There is a plain that stretches east from Zagreb to Belgrade (and beyond), we were told. It’s as flat as a pancake. It was true. We rarely choose motorways, but we chose one to cover a chunk of distance eastwards and across the Serbian border near Lipovac. The border crossing was straightforward, the landscape didn’t differ but now we were in Serbia. The language is very similar to Croatian, but this time we had to deal with Cyrillic script, and another new currency.
Serbia was once the powerbase of the former Yugoslavia with Belgrade that country’s capital. Crossing into the country now from Croatia it was evident straightaway that Croatia was the more affluent neighbour. Things were scruffier and a bit more down-at-heal.
We originally intended only to spend two or three days in the country on our way to Romania, visiting our friend Uroš in Belgrade, and one or two other places. So warm was our welcome from friends old and new right from the start that it would have been churlish not to spare a few extra days and we ended up spending over a week there.
Our first stop was a campsite not far from Sremska Mitrovica, and after hitting a supermarket in town we followed the signs for Zasavica, leaving town along the river Sava whose beaches were crammed by bathers cooling themselves in the hot late afternoon sun.
The main village street was lined with fairly nondescript houses, then I looked more closely and behind each one there were farm outbuildings, often a tractor, land with a few crops growing, some cattle or sheep, hens – and lots of activity.
We’d heard good things about the Zasavica campsite – it had good online reviews, and we weren’t disappointed. It was hidden away surrounded by woodland just outside the village, with a nature reserve area next door. The pitches were grassy and shady, and the facilities were top notch, brand new and more akin to a hotel than what we’re used to (though the automatic taps for basins and showers didn’t work when there was a powercut next morning – luckily (and oddly) the disabled facilities had manual taps for both).
There were no other campers when we arrived but we had a warm welcome from the young female receptionist who after greeting us wondered why we’d come to Serbia. “Everybody hates us”.’ Being seen as the aggressor in the conflicts following the break-up of Yugoslavia must be a hard thing for the Serbian people, and as ever wars cast long shadows.
After settling in to our pitch, we were invited to partake of some rakija, and as we were doing so a Catalan family arrived, a return visit here on their way to and from Greece. They were now returning to Zagreb, where they’d rented their campervan, and were due to fly back to Barcelona the following day. We enjoyed a few rakijas together, hearing about their lives and their yearning for Catalunya to be independent of Spain.
We’d been in touch with Uroš in Belgrade who was expecting us the following evening. After a quick visit to the noisy donkeys, goats and other animals at the nature reserve next morning, we decided to go to Novi Sad – on the Danube a bit north of our direct route. Novi Sad is dominated by the Petrovaradin Fortress, a huge complex set high above the river.
Its many rooms are used as studios, workshops and galleries by artists and craftspeople. It sounded great and is an impressive sight. But it was August, and most of the artists had gone on holiday. You can’t win, avoiding the crowds on the coast, but finding the places you come to see closed because the owners are probably where the crowds are! We had a drink on a shady rampart terrace, and when the waiter finally came with the bill, we wandered across the river and ambled around the old centre of the town.
To get back to the main non-motorway road towards Belgrade, we passed through the small very delightful town of Sremski Karlovci, which has long been a centre of culture, religion and learning for the Serb people. The first schools started here and the first Serbian theatrical performance also happened here, which of course attracted writers, musicians, artists and theologians to visit or live in the town. We admired the many brightly painted buildings, old schools and churches, before heading on our way again.
It was a slow road into Belgrade – texting Uroš all the while. We didn’t have a good map of the city and of course no satnav, but he told us to aim for the tallest building in the new town. Where was the new town? We find it, we think, park at a petrol station nearby and Uros’s friend Andrea came to escort us to our ‘Belgrade home’. We followed him over a bridge into the older part of town. He was taking us to a hostel. The word conjured up images of sweat-smelling dorms with all-night noisy interrailers. We didn’t have high hopes when we pulled up in what looked like a rather downbeat area close to the bridge across the Sava we’d just crossed.
Adrian waited with the van while I followed Andrea through some art deco gates. Behind these was a small apartment complex with balconies overlooking the yard below. We went up stairs to the first floor and into one of the apartments. My heart sang when I walked into Andrea’s cosy funky hostel and was shown our room there. As well as our colourful and air-conditioned bedroom, we had use of a kitchen and bathroom. All spotless and beautifully decorated, the Bridge Hostel turned out to be a haven in the midst of a scorching dirty city.
We did the formal paperwork – all visitors to Serbia must be registered at their accommodation and you get a registration card to show if necessary. Later we were asked for these when we left the country, although we only got proper registration cards from two of the five places we stayed at. Returning to the street where Adrian had found a good space for the van, I fooled him for a bit on the ‘grim backpacker hostel’ scenario, but couldn’t keep it up for long so thrilled was I with our latest temporary home.
As soon as he finished work, Uroš came to find us. A couple of streets down from our home, there’s a partially derelict grey street, beyond whose gates and doors lie groovy bars. We’re taken to a groovy bar. Uroš’s friends are already there. We meet them, have some beers and are then gathered up on a wave of Serbian hospitality and taken to eat all the local specialities in one go (it feels like) at a local diner. Platters of grilled meats, soups, delicious breads, crisp ‘Spska ‘salad – with tangy crumbled cheese on top, washed down with wine. Good company, good conversation. It turns out that Aleksandra is studying Scandinavian languages which of course prompts us to have a chat in Swedish … Not a widely spoken language outside Sweden, you still never really know when and how you will meet someone who can speak it! A great evening – we wander back with a large ‘doggy’ bag in hand – leftovers for snacking on the next day.