AirBnB: Belgrade, Serbia; “Danube & Kalemegdan 1BD Apartment”

Our apartment in Belgrade was an amazing $43/night, net of all fees. Wow. I confess to being not only tempted by the price, but really curious to see just what we would get at that rate. The reviews were good; David, who’s become more and more willing to give the fruits of my bargain-hunting a try was game. I felt pretty optimistic about this booking…which isn’t to say I didn’t have a few niggling doubts on the taxi ride from the airport. But, our hostess, Vesna, had provided lots of comforting information, been super-responsive to my emails, correct about free wi-fi at the airport, and quick to respond to my WhatsApp text when we landed in Belgrade. So far, so good.

As promised, Vesna’s husband, Zoran, was waiting for us. The 1-bedroom apartment was on the 6th floor of a modern-style building some decades old. We had a security door to the lobby and an elevator. Although the area outside was not immaculately groomed (and tended to have a group of teenaged boys who hung out on the “stoop,” it was nice, in an Eastern bloc sort of way, and we never felt insecure in the neighborhood.

The apartment itself was spacious and homey (being our hosts’ former home) with a stylish living room. If anything, our hosts had left a tad too much in the way of supplies, particularly baby things, of which we had no need. I was not surprised, though, as the AirBnB description had been accurate. On the plus side, we had a lovely big living room with a large flat screen t.v., 2 balconies, and air conditioning (although the latter turned out to be only in the living room, less than ideal for nighttime coolness in the bedroom which was around the corner). I’m not sure how much of an issue this normally would be, but we arrived during an unseasonably warm spell. Still, even without a/c, it wouldn’t have been too bad with all the balcony doors open, including the one in our bedroom.

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Living room looking toward the kitchen
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Belgrade kitchen (washer and dryer in pantry beyond)
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The bed was comfy, but the room feels a bit crowded with all the baby things
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More like a family bathroom than a hotel, but clean and well-equipped

In the previous post, you’ll find a photo of the big balcony we used frequently for meals and just to relax. It’s a huge plus. The apartment was quiet, too, save for the near-constant sound during the day of children laughing and playing in the nearby schools. (We had the doors open, remember.) It wasn’t a sound we minded at all.

Vesna and Zoran live nearby and they were quick with any problems we had (like when I stupidly unprogrammed the t.v.). They also kindly agreed to print for us at their office bus tickets we’d need in Montenegro and even delivered the tickets to the apartment so we wouldn’t have to interrupt our activities. Very nice people!

You can check out the apartment at: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5499461

If you’re new to AirBnB and want to give it a try on this or any other apartment, you can use my referral link which should get both of us $30 in AirBnB travel credit: http://www.airbnb.com/c/tcuthrell Let me know if you have any questions.

 

Belgrade Highlights

Our first day in Belgrade was a little hit-and-miss, but we soon found our groove and had fun exploring this city of contrasts. There’s so much history in Belgrade and it’s been layered on, partially destroyed, rebuilt according to the tastes of the rulers of the day. I found the remnants of the Ottoman Empire particularly fascinating and an early stop was at the 19th century residence of Princess Ljubica. Not what we might think of now as a palace or chateau, the residence is relatively modest. It hasn’t been restored to an exact replica of when the ruling Serbian Obrenović family lived there (1831-1842), but rather has rooms furnished with objects belonging to the Obrenovićs and other wealthy Serbian families which reflect the changing/Westernizing of tastes of the period. The blending of east and west and the effects of moderization and trade is fascinating to see. I particularly enjoyed the portraits and displays of clothing reflecting a clear, but waning, Ottoman influence. For less than $2 apiece (200 dinar), the princess’ residence is more than worth it. The bargain prices in Belgrade are a treat!

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Residence of Princess Ljubica
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Inside the residence of Princess Ljubica
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Ottoman style

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We explored the small religious museum adjacent to the monastery next door to the residence (some nice items, but nothing that inclined us to linger) and I enjoyed a quick circuit of the beautiful Saborna Crkva Sv. Arhangela Mihaila (Church of St. Michael the Archangel). David, unfortunately, couldn’t go in because he was wearing shorts. This was an unplanned stop or he would have been better prepared. Churches in Eastern Europe are often more strict about dress codes than in Western Europe (where proper dress is still appreciated, if not required).

