Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.
As you travel through the Balkan countries, there’s no mistaking the fact that Serbia is one of the ‘better off’ countries of the region. There are fewer abandoned buildings, fewer ruined and bomb-shelled buildings, and everything is just that slightly bit more better maintained. That’s not to say that they’ve escaped unscathed – I don’t think any country could manage that – but they are doing a lot better than other places with much better infrastructure and arguably more opportunities.
We visited two cities in Serbia – Nis in the south, a spa town renowned for their healing thermal waters, and the capital of Belgrade in the north. We chose these two locations for specific reasons – Nis for a relaxing pampering break, and Belgrade to take in some culture in one of the most popular party cities for young travelling Europeans.
Our visit to Nis coincided with a few days of heavy snowfall, which made for perfect timing as we spent a whole day indoors at the Wellness Centre in Niska Banja anyway. Indulging in their ‘Anti-Stress’ package, we had access to a Finnish sauna, a jacuzzi pool, a full-sized swimming pool, and a full-body oil massage as well. It’s just the type of relaxing self-pampering day that I enjoy most, and costing only about $35 per person, it certainly didn’t break the bank. If I ever return, I think I would extend my stay and get a few more treatments done at the same time – a facial, a manicure, a pedicure…the whole works!
On our second day in Nis, it thankfully stopped snowing and we were able to explore the sites of the town, namely the old fortress walls. It’s just a little bit magical when there’s a thick layer of snow covering the ancient fortress walls and the vast parklands inside. While the path was a bit slippery at times, there’s nothing quite like wandering the winding paths of the fortress and seeing vast fields of untouched virgin snow around you. It was the perfect powder for making snow angels…or as some local kids preferred, sledding down a little hill in the park.
Belgrade was very different – the most obvious difference being the lack of snow and the blue skies as we arrived on the bus! The excellent weather made for some wonderful days out wandering the streets of Belgrade, joining two free walking tours and walking along the banks of the Danube river. It wasn’t until our last day in Belgrade that snow finally hit the city – and that was fine by us, as we’d already decided to spend the day indoors in the malls of New Belgrade, finally watching The Force Awakens for only $10 AUD for two tickets.
While in Belgrade, we actually chose to stay a little way outside of the main city centre in what used to be a separate town called Zemun. It’s only in the past hundred years that it’s joined the greater Belgrade area, which means that the town centre has its own charm and beauty, with old school buildings, town halls, opera house, river-side restaurants, and more. Staying outside of the city made for a nice change – we felt closer to the local community as we visited local markets, took local buses, and bought from local street vendors. As it’s not a tourist area, you do feel as though you’re getting to understand the daily life of Serbian locals in a more authentic way.
Here is where I have to make some excuses as well – we didn’t take part in the nightlife activities that attract so many young travellers to Belgrade. We didn’t spend every night in a different bar, drinking endless shots of rakia and glasses of wine and beer. It’s not my scene, but hats off to those who can manage it! Instead, K and I chose to make the most of the cheap tickets to performances at Belgrade’s National Theatre – we saw performances of the ballet Coppelia and the opera La Traviata for only about $15AUD for both of us, for both performances. That’s a COMBINED $15, with each individual ticket only costing about $3.75. With those prices, there’s no reason to not go and see some wonderful theatrical classics.
Food-wise, we had an excellent traditional meal at Mala Gostionica in Belgrade, as well as meals at Manufaktura and Hotel Moskva. We ate out a lot for the few days we were in Nis as well, with the highlight being our meal at Kafana Galija. Other meals included Italian at Night and Day, a cafe meal at Tramway Cafe, and two fast food meals. There were plenty of other cakes and treats along the way as well, as evidenced in the photo gallery below! One of my highlights was a Serbian palacinke (pancake) with Nutella, Plazma biscuit crumbs and sliced banana. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I could literally feel my heart rate slowing as I ate that pancake.
What I think we missed out on was visits to museums or galleries that feature coverage of the role of Serbia in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s when Yugoslavia broke up. The reason I say this is because we visited Bosnia & Herzigovina and Croatia after we visited Serbia, and having seen the coverage of events such as the Srebenica massacre and the role played by Serbian troops in perpetuating such atrocities…well, it would be fascinating to see how those events are described by those who are at fault.
And on that depressing note… Serbia is a safe choice for those travellers who want an easy introduction into the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Belgrade is a very modern and safe city in many regards and offers many of the comforts of home, as well as a fantastic party scene (especially in the summer with pontoon parties on the river) for those who are interested. For those who want a more relaxed pace of life, Nis is a fantastic destination for a few days of pampering.