The past two weeks or so have just been one big blur. I feel like it was only yesterday that I was taking a ferry to Athens and finally arriving on mainland Europe. We only have 5 days and 2 destinations left, and it’s unreal. Though at times the long train rides and walks home seemed to drag on, the end of this trip snuck up on me.
We’re on a night train out of Belgrade right now, where we spent the last two days. Though I’ve been interested in visiting Belgrade since I visited some other Balkan capitals a couple years ago, I had little idea of what to expect. I was expecting a pretty dreary city, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not afraid of Sovietesque grayscapes, because there’s always more to be found somewhere in there, but my Rough Guide starts out its Belgrade chapter with the following sentence: “Belgrade will never win an award for the most attractive city in Europe” – so ya can’t blame me for just assuming it wouldn’t be exactly warm upon arrival.
Well, after two days intrepidly wandering this place, I will say that while that statement is true, it’s definitely an overstatement. Belgrade is very much a beautiful city, and I encourage pretty much anyone who has any interest in visiting Eastern Europe to spend a few days there. Is it Paris? No, but it’s got gorgeous architecture, great cafes and restaurants, and some ridiculous nightlife (believe it or not, Lonely Planet actually named it the #1 Party City in Europe). In fact, I think I prefer it to Sarajevo, Istanbul, Zagreb, Vienna and Sofia, which I did not expect to be able to say 48 hours ago.
That said, our time in Belgrade got off to an interesting start. We took an overnight train from Vienna, and immediately were greeted by a Canadian in our car whom I could never remember the name of, but we’re pretty sure it’s either Brad or Dan. So, we called him Bran. Bran was a super nice guy, but he was very zealous. He liked to add “and stuff” to most declarative statements, and also wasn’t afraid to use “That’s cool” as a response to virtually anything we said. So, as you might guess, there was a lot of “That’s cool and stuff.”
Bran didn’t have a hostel, so we invite him along to ours. The next morning, we arrive in Belgrade and take off to find our accommodation, but things get a bit dicey, in more ways than one. To begin, one of the very first things we see is a bombed out complex. This isn’t a reason for panic, but I feel like you can never really get used to seeing buildings that literally look as though a few floors were ripped out by God, ya know? At least I can’t. That said, I really kind of love seeing that stuff. It’s like living history at its best. Like, some real shit happened here not too long ago. The people I’m sharing the streets with survived it. While I was at home watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch in 1999, Belgrade was getting fucking BOMBED by NATO. And I just saw the remains of what survived. That’s so fucking intense, I don’t even.
Anyway, after taking this in, we continue on our sojourn. We learn that Bran is a law student from Canada, which is a good sign, but after discussing the role of the US in world affairs for a bit, we find out that he “loves Reagan.” What? We don’t know if he means as a historical figure, a cultural and/or comedic icon, or if he seriously loves him as a President, but it’s 6 AM and we’re tired as shit, so that’s definitely a big strike against Bran. He asks if we think we’ll go out later, but after that revelation, we weren’t gonna get roped into any conservative night out, so we both explained that we would probably be too tired.
So after navigating Belgrade’s ridiculously confusing street number system and trekking through some not-so-pretty parts of the city, we finally find this super cute café and consume what seems like the tastiest breakfast of our whole trip. It was at this moment that I realized why I love traveling in Eastern Europe so much. Yes, there are challenges. Trains are slow and hot. People don’t speak English. There are more scams and touts. However, all of these drawbacks make the highlights of travel that much better.
Case in point – this café. I have obviously been to an unfathomable number of cute little European cafes and consumed countless croissants and iced coffees. Even in Vienna, I had food equal to or better than this only 24 hours before. But I was literally in heaven at this chic little place we discovered in Belgrade! Sure the walk was annoying, but the café went from being just another café to a refuge in a hectic new city. In other words, we may have had to put in a little more work in to enjoy Belgrade, but that just meant that the good things were that much more savory.
I mean, when you’re in a city like Vienna, EVERYTHING is beautiful and tasty and, well, easy. Don’t get me wrong – I totally understand why anyone would prefer the convenience of Western Europe to the work that is Eastern Europe, and I’ll be the first to admit that a few days in Vienna were welcome after the annoyances we had experienced thus far, but when EVERYTHING is a piece of cake, things start blurring together. Every boulevard is gorgeous, Every restaurant is wonderful. Every museum is impressive. Not only do experiences lose their luster, you know exactly what to expect at every turn, and the sense of adventure is lost! We have definitely had some down days on this trip, but they have just made the good days that much better, and the Balkans will always hold a special place in my heart.
So anyway, if I was ever doubting my decision to spend 90% of this trip in Eastern Europe, my choice was justified in Belgrade. You see, after getting to the Hostel, we were thankfully able to get rid of Mrs. Reagan, who just had to get out and about on the town for an 11 AM walking tour (Jess and I have come to an understanding that there’s no reason to ever rush anything anymore, so we decided to leave the walking tour for the next day, and besides, we needed some god damn sleep – OH and by the way, Bran was gone ALL DAY. We literally were wondering if he had been kidnapped or run over by a car, because he didn’t even know a single thing about Serbia. He wouldn’t even have known about the walking tour if we hadn’t mentioned it to him – he just took off and said he’d be back around 1 PM, but he missed that by almost an entire day).
