Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade!

The thought of going to Serbia both scared and excited me. On the 5 hour shuttle bus arranged by the hostel to take us from Sarajevo to Belgrade and driven by a Serbian Maniac who didn’t speak a word of English we were a little wary. We had heard a lot about Serbia as we we in the beginning stages of this journey though the Balkans. Our route probably didn’t help the situation much either with Bosnia and Herzegovina being the stop just previous. We had had such an amazing and intense time in both Sarajevo and Mostar. Not only absolutely falling in love with this multicultural and historic nation but also by seeing it’s scars and speaking in depth and honestly with locals.

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

We learnt of the horrors of the Balkan war here and for the most part the aggressors and the enemy were the Serbs. They were the ones who subjected the Bosnians to a campaign of bombardment, killing and genocide over land they aimed to steal off a Bosnia struggling to claim independence. They were the ones that still now control large parts of the country is what is often a no go zone for many of the Bosniaks who live in places like Sarajevo. We learnt that tensions still exist between ethnic groups and the law of the land is not recognised in the Republic Of Srpska, whose territory starts just outside of the capital and which we passed through. Often football games between these two regions ends up in bloody and bitter battles. A guy in the hostel telling us that sometimes they bring acid, baseball bats and knives. There is no love lost here. The Bosnia war might be over but the battles still exist everyday in smaller and less publicised events.

     Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

With pure hatred of the Serbs being the main impression we had been given, we were a little wary of what we might find. We were also still accurately aware of the Kosovo situation and now having been it seems even more puzzling why they would want to or still feel the need to lay claim to an area that shares absolutely no cultural or ethnical similarities to it. I can only imagine the reason is sheer bloody mindedness, greed and pride. It feels to me like they are that guy who lost an argument and instead of having some grace and admitting defeat and moving on they keep on going past the point to which they have any valid point and just make themselves look silly. I mean, everyone else but pretty much them has accepted Kosovo as an independent nation!

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

Going to Serbia was a bit strange for us, a little like stepping over into enemy lines as we already felt such an allegiance to Bosnia and Kosovo. I almost felt like a traitor giving them my time and money but we are all about discovering places for ourselves rather than through preconceptions and rumours. It also didn’t help that we fell so much in love with Sarajevo and had to be swept away in the night to big, bad Belgrade!

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

So what was Serbia really like.

Serbia in many ways lived up to its reputation. We found the people in general to be a lot harsher and less approachable than the easy going and friendly nature we have found all over the Balkans. That’s not to say there weren’t friendly people because we defiantly met some nice and interesting Serbians for sure. But on the whole we didn’t get the same warm atmosphere.

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

Maybe a big part of that was the impression the guide on our free waking tour of Belgrade left on us. We’ve been on a few of these walking tours here and there before and enjoy them as a way to get your bearings and some background in a new city. Our guide was a girl fresh out of university in her early 20’s, unassuming and welcoming at first but as the tour went on her political agenda came creeping out. On many occasions she mentioned Kosovo and made a point of repeatedly saying “the southern Serbian state of…” As well as making a point of mentioning all the different Serbian artefacts and buildings down there as if to prove it was theirs. I imagine if you never go on to visit this wonderful little country and only get your information about it from Serbia then you might be inclined to be swayed by what she was implying.

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

Another thing she repeatedly did was to have digs at the neighbouring countries, at one point saying that Bosnia is pretending to have its own language and really they just speak Serbian. Now I understand that many of these Slavic languages are related, we’ve spent 2 months in the area and the similarities between each country haven’t gone unnoticed. But to outright belittle part of the identity of a country that was a victim of her countries aggression really didn’t do much to make me fall in love with this country.

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

Serbia is pretty much the last outpost of the mighty Yugoslavia, when others left it stayed in place and kept the name until as late as 2003. In this sense it is a very different beast to the others who sought independence, Serbia instead fought to keep everyone together, but together under their rule, name, language, culture and religion. This makes it quite unique amongst the other former Yugoslavian nations who all both declared independence from Yugoslavia and also suffered at the hands of an aggressive Serbia. You can still feel some of that here today. There is an air of arrogance and entitlement that I got from speaking to some people. Belgrade was also the former nations capital and still hosts the often visited mausoleum of Tito. When most other ex-communist countries such as Bulgaria with Dimitrov’s tomb, destroyed these archaic monuments, Serbia, much like Russia with Lenin’s Mausoleum, keeps this one as a memorial to not only Tito, but Yugoslavia and Communism itself.

