world. People from all over the world also come to him to train and become bungee jumping certified.
Ognjen also said he was a former world champion and gold medalist swimmer. I think he’s a lot of other things too that he didn’t want to reveal to us — just my read — but the guy was a legend and a huge Nuggets fan with legitimately good Nuggets takes. At a restaurant that he may or may not own next to his bungee jump, we had Serbian burgers. Phenomenal stuff.
You can get a real feel for Belgrade by walking the river and lake off the Sava. The city’s people are so generous and welcoming. I was offered free beer, food and conversation simply because I was a tourist, which seems to be real obvious to every local here. They want to know where you’re from and what you’re doing. When you say you’re from Denver and cover the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, they’ll offer you more beer and more food. Serbia is a country of basketball. It’s the No. 1 sport here, and you felt that on the river. Outdoor courts are everywhere. We probably walked and drove by around 10 just today, and kids walk up and down the sidewalk dribbling basketballs.
So many parts of Belgrade make you feel like you’ve been transported back into Soviet-ruled times, from the streets and shops by our apartment, to the architecture, the historical landmarks and the older generation. You feel like you’ve gone back decades. There are no Ubers in Belgrade or Serbia. Just taxis that you can only pay for in cash. It’s incredibly old school.
But it’s also clearly a city that’s trying to modernize. At one point we drove by taxi through a new development called “Belgrade Waterfront.” I’d compare it to LoHi in Denver. It’s lined with new apartments and shops. It gives you a very Denver feel. However, as Goran told us, real Serbian people would never live there. He’d never live there, even if they offered him an apartment for free. His people would rather live in an apartment or house built 200 years ago with no air conditioning. That’s just how this culture is. They don’t need or want the luxuries of life. They just want to live it how it was meant to be lived. And honestly, I respect it.
It was an incredible first day, that a few of us ended at a Splav on the river. I’m updating this at 4 am local time. Just trying to connect with the culture here. Maybe more on that tomorrow in Chapter 2.