Travels in Serbia
Do you have a favourite meal that you make for yourself when you aren’t trying to impress anyone? You know, the kind of thing you don’t think anyone else would find particularly special… but you just love it. And if, by chance, someone was to eat it and say it was delicious, you would just think they were being nice to not hurt your feelings.
Well, that kind of sums up travelling in Serbia.
The people here are fiercely proud of their country but they don’t see why foreigners would be interested in visiting. The problem is, as a man I start chatting to at a restaurant one day explains, everything that Serbia has, its Balkan neighbours have better. And it’s true.
If you want stunning scenery, you’re better off going to Montenegro. If you want old churches, Kosovo has finer examples. Macedonia has more interesting ruins. And if you’re looking for a relaxing summer holiday, you can’t go past the beaches of Croatia.
Serbia is left in the middle as the most important country politically but unable to capitalise on the increase of tourists to the Balkans. In modern history, it was the heart of this region but now it’s struggling to define itself to the international travelling community.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot here to discover and, for the more intrepid amongst us, the scarcity of tourism can be an appealing thing. It can give you a more unfettered look into the culture. Whether it’s spending time in the cafes of Belgrade, being the only person at the World Heritage ruins of Gamzigrad, trekking to the monasteries around Novi Pazar, or eating your way through kilos of grilled meat, Serbia has enough to entertain and experience.
It presents both challenges and gifts to the average traveller, though.
Let’s start with the gifts. I’ve already mentioned the authenticity that comes from a country that hasn’t embraced tourism like it could. Also, it’s cheap. A bottle of water is 40 US cents, a single room at a basic hotel is about 30 dollars a night, bus journeys work out to be about 2 or 3 dollars an hour, and a meal with drinks at a restaurant will be about ten dollars. Add onto all of that the safety and the friendliness of the local people and you’ve got a pretty comfortable experience.
Now the challenges. The biggest one is transport. Serbia has a good bus network and it is easy to get between the major cities. The problem is that many of the interesting sites aren’t in those cities and the infrastructure is designed for local commuting and not tourists. East of Belgrade, there were a bunch of places not too far from each other that I wanted to see but there was no way to do it without a car. And so the Golubac Fortress, Vratna Gates, the Iron Gates and Djerdap National Park all went unvisited.
The same happened in the south of Serbia when I couldn’t find any way to get to the natural wonder of Davolja Varos. It wasn’t just a matter of having to get an infrequent bus or set an alarm to get an early one. There just simply isn’t transport to these places which are considered to be the highlights of the country.
Sorry, rant over. But if you’re thinking of heading to Serbia, you might seriously consider doing it by car. It will also help with one of the other biggest challenges in the country, which is information. Almost every local I met was extremely helpful – which is lucky because you’ll need to use them to find things. There is not a lot of official tourist information in Serbia and many sites and other places don’t even have signs.
Overall, I have tried to ask myself whether I would recommend if people should travel to Serbia. The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that it should be part of a broader trip to the Balkans and it is not somewhere I would suggest for a short getaway in isolation (except maybe a weekend break in Belgrade). You’re better off heading to Croatia or Montenegro if you’re looking for a week-long holiday in this part of Europe. Although there is nothing wrong with the country, it just simply isn’t the best option in this region.
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