It started with a watermelon.
I walked past a picnic table at the World Testicle Cooking Championships and was summoned over.
A very jolly man was carving up a watermelon and offered me a slice. I glanced around, thinking his pointing (he didn’t speak English) was directed at someone behind me. But he looked right at me, nodding and pointing to the fruit.
It was stinking hot and I was on my third bottle of water. That piece of watermelon was heavenly.
That man didn’t know I was a visitor. He didn’t know that in the middle of this paddock, where everyone seemed to know everyone, I knew no one. He didn’t know that unaware whether there would be food to buy, I’d packed unappealing supplies of non-perishable foods that didn’t need any preparation and thought I would be eating bread and biscuits for two days.
He just thought I might like some watermelon.
This was the moment I fell in love with Serbia.
I spent my first three days in Serbia in Belgrade. For a number of reasons, it was a logical starting point. At first I was interested in its history and appearance, but by the time I returned a week later I had to agree with guy working the late shift at my hostel: “Belgrade is just the capital.”
I’d decided to stay in a hostel as I was planning to meet someone who would show me around, but that fell through and I explored by myself instead. That was my big mistake with Belgrade and I missed the connection and insight that comes with CouchSurfing. A bit exhausted from the last few weeks in the UK I got into a routine of heading out in the morning, going back to the hostel in the afternoon for a rest and the exploring again at night. I’d set out to see perhaps one or two things and spend the rest of the time wandering. That was what I enjoyed most here – there are some random and cool things to be found in Belgrade.
I visited the popular Bohemian Quarter and Knez Mihajlova, the modern pedestrian areas where people sit for hours and hours and drink coffee, but my favourite part of the city was east of the bus and train station along the river. The buildings there are very neglected, but still very beautiful. There is also some amazing street art around the city and for a good look at it you should check out this post from Time Travel Turtle.
There is a lot to see in Belgrade, but the better known attractions I visited left me flat. I took my teacup to the Cathedral of Saint Sava, the largest Orthodox Church in the world. It’s so impressive from the outside, but inside is a huge empty space. My timing was bad because they are still working on the interior and when I visited the walls were covered with plastic. I also went to the military museum in the Fortress hoping to learn more about Serbia’s more recent conflicts, but there wasn’t much information in English.
One museum that caught my attention that I didn’t get to see was the Aviation Museum. It’s near the airport and I saw the old planes parked in a paddock when I arrived, but I ran out of time to catch the bus back there to see them up close.
The World Testicle Cooking Championships
I’ve already written about the championship, but for me, the contest wasn’t the highlight of my weekend in Lunjevica. As my taxi drove away after bringing me from the bus station and I stood at the edge of the paddock looking at the tent sites set up, I had one of many “what the hell am I doing here” moments. I wondered how the weekend might play out. Is the CouchSurfer who invited me actually here? Will he remember that he said I could use his tent? Am I going to spend all weekend sitting by myself?
It was confusing at first while everyone I spoke to ran around trying to find Zoran, but within 20 minutes I was chatting with competitors, being offered food and meeting a lot of people.
I’m still overwhelmed at the kindness and hospitality shown by everyone I met. The man with the watermelon was one of many friendly, generous people who made it such a great weekend. The TV producer with the German team simply handed me a spoon and told me to dig into the huge bowl of stew they’d ordered for lunch. Later the event organiser arranged food for everyone sitting at his table, which at the time included me. In the morning as I prepared to leave with Zoran and a couple of journalists, a rather fat Serb came to the car and invited us to his site for breakfast and so we spent a while eating sliced tomato, cucumber and freshly carved prosciutto. On the way back to the car, we were stopped by another site and fed Nutella crepes.
My time in Niš was so amazing it will require its own post. I arrived in the city on Sunday afternoon intending to stay for two nights. It was Sunday afternoon a week later when I finally left. In that time I went to a free concert in a fortress and the opening of an art exhibition by a famous Serbian painter and hung out in a CouchSurfer’s backyard eating plums and apples from the tree. The fruit was a highlight because I think I’d forgotten what a vegetable was. The Serbs love their meat!
