Serbia: a feast for the senses

“I arrived in Belgrade expecting bullet holes and Brutalist, Communist-era apartment blocks. Instead, I was quickly charmed by balmy streets of people in summer clothes, drinking and dining outdoors beneath shady umbrellas…”

 

I THINK the moment I finally realised just how wrong all my preconceptions had been about Serbia, was the moment I found myself pootling down the Danube beneath a crystal clear sky, one hand dangling in the warm waters, the other cupping a glass of Rakia, a strong, fruit brandy synonymous with Serbian hospitality.

I’d rarely felt such peace.

Our covered pontoon gently coasted into Krcedinska Ada, part of the nature reserve of the Indjija region, less than 15km east of Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city where we’d been enjoying the five-day summer music festival of Exit with 55,000 people, partying until dawn inside the walls of ancient Petrovaradin Fortress.

Clambering off the boat onto the river bank, a thousand horses sashayed towards us, whinnying as their herder yelped at the dogs that kept them in check. On cue, our hosts produced ice-cold beers and began melting pork fat into a large pan over an open fire while a huge catfish was wrestled ashore, still writhing as it was filleted for lunch.

 

Only days before, as the 16-degree summer of Ireland vanished below my plane, a friend’s words still rang in my ears – ‘Serbia? Why on earth?’ Now all I could think was, ‘Why on earth not’? Surely there are few places that remain as unspoilt or welcoming.

I arrived in Belgrade expecting bullet holes and Brutalist, Communist-era apartment blocks. Instead, I was quickly charmed by balmy streets of pedestrians in their summer clothes, drinking and dining outdoors at tables beneath shady umbrellas.

Belgrade bustles in the long, warm evenings when Serbians prefer to eat later, a delicious scent of grilled meats lingering in the air long after nine, before bar-hopping the countless floating night club barges known as ‘Splavovi’ or ‘Splavs’, until the wee hours.

Daytime is for strolling, often amid toasty temperatures that can reach the high thirties, so a guided tour of historic Belgrade Fortress is recommended before noon, when the great cannonballs of consecutive invaders gleam. They are still embedded in  sun-baked walls hewn from the bright rock that first gave ‘Beo Grad’, or ‘white city’, its name.

 

Belgrade dates as far back as 3000BC but it’s the Celts, curiously, who are credited with founding the place. Little surprise then, perhaps, that the Irish are welcomed as cousins. Serbians share our dark sense of humor. It’s traditional to return a smile. They want nothing more for us than to feel right at home – and with beer at about €2.30, sure how could we not?

Where Belgrade bustles busily, Novi Sad, less than an hour north, is known for a more laid-back pace. The soon-to-be European Youth Capital, then European City of Culture, is where Belgradian’s come to chill, even if that means watching the sun rise over the landmark fortress as its massive star-shaped battlements throb to the beat of tens of thousands of Exit Festival-goers.

Exit began as a protest movement for democracy in the early 2000s, organised by students of the nearby university. Since then it has grown to one of the most popular music events in Europe.

It’s a youthful festival, with freedom, love and equality continuing to be strong themes (this year they celebrated 50 years since the Summer of Love) and yet notably absent are the usual, often alcohol-induced bad behaviors we’re so accustomed to at home.

There’s no staggering around legless, or urinating in public; no muck, little mess, and the queues are short for good, affordable food and drink. People are even polite at the Portaloos. It shows how well run a festival, even one with 55,000 punters, can be.

Late in the evening, the likes of The Killers, Liam Gallagher, Jake Bugg and Rag’n’Bone Man command the main stage over four days, while crowds throng the smaller stages, food villages, zip-wires and chill-out areas before bopping until dawn in the Dance Arena, when the first rays of sun struggle over the fortress walls to light up tens of thousands of cheering revelers.

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After, we discovered most of these acts and their bands were staying with us at the Hotel Park, and we were able to sit around and chat to the likes of Jake Bugg (“I’m a Kennedy from Kilkenny, you know”); Captain Sensible (“Still punk? I got thrown out of a bar back home just the other night!”) and Rag ‘n’ Bone Man (“Aw, man, I really love Dublin, love playing there!”) until the early hours.