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Tower of Saborna Crkva Sv. Arhangela Mihaila viewed from the Princess Ljubica residence with the monastery in the foreground
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Serbian Orthodox deacon with the tower of Saborna Crkva Sv. Arhangela Mihaila visible behind him

The top tourist destination is the Kalmegdan Fortress which sits between Kalmegdan Park and the Sava River. We spent a pleasant afternoon exploring the ruins and taking in the views from the fortress walls.

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Kalmegdan Fortress viewed from Kalmegdan Park
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Inside the Kalmegdan Fortress walls–another lovely park
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The Sava River viewed from Kalmegdan Fortress with modern western Belgrade in the background

The Military Museum attached to Kalmegdan Fortress on the park side is also worth a visit. Exhibits span medieval times to the present. The more recent exhibits were particularly interesting to us. Among other items were an American pilot’s jacket recovered when he was shot down and a piece of a NATO plane. Descriptions of “NATO aggressors” failed to acknowledge any bad acts on the part of Serbia and made it sound as if NATO planes dropped bombs on Serbian civilians entirely out of the blue and for no reason whatsover. While there are undoubtedly at least two accounts of nearly every war, it bothered us to see a class of school children visiting the museum and learning such a one-sided view of history. We saw similar, if sometimes opposite, tellings elsewhere in the Balkans and it seems to me that failing to acknowledge the full picture of the events surrounding hostilities only encourages the perpetuation of grudges and grievances.

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Another day, we explored the Sava riverfront beneath the looming defensive walls of Kalmegdan Fortress.

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We took refuge from the heat and enjoyed a delicious seafood stew, fried perch, and a local beer on the open-air deck of a riverfront boat restaurant named Vodenica.

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Enjoying lunch and a beer at Vodenica
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Fresh local fish soup–very spicy, house-made bread, and fried perch
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Vodenica, a casual little boat restaurant on the Sava serving really fresh fish

As fascinating as anything we saw, was simply wandering the streets of Belgrade, trying to read the Cyrillic signs, talking with (and asking directions from) those people we came across who spoke English. People were uniformly friendly and helpful and several expressed surprise to learn we were Americans and sincere curiosity as to what we thought of their city. (On hearing us speak English, everyone assumed we were English.) All expressed pleasure at our enjoyment of our time in Belgrade. When I commented on that to our hostess, Vesna, she said it was unusual to find Americans in Belgrade wandering on their own. As she explained it, the only Americans they usually saw were “big groups of old people” from Danube River cruise ships. She said the groups just follow a guide so people don’t really interact with them.

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Street art like this was common near our apartment. Someone is quite an artist!
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Belgrade is such a mixed bag. I was dying to try this ever-busy dive near our apartment, but never worked up the nerve. It seemed to be mostly a male hang-out.

Our last sight-seeing must-see was the still-under-construction St. Sava Cathedral. To get there, we opted to give the local trolley system a try. Mystified by the system we enlisted the aid of a waitress at a local café we’d come to enjoy. Despite her instructions, we tried to board in the wrong place (just across the street from the boarding area), but were kindly allowed on board by an off-duty driver (no doubt frustrated by our failure to comprehend when he tried to point us in the right direction). When he finished with his break, the driver drove us the twenty yards to the trolley stop to pick up the others who were waiting where they should. Oh well, we got first pick of seats right up front…which was a good thing since the trolley soon filled to standing-room only as we made our way down the boulevard to our destination.

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On the Belgrade trolley. At bargain at less than $1.50 (150 dinar).

The trolley let us off just across the street from St. Sava at a bustling, major trolley stop. The sheer size of the cathedral is stunning and we marveled at the approach. Having read about a dress code, I watched to see what would happen to 3 young people: 2 men in racerback tank tops and a young woman in miniskirt and tank top. Sure enough, they were turned away.

