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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Budapest: The Delight of The Danube

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After my magical day in Bruges, it was back to London for the night before I was off to the airport to fly to Budapest in Hungary to meet up with Bec for my first European backpacking trip. After an uneventful flight with Wizz Air and a train ride into the city I met Bec and headed to our hostel, the fantastic Tiger Tim’s Place.

The next day Bec and I headed out for a wander around the city to take in the sights. First off we stopped at the beautiful St Stephen’s Basilica where you can visit the mummified hand of Saint Stephen, the first King of Hungary who died in 1038. Bit weird, but whatever. The spires of the church are of equal height to those on the Parliament building to show that the church and the state are of equal importance. No building is allowed to exceed the height of these buildings in Budapest.

The box containing Saint Stephen’s hand

The Parliament Building is located down on the banks of the beautiful Danube River which flows through the majority of the capital cities in Eastern Europe. The building is very similar to the Houses of Parliament in London and is in the Gothic Revival style that makes it an absolute delight to behold.

Nearby is a Jewish memorial which honors the Jews who were killed in that place during World War II. They were ordered to take their shoes off on the edge of the river and were then shot so that their bodies would fall into the river and would be carried away The memorial features iron shoes scattered along the promenade of the river.

Next we crossed over the river to the Buda side of the city (originally Budapest was three cities, Buda, Pest and Obuda) which is dominated by Castle Hill where most of Budapest’s medieval buildings are located. Here we saw Buda Castle, the former palace of the Hungarian royal family, the nearby Sandor Palace, the residence of the President of Hungary, the Matthias Church, and a statue of King Saint Stephen. From the top of the hill there are spectacular views of the city. I also revisited this area at night to see the city lights which was incredibly beautiful.

Buda Castle

Buda Castle

Matthias Church

Parliament Building

King Saint Stephen Statue

One of the highlights of our stay in Budapest was the trip to the Szechenyi thermal baths where we lazed about in several different pools at different temperatures and relaxed in the sauna. I even had a special Hungarian massage which was quite strange but enjoyable nonetheless. It was an afternoon of absolute bliss!

Budapest also has a bustling nightlife which we of course took the opportunity to experience. First though we’d get the party started at the hostel playing Beer Jenga with a great bunch of people also staying there. The owner, Tim, is a very friendly Irish guy who makes it part of his job description to ensure everyone has a fantastic night out and took us to some great places in town. We went to the very cool Szimpla where we tried some hookah, and also headed out to a nightclub called Pink which was quite interesting, the main attraction being a pole in the middle of the dance floor with a pink ball on top that kept us entertained for hours. We also went to a fantastic karaoke pub called Morrison’s Music Pub where they played fantastic music or you could try your hand at karaoke. Note: Learn from the mistakes of Rebecca Bruce – Tina Arena’s ‘Chains’ does not exactly whip the crowd into a frenzy when singing karaoke in a Hungarian bar. If only they’d had Daryl Braithwaite hey Bec!

The art of beer Jenga

The punishment for tower destruction

Hooked on hookah

Bec and the Pink pole

Making the most of happy hour at Morrison’s Music Pub

I absolutely loved Budapest with its gorgeous buildings and interesting history. The cafes and restaurants, the nightlife and the great people made it a fantastic experience. No trip to Eastern Europe is complete without a stay in this beautiful city, especially if you can get some amazing weather like we did.

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