After our unexpected love affair with Albania came to an end, we made our way north into Montenegro, intending to spend just a few days there on our way to Croatia. Kotor is about mid-way between Shkodër, Albania, and Dubrovnik, Croatia.
I (Connie) was very excited to see Croatia again. I had been there before with my friends Emily, Katie, and Farrah, about a decade ago, and was eager to show Scott the country. However, we decided to change our plan because, in Kotor, we were surrounded by a ton of tourists. Literally, there were one to two cruise ships full of them each day, and we learned that Croatia was going to be the same; it’s become a European hotspot during the summer, much more “touristy” than it was when I visited a decade ago.
We decided to hold off on Croatia until after the high summer season. Maybe in September. Instead, we looked at what other countries might be easy (and cheap) to get to from Montenegro, and that’s how we landed on Serbia. It cost only USD $125 for two plane tickets from Kotor to Belgrade.
Kotor is an old, beautiful bay city protected by a ring of mountains and a fortress high on a mountain top. It is an ideal place for wandering around aimlessly and, as we saw, for many couples taking gorgeous wedding pictures. The unfortunate part is that every morning, a cruise ship dropped off about five zillion people, who would then cram the narrow cobblestone streets and ruin the mood (for us at least).
The highlight here was the Old Town, which was extremely well renovated and maintained. In addition, the views of the bay are stunning. One day while there, we took a boat ride to various sites, including old, hidden WWII submarine and ship tunnels, a church on a little island, and other little villages along the bay. The next morning, Scott got up early and walked up about 1,000 steps to see the looming fortress, the Castle Of San Giovanni, up close; I skipped that particular one.
In anticipation of our trip to Serbia, I asked our waiter if he’d ever been there. As luck would have it, he and the two other guys who ran the place were all from Serbia. They pretty much helped plan our trip for us! Later that night, listening to music at a café, we chatted with another fellow by the name of Boban. (He’s now a friend on Facebook. Hey, Boban!) We asked if he’d been to Serbia, and he too was from there. He then became our drinking buddy for the night… a late night that unfortunately made for a very long travel day the next day.
Belgrade is an amazing, lively city. The architecture, the nightlife, the history… it is incredible! (The people of Belgrade like to party.) We’ve read and heard firsthand that some people feel it’s one of the ugliest cities in Europe, but we totally disagree; the eclectic architecture makes the city unique.
Given Belgrade’s long history of being attacked, its people are also very brave and resilient. In 1990, NATO bombed the city for 78 days; the citizens realized the attackers were targeting bridges (among many other things), so each night they gathered on one of the bridges and literally had a party there. The goal was to show their fearlessness as much as to prevent further bombings, and in either case it worked.
Many other buildings got hit, however, and many innocent people died. Even today, some of the bombed-out ruins remain around the city as a reminder of what happened. One of those buildings stood across the street from our Airbnb, on a main street with several embassies and other government buildings.
We took a free walking tour around the town center and the Old Town; this includes Kalemegdan (the town’s ancient fortress), Knez Mihajlova street, Terazije square, and Nikola Pašić square. The next night, we also went on a free pub crawl tour. There was only one other person on the pub crawl, plus the guide, so it made for a very nice, intimate Saturday night. We had a few shots of rakija, a strong port-like drink (similar to the rakia we had enjoyed in Albania), as well as a few beers, and ended up staying out until 3 AM. Look at us being Belgrade partiers! 😊
Novi Sad (NO-vee SAHD)
Novi Sad is the second largest city in Serbia, less than an hour east of Belgrade, and it’s also a college town, so it has lots of young people. It is known for Petrovaradin Fortress, on the Danube River, a sprawling 17th-century affair with kilometers of tunnels beneath, just like Belgrade’s castle.
The small apartment we stayed in in Novi Sad was covered in various shades of pink. It even had a heart-shaped lighting fixture above the bed. How fancy! Somehow, despite the pink overload, it was actually a very nice apartment.
We walked around the fortress and the lower old town, which is currently undergoing many significant renovations; the town aims to become the European Culture Capital in 2021. I also took a walking tour around the Novi Sad city center, which was adorable! Austro-Hungarian architecture, pastel colors, cobblestones, pedestrian zone — what more could you ask for!?
