It took us three hours to drive from Timisoara, Romania, to Serbia’s capital city — Belgrade. Once war-torn, this city has transformed itself to rival major tourists destinations like Paris, Rome, and Madrid. The top 3 differences between a western European city and Belgrade are:
- You get a lot more for your money’s worth in Belgrade;
- It’s less crowded with tourists (and fewer tourist traps); and
- The locals are really friendly and welcoming.
Belgrade was nothing like I had imagined it to be. My mind had conjured up images I had seen on television during the 1990’s — bombs falling from the sky, smoke and destruction everywhere. I expected to see the aftermath of a war-zone. But no, Belgrade is beautiful! The city and its inhabitants have shelved the the past and moved on. They have embraced the effort for peace and progress.
We arrived in the city during the Friday evening rush hour. The city was lit up and bustling with young people. We had some trouble finding our way around because all the road signs were written in Cyrillic. Helpful locals, however, helped by guiding us to navigate to our destination. We found parking in a lot near our hostel, grabbed our backpacks and started walking to our hostel. When we turned on to the street with the matching name of the street where our hostel was located we walked right up to the “correct” street number. There was actually no number outside the building — we took a guess.
A gentleman in his late 60’s answered the door while talking on his phone. He welcomed us in with a warm smile. We were impressed by the decor and artwork on the walls. I whispered to Maria, my girl friend back then, that we got a really good deal. I mean a private room in an luxurious apartment with antique furniture and decorations collected from around the world. There was fine cutlery and elegant coffee mugs lined up on the kitchen counter. This place was for the “ refined backpacker “. For just $25 a night, this place was a steal!
Getting comfortable on a very nice sofa I leaned in towards Maria and chuckled, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we were at the wrong address?”.
The man, still on the phone, served us water and sat down on a sofa nearby. He continued to talk on the phone for another 10 minutes leaving us wondering about the customer service at such a fine establishment. He seemed like a jolly fella’, so we continued to be patient and admire the beautiful sculptures and paintings. Once he got off the phone we discovered that the man did not speak any English — only Serbian and a bit of French. That’s no problem, I am a seasoned traveler. I can deal with this. Plus I speak a bit of French. Using the best of my communications skills I asked the man where we could check in? He said something but I didn’t understand. We continued using gestures to make friendly conversation. The man sat comfortably in his sofa and told us how he had fled Serbia during the times of conflict. He was now retired and was happy that there was peace again. I had to really focus to understand his French with his Serbian accent. At the same time I wondered where’s the English speaking lady that I spoke with over the phone? May be she was out to get something? Maybe she was off-shift?
At one point in our conversation I asked the gentleman if we were at the hostel? Immediately the man said, aha. He got up from his comfy sofa and walked towards a window next to a staircase leading up to a second floor. Finally, I thought, he’s going to show us to our room. He stopped at the window and pointed to a building and gestured, “ hostel “.
We had been resting in the man’s house for nearly half hour. He had welcomed us, made us feel comfortable, served us, and shared his story without a clue of who we were! We apologized for the confusion and thanked him for his hospitality. He insisted we stay to eat or have a drink.
After we left the man’s company, we wondered if we’ll encounter more Serbians just as welcoming and hospitable as the one whom we had just met. The answer was yes! Our experience with Serbians just kept getting better and better. Belgrade is an important city in Eastern Europe with a rich history and a lively community. Everywhere you look, you see young people and cool technology. The people are kind, friendly, and extremely welcoming. There are many attractions to visit, culinary experiences to enjoy, and art and architecture to admire.
Maybe it was those dramatic images I saw on TV as a child made me notice the contrast between Serbia’s past and present. It felt good to be there and see that things are getting better.
About The Author
Urooj Qureshi is pro Adventurer and storyteller. Follow his adventures on Instagram @uroojqureshi.
Originally published at http://www.living-being.com on June 14, 2013.