Was the common reaction I got from people when mentioning a visit that ‘far away Balkan country’ – or let’s say from those who actually knew where Serbia is. Well, honestly speaking, I could have found a list of reasons not to go myself: Serbia does not have any seaside, a lot of people who have never set foot in the country tend to tell it’s a violent, dangerous place, and the news my family watched when I grew up were filled with place names in Ex-Yugoslavia and what “the Serbs did to them”. Even Serbians I know at home told me that I would find the country depressing, with people melancholically reminiscing the old times before the Balkan war.
So, despite all this, or better say being made curious by all this, I decided to go. Being used to organizing my own trips and travelling the world by myself, I entered Serbia open to whatever would come. Today I can say that my optimism was even exceeded by the people’s hospitality, helpfulness and by the beautiful places I got to see. Already the very first night I went to bed filled to the brim with home-made rakija, which the employees in my B&B welcomed me with. In Belgrade, meaning ‘white city’, I had the chance to visit the fortress and very impressing Orthodox churches as well as nearby Zemun with its village-like, cozy touch and many restaurants and bars to enjoy good food and views.
Even a one-day trip up to bright & beautiful Novi Sad was totally worth it, all the more as I included a rocky bus ride to Sremski Karlovci – whose sweet wine had all my guests back home drunk in the wink of an eye. Whenever I was lost, people would respond my calls for help in excellent English and with surprising kindness, sometimes even walking me half or all the way to where I wanted to go.
Just as I started wondering why I actually booked a two-day-tour to take me down West, since all seemed to be so easy and people so kind, I met my guide Miljan. First impression: He was on time like a German, which for someone used to living in the South with a reliable margin of 15-30 minutes came as quite a shock. I opted for this tour because, first of all, I’m too lazy to rent my own car and too distracted on my travels by watching landscapes, people, cats and dogs by the roadside to focus on traffic. And second, because in my role as travel journalist and writer I thoroughly enjoy getting a local’s perspective on places, traditions, culture and history. Miljan provided me with a thorough overview regarding all of these while taking me West to Stopića Cave, Sirogojno open air museum, the Gostilje waterfall and the Pećinar restaurant. Without him I would never have gotten all the jokes of the Serbian-speaking guide at the cave, wouldn’t have visited a waterfall in the middle of nowhere and wouldn’t have put on 2 kilos after a feast including a whole bunch of Serbia’s culinary joys – and that next to a crackling open fire.
I greatly enjoyed his stories and anecdotes about the Sargan Eight Railway, caught on the second day, and Küstendorf right above it. Having a guide to take me to places and at the same time answer all my questions in detail is something that walking around alone, camera in hand, could simply never provide. By myself I might just create stories in my head, but having a local with me actually made me see places and history from a native’s perspective.
Looking back I can finally answer people’s question why on earth I went to Serbia: To try and understand a country often painted very darkly just a bit better, to see with my own eyes what this country is today, to watch its people and speak to them, to taste its flavors, and, above all, to end up saying: I will be back.