Belgrade reminds me of Bratislava, in that it’s an interesting, often very pretty capital city, overshadowed by its more famous neighbors. And I was especially taken by its greenery, and the lovely riverside. I will admit, when I passed over the Hungarian border, and out of the European Union, I realized I felt a little nervous. How had the political situation from 15 years earlier affected the city? Would I be able to find vegetarian-friendly food? And are all the signs really in Cyrillic? *
A note for vegetarian travelers: you’ll have to do some work to find veggie food, and you may find some restaurants have closed. My first night, as I was checking into my hostel, I asked the woman who worked there for vegetarian food recommendations. She started to trail off. I quickly changed my request to Chinese food, which she was all too happy to give me directions to.
I lucked out— the area I was in was nearby a university, so there were plenty of little cafes and bars, and not to mention foot traffic at night (something this woman traveler likes.) Actually, the longer I lingered over my food, the more the restaurant filled up, despite the late hour.
I had less luck the next day, with breakfast. Trying to get eggs and beans without either the bacon or flour tortillas was an issue. The first time, the waiter just brought the food out with less bacon— and then tried to just pick off the bacon and give me back the same plate. (Sigh.) After this, I ate entirely at one of the two vegetarian places in the city, or food I ate myself. Or ice cream.
Luckily, I spotted a sign that said Zdrava— a word I remember from Czech, meaning healthy— and bought a few things to tide me over. I spent most of my first day just wandering around: Belgrade is very easy to get around on foot, and very scenic. Also: getting lost was never a problem. Serbians were very friendly, and were happy to help with directions and deciphering (of course, I was cheerfully told if I stay in Serbia longer, I will not even need a map!)
One of my first stops was the House of the National Assembly building, which is home to the government— and which once was the at the center of the riots that overthrew Slobodan Milošević in 2000.
If the fall of communism marked the end of my childhood, then the Balkan Wars book ended my teenage years— I graduated high school in 2000, and moved out into my first apartment the following year. I remember lessons on Kosovo and Bosnia, and one teacher who tried to get us to read Zlata’s Diary for extra credit. Politics, and my own life, were suddenly complicated, and I knew they weren’t ever going to get simple again.
Time has passed— and time has been healing Belgrade. The most obvious sign of the past political turmoil was the former Yugoslav Ministry of Defense, which is now a bombed out shell with trees growing in it. Roughly ten years ago, I was giving European tourists directions to Detroit’s own ruins. How things come full circle. I dawdled by the ruins for a while, taking photos. But I was the only one who seemed to notice them, as I suppose they’ve become background landscape to folks who live here.
One thing that did set Belgrade apart from other capital cities in Europe was the difficulty I had finding veggie-friendly places. While I did have to search to find vegetarian-friendly places, there were some. Jazzy Yoga was one. They had pre-packaged salads all day, which were small but delicious and filling: spinach, feta and cranberries, and one with quinoa, red beans, red pepper and onion, washed down with banana almond milk.
On my second day, I wandered around the Kalemegdan, the Belgrade Fortress. The fortress was a lovely spot to stop, take a deep breath, and get a sense of the history and culture this area is steeped in. It was easy to get a sense of how Belgrade has been at the crossroads of so many empires. They even had an audio guide, which was nice— but also nice to just wander alone with my thoughts.
Yesterday, I had gotten the sense that a lot of historical buildings were destroyed over the centuries— perhaps as the area was such a central point between the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburg Empire. But the view of the Danube and Sava Rivers was really amazing.
After wandering around the fortress all morning, I was hungry, so I stopped into Radost. Located in an apartment building across from the fortress, it doesn’t have a sign (look address number 3, and the Happy Cow sticker on the door)— but man, was the food wonderful.
The salad was heaped with shredded zucchini and carrot, apples and lettuce, topped with pesto sauce, with pine nuts and vegan feta on top.
But I really fell in love with the ramen soup: with rice noodles, more shredded carrot and red pepper (you could actually twirl the carrot around your chopsticks with the noodles) tofu, shitake mushrooms, yum. (Honestly, between the broth, and the balance of noodles and veggies, I wound up having this soup three times.) The cook even made buckwheat pancakes for my shitake mushroom burgers when I explained I couldn’t eat wheat. Also, they served both fresh juice and wine.
In the afternoon, I went to Ada Island, with jogging trails, sloping pebbly beaches and plenty of outdoor bars, was a lovely retreat from the city bustle. After the hot morning walking around, a quick swim in the river was very refreshing— and it was hard to believe it was not even ten minutes by bus outside the city center.
On my last day, I hit up both the Nikola Tesla Museum— which is really, really neat, and if you go to Belgrade, it’s totally worthy the wait to have a tour in your native language. I mean, you get to hold a light while the guide turns the Tesla coil on— and the light glows in your hand. (Link here; warning: it’s a little loud.)
I also made it to Jazzy Veggie for their hot lunch: vegetable rice soup with mushrooms, and steamed veggies with lentils: peas, mushroom, zucchini, green onion and red pepper. Simple but filling.
Despite most of the city’s museums still being closed after the bombing, I did make it to the Gallery of Frescoes— the only national museum currently open in Belgrade. (Which means, of course, I’ll have to come back when they re-open the others!)
Also, if you’re traveling to Belgrade, or Serbia in general, this is a link to a number of helpful blogs.
* (Answers: yes, but not as badly as I thought; yes, but it will be hard; and no, just ask for directions already.)
(As of this writing, May 2014, Serbia is not part of the European Union.)