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

What we did like!

This isn’t to say that there weren’t things that we really enjoyed about Serbia. The city of Belgrade is what we would describe are really liveable. It is modern, bustling and alive! It has everything you could ever need from a modern city and living here would be really quite easy and convenient. It also has some really nice buildings too, even if you get told otherwise!

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

We also felt that Belgrade was much more beautiful in parts than it had been sold to us. We had heard rumours it was just a post communist grey block with no style or flair. This was a little unfair because as much as this could be true for sections of the city, it also has its fair share of grand Austro-Hungarian architecture. One of the most wonderful areas of Belgrade is the Bohemian Quarter, known as Skadarlija, this is one of the only remaining original streets left in the city after it was almost flattened during the second world war. This cobbled throughway is a centre for culture, nightlife and age old traditions. It is comparable to Montmarte of Paris and originally started life as we know it as the place in which the artists, poets and writers gathered to work, drink and find inspiration.

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

Also, as much as I mentioned the remnants of Yugoslavia above I also have to mention the fact that this is something that really fascinates me. I have an interest in the history of Communism, mostly because of the fascinating link it has to Manchester. So seeing such a piece of history such as Tito’s grave and seeing the Museum of Yugoslavia was actually pretty cool for me. In the same way I didn’t really mind the blocky architecture that dominates the city, it kind of gives it that interesting post communist feel that combined with several other eras of styles makes it so unique.

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

Belgrade also had a great energy at times, there were parties in the streets, wedding carnivals and colourful and creative graffiti adorning many of the grey blocky buildings. When it comes alive it does it with a bang, and you are sure to know about it!

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

Overall

Serbia was a strange country for us, I had originally intended to write a piece about misconceptions of the country but I just couldn’t justify it. It was a place that we have mixed feelings about and possibly should have tried to see more in order to form a wider impression.

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

But what we did see didn’t grab us or take us on a wild journey like many other places. It was interesting and worthwhile, but it wasn’t amazing and in all honestly we wanted to move on to the next country after Belgrade. The city is ultimately a party city, if you love to go out and drink all night then I have no doubts you will be like the many others who rave about Belgrade and Serbia, but for us, it just fell a little short and out of every country on this exploration of the Balkans it has been our least favourite. But maybe that is our allegiance to both Bosnia and Kosovo speaking!

Reflections on visiting Serbia: Somewhere that left us with mixed emotions, an honest account on not falling in love with Belgrade! tito, yugoslavia, former yugoslavia, what is it like in Serbia, belgrade, things to see, white city, beograd, bohemian, reflections on serbia, balkans, views, travel, guide, honest

Have you been to Serbia, what were your impressions?

See more from this country:

SERBIA

See more of our backpacking adventures:

UK TO NZ

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Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.
  • MikeD

    You should really just stick to writing about your travel experiences instead of even pretending to understand what happened during the Yugoslav wars. Saying one side was an aggressor and did this and that is incredibly ignorant. You also mention that you have ‘allegiance’ to Kosovo and Bosnia, it’s no wonder that you’re so biased and steered away from simply roaming. Rather tacky that you also added ‘Dark Tourism’ as a tag for this post.

  • Milena

    Hmmm, strange reflections on the Yugoslav Wars and Serbia… It’s a little odd how you wholeheartely accepted the Bosnian and Kosovo sides of the stories, but turn suspicious when Serbia tries to justify itself. Maybe, being so well traveled, I expected you to have a more balanced view on these issues? Both sides did terrible things.

    For example, with the whole mess in Kosovo: it should be noted that independence seems ludicrous to most Serbs. Kosovo (along with Vojvodina) was given more autonomy during the Yugoslav days because Tito wanted to weaken Serbia (it was the largest country in the Federation). Albanian forces were the first to start perpetrating violence, forcing many Serbs out of their homes. Of course, the Serbian government took action, but they did a really really really shitty job. [And please try to understand the point about the medieval monuments, it’s not just mean-spirited aggression. The monasteries on Kosovo are masterpieces of Byzantine Architecture and a national pride, so they were an obvious target for angry Albanian mobs — some were set on fire or otherwise damaged. There is a lack of regulation and building materials are still being looted from them. UNESCO currently has them on their “World Heritage in Danger” list.]

