In the age of instant info, it can be hard to be truly surprised when you visit a city for the first time. Chances are, someone has already blogged, tweeted or Facebooked their favorite spots – and that’s just within your social networks. Never mind all the tips and tricks and photos that appear on TripAdvisor, Yelp and a host of other websites that crowd-source travel.
So when I go to a place and find my preconceptions upended in a positive way, it can be disorienting. I fall in love – and have trouble leaving my heart behind. “If I knew (fill-in-the-blank) was this cool, I would have planned more time here!” I grouse to my traveling companions. And when I’m home, I pine for the one that got away.
In early 2011, Lima took hold of me. I fantasized about setting a novel within its Colonial crypts and courtyards, and vowed I’d go back for a month to write it (I haven’t….yet). 2010 was all about Israel. I couldn’t stop raving to friends and family back home about
In 2012, those honors went to Belgrade, Serbia. Just as it was in Lima, my expectations on this stop of our Eastern Europe river cruise were non-existent. But as we started exploring the capital of former Yugoslavia, those familiar feelings of “wha? This place is AWESOME!” arose.
It wasn’t just what we saw on our city tour. True to river cruise form, we were placed on a bus and driven around to see the major sites. While others on the tour took photos of the view from Belgrade Fortress, I was obsessed with the families wandering around the tanks and weapons that had been left on the site.
Other stops on our tour included a look at the Cathedral of Saint Sava, the largest Orthodox building in the world, and a visit to Tito’s grave. The latter was more moving, mainly because at that point, we had heard from quite a few Serbians who expressed fondness for the late Yugoslavia leader. Although he was a dictator, they told us, life under his regime was relatively prosperous (due to the country’s trade affiliations with other independent Communist countries) and most Serbs enjoyed a middle-class standard of living. That hasn’t been the case in the years since Yugoslavia dissolved.
My husband Don and I could tell that there was a lot more to Belgrade than the official tour. So at the first available stop, we left the bus and made our way to Skadarlija . With cobblestoned streets and cute cafes, the neighborhood is billed as bohemian, Belgrade’s answer to Montmarte.
While I wouldn’t go that far, Don and I found Skadarlija notable for our lunch, which ranked as our favorite meal of the entire two-week Eastern Europe trip. We ordered kajmak, a type of Serbian cream cheese, at Dva Jelena, one of Belgrade’s oldest restaurants. As you can see above, the cheese came with two loaves of warm, puffy bread, which pulled apart in your hands. The cheese itself was the consistency of butter – and tasted a lot like it. Delicious beyond belief. I would travel a long way to eat it again.
From Skadarlija, we walked up to Republic Square, and on to the city’s main pedestrian street, Knez Mihajlova. At lunch, the cafes were full of Serbians relaxing and chatting. One of our guides on the River Adagio was Serbian, and he told us that Serbs, by nature, go out to eat as often as they can. “It’s leftover from our time at war,” he told us. “Enjoy today, as if it was your last.” The philosophy has lingered into peacetime.
I would love to come back and spend a weekend in Belgrade on my own, where we could stay out late in the cafes and pubs, maybe even make it to one of the clubs that are located along the Danube River. Wanting to spend more time in Serbia? Now that’s definitely a something I never planned on.