By day, there’s plenty of time to recover and you can break away, as we did, to the likes of sleepy Sremski Karlovci, just 8km away and the traditional seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, where a saint sleeps inside the cool, gold leaf church; or to Kovacevic winery, where a four-course, wine-matched meal in the palatial conservatory averages €17 per head.

Or you could take our gentle pontoon from Indjija to the awesome spectacle of the Danube’s wild horses and enjoy floured slabs of catfish hissing until crisp over the open fire. “Some places have a spirit,” our river guide, Jovan, told us as a swathe of horses flowed gracefully by, just yards away. “This is truly such a place.”

Serbia, we decided, especially in this hinterland of chilled Novi Sad, even during one of the biggest festivals on the continent, is imbued with a spirit of welcoming, a culture of good food and drink and a genuine enjoyment in savoring the good things in life.

As they say here when raising a glass, something rather aptly pronounced almost like the word ‘jovially’ – Ziveli!

GETTING THERE

We flew Dublin to Belgrade via Zurich with Swissair and returned via Frankfurt with partners Lufthansa. It’s doable for about €200.

We stayed in Belgrade in the eminently comfortable Metropol Palace. Room prices vary. www.metropolpalce.com.

We stayed in Novi Sad at the very central and accessible Hotel Park. www.hotelparkns.com/en.

Ticket prices for Exit 2018 have yet to be announced but this year it was about €85 in, €150 to camp, total, for the full four days.

BELGRADE / NOVI SAD AT A GLANCE:
  • Currency is the Serbian dinar (€1 = approx 120) and you can only get it there. Use only bank ATMs which are quite common.
  • Credit cards and ATM chip-and-PIN are accepted almost anywhere and you can even ‘tap and go’.
  • WiFi is widely available. Novi Sad, in particular, attracts a lot of ‘tech’ students and software engineers, so is well wired.
  • Street crime is low. People are out late, so the cities are busy with ordinary people late into the night.
  • Summer temperatures are high, well above 30C, so dress light, have sun cream and, if going rural, bug spray.
  • Serbians are extremely well educated and learn English in school from a young age, so most speak it quite well.
  • Taxis are everywhere and should get you where you want to go for about a fiver. Ask before you get in.
  • People don’t mind talking about the Balkans War but they want to put it in context, so be prepared for a history lesson.

 

 

EATING OUT

Two to try in Belgrade –

  1. Manufaktura, Dinner outside beneath a surreal ceiling of floating umbrellas. Cold plates of traditional meats and cheese from about a fiver. Nighttime atmosphere: priceless.
  2. Mala Fabrika Ukusa (or ‘Little Taste Factory’): Rustic barn in Old Belgrade with outside deck, serves family-made traditional food with a modern twist.

Two to try in Novi Sad

  1. Restaurant Aqua Doria: Fish restaurant right on the Danube at the foot of the historic fortress overlooking the city. Fishes dishes under a tenner; draft beer less than €2 a pint
  2. Fish Zalanish: Bohemian eatery, small and quirky, near the pedestrian area, with emphasis on fresh and organic, all for well under a tenner. Intimate; great hospitality.
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EXIT FESTIVAL

It’s been named Best Festival in the World by The Guardian and is a recipient of the Best Festival in Europe Award.

There are four main stages and some 10+ smaller stages with everything from hard-core to reggae, hip-hop to trance.

This year tickets were about €85 for the full four days, Day 1-4, or €140 for a camping ticket, with camping in walking distance.

There’s no cash on site. You get a card with a small deposit (about €1.50), add credit, and tap to buy food, drink or merch.

Security is tight, bags are checked and any dodgy gear confiscated, so keep it to a minimum. Drugs will land you in jail.

Big acts go on late, with main stage acts kicking off near midnight. Rest of the festival goes on each night until dawn.

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