    For the Serbs, Kosovo is a striking example of Western, NATO/EU hypocrisy — they let Kosovo secede, but they won’t let Republika Srpska (predominantly Serbs) secede; they condemn Russian annexation of the Crimea as a violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but they do not do the same for Kosovo; the West granted the Jews land in Palestine on a tenuous historical claim, but Serbia is not allowed to keep its much more historically-close territory. Maybe that’s why, out of the three world superpowers (USA, Russia, China) only one supports Kosovo’s independence.

    Well whoops, I didn’t come here to debate politics. Just please be more careful with your mental filters. In almost every political situation, both sides are sinners.

    As for the disappointment of Belgrade… well, it’s not a surprise, since you chose one of the least interesting places to visit (insofar that other European countries offer larger and more polished capitals). The most interesting cities are elsewhere: on the list are Novi Sad (gorgeous town along the Danube, with a candy-colored old center and an impressive nearby fortress and historic town) and Niš (birthplace of Emperor Constantine, filled with old cool stuff [there’s this restaurant inside a 15th century Turkish bath!])

    The true beauty of the country, though, lies elsewhere. There is an abundance of stunning medieval ecclesiastical architecture (dating from the 9th to 15th centuries) with exquisite frescoes. The pristine countryside of the south is filled with natural wonders from the Uvac river canyon to the rolling hills of Zlatibor. It’s amazing how un-self-conscious everything is; if there is one thing Serbia lacks, it’s a good tourist infrastructure (few tourists!) so nothing is packaged to tourists as being NATURAL or ORGANIC or AUTHENTIC or TRADITIONAL; everything is just there, take it or leave it.

    This comment is already too long, but I have to squeeze in one last point: the lack of hospitality you mentioned surprises me. I took my born&bred American friend with me to visit last summer and she was stunned how friendly and generous everyone was. A travel blogger I really like (Time Travel Turtle) had the same “everyone is so friendly!” impression as well: http://www.timetravelturtle.com/travel-stories-about-serbia/

    Well, if you ever visit again (though it seems you won’t…) try to open up more and explore the awesome bits, as you did with B&H and K&M.

    Cheers.

  • Helena

    Your opinion is based on people from Bosnia, who I think maybe are your friends and normally you are going to hear just their stories about Balkan history. I am not saying that Serbs were innocent in the wars, but we were as well victims. (NATO bombing, thousands and thousands of people that were made to leave their homes in Croatia,Kosovo and Bosnia…….). Look, we don’t think with our heads, we do with our hearts. Because Kosovo and parts of Bosnia are part of our history, culture, we can’t let it go. And that’s why we say those things, but to say that we are the aggressors and the enemy is really not fair. If you are that interested in our history, please buy some books that are written by a Serbian to see our part of the story. You will change your mind. And I know that we are really friendly because too many people from abroad told me we are really easygoing, friendly people. When you come next time you should call me, and I will show you the real, beautiful Belgrade, and other parts of Serbia.

  • Nancy

    I’ve enjoyed reading your travel blog through the Balkans as I traveled on my trip. But I was very disappointed to read your commentary on Serbia, particularly how you painted it in a negative light as a whole country based on preconceived notions. I think what you missed, and that is unfortunate, is the small nuance and difference between the Serbs of Bosnia (the other half of Bosnian population involved in the civil war) and the Serbs of Serbia (Serbians), most of which were in no way, shape, or form affected nor participated in the war. I do hope you give it another try, go explore the country and rich history, and try to open your mind to the other half of the population that equally suffered from the Bosnian war.

    • What you forget is that this reflection is actually based on experience. The harsh and bad things I heard Serbians say with my own ears and the attitude they displayed to me. Of course not everyone is like that. But I can only go on what I saw and experienced. I’ve not jumped to any conclusions but reflected on my shock at the different attitudes I experienced in Serbia in comparison to the rest of the entire region. So I am entitled to my option based on what I saw and heard. There is no preconceived notions here. Just actually factual experiences. I’m sorry that’s not up to your liking but I’m not going to lie about what we experienced over there just because it doesn’t suit some people. I reflect honestly.