Serbia: leave your misconceptions behind

It is easy to follow the consensus view on Serbia, particularly when it is considered that not 10 years ago this was Europe’s “pariah state”.

Times change | Serbia is now a modern, vibrant state in Europe that should not be betrayed by its past. (Image | Chris King)
Times change | Serbia is now a modern, vibrant state that should not be betrayed by its past. (Image | Chris King)

Unwelcome on the international stage, and still reeling from the destructive rule of indicted war criminal Slobodan Milošević, Serbia was about as far from the tourism map as it could ever have been.

That does not mean you should, mind. This country has so much to offer to tourists and travellers of all persuasions.

Belgrade, the nation’s capital, is internationally renowned as a mecca of clubbing. In summer, giant barge parties last well into the early hours, and the more-than-reasonable pricing means nobody is left out.

This stands in stark contrast to cities such as Paris, London and Madrid, and is not a phenomenon unique to the “White City” – it is the same across the country.

The geographical contrast in Serbia is astounding. From the northern region of Vojvodina, historically populated with ethnic Hungarians and part of the once imperious Austro-Hungarian empire, to the southern city of Novi Pazar, which stands as a nod to the Ottoman empire and Turkish influences, there are many different worlds to be found here.

Meeting point | Liberty Square in Novi Sad fulfils two functions: a place to relax during the day, and place for students to congregate at night. (Image | Chris King)
Meeting point | Liberty Square in Novi Sad fulfils two functions: a place to relax during the day, and a hub where students congregate and drink at night. (Image | Chris King)

Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina, is a charming student city which offers a restful antidote to the urban sprawl of Belgrade (do not be caught out, it is by far the largest city in the western Balkans).

The beautiful main square, plethora of packed out bars and clubs along Laze Telečkog and the small matter of Exit festival (held every July) in the vast Petrovaradin Fortress that overlooks the town, are just a handful of reasons to take the short train journey northwards.

Painful memories

Sadly, even modern Serbia is feeling the effects of the past. Ask a Serb what Kosovo is, and they would tell you it is a province of Serbia. Consult an online encyclopaedia, and it would inform you that Kosovo has been a fully independent state since 2008.

The international community is by no means united on recognition of the newest country in Europe (the People’s Republic of China, Greece, Russia, India, Iran and Spain have not granted official recognition, among others), and Serbia remains staunchly opposed to “letting go” of an area it historically recognises as a component part of the Serbian state.

Thus, anyone wishing to travel to Kosovo (the “safest country in the world” as a traveller informed me, due to the high number of UN personnel still present) will not be admitted back into Serbia if they travel to Kosovo via either the Montenegrin or Macedonian borders.

This is because the Serbian government does not recognise these as international boundaries. Many a tourist has fallen foul of this. Kosovo can, however, be reached from Serbia, via Niš.

Gateway | Belgrade's railway station offers links to much of Central Europe, and even Russia. (Image | Chris King)
Gateway | Belgrade’s railway station offers links to much of central Europe, and even Russia. (Image | Chris King)

Moving back to Belgrade, it is a key European rail hub, offering services to neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia. It also provides links with Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia, Germany and the Czech Republic.

None of these are particularly close, so journeys will be long, but if you do happen to decide that Belgrade’s history, nightlife and culinary traditions are not for you, there are other options at hand.

Why visit?

Flights to the Serbian capital are also reasonable, thanks to low-cost airline Wizz Air. Do not even think about flying with national carrier JAT: the prices may put you off air travel for life.

There are so many reasons to visit this country, and spend time taking in the different cultures, landscapes and flavours of the nation.

Reminders of the war are everywhere, particularly the NATO bombing of the-then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) in 2000. Two shattered buildings, hit by air strikes during a raid on Belgrade, stand a few hundred yards away from the railway station.

Scars of war | Buildings hit during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign are one of the first sights in the capital. (Image | Chris King)
Scars of war | Buildings hit during the NATO bombing campaign are one of the first sights in the capital. (Image | Chris King)

For history students, aspects such as this are incredibly interesting, but nothing says Belgrade more than a visit to the resting place of Josip Broz Tito, the founder of the Yugoslav state.

It is hard not to be taken in by the sheer magnificence of what he achieved, the state that he built, and the legacy Tito’s career has left across the world.

His funeral was attended by the most foreign dignitaries of any in history. While Tito stood for grandeur and presence on the global stage, Serbia is just emerging into the tourism world.

It may not offer the glamour of other European states, but this country is changing: one can only hope it will continue to offer the honest, welcoming and understated experience it did for me, and I am sure it has for many others before and since.

Have your say | Tweet the author | @chriskking


Originally published on The National Student on Monday May 28 2012.

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