Here is a quick summary of Belgrade. I hope it provides some context as I publish some of my stories during my 2 months living in Belgrade and working in refugee camps.
- Belgrade is the capital of Serbia, and, historically, all of the Balkans. Now, the kingdoms are gone, the overland spice traders and imperialists are also gone, and Yugoslavia is gone (Belgrade was its capital), however Belgrade is still the center point of the region. Bucharest, with a population that is slightly greater than Belgrade is making a run as a contender, however Belgrade still sits on top.
- What does this mean? Food, culture, music, jobs, economy, immigration are all impacted when you are 1) the center point of the Balkan region, 2) are geographically on the doorstep of the EU, 3) historically the center of the region’s leading regimes and military, specifically because authoritarianism has been the primary form of government there for the last century #tito, #milosevic.
- Lets talk food….its not good. Central Balkan cuisine is pretty underwhelming. Let me use Serbia’s most popular dish as an example: Ćevapćići. It is just minced meat patties served with some onion and a piece of flat bread – tasty, but not culinary, nor something you would want to eat often. Or pljeskavica, which is basically the above turned into a hamburger and served on the streets to go. I will say that I couchsurfed with a wonderful host and her mother cooked us authentic Macadonian cuisine and it was actually very good. Its it simple food: beans, onions, pickles, breads, oils, etc. Lots of flavor, lots of calories. I will make a note of Ajvar, that is pretty much the national food of winter and it is amazing. It is a spread made of red bell pepper and sometimes eggplant. It goes on everything and is outstanding. Also, burek, oh lord burek. It is a pastry, stuffed with meats, cheeses, mushrooms, spinach, or onions, and eaten for breakfast. It is a beautiful thing and also worth its own post.
- Lets talk drink…..I have to give this a high grade (8/10). Beer is crazy cheap. Like 1 dollar for a pint. It won’t be craft, but I would take it over a Budweiser or Coors. Wines are very good, especially those that come from Montenegro, and they are excellent price (5 dollars for a solid bottle). Finally, hard alcohol is pretty cheap and average. But the focus should be on rakjia, the locally made distilled fruit juice that just about everybody and their grandmother sells. It is as ubiquitous as coffee in this region, and coffee is optimo-ubiquitous. It is an acquired taste because it is very, very strong, but it is a cultural thing that is specific to the region and very special. I will write an article entirely about rakjia and its cultural impact.
- Lifestyle….Belgrade is awesome. It has great bars, great coffee shops, is totally walkable, underground sub-cultures that rival the likes of Berlin, Ljubljana, Warsaw, Budapest and the others, a budding techno scene, and a rising young creative generation. It might take some looking, but you will find amazing underground bars, squatted art galleries and cinemas, street art, music, and parties. Belgrade is a great example of post-communist abandoned building reclamation. Kafanas, locally bars and eateries serving cheap drink, food, and encouraging copious amounts of cigarette smoking, are popular with the older locals.
- Nature…..Belgrade sits at the convergence of two large rivers, the Sava and the Danube. While, these rivers are totally dirty and gross, they create a cool island with trails and neat hangouts. Along the river is where you will summer’s hangouts. A beautiful waterfront and a plethora of bars and clubs makes Belgrade a great warm weather city. Also, there is a lake close by that is good for swimming when it is too hot.
- Diversity…..Due to the wars and widespread xenophobia, there is not a lot of cultural diversity. The Serbs, in my experience are very nice people, especially young ones, however the older population can be closed off, nationalist and often racist.
- Sights…..this is not a strong point for Belgrade. Like many main cities in Europe’s peripheries (war zones), most of the historical buildings were destroyed (Ottoman insurgency, Austria-Hungary, WWI, WWII, Yugoslavia break up, Kosovo). There are a few sights to see here, but nothing that would make Belgrade a sight-seeing destination.
- Conclusion: Belgrade is awesome. The city, like the people, can be a little rough around the edges and take a little warming up (in the perspective of a westerner), but you will find history, culture, and fun that goes beyond the surface. I love it.