November 03, 2018
by Christina & Dan
I had to make a short trip back to the US for my professional society, and on the way back to Serbia to meet Dan I had a 12 hour layover in Fiumicino Airport… temptingly close to Rome. So I made my way through immigration, stored my bag at the lockers on the land side, and caught a bus into Rome to do a little touristing while I waited for my next flight.
Of the options for getting into town, bus was the cheapest and took a little less than an hour. There are trains which are a little faster, but the bus is maybe only 20 minutes longer. While on the bus I got online and booked a time slot at the Colosseum, then walked from the drop off point to the Colosseum where I was instructed to get in line for the ticket booths, though I’m honestly not sure why. I got the impression that if I had showed up later, I would have been put in the entry line directly using the confirmation on my phone…
The weather was rainy and windy, so I’m guessing I got to visit on a less crowded day, but as you might expect it was still packed. I enjoyed the architecture, but failed to follow the route properly, and it didn’t matter.
After that I got lunch and paid a visit to the Trevi Fountain (amazing) and the Spanish Steps (less so), before hunkering down with some tea to hide from the rain for a bit and then heading back to the airport.
The bus made it part of the way out of town before getting totally bogged down in nightmare traffic. Because that wind and rain? It had gotten really bad in some areas, downed a lot of trees, and created epic traffic.
After it took 45 minutes to move a distance that I could have walked on foot in 2 minutes, I decided I was better off trying to take a train to catch my flight. I had to argue with the bus driver on Google translate a bit, not sharing a common language, but finally the fact that I hadn’t stored any baggage under the bus convinced him to let me off, and I ran/walked the kilometer to the train station… only to discover that the trains weren’t running either.
And that’s how my 12 hour layover turned into 36 hours.
I arrived at the airport just at the time of my flight’s departure, and Air Serbia basically said “Too bad, you lost your ticket. No transfers/changes.” So, boo Air Serbia. So I booked a new flight online for the next day while sitting on the airport WiFi and I found Litus Roma Hostel, just south of the airport in Ostia. With the help of the airport information desk attendant I found the Cotral bus that went to Ostia for cheap (and was still running late, thankfully), and got a very nice night’s sleep, and then a traditional Italian breakfast in the morning.
The hostel made me think of the Shining, but in a good way, kind of? It was just a huge old building with high ceilings that seemed to have almost no occupants. I was grateful for the presence of my roommate, another long-haul traveler on her way to Thailand, which helped to take the edge off of how quiet and empty it was otherwise.
It was located right across the street from the beach, so after breakfast I went for a walk and enjoyed the views before heading to the bus station and getting back on the same bus back to the airport. I had an uneventful wait once through security and then got on my flight to meet Dan in Belgrade.
When Christina returned we stayed at Tash Hostel/Inn (their actual website is quite a throwback). The location was a great start for our trip in Belgrade. The best part was that it was located basically in a park and we were able to do a ring workout in the outdoor gym.
One of the main reasons that Tash Inn was a great location was that it is super close to the Nikola Tesla museum. We showed up early one day and were surprised by the huge queue to get in. There are tours about every hour, most are in English, and that one was already full. It’s possible to see the museum without the tour, but you pay the same price and don’t see any of the demonstrations (which I later found rather unimpressive). So we waited for the next tour in a nearby bar called Dylan Dog Pub, which is a Serbian pub themed after an Italian comic book set in London 🙂
We just barely made it back in time to the museum to join the next tour. It started off with a strange movie demonstration. It felt a lot like propaganda trying very hard to establish why Belgrade deserved to house the Tesla museum. He is ethnically Serbian, but was born in a city that is now part of Croatia and lived most of his life in the US. I didn’t care about any of that. I just wanted some cool facts about Tesla. He’s well known for being extremely eccentric, but the museum didn’t touch on this at all. So the movie was a bust in my opinion.
Next the tour guide showed us some working replicas of some of Tesla’s famous electricity demonstrations. They were pretty cool and the tour guides did as best as they could, but it was a huge crowd of people. Not a great environment to explain what’s going on and the descriptions were a bit oversimplified but still confusing. But there was lots of glowing plasma, so everyone was pleased in the end.
After the tour we were free to wander the museum. It was pretty much just one room of Tesla’s personal effects and a few assorted devices. Finally, there was a room with an orb that houses Tesla’s ashes, which with the lighting it was kinda creepy and cool. But overall the museum wasn’t that exciting.
After a short time at Tash Inn we headed closer to the city center to stay at a nice Airbnb located right next to Republic Square. It’s been a long time since we had an Airbnb that wasn’t a second home being used to collect rent. But there was a lovely family living here and they had some nice recommendations on where to eat, helped us out with navigation, and shared some local cheeses with us. It was closer to a couchsurfing experience and very nice.
Their recommendation for where to find traditional Serbian food was Kod Doglavog. It was very posh with a really cool brick cellar type interior. It was also a bit more than we usually spend on food. We were a bit soured on the experience when the waiter brought us bottled water and opened it as we were insisting on tap water. Hopefully now we learned our lesson and are prepared to battle this tendency to drink bottled water when there is equally potable tap water. Anyway the food was quite good despite these minor frustrations.