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The massive and unfinished St. Sava Cathedral (Hram Svetog Save)

The inside of the cathedral is still under construction and very simple at this point although lapis and malachite columns already in place give a glimpse of future opulence.

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Inside St. Sava Cathedral, a work in progress

After the cathedral, we visited the small St. Sava Church just beside it. It’s a beautiful little gem and we tried to imagine the huge cathedral decorated in like style.

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Interior of the beautiful little St. Sava Church next to St. Sava Cathedral

All in all, we enjoyed Belgrade and were glad we added this relatively short stop to our Balkan exploration. We were also satisfied with the time we had there and looking forward to our next, much-anticipated stop, Montenegro.

April 4-7, 2016

 

Arriving in Belgrade, Serbia

David and I were both curious about Belgrade and I had my nose pressed to the window as we landed at Nikola Tesla Airport. We flew in over a sprawling metroplex constrained by the Danube River to the north and bisected by its tributary, the Sava River. More familiar looking structures gave way to massive, uniform blocks of high-rise housing as we neared touchdown.

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Belgrade, Serbia, with the Danube in the distance and the Sava forking in the foreground
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Huge housing blocks as we approach Nikola Tesla Airport

Nikola Tesla Airport felt enormous after little Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport. It was modern and bustling…with working free wi-fi! While we waited for our luggage, I texted with our AirBnB hostess, Vesna, via WhatsApp (invaluable for travel, expecially since nearly every AirBnB host I’ve dealt with has an account) and she promised her husband would be waiting when our cab dropped us off.

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A bit of whimsy at Nikola Tesla baggage claim

The day outside was sunny and unseasonably warm. Our taxi drove past many big modern buildings housing international tech companies before we passed a huge 6-story white building with two wings embracing a lovely modern fountain centered in a wide paved plaza. Although the place was enormous, it seemed deserted. When I asked our cab driver, he explained it was the “former congress of Yugoslavia.” I later learned the building is known as the “Palata Srbija” or “Serbian Palace.” We were to see several more abandoned and underutilized former Yugoslavian buildings in Belgrade and Montenegro and hear that same sense of regret for the loss of former glory or perceived glory. Despite what we were taught in the U.S., Tito and his era remain popular with many people in the former Yugoslavia. No doubt many others there feel differently, but that positive sentiment and nostalgia is an undeniable fact and something I’d been surprised by when my sons and I were in Croatia and Bosnia in 2003.

The modern part of Belgrade yielded to the old as we crossed over the Sava River. We turned north, coming to Kalmegdan park on our left. I made a mental note to return to check out the vending stalls visible from the road along the main path. Past the stone wall of the Belgrade Zoo sporting tiles representing the animals within, our cab turned into a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood. The buildings were unremarkable, many marked with graffiti, and a few downright dilapidated. I’d deliberately chosen an AirBnB apartment in the old part of the city, and was reassured by Vesna’s assurance that it was a family area and she and her family had lived there before moving to a bigger apartment to accommodate their growing family. Still, I felt a twinge of concern. David is such a sport about going along with nearly everything I suggest on our travels that I didn’t want him to be disappointed in my choice of lodging.

As promised, Vesna’s husband, Zoran, was waiting for us. Zoran led us to the apartment, gave us a brief run down of the area, handed over the keys, took our passports to register with the government–promising to return them within the hour, and we were on our own.

After a quick trip to a nearby grocery store/deli, we decided to enjoy the beautiful weather by lunching the balcony. Prices at the store were wonderfully cheap and about $5 fed both of us well. With two schools nearby, children on the playgrounds made a happy background noise.

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Lunch on the balcony
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View of the neighborhood from the balcony. If you look closely, you’ll see David crossing the road on a later solo trip to the store.