Sremski Karlovci (SREM-skee KAR-loff-see)
The first day in Novi Sad, we drove a bit further to find another town we’d read about that was supposed to be worth a visit. Sremski Karlovci is a lovely little place about half an hour to an hour from Novi Sad. It is incredibly picturesque, with bright, beautiful buildings, an adorable little town square, and charming old, winding, cobblestone roads. We walked around admiring the architecture until it started to rain.
Then, we located one of the several local wineries in the area and stopped in for a tasting. The owner and winemaker was a nice gentleman in probably his late 50s, an early retiree who had made his old passion into his new career. His English was not great, but it was certainly better than our (non-existent) Serbian. We had a very nice time chatting with him and trying his wines. We bought a bottle of his Chardonnay upon leaving.
Zlatibor (and Tara National Park)
The gentlemen we met in Kotor had told us that, while they felt Serbia’s cities aren’t that great, its landscape is the real draw. Everyone recommended that we go to the Tara National Park, in the mountainous Zlatibor region of western Serbia, and it sure didn’t disappoint! The drive through the National Park was very beautiful. We both loved the winding mountain roads, taking turns driving our little VW Up! rental car.
Mokra Gora (MOH-kra GOR-rah)
Near the tiny village of Mokra Gora, nestled inside Tara National Park, we rented the top floor of a cabin inhabited by an older gentleman, his mother, a feisty female cat… and her four kittens!! They were so small and so cute! And they absolutely hated being held! But that didn’t stop me. I got a hold of two of them and scooped them up… several times.
In Zlatiborski, we did some touristy things that we loved. We took long drives around the park where we saw beautiful views, lakes, rivers, an awesome waterfall, and some wildlife. One day, we rode through the mountains on an old train (my personal favorite). Another day, we drove to Bajina Bašta and went kayaking down the Drina River, on the border between Serbia and Bosnia; at the end, we tried, but ultimately failed to reach the remarkable little Drina river house. Another day, we walked around Drvengrad, also known as Küstendorf, a traditional-style Serbian village built entirely for a movie.
During one of our drives, we visited Stopića Cave, an amazing river cave with a powerful waterfall and a bunch of naturally formed baths. It was so cool!! I love caves!
We stayed in Mokra Gora for four nights, and I have to say, it was awfully hard to leave those little half-wild kittens.
Novi Pazar (NOH-vee pa-ZAR)
This city is the most traditional Muslim community in all of Serbia. (You can’t buy a beer in many of the restaurants there.) The mosques were everywhere, which made the calls to prayer kind of cool, as they went off five times per day, like clockwork. In Novi Pazar, we mainly just walked around the city center and hung out.
A highlight here was when we first arrived at our Airbnb. We were obviously a bit lost. A woman on her nearby balcony called down, in excellent English, to ask if she could help. As it turns out, her husband’s brother lives in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, near Scott’s hometown of London, so we were instant friends. She invited us in for a cup of coffee with her and her teenage daughter (who was also extremely helpful and spoke great English). Unfortunately, we couldn’t accept because we were meeting our host, but the daughter came down and helped me buy a new SIM card. Such nice people!
By this point we were both eager to move on to Romania, so we decided to head back to Belgrade to leave a day early. But first, Scott wanted to go to a little village called Zarožje, where the world’s oldest vampire story is said to have come from. There is a cult classic movie called Leptirica about an old mill owner, Sava Savanović, who kills a bunch of villagers before he is attacked; they kill him, but his spirit escapes as a ghostly butterfly, so he (un-)lives on to terrorize the locals. We tried watching it, but couldn’t find a copy with English subtitles. Anyway, in Zarožje they supposedly have a tour called “Anti-Stress Weekend with Sava Savanović.”
Here’s the weird part: We tried to find the village but never could. We literally drove for hours around old, tiny, winding gravel roads in the mountains of Serbia looking for it. There were times we weren’t sure our little car would make it over the crumbling roads and up the steep hills. It was quite an adventure. And in the end, we just never could find the place. Total bummer. (Scott—If I was the world’s most ancient vampire, I’d make it hard for folks to find my lair too.)
All in all, we enjoyed Serbia. We recommend going both to Belgrade and also out to the countryside if you get the chance. In deciding where to go next, we debated between Bulgaria and Romania. Scott’s been learning Romanian for the past few months, so ultimately we decided it was time for him to put it into practice.
Romania will be the subject of our next blog.
—Connie and Scott
p.s. Below are some other random photos we liked for this blog post, in case you want to see more.