Unfortunately, the prospect of socialization at this hostel seemed pretty slim at this point. There weren’t many people around, and of those who were seemed like they had gone out together the night before and had already established drunken memories and inside jokes. However, after a couple hours’ nap, we woke to find some friendly British guys who arrived during our slumber.
After one interaction with them, we knew we liked these guys. As many of you know, I like to tell non-Americans that I’m from Chicago, because no one knows what or where Iowa is (maybe I should start saying I’m from Boston?), but one of these guys, named Max, happened to ask how I like living there. Uh oh – that goes beyond the level of generic small talk I’m used to. So when I explained that I’m really from Iowa, his reply was “Oh, so you’re a liar?” and he proceeded to give me shit about getting caught in this white lie. A person who isn’t afraid to call me a liar after knowing me for 5 minutes is my favorite kind. Furthermore, these dudes were venturing on to Georgia in a week or so, so I wanted to get to know them a little better.
It turned out that Max is actually an American Studies major (read: a savant of all things American), so he was naturally well versed in my kind of pop culture, television, sports & trivia. He enjoyed being quizzed on the state capitals & he admitted to having man-crushes on the likes of Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and more. Having a similar obsession with other pop culture icons, I could relate (I tried to convince him that Tumblr would serve him well, but he didn’t really buy it).
As though this didn’t already engender infinite conversation, there was also Mags, a History and Poli Sci major, who had moved from Chechnya to London at the age of 12 (I know right? Biography please). Last but not least, there was Marcus, a geography major (yessssss) with a pension for adopting personas such as a strong black woman or a flamboyantly gay electronic consumer for random outbursts (Queer Eye Voice: “Looks like it’s time for someone to get a new iPod Nanooooooooo!!!)”
Though their names all started with M, I for some reason never thought to call them the Three Musketeers until now. Regardless, they were a riot, so it didn’t take much convincing for Jess and I to agree to hit the town with them. Though we were tired, I was satisfied with our decision to go out with them as soon as Mags, hearing another dorm-mate select Mumford and Sons on the hostel computer as a pre-gaming soundtrack, immediately turned that off and replaced it with some LMFAO.
Then Bran returned. He was literally out for like 12 hours. Doing what? I have no idea. He kept making these extremely awkward jokes about how he might have illegitimate kids all around Serbia now, and Marcus was sadly stuck on the end of our seating arrangement, so he had to bear the brunt of putting up with this dude. As soon as Bran went to bed, Marcus filled us in on the numerous awkward and inappropriate jokes that he had to deal with. It turns out that “that’s cool and stuff” had been replaced with “I went down under, if ya know what I mean.” as his favorite catch phrase. No idea.
Oh and then there were the 10 other people staying at our hostel, who were also gearing up for another night out. Like I said, they were all relatively tight already, and none of them were really standing out in my head as reason enough to penetrate this clique, and luckily the Brits agreed with me, so we were kind of keeping our distance. We kind of felt like the Hipster kids who had been shunned by the popular crowd. Furthermore, there were also some other newbies who really weren’t fitting into any group, such as a Turkish guy named Esack who literally sat by himself in a chair for like 30 minutes before Max and I decided to approach him and ask if he was the owner, keeping an eye on us. Nope, he was just another backpacker who I guess had decided that the best way to meet people is to let them come to you. We invited him to join our circle, and he somewhat ambivalently agreed. There was also a German guy named Christian who was down to party.
However, a little before midnight, the A group either felt sorry for us or realized that we were actually the coolest people in the room, and decided to integrate. Well, we appreciated the effort, but they were kind of harshing our mellow, especially this perky bitch named Sally, who was just making no sense (“Ya know how when British people say they have to pee, but you think it’s just that they have to be?” – No), and she was hardly even drinking. I did not want to see what happened to her after an hour or more’s worth of drinks. So at around midnight, we cordially invited them all out, but didn’t exactly rush them out the door with us. The five of us made it outside and a cab appeared in no time, so we took that opportunity to strike out on the town by ourselves. I mean I felt bad, but they were already familiar with the surroundings. They’d be fine, right?
So our cabbie takes us to the river, which is where all the action takes place (the best clubs are either on stationary boats or in riverside buildings). We see this RIDICULOUS floating club right in front of us – neon lights of every color, pounding music, tons of people. It looks legit – this must be the kind of unforgettable nightlife we keep hearing about. We walk in, feeling like hot shit, only to be asked for a reservation. Turns out any club worth a damn requires one. How do you like them apples? So, we move onto the next floating establishment, hoping that they’ll be more lax. There are less people, but there’s still loud music. This one must not be as exclusive, because we get in without a hitch. Automatically, we realize why.
First of all, the DJ blows. He’s terrible. Every other song is a reggae-infused dubstep remix of either an obscure Serbian song or 10 year old American pop song. Although, there was a memorable mash up of Rhianna’s “Rude Boy” and “Last Resort” by Papa Roach that I did enjoy. He also really liked Sean Paul, but every time we heard a song we liked, he had to ruin it with some terrible remixing. That said, we were able to move past it, thanks to our audacity of hope (and alcohol).
