Back to Belgrade!
Man, I love this city and telling people all about its magic. Luckily for me, its residents do as well. Dejan, our Airbnb host, enthusiastically shared a few suggestions that he thought would elevate our Belgrade experience. From museums to visit on a rainy day, to the optimal sunset-viewing point, to shortcuts and secret pathways to take, and more–his recommendations helped us locate Belgrade's hidden corners and enjoy some very special moments.
Dejan had told us to be at the Church of Saint Sava ten minutes before noon. "You'll know when it's happening," he'd said cryptically when we asked, for what? So at 11:00am that Sunday, we scrambled out of the apartment (running much too late, as per usual) and down Knez Mihailova, Belgrade's main street, towards the Vracar neighborhood:
...and exactly ten minutes before noon, we arrived out of breath and struggling hard, to our first sight of Saint Sava.
The Church of Saint Sava, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, towered above us in all of its white marble glory. Houses of worship as grand as this one always force me to take pause and drink in the splendor: mosaics created with fascinating detail, turquoise domes, pure hope and spirit emanating through its walls.
For ten minutes, we recovered from our long walk on a bench under the shade, wondering what it was that we were to be keeping an eye out for. Did we miss it? Was it even happening today?
But then, the clock struck noon and Saint Sava's bells began to chime. At first, it was a simple gong, gong.... gong... to mark the passing of the hour. Stilled into silence, we listened to each ring echoing metallically and then decrescendoing to allow its successor to shine. On and on, it went.
Soon, bells in all keys low and high tolled in concert, in reverential symphony for a solid fifteen minutes, lulling us into a state of peace and awe. And when the bells eventually quieted, Leah and I, the only ones dressed properly for church, stepped inside. Although massive and lovely, much of the interior is still unfinished and covered in scaffolding (although still open for services).
This was a most beautiful gift from Belgrade and from Dejan, we thought. A quiet, special morning preceding a busy day.
Our next stop was Villa Maska, a restaurant and cafe whose eclectically decorated interiors initially drew my interest when I was skimming Belgrade travel guides (think: all sorts of art and funky curiosities on the walls).
But the second we stepped into Villa Maska's garden, we staked out a table and didn't move for an hour or two. Coffee all around, plus a mojito to share after our waiter wouldn't take no for an answer. You have to do mornings the Belgrade way, he insisted.
So be it.
Villa Maska is an oasis of a place, tucked under a grove of trees that shelter from the sun and the hustle and bustle of a big city. Its only giveaway is a quirky little car at the entrance, covered in moss and capped off with a table-set.
Groups of friends huddle on couches in the back nooks, couples share stories and cappuccinos over small, mosaic-topped tables. It's quite like how I'd imagine a fairy garden to be like, complete with charmingly mismatched furniture and literal lovebirds nuzzling away in their cage.
A haven compared to what followed.
First, the Kalenić Pijaca, the biggest of local Belgrade markets. My goodness was it a CLUSTER (and this is from someone whose aunts regularly drag her to overwhelming markets in China). I swear, we were the only non-Belgradian folks there. Rows upon rows upon rows of butchers, fishmongers, fresh produce vendors. Then, there was a whole other flea market section. Old electronics, clothes, DVDs of yore, every darn thing you could ever need in one place.
But with everyone yelling in Serbian and barely any space to move, we high-tailed it out of there with not even a picture to prove that we had visited.
On our walk back to the apartment, we saw at first what seemed to be a couple of buildings in the middle of being demolished. Upon closer inspection, they were heavily guarded by officers wielding rifles. This was the well-preserved site of the 1999 NATO bombings.
As wonderful as traveling can be when it comes to spectacular views and exotic new foods, I think the most meaningful part of it is when you're faced with history. It's when I'm literally staring at vignettes of the past that I'm full of unanswerable questions and a sense of helplessness, yet more drive than ever before to educate myself, learn more, seek more, wonder more. It's not much in the grand scheme of things, but I can only hope that it's a step in the right direction.
I have this aversion towards restaurants that are clearly catered towards tourists. English menus, hosts who aggressively try to wave you in proffering hot dogs and hamburgers and free WiFi. They line every street popular to tourists, accompany every major landmark. Practically unavoidable.
But when 4/4 of your squad is suffering from severe hanger after sharing only two bureks over the course of the day, then all bets are off. We fell into the first place that looked decent, cooling off with iced Nescafes and Coca Colas, and pecked at subpar salads and bruschetta. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Not completely satiated, we veered towards the only thing that could save us:
Ahhh. That's better.
<Here, we scurried off to the grocery store to prepare for our picnic dinner for the sunset at Kalmegdan Park.>
Fast forward! Tipsy off of our cheap $2 strawberry wine as well as the splendor of the sunset, the four of us raced to our bar reservation. Belgrade is a reservation-heavy culture- most restaurants, bars, taxis and even nightclubs require a call on the day-of. The night before, Cassandra, Leah and I had tried to grab a drink at Bar Central, which was on the same block as our apartment and looked like the right vibe for us. But of course, no reservations = no dice, and so we made sure to put our names in for the next day.
Thank goodness for that! Bar Central's dark and moody when you enter, but adorably kitschy and fun once you get settled–it even has a subtle tiki theme. We loved it, mostly for the bartender who advised custom-made drinks based on our personal tastes.
Yep, he hit it out of the ballpark. Simple, tart and gin-based for me. Something a little sweet and bitter for Leah. A gorgeous creation for Cassandra that wasn't overly sweet, but packed a punch with its frothy egg white on top. And something fun and tequila-based for Hanna. We took a sip of our own, then passed each cocktail to the left, and continued this way until we reached our own again.
All amazing! But lo and behold, each of our favorites was the one that our bartender had hand-crafted for us. Thinking these speciality cocktails would come with a pretty high pricetag, we were shocked to see that the most expensive one turned out to be only like $5. Telling you–Belgrade magic.
We had a few more rounds of simpler drinks, competed to see who could take the ugliest Snapchats, laughed so hard my stomach legitimately started to cramp, chatted up some Swiss businessmen at the table next to us, and when they asked us which nightclubs we were hitting up after, we replied with