Continuing off my Romania post above, if you're confused. We had 14 days and flew into Bucharest, Romania, and flew out of Zadar, Croatia. I based the trip on two things: wanting to see parts of Eastern Europe and cheap airfare available at the time. What I didn't understand when booking the ridiculously cheap airfares was that transit in Eastern Europe is not nearly as fast or efficent as it is in the U.S., so we certainly spent more time in transit than I would recommend to people planning trips. On the other hand, we're relatively young, had been itching to do a "big trip" like this one, and felt up to the challenge. We definaately shortchanged a lot of places in our transit across the Balkans, but because living in Germany we can access these places cheaply and easily, we viewed it as a "sampler" of tasting some cities and countries to see what we'd want to come back to in the future, rather than a real in-depth exploration of them. (I probably should have said this in my original post). So anyway, the funny thing is, based on Western/American prejudices as a child of the 90s, I was not all that keen to spend any time in Serbia whatsoever. I was biased based on a lot of media coverage and stereotypes - I saw Serbia as a place to "get through" inbetween the supposedly "less scary" starting and end points of Romania and Croatia. I couldn't have been more wrong.
After all our troubles getting across the border, being in Serbia was a relief. I was worried about signage in Cyrillic - no worry, almost everything of import was in a Latin alphabet as well, and often in Latin alphabet both in Serbo-Croatian as well as English. Although the village of Vrsac was just a border transit hub for us, it was very beautiful and I was a little sad I didn't have a few hours to explore it. We had no trouble getting from the train station via cab to an ATM, getting Serbian Dinar, and then getting to the bus station via the same cab and getting a ticket. No one seemed to have a great command of English but communication still flowed more easily than it had in Romania. The bus wasn't luxurious, but it was fine. We made it to the main bus station in Belgrade around 9pm, and caught a friendly, english-speaking cab that over charged us but was still reasonable by Western European standards to Novi Belgrade, across the river, where our hostel was. Our hostel is a bit of a trip and one of the best places I've ever stayed at. It's called San Art Floating Hostel, and it's in this park along the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. There is no through road all the way to the hostel, so the cab dropped us off assuring us that the hostel was less than 300 meters walk. We found it without issue, walked down the long wooden ramp, and were greeted by the friendliest and kindest hosts I've ever had. Unfortunately I totally forget their names, but a couple runs it and are just lovely. She exclaimed she was worried about us and made us sit down in the wonderful lobby area, poured us each a beer and copied our passports (btw, every single hotel copied our passport because ITS THE LAW - to put to rest that ridiculous drama from a while ago) and then showed us to our private room.
Although it calls itself a hostel, San Art feels more like a B&B. It has a few private rooms with en-suite bathrooms, and a few small dorm rooms. It's actually a houseboat on the river, part of a string of restaurants and bars that line the river across the bridge from Belgrade's old town. The hostel is very new, and the room was spacious. Ours had a private balcony with an amazing view of the Belgrade fortress - this was our "splurge" of the trip, figuring we'd need it after the difficult transit from Romania. It was 70/euro, although rooms without the private balcony are considerably cheaper, and there is a shared deck on the river for all guests as well. Because we were there in off-season, most of the riverfront restaurants and bars were closed for the season, even though the weather was pretty nice (low 60s at night). Our hosts gave us a few walkable restaurant options, and we had a very cheap, if not particularly memorable meal of pasta and cevapchichi at the nearby Asterix diner, even though we didn't arrive at the restaurant until after 11pm. We purchased a couple more beers from the hosts when we returned and enjoyed the view and an amazing harvest moon over the fortress and went to sleep with the sound of the river in our ears. In the morning, the included breakfast was a fantastic cheese pastry with tomatoes and yogurt and ocffee - not quite a burek, but similar. Best breakfast of the whole trip, particularly enjoyed on the balcony with the amazing views. When it came time to pay I was a little surprised they didn't take cards (since the place seemed so new and modern) but when I inquired about the nearest ATM the male host offered to drive me (because it would've been a long walk) and then just suggested he could take us directly to the bus station with our luggage, which saved us a taxi ride.
I really cannot be more effusive about this hotel, it was an oasis of peace and calm right across from the bustling city. Without a car it is a bit of a pain to get where you need to go, but they rent bikes for free, and there are buses that can also take you to the main part of the city if needed. I'm already planning to rent the entire place out for a party weekend with friends come summer. Once dropped off at the bus station by our kind host, we checked our luggage and bought our bus tickets to Sarajevo. We took a later bus so we'd have time to at least see a little of Belgrade. It's a city that's often referred to as ugly, or at least not pretty or architecturally interesting, but I didn't find that to be true at all. I mean, it's definitely a city, with a less defined attractive "old city" than many other European cities, but it was fascinating and pretty with many beautiful buildings. We only had a few hours to explore, but wandered around down the main pedestrian street all the way to the fortress, had a casual (and very cheap) lunch and made it back to the bus station in time for our 16:00 departure, all on foot. I found this area of Belgrade surprisingly walkable. The bus was the nicest we'd been on in the whole trip, although the bathroom at the new-ish and nice bus station was a trip - my first (but not my last) "pit" toilet. It wasn't truly a pit, and was in fact new, but it was a toilet without a "bowl" that you have to squat to use. I was a little annoyed I had to pay for the privilege, and it is not a great thing when you have a case of traveler's stomach, as I had gotten in Romania, but I lived. The bus trip to Sarajevo was nearly 6 hours, but had frequent stops, and the bus personnel were nice. Saw a lot of rural Serbia while there was still daylight, reminded me of CA's central valley.