After lunch, it was time to explore. We walked up the street shown above towards the Danube. We crossed a pedestrian bridge over a wide span of old railroad tracks that ended in the common area of an uninspiring apartment complex. Not exactly picturesque. Beyond the apartments we finally arrived at the wide expanse of the Danube. Two wide, paved walkways ran parallel to each other and the river separated by a wall to keep back rising waters. A lone fisherman stood on the bank while swans swam nearby. We passed a few others out for a stroll, including a family of 3, the father of which wore a t-shirt depicting the US flag being pissed upon by that impish little boy often seen on pickup trucks at home. Hmm. If this guy was any indication, we might not be too popular in these parts.

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Strolling past a fisherman on the Danube in Belgrade

With no shade in sight, it was getting uncomfortably warm. I’d guessed we could get to Kalmegdan Park via the riverside, but it was becoming obvious I’d underestimated the hike and the heat. When we reached a sports complex, we gratefully bought ice cold bottled water from a vendor and gulped it down before continuing on to the park and the welcome refuge of scattered shade trees.

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Kalmegdan Park with vendor stalls in the background

Many people were enjoying the park this sunny Monday afternoon. We wandered over to the vendors I’d spied from the taxi and found much of the things on sale to be Russia-themed: Soviet-era trinkets, t-shirts depicting Putin and the like. From the park, we continued our ramble to Kneza Mihaila, the main pedestrian shopping street of Belgrade.

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Kneza Mihaila, the main pedestrian shopping street of Belgrade
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Cafés along Kneza Mihaila

Starting to droop after our early morning, flight, miles-long walk and the heat, we made our way home via a quick stop at the National Theater to see if last-minute tickets might be available (often a great deal in Eastern Europe), but no luck. We opted for deli dinner at home, a big advantage of apartment over hotel. Sometimes even dinner out is more than we we’re up for.

 

 

Air Serbia from Ljubljana to Belgrade

Serbia hadn’t originally been part of our plans, but it caught my attention when I stumbled across a really intriguing-looking train ride from Belgrade/Beograd to the Montenegran coast (which was, along with Slovenia, on my must-go-there list for this trip). Although further research convinced me we would not like the train ride after all. Reviews described spectacular views, but also an 11-hour trip with the potential for hours more in the event of flooding, uncomfortable seats, filthy bathrooms. Nope, we’re too old and too addicted to at least a moderate level of comfort for that. But, in the meantime, Belgrade had caught my imagination.

I discovered relatively cheap, one-way, 1 hour 20 minute flights between Ljubljana and Belgrade on Air Serbia, a new airline for me, but interesting. As a bonus, Air Serbia has recently partnered with Etihad, so we could scoop up a few Etihad Guest points while we were at it.

We dropped off the rent car with Sixt at the Ljubljana airport and made our way through the uncrowded and efficient departure procedure. We had a minor hitch when I realize I’d read an outdated weight max online (Amateur mistake. Shame on me!), and we had to do some quick reshuffling to accommodate the wine that we’d thought was no issue. Air Serbia used to have an extremely generous baggage max, but has now fallen in line with most airlines at 23kg per checked bag in economy. Thankfully, the nice Air Serbia lady cut us some slack and we didn’t have to jettison the wine. Hooray!

Our 2nd hitch came as we went through security and discovered that David and forgotten to pack his very favorite Laguiole corkscrew. He hustled back to the nice lady, threw himself on her mercy, fibbed a little about it being a family heirloom, and convinced her to retrieve his suitcase so he could stash the corkscrew. That was the first time I’ve ever seen that happen! So, we left Ljubljana with one last impression of friendly people.

The Ljubljana airport is small, but modern, clean and comfortable. It was not at all crowded and we had a leisurely wait and boarding. We were bused out onto the tarmac for boarding.

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Ljubljana departures waiting area

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The flight itself was pleasant albeit a little cramped. The only oddity, but in a nice way, was the meal service. When I bought our tickets online, I was given the option of a meal for “$0.” Hmm. Seemed like it must be a mistake, given that the flight was so short, but I figured “What the heck?” and signed up. Sure enough, shortly into the flight, the attendant offered us two small sandwiches saying we’d pre-ordered a meal. Not fine dining, but appreciated nonetheless.

April 4, 2016