We did some searching on our own on another day and found another more laid back Serbian tavern just around the corner called Zlatno Burence. The prices were better so that meant we just went all out and ordered more things. The food has lots of similarities to Bosnian food (I think Bosnian chevapi is better though) and I guess it’s similar to most of Europe’s food in my mind, meaning stewed meat and potatoes, which is delicious. It also reminds me a lot of the sort of stuff my gram would cook. My favorite was the stuffed pickled cabbage leaves. It’s common all over the Balkans, but we didn’t end up eating nearly enough of it.
But by far the most popular food in Belgrade by quantity and availability was pizza. There were pizza stalls all over the streets and they particularly cater to late night partying. Like the last few countries we’ve visited, the parties go all night here. The difference here though is that the streets feel much more lively during the night and pizza and sausage stalls stay open late, whereas Bosnia and Bulgaria seemed totally empty until you walked into a bar at 3 am.
Anyway, the most distinct thing about Serbian pizza is that they provide ketchup and sometimes mayonnaise as a topping. The first time I was presented with this option I instinctively said no with probably some disdain in my voice. But that’s because I’m very opinionated about pizza. Usually I take all the toppings that get offered when I try a new food or ask them to make it like a local.
So when I ordered my next pizza slice I slathered it with this very thin and quite sweet ketchup. I don’t think it’s so good and I didn’t have the option for mayo. My suspicion is that, because the pizza here comes pretty light on the sauce and cheese, ketchup and mayo is kind of a substitute. Not my thing but I would give it a few more fair shots. Also pictured is me buying a shot of honey rakija from a posh local store on a tourist street that just so happened to be under construction. I just like it as a weird scene.
But speaking of partying, Belgrade is well known as a party place and we partook in a few different ways. Our first night out was a two for one experience. First we showed up at a punk house called Okretnica. It was a bit hard to find. It was described as “underneath the bridge”. As far as I remember it’s roughly next to this local tavern. They were playing some awesome doom metal and it was a great atmosphere, very punk with squatters and cheap beer and tough looking peaceful folks.
Then we went across the street and changed up the pace. Drugstore is a famous techno club that Christina read about in an Finnair magazine on our flight from Japan to Crete. It’s literally across the street from Okretnica but still a bit hard to find, luckily the punks all helped us out (some of whom also patronize Drugstore).
The building is nondescript and you just climb this long set of stairs. We showed up at around 12:30 am and it was still not very busy but filled up shortly thereafter. Supposedly the building used to be a slaughterhouse but there was no real indication of the former use of the space. It was a fun place to hang out for a bit and I’ve always wanted to go to a rave. I don’t really know what I was expecting. The music was super repetitive, there was lots of awkward dancing and there were crazy lights.It wasn’t really nuts and I’m glad we did it but I guess it’s not really our scene.
On another night we went out to party in pure Serbian fashion at a splav. Splavs are these (maybe permanently) moored river boats that serve as nightclubs. It’s more of a summer thing, but there are a few that are open during the winter. There is a big group of them along the Sava river and I actually don’t know which one we ended up at but it was roughly here.
We chose it because it seemed to be the most authentically Serbian. It was blasting a music called turbofolk which is like a techno version of Serbian folk music. More than a few Serbians turned their nose up at this style of music when describing it. Maybe it’s a bit like country music in the US. I’m not a huge fan of the music I guess, but I still loved the experience.
It’s one of these very Balkan clubs where you are expected to come with a group of people and stand around an assigned table. As a clueless foreign couple we were vaguely directed towards the back of the club where there were a few other small groups not willing to buy bottle service. The nice thing was that we got a great view of the river out the back of the splav and an open window for some fresh non-smoky air.
There was a single singer during our time there. I guess she was singing the turbofolk classics. We had no clue what was going on, but it was awesome people watching and the lights in the place were insane. I think I expected more of this sort of overstimulating lighting situation at Drugstore. I would love to come back in the summer.
On our final day in Belgrade we went for a long run along the river. There is a beautiful running track all along the river. We also included a jog through the Belgrade Fortress. It’s beautifully lit at night and we didn’t get to see the whole thing, but it was definitely worth the detour.
That night we went to a very different type of splav, which houses the Drustveni Centar NNK. This was recommended by some folks that were at the punk house. It’s another kind of art community center. The boat itself had some interesting history. Apparently one of the King Alexsandars and Comrade Tito at one time owned this boat and used it for entertaining. This is the story at least.
Now it’s tied up somewhere around here. It has a rather precarious entry, a leaky roof, and at one point during night we were there it came untied and floated a bit down river before someone realized. It felt very boxcar kids to me. We saw some experimental short films, poetry, and music. It was great experience just being there and seeing a different side of Belgrade.
On our way out of town the next morning we had to leave from the new central train station (Prokop). I purchased the tickets from the old central station and I think I got hit with an upcharge of around 7 euros for buying in advance. Yikes, given the tickets were 15 euros to begin with. Anyway, the point is you can just buy your tickets on the day of, since the train was totally empty. That said, the station is really really new. Like still under construction new. It seemed eerily empty when we arrived. So I don’t actually know where the ticket office is, but apparently it’s possible.
And so we were off for our next destination: Budapest!