I don't feel like I spent enough time in Serbia or even Belgrade to really give many over arching opinions on it, but I was captivated in the short time I was there, and really want to return. I was sad we arrived too late and exhausted to sample some of Belgrade's infamous nightlife. It definitely felt like a real European capital with a lot of potential. And while it's hard to justify things as "feeling" safe or whatever, I certainly did get that general impression from Belgrade. We were walking through a dark park (as that is where the hostel is located) as obvious tourists between 9pm and 12am between getting to the hostel and getting dinner and were never hassled or saw shady characters. Ditto for Belgrade in general during the day, even at the bus station, which felt far cleaner and safer than the train stations in Romania. We got to see a movie being filmed at the Belgrade train station (next to the bus station) with people in 1930s costume, too, which was really cool. In retrospect, I feel very silly for having apprehensions about visiting Belgrade and Serbia, and really wish we'd stayed another night (at least) in Belgrade, but luckily GermanWings has direct flights from Stuttgart to Belgrade, so I know I'll be back soon.
This and your Bosnia report stir up a lot of memories for me. I spent a lot of time in the Balkans around 2000-2002 (never made it to Bosnia, though), and things like bureks and rakija ("rocket fuel", as we called it) were a regular part of my life. "based on Western/American prejudices as a child of the 90s, I was not all that keen to spend any time in Serbia whatsoever. I was biased based on a lot of media coverage and stereotypes". Perhaps time has softened some of the edges, but unfortunately, there was a very palpable negative vibe in Serbia when I was there. I met some perfectly nice people, but there was a huge undercurrent of a mixture of anger, shame, humiliation and sadness. Although the hardcore nationalists that had more or less led their country to ruin were quickly losing their influence, they were still very visible. And yes, they were as nasty and scary as they seemed on western TV news. There was some excitement, however, because they had finally managed to get rid of Miloševic (bastard!), but overall, this was not a very happy country.
Tom - Thanks for sharing your experiences. I never expected to be interested in the Balkans (or Germany for that matter) but both have gotten under my skin. I actually found the RS article "understand Yugoslavia" helpful as a basic reference because honestly (like most North Americans, I think) I didn't know much of anything about the region, except that our neighborhood in Germany is full of Croats and Serbs with strong political opinions. I bought Francis Tapon's "The Hidden Europe" book about "Eastern Europe" and I wouldn't recommend it (it's a truly awful book in many ways, and nearly 700 pages long, hard to tell that when you buy it electronically) but he does cover some of the history and give a good overview of many people's opinions and prejudices. Way better is the current book I'm almost finishing, "Impossible Country" by Brian Hall. Just fantastic. Anyway now in 2012 in our brief time in Serbia there was definitely a sort of touristy nationalism displayed at the kiosks and stuff - not just in Serbia but in BiH and Croatia as well - but I didn't get that sense of the anger and sadness, almost more disbelief - "Tourists? Here?!?" While we only had a few interactions - a couple taxi drivers, a couple bus ticket sellers, bus drivers, hotel owners - everyone was uniformly kind and helpful in a way that's kind of a shock anywhere in Europe. It also might seem different because of the contrast with Romania, which - I don't want to crap on it unfairly, but was just not an easy place.
Interesting report, glad to hear that the signage is not only in Cyrillic. I'm not sure what media coverage you're referring to (the Balkan wars, genocide, massacres of the early 90s?) because there is a dearth of coverage on countries like Serbia and the Balkans in the mainstream news now - that's why lots of folks don't even think of traveling there because they don't know much about Serbia except a top-notch tennis player is from there and their former leaders are getting pinned for war atrocities (not only Serbia but Croatia too). Croatia has done a great job of marketing itself (to the US at least), but not so much the other Balkan countries. I'm really glad you wrote this report to dispel myths and demonstrate that these are great places to travel to - spread the word !!! I have to disagree with this statement as a general truth "...transit in Eastern Europe is not nearly as fast or efficient as it is in the U.S". Most of the US has no viable public transit (the modal share is overwhelmingly by auto and by lone drivers, much smaller public transit share compared to Europe), so even the old trams, buses, and trains in Eastern Europe do a better job at giving folks without cars mobility options. I'm from Warsaw and I can attest that it's pretty darn efficient and cheap to get around there - more so than the cities I've lived in the US. Of course the Balkans aren't going to have a level of service like Germany, Spain, France, etc. but they do have inexpensive buses, taxis, and trams. I'm only pointing this out so that folks can go there and see for themselves instead of thinking the US is best for getting around and other countries are not feasible without a lot of hand holding (i.e. tours) Please keep writing about your trips to the Balkans. I don't know if you'll convince the retired crowd to go there, but the future is in the youth.
Agnes - I think you caught a typo of mine - I meant to say public transit in the balkans wasn't as easy as it is in Western Europe, but I typed "U.S." by mistake. My bad!! I agree, there are a lot more options for getting around Eastern Europe than there are in the U.S. On my recent trip back to San Francisco, I was amazed at how terrible the regional and local public transit was compared to what I've experienced everywhere in Europe, and SF is considered to be a "good" city in the u.s. for public transit! As for media coverage, maybe it's because I'm a child of the 90s...but when I talk to people my own age about visiting the Balkans, particularly Bosnia, they all freak out and can't imagine going there, because the ONLY thing they know about the region was the horrible wars in the 90s. They're way more interested in visiting Romania, probably because they know next to nothing about it, even though I found all the former Yugoslav countries far easier (and safer feeling) to travel in than Romania... Also funny that this post got bumped up because Francis Tapon, the author who's book I gave a bad review to, searched this thread, revived it despite it being nearly 10 months old, to whine that I didn't like this book. Talk about unprofessional! I can't imagine why RS continues to feature him and his work on his show, except that RS probably hasn't actually read his book, given that it's 700 pages and RS is a busy guy...