Speaking of which, you might be wondering the same thing I was at this point. I mean, we were kind of a motley crew, right? Our group consisted of 3 straight guys, a gay guy and a girl, and we hardly know each other. What are we gonna do? Are the boys gonna tag team Jess while I stand by on the sidelines? Are they gonna be hitting on the ladies while we sit back and wish them luck? Well, my anxieties were completely unfounded, because our new friends were totally comfortable dancing (at times grinding) up on each other and really weren’t concerned with hitting on random girls or being douchey straight dudes (though there was one moment when all three of them surrounded a pretty Serbian girl with their “best” moves – only to be shut down in a hot second). They were as content with sticking together as we were, and things were going well (and stupid).
About an hour later, I go to the bathroom, and while in line, I see someone out of the corner of my eye that I was not expecting – that perky bitch Sally. Shit. We ditched those guys at the hostel and they somehow made it to the same club. I have a bit of a panic attack, but I have enough alcohol in me that after 3 seconds, it’s just funny. So, I find our counterparts in the crowd, put on the biggest “OH MY GOD HOW DID YOU GUYS FIND US?!?!?!” face I could muster, and greet them all with hugs. Things were fine (except Perky Sally was now fucking pissed Sally – she knew what went down). Christian was really getting down with some crazy moves and even Esack was having a good time!
Our groups begin to merge and I go grab a water. I share it with Jess and the Brits, and all of a sudden, I notice that one of the girls from our hostel is quite sick (like vomiting over the side of the boat sick). Jess takes it upon herself to offer our water to this ailing girl (who refuses – what?), but Max quickly sees what’s going on and with an incredulous look on his face, asks her “Are you a missionary?” and claims back the water for our group (fine by me – water is a limited resource, especially at an overpriced Serbian club).
So anyway, more evidence that we weren’t exactly in the hottest club in town began to surface. For instance, there were many moments when we were the center of attention (read: dance circles). That’s right, all the breakdancers and club kids were making way for us to strut our stuff in the middle of not one but a dozen circles. We all got our very own spotlight, and Jess even participated in an official “dance off” (and won!). The music never really got any better, but as evening progressed, things got more ridiculous and awesome, in equal amounts. After awhile, we’re kind of done though, so we head home around 4 something and agree to do the walking tour at 11 AM the next day, followed by a Communist tour at 3:00 PM.
Well, fast forward to 11 AM – we’re still in bed, and I know I’m not the only one who’s nursing a hangover (though I think Jess was up at like 8 watching Grey’s Anatomy – WTFFFFFFFF?). So the first walking tour’s not gonna happen. We aim for the 3:00 option and head out for lunch. We walk past about 2 dozen gross-ass restaurants that should all have been called “WE LOVE MEAT EVERYTHING – as though there’s only one food group in Serbia – before finding a pizza place that sells entire pizzas for literally $4….so we order like 5 and gorge. Serbia may love their meat, but they can also make some mean pizza.
About 2:00, we head back to our hostel to prep for the communist tour. We pull up Google to find out where it starts, and find out it costs 10 Euro. Jess and I are so over paying for shit, so we veto that activity. Instead, Max, Marcus and I watched this video about 30 times and then we set out as a group to explore the town on our own. Good thing we did, because Belgrade is just phenomenal, and full of numerous squares, cobblestone walkways, churches and more, so it was simply a great day. We also attempted to sneak into not one but TWO government buildings and got swiftly kicked out, but those are stories for another blog post called “WTF mate – why did we do that again?”
Belgrade actually has this gorgeous Citadel at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, which has been around for centuries. It’s kind of hard to explain, but what used to be a crumbling fortress has kind of been re-appropriated and gentrified into a central park of Belgrade, with a good many areas to sit in the shade, people watch, check out vistas of the city and wander, so we spent a couple hours meandering around its stone walls, taking in the views. This was such a pleasant surprise, because when reading about it, I had always imagined it as a kind of uninspired museum, but it was quite lovely, and Max even got to play a round of chess with an old man waiting with his set for a worthy opponent.
However, all good things come to and end. At the end of the day, we were to roll out of town on two different night trains – Jess and I were heading back to Bulgaria, while the boys were going to Budapest. So at the train station, we had one last drink to say goodbye, and who did we see? None other than our old friend, Bran – he was catching a train to Croatia. He stopped by our gathering and riddled off something like “Oh hey guys how was your day? Oh that’s cool and stuff, I went on the Communist Tour, where were you? Oh that’s cool, but it was so worth the 10 euros and stuff. Well I should go, k bye!” Max was barely able to reply “See ya later Bran!” before he took off – that crazy conservative.
A half hour later, we parted ways with the Brits, and Jess and I spent that journey in a bit of a somber mood. I think we’re finally getting used to saying bye to cool people though. On the bright side, we are now more inspired than ever to travel to London together, a destination that has somehow evaded me through 3 Euro-trips now. Who wants to go? I’m sure it’s no Belgrade, but it’s probably cool anyway, right?
All my love,