It soon transpires our early arrival into Belgrade won’t be so early after all. We actually arrive a casual 3 hours later than scheduled with zero in the way of an explanation or apology. Excellent service all round. South Eastern would never get off this lightly. Already dissatisfied with the sub-par train experience I’m at least ready to use a bathroom with running water at the station. 30 Dinar later and I enter the toilets to be greeted with several holes in the ground all swimming in a no doubtful delightful array of liquid to choose from. Nope. Nope. All the nope. My Serbian doesn’t quite stretch to “How are you CHARGING for this third world experience?” but I really wish it did.
Never mind, let’s find tram tickets so we can get to our hotel. We ask at a kiosk if we can buy a ticket there. “No” she says. “Well then where can we get them from?” we ask. She shrugs. Brilliant. We ask locals. They point to a kiosk. We try a new kiosk. She says “buy from driver.” Absolutely defining hangry with extra Hs for hot and hideously sleep deprived we give up and get on a tram only to find the driver locked away behind a sheet of glass. Right. As the doors close we resign to just seeing what happens and as we’re gathering our things to leave the tram a ticket inspector boards. We try to buy 2 tickets from her and she tries to fine us. We are literally scooped up by two English speaking Serbians who usher us off the tram and tell us to keep walking while they shout their disdain at the inspector.
I have no idea what is happening.
Eventually one of our friendly helpers assists us in purchasing tickets for our next few journeys (from a kiosk, no less) and bids us farewell. We later learn the Belgrade transport system is something of a black market and tourists frequently get caught out like this. Annoyed is an understatement and our first impressions are far from favourable, to say the least. Luckily, the day is redeemed by a friendly receptionist at the Balkan Hotel Garni who points us in the direction of Ada Ciganlija, a popular lakeside hangout where we promptly collapse until sunset.
Feeling a bit more vitamin D induced/significantly more relaxed than when we started, we head back to get ready to hit the proverbial town. It’s 10pm by the time we sit down for sushi and a Spicy Californian Roll never tasted so good. The W Sushi restaurant is on a lively side street with ample buzz coming from the small selection of al fresco eateries. I’d found Berliner; a beer specialising bar to head to and to our delight the whole street had in fact turned into a beer fest with live jazz and ambience a plenty. I’m sure the party went on into the early hours but we retire after several ready for a day of bike riding and exploring on the Sunday.
The bus journey into town the next morning sees us encounter yet more angry Serbians so it is a relief to meet our iBike Belgrade guide and realise he is both friendly and humorous. The tour lasts for three hours under the Serbian sun (which, in case you were wondering, is hot) and we completely luck out by being the only two on the tour and by having 3 guides to show us round. The cycle paths along the river are lovely. The roads feel safe because we’re in convoy and nothing bad can happen if you’re in convoy. Along the way we learn about the city’s history and see the evident presence of reminders from WW2. The Nazis made prisoners of war build them a bridge so they could have access to the city. It’s a haunting lesson in troublesome times. There’s evidence of recent unsettle too- we’re shown the ruins of the TV broadcasting centre that was bombed in1999. The government allegedly knew of the attack and yet did nothing to prevent it. One of our guide’s Dads was a cameraman at the time. He finished his shift only a few hours before the bomb dropped.
On the whole Belgrade still feels quite run down as a city. We finish our ride and then head back to the river to “the nice part” where cosmopolitan restaurants and bars align the water’s edge. We enjoy an amazing tapas lunch at Cantina de Frida overlooking the Sava.
Because our legs haven’t been through enough today, we then climb up to the fortress for panoramic views and a lovely walk amongst the trees before heading back to explore more of the town and stopping for our free scoop of Moritz Eis ice cream; which happens to be maybe the best I’ve ever had. It’s so good we buy another. I pick two more sorbet like creations – watermelon & ginger followed by balsamic strawberry. It’s dreamy.
We then head to the picturesque bohemian quarter and find a colourfully cushioned beer garden to relax the late afternoon hours away. On our way to catch a bus back to the hotel we pass no fewer than 10 Transformer type creations. We have no idea why. Our later evening plan starts as being finding food to take to the lake as the sun sets but materialises into a McDonalds chicken salad/random meat snack from a random meat selling hole in the wall on the hotel floor. It’s equally charming, in its own special way.
We’re due to leave on a 7am bus to Sarajevo so it’s an early wake up, early breakfast and an early wait outside the hotel as we eagerly look out for our next mode of transport to appear and whisk us away to Bosnia.