There are quite a few historical sites worth visiting in Niš, but despite how long I stayed in the city, I didn’t see many of them. What kept me here was the people. Every time I’d declare I was leaving the following day, someone would give me a reason to stay, whether it was a trip to a someone’s summer house or “just because”. I even thought about forgetting about the rest of my trip and spending a few months in Serbia using Niš as a base. After only a week I was surprised to be sad to leave. I sat on the bus back to Belgrade reminding myself that my trip was only beginning and Niš would be one of many amazing experiences, but the truth is the connections and friendships I made in Niš don’t come along everyday.
This small town an hour and a half from Niš was an odd place to visit. I wanted to see something beyond the main cities and the tourist destinations and Knjaževac fit that description. Travelling in Serbia is hard and my movements are dictated more by where I can go, rather than where I want to go. I had some other smaller places in mind before I decided to go to Knjaževac, but getting to them was turning into logistical headache. There are regular buses from Niš to Knjaževac so that’s the main reason I went there for a little excursion.
When the bus dropped me on a street behind the centre I had another “what am I doing here” moment. It’s a feeling that’s become very familiar in Serbia. It’s odd to arrive in a place and have no idea what to do. It wasn’t like I had gone to Knjaževac to see X or to get to Y. I just wanted to go to an everyday, ordinary Serbian town and see what it was like.
Visiting places that are considered “normal” helps me put things into perspective, in the same way the bad things help you appreciate the good. For example, I’d seen a lot of English signs in Belgrade and Niš that weren’t for tourists such as the sign on large shopping centre in Niš that reads “Forum Shopping Centre”. There is no sign in Serbian or Cyrillic. Just English. I thought it must be a case of Western and English influences and trends creeping into the larger cities, but I was told that English is sometimes used “for no good reason. We’re just weird like that”. When I walked past the “Fitness Centre” and “Cash & Carry” in Knjaževac I understood what they meant. Just weird.
I love finding (and I think I look for) the unexpected when I travel. Arriving somewhere I know nothing about and having a great time is as good as it gets. As well as my “what am I doing here” moments, Serbia is giving me a lot of “I can’t believe I’m doing this” moments, and I had a few of those in Knjaževac, including swimming in a outdoor spring.
As I wrote here, this trip is very spontaneous. Many of my decisions about where to go and what to do are being made the day before or even the day of! But there was one thing in Serbia I’ve had in mind for months. The Belgrade to Bar Railway (oh yes, another train trip!) I read about it on The Man in Seat Sixty-One, the online Bible for all train lovers. It’s a very scenic journey through Western Serbia and down to the coast in Montenegro and at a scheduled 11 hours, most people do it as a day trip. That’s how I had intended to do it until the latest promotion by Serbia’s National Tourism Organisation changed my mind. As part of the “52 Amazing Weekends in Serbia” initiative, there are big posters on display near the main square in Niš showcasing places from all over the country. That’s where I saw a photo of a little green train in the mountains.
The train was the Šargan Eight Railway near Užice. Then I saw a photo of the Uvac river and wanted to see that too. Both places were either on or near the Belgrade to Bar route and so I scrapped the idea of a day trip and decided to create my own “hop on/hop off” journey.
After dragging myself away from Niš and spending a night in Belgrade, I boarded my very slow train at 9am.
And that’s how I ended up in Užice, not that the explanation satisfied anyone I met there. I only stayed for two nights, but if I’d done more research I would have allowed a lot more time. I was shocked at how much there was to see. My only full day was filled with visiting the railway and Drvengrad, a bizarre wooden village built by a famous Serbian film director.
Then it was back on the train bound for Prijepolje, the closest stop to Nova Varoš.
I’d planned to spend two weeks in Serbia. It’s about all the time I can allow in each country to fit them all in before I have to go to Paris. But my two weeks is up and I’m writing this from the dining room of a guesthouse in a tiny village outside Nova Varoš where I’m staying until Saturday so the owner can take me for a boat trip the Uvac River. Then it’s on to Montenegro….I promise.