Serbia: Keeping Warm with Rakia

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We were expecting it to be almost freezing when we arrived in Belgrade, Serbia, and while it wasn’t exactly warm we didn’t have to deal with snow and ice which is common at that time of year (mid December). We checked into Hedonist Hostel, a cosy hostel right in the centre of town with spacious dorms and great common areas including a neat little kitchen and a fantastic garden area which would be ideal during summer.

Belgrade has had a turbulent past and the city has been destroyed many times over the centuries. This means that much of the architecture is quite modern and the city lacks the old-world charm of many other European cities I’ve visited. I must admit that after visiting Croatia and Bosnia I had a pretty negative opinion of Serbs. The atrocities I had heard of in the previous countries had saddened me deeply and left a bitter feeling towards the former Yugoslavian state. However, after meeting some wonderful Serbian people and hearing more about the history I began to realise that there is no point in holding on to any bias, as most countries have had some involvement in horrific circumstances at some point in their past (think of the massacre of Aborigines in Australia) and deserve the opportunity to change and rebuild as a better nation. Of course this is much easier for me to say than it would be for a Bosnian muslim who’s family were executed during the Bosnian war, or for a Serb who saw the destruction of their city by NATO forces in 1999. Anyway, enough about  politics and more about what we got up to in Belgrade.

On our first day we joined a walking tour of the city which I’d highly recommend – the guide was fantastic! It started in Republic Square, next to the statue of  Prince Milailo III on his horse and across from the National Theatre. We were told that during the NATO bombings in 1999 The National Theatre opened its doors to the public and continued to put on operas, ballets and plays for the people for only 1 dinar – bringing some joy to the city during the 78-days of air raids.

Statue of  Prince Milailo III

National Theatre

Next we visited the bohemian quarter of Belgrade (or Skadarlija) which was once the home of poor artists, musicians and poets who would visit the kafanas (cafes) and inns to drink, discuss their works and listen to music. Today, the cafes still exist and you can eat and drink and be merry just as the gypsies once did.

Bohemian quarter (Skadarlija)

One of the kafanas in the bohemian quarter

Afterwards we made the ascent to Belgrade Fortress (0r Kalemegdan Park), the ancient citadel that sits atop the hill overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. It is said that the body of Attila the Hun is buried underneath the fortress. The citadel allows for great views around the city and the park is great for strolling around with many fountains, statues and old buildings to take in.

Monument to ‘The Victor’, the Protector of Belgrade

Ada/Sava Bridge

After the tour, a group of us decided to try out a local restaurant recommended to us by the tour guide. The food was incredible and we tried some of the local spirit, Rakia, in a number of different flavours. As it came in tiny little glasses we assumed that it was meant to be drunk all at once, it wasn’t until several later that we noticed someone else just sipping on it that we realised we’d been doing it all wrong, but by that stage we didn’t really care! After lunch we went back to the bohemian quarter to try some of the kafanas and more rakia and then ended up at a bar that served flavoured beer. A great way to finish off an excellent day in Belgrade.

Enjoying the local cuisine 

Rakia 

Flavoured beer

Interesting note:

During the 1990s Serbia suffered from one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in the world. The economy of the country was completely decimated and many people could not afford to buy food or turn on their heating. The government began to print more and more money which resulted in such a huge level of inflation that the price of products increased 5 quadrillion percent. In the end the government were printing money worth 500 billion dinars!

500 billion dinar note

I didn’t get much of a chance to sample the famous nightlife of Belgrade, although I did have a great night out at a packed salsa bar in the centre of town alongside some fellow travellers. Anyone else got any advice on the best clubs to go to?

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Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath

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In March I had a bit of time up my sleeve in between jobs so I decided I ‘d use it to undertake a few tourist activities within England. While I’ve travelled to a number of places in Europe I hadn’t really left London to see other parts of the country.

I was really keen to see Stonehenge and many people had told me that Bath was really nice so I booked onto a tour with Evan Evans tours that went to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath all in a day. Sounds a bit rushed I know, but I thought if there was anywhere I particularly liked I could always come back. That’s the beauty of England, everything is relatively close.

The Evan Evans Tour bus

I jumped on the bus at Victoria station where our guide Mark introduced himself and our bus driver Andreas, who according to Mark was ‘exuding boyish enthusiasm’ for the day ahead (although the next time I saw him he was dead to the world, snoring his head off while we waited to get on the bus after visiting Windsor!) This was just the first taste of Mark’s vivid descriptions of the sites we were visiting, the surrounding areas and the people involved in the stories of each place. He was a riot!

Our first stop was to be Windsor Castle, the largest and oldest continuously inhabited castle in the world. It wasn’t quite what I expected. For some reason I thought it would be out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by rolling green countryside. However it is located smack-bang in the middle of the town of Windsor (funnily enough) with the buildings and shops situated right next to the outer walls.

The outer castle wall with the town of Windsor in the background

Some of the gardens inside the castle walls

A courtyard inside the castle walls

Inside it was utterly spectacular. The rooms were so elaborately decorated that every time I passed into a new chamber my mouth would just drop open. A gorgeous array of artworks, furnishings and fixtures were combined in each room to give each of them a different feel and a unique richness. I could easily imagine ladies in gorgeous gowns being swept around the floor of the elegant ball rooms and lords sitting around the ornate fireplaces, discussing state affairs. Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take images inside so you’ll just have to use your imagination.

I also saw the changing of the guards, which wasn’t quite the spectacle of the Buckingham Palace ceremony but pretty cool nonetheless.

Changing of the guards

Being a bit of a myths and legends nerd I have always been fascinated with the mysteries of Stonehenge. It amazes me that there is still so much we don’t understand about Stonehenge. The half-ruined ring of colossal stones are located on the Salisbury plains a couple of hours south west of London. Construction began at Stonehenge about 3000 BC and consisted of around 160 stones, some of them 8 metres tall and weighing up to 50 tonnes. No one really knows why it was built, what purpose it served and how the larger rocks were moved. The stones used to construct the inner circle are blue stones which come from the south of Wales 150 miles away and weigh about 7 tonnes each.

It was a similar feeling to seeing Machu Picchu for the first time; you’ve seen it a million times on TV or in magazines but seeing it for yourself is something entirely different. It doesn’t take long to wander around the outside of the circle of stones and take it in from every angle, but it was still impressive I thought. Particularly when you think about the huge amount of manpower that goes into constructing something like this and how they managed to do it 5000 years ago.

Next up was the gorgeous town of Bath. I could spend quite a few days in the city of Bath however we only had the afternoon which meant a quick trip through the Roman Baths and a stroll alongside the river was about all we had time for. The baths were a sight to behold with the golden limestone contrasting beautifully beside the green water of the baths. It was really interesting wandering through the different rooms and reading what each was used for, including my favourite, a room with ancient under floor heating. Nice!

The town itself is quite quaint with lots of small boutique shops and cozy cafes. The walk alongside the river was very pleasant and once again I was blessed with brilliant weather (for that time of year) for the entire day.

I know there’s quite a few things I missed out on in Bath such as the Jane Austen centre so let me know if you think there’s something I must go back and see 🙂

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