-the world as I see it
Often confused with Siberia by people whose geography lessons in school clearly did them no good , Serbia is a land-locked country seated in the South East of Europe. To be frank, my knowledge about Serbia was far from comprehensive, until I visited the country a month ago. From my history lessons I knew that it had been a member nation of former Yugoslavia and that its ties with neighbour Kosovo are quite sour, with Serbia even refusing to acknowledge the latter as an independent country. From television, I gathered that the Serbs are quite a treat to the eye (Stana Katic a.k.a Kate Beckett from the T.V. series ‘Castle’ and tennis champ Novak Djokovic – need I say more??? ). I learned a little more about Serbia through one of my Serbian classmates during my Masters Program. Thanks to him I found out that Belgrade is the world’s nightlife capital and that one could only learn the true meaning of partying in Serbia. Two years on, I was boarding my flight to Belgrade to visit my friend (and to see for myself what the ‘nightlife’ fuss was all about 😛 )
Today, Serbia is in the news because it is in a race together with six other countries that are aspiring to gain EU membership. Although the Prime Minister of Serbia sees his country as the most plausible candidate to secure entry into the EU after Croatia, some experts believe that Montenegro might beat them to it. For Serbia to come out on top, the country will have to focus on improving its unflattering unemployment rate, resolve its issues with Kosovo, and alter its socio-economic policies, apart from working to attain the other targets specified by the European Commission.
As soon as I landed at the Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade, I went to the exchange office to convert some of my euros into Serbian dinars (RSD). Like all exchange offices in airports, this one too offers a bad rate, so just change only the required amount of currency that will get you to the city centre, where you will find a lot more exchange places with much better rates. My plan was to spend the first three days of my five-day trip in Novi Sad, where my friend lives and spend the last two in Belgrade.
I was supposed to meet my friend directly in Novi Sad as he had told me that he wouldn’t be able to get off from his workplace and make it in time to Belgrade, to pick me up from the airport. According to his instructions, I had to get on the A1 minibus stationed right outside the airport, that would take me to the main bus station in Belgrade. The shuttle bus plies every 20 minutes between the airport and Belgrade’s city centre and the cost of the trip is 300RSD. At the main bus station, I was supposed to buy a ticket to Novi Sad. I managed to get on a bus that was just about to pull out of the station and this saved me from a >one-hour wait. The journey lasted about 90 minutes, during which I drifted off to sleep, content that I had managed to make it so far, without asking for anyone’s help. I was in a new country, where people spoke a different language (not even Latin-based) and signboards were in a totally different script – the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet! It was all so exciting and when I finally reached the bus station in Novi Sad, I purchased a sim card at one of the stores there. I dialled my friend’s number and yelled a “Helloooo. Guess who’s at the bus stop?” , to which I received a not-so-excited and confused -” You’re at the bus station in Belgrade?” “No” I replied, “I am in Novi Sad already.” “Whaaaatttt??? Noooooo” I heard my friend groan at the other end. As it turns out, he thought he would surprise me by showing up at the airport in Belgrade but since he had mistaken my flight time, he got there after I had left. So I waited at the McDonald’s near the bus station until one of his friends came to pick me up.
Novi Sad is the second biggest city in Serbia and like Belgrade, it is located on the banks of the Danube. It is famous for hosting the annual Exit music festival at its Petrovaradin fortress. The present day fortress dates back to the 17th Century, when the Austrians wrested Petrovaradin from the Turks and tore down the fortress that stood there, replacing it with the one that is seen today. If you look at the clock at the top of the tower in the fort complex, you will notice that the longer hand indicates the hour and the shorter hand indicates the minutes. This reversed clock is meant for the benefit of those navigating the Danube river. It is said that mystery shrouds the extensive network of tunnels beneath the Petrovaradin fortress.
The first thing that struck me as I walked around the city was the number of cafes, restaurants, bars and pubs all over and the fact that they almost always had customers. It was also evident that their owners took a lot of care with not just the external appearance of the place but the interiors and the ambiance as well. I also noticed how the younger generation of Serbs invests heavily in attire and accessories. This surprised me as clothing in Serbia is pretty expensive with items from most international brands costing more than they do in other parts of Europe. When I inquired with my friend about the reason behind the expensive clothes and the surprising demand for them (in a country whose economy is in poor shape), he replied that “Clothes are the cheapest expensive investment that a young person can afford in Serbia. Since they can’t afford to buy a house or a car, they spend their money on clothing, footwear and drinking & dining out. The Government imposes a high tax on clothes to benefit from this.”
Coming to the night life, I found Novi Sad to have quite a happening one. The Laze Telečkog street which is lined by pubs and bars is where most of the crowd is found during the night, especially on weekends. After pub hopping, you can head to the club at the Petrovaradin fortress where the party goes on till the wee hours of the morning .
Over centuries, Serbian cuisine has evolved with the Balkan, Mediterranean, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish flavours, ingredients and food preparation techniques having a significant influence on it. The Serbs have a heavily meat-based diet and the traditional drinks (rakija or fruit brandy) have quite a high percentage of alcohol. Eateries selling pizzas and gyros with a dash of Kajmak on the top are found on almost every street. Kajmak is a kind of fresh cheese made from unhomogenized and unpasteurized milk. Owing to it’s thick and creamy nature, I must admit that I wasn’t a fan. I also tasted homemade Sarma – a traditional dish consisting of meat ensconced in cabbage leaves. It was so filling that I felt I had eaten enough to get me through the following three days.
The downtown area of Novi Sad is where most of the tourist spots are located and it is even equipped with free wi-fi (win!!). At the heart of the city, is the Freedom square bounded on one side by the city hall in the neo-Renaissance style and on the other by the neo-Gothic Roman Catholic ‘name of Mary’ church. All the historic buildings in the city centre were rebuilt in typical Central European styles in the 19th century, after they were either damaged or destroyed during the Year of Revolution. Hence the prefix neo- is used before the type of architectural style.
With its inhabitants belonging to different sects of Christianity and a sizeable Jewish community, Novi Sad has its fair share of churches and synagogues.
The Danube park, which is home to a variety of flora, provides a perfect getaway from the hustle-bustle of the city. It’s a great place to take a book along, sit on one of the benches and spend some time reading. Speaking of books, among the Southern European cities that I have been to, Novi Sad seems to have a comparatively large selection of English books in their book stores (win again 🙂 ).
A visit to Novi Sad is incomplete if you miss out on the Štrand – Novi Sad’s own beach on the Danube. It is supposed to be one of the cleanest and most beautiful beaches along the course of the Danube river. In the picture below, the cable-stayed Liberty Bridge is seen over the river. The bridge was rebuilt between 2003-2005 after the bombing of the previous bridge by NATO in 1999.
Well, those are all the details that I can remember of my trip to Novi Sad.
Stay posted for my next blog entry on Belgrade.