You learn quickly that history and how it’s told is an especially sensitive matter in the Balkans. It reminded me of traveling in places like El Salvador and Chile. People wanted to make sure that we knew their side of the story.
It’s impossible to start with the headlines you might be vaguely familiar with from the ’90s. You want to talk Tito? Milošević? Yugoslavia? Fine. But you have to eat your veggies first––2,000-plus years of Balkan history. Even when I said I was interested in learning more about Yugoslavia and its downfall in the late 20th century, the response was, “Okay, so 500 years after Christ…” referring to when Slavic tribes first started moving into the Balkans. That’s as early as anyone was willing to start the story.
If we’re going to start that far back, I better grab a snack.
Food in Belgrade
I hope you like meat next to meat on a plate of meat because Serbians like their meats. Although my friend Katka, a recent American transplant to Belgrade, insists vegetarians and vegans can eat well, I think it’s fair to say that it’s not quite as expected as in, say, Berlin. Mixed meat plates are favorites at kafanas––usually a traditional tavern. Although you can find pricey spots in Skadarlija, the main bohemian quarter of the city with lumpy cobblestones covering the pedestrian thoroughfare.
If you’re a fan of the meats, you’ll eat well in Belgrade. There’s pljeskavice (a grilled meat patty with pork, beef, and lamb), mangulica (a breed of pig), and ćevapi (minced meat that looks like American breakfast sausage). Pljeskavice and mangalica are dishes in and of themselves, whereas you can find ćevapi on a mixed meat plate. But if sucking down different meats and sausages isn’t your bag, you can certainly find a lighter fare on the menu whether you’re at an informal kafana with the checkered tablecloth or someplace on the pricier side.
On a food tour with Alternative Serbia, our guide explained that lunch always starts with a soup like teleća čorba––a traditional beef stew. You can also fill up on breads like a fluffy, circular loaf of pogača, popular throughout the Balkans.
But the day starts with some pita sa sirom––a Serbian cheese pie with phyllo dough. You’ll find these at bakeries around town. Interestingly, the one we visited had a sign specifically notifying pregnant women that they could eat for free. All you have to do is take on a major life responsibility and you’ve got a filling breakfast for the next nine months!
But Belgrade food is hardly stuck in the past. One of the best meals I ate was at Endorfin on the edge of the Dorćol neighborhood––the quickly gentrifying hub is where you’ll find some of the city’s most interesting restaurants. My love for Endorfin was, perhaps, influenced somewhat by what I’ll call the travel factor. I showed up just minutes after my bags hit the ground at my AirBnB. There was a euphoria working its way through my veins, giddy about being someplace I knew little about. That, for me, is my travel happy place. It’s a place where I confront my ignorance of a particular place in the world. In the end, I’m always better for it.
That travel giddiness aside, the food was objectively phenomenal. Katka, no stranger to Endorfin, was quick to agree. For my money, nothing beat the grilled octopus fresh from the Adriatic Sea (though the mangalica was no slouch). We ordered seconds and I got to meet Chef Uros Zivkovic afterwards, who took note of the repeated order.
As much as I could happily eat my way through Belgrade, working my way through commands to “Eat! Eat! You must eat more!” and sipping rakija much to my future regret, you can’t escape the history. It’s not just an elephant in the room. It’s a ghost that lingers in limbo over your shoulder.
On Saturday night, my last night in town, I head over to New Balkan Cuisine to meet up with my buddy I’m traveling with and a friend of his, a guy born-and-raised in Belgrade. Turns out I just missed a protest of sorts. A group of people were making their way through the city center holding religious icons of Christian Orthodoxy.
“They’re praying for Kosovo,” I’m told. With that, we launched into our unavoidable history lesson.
History in Serbia
Like other territorial conflicts, I quickly learned that no retelling from an outsider of what happened in the ’90s through the early 2000s will please anyone. It’s easy to spot the buzzwords. “Kosovo is in Serbia,” for example, is a phrase I heard a handful of times. I’m fairly certain the consensus on that would shift depending on where you’re traveling in the Balkans. In Serbia, there was no mention of the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo or why NATO got involved in the first place with their aerial bombing campaign in 1999. You only hear about why Kosovo is so important to Serbians, that it’s their Jerusalem and the heart of Serbian culture.
But the omission of ethnic cleansing doesn’t lessen the lived experiences of Serbians who suffered from the NATO campaign, innocent civilians who had nothing to do with what was going on in Kosovo. One Serbian shared that a girl she played with as a child was killed by an airstrike at just three years old.
With experiences like that, you can understand why Serbians might be a little more interested in making sure their side of the story is heard. They want you to know that it was the first time NATO used military force without the approval of the UN Security Council. They want you to know that from their perspective, the campaign was a violation of the Geneva Conventions and that the United States played a leading role in their suffering by advocating for the NATO airstrikes in a tragically ironic campaign name of “Operation Noble Anvil” that was mistranslated in Serbian into the even worse “Merciful Angel.”
There was a time where I would’ve been more skeptical of one-sided storytelling, perhaps a bit more challenging. But who am I, who are any of us visiting a place like Serbia to say anything? Before Pearl Harbor, the most recent attack on my home country was when the Brits burned down the White House. I cannot even begin to fathom what living through a war on either side does to a person. I’m a guest in their country. I can Wikipedia later.
Ultimately, I left Belgrade grateful for the opportunity to hear these different perspectives. I’m grateful to the locals––new and old––who showed me around the pedestrianized city center where you can see touches of Belgrade’s European and Ottoman history, and corners of neighborhoods like Dorćol and Vračar I would’ve never found without someone holding my hand.
Bye Bye, Belgrade
One thing that I missed out on in Belgrade is experience the splav. As it was explained to me, these are clubs that hang over the Danube and Sava rivers. At some point in the early morning hours, they transition into a café until it’s time to start the party again.
I was, however, splav-adjacent at Ambar for Sunday brunch. Since our balcony did not hang over the river and instead pressed up against a pedestrian-cycling path, it did not count as a splav. But I could see a series of splavs on the other side of the river, each one looking like its own giant box of surprises.
With the heat inching back into the mid-to-upper 30s (90-some-degrees Fahrenheit), I was more than happy to camp out under Ambar’s awning and soak in the breeze coming off of the river. Plus I was about to be treated to one of the greatest breakfast spreads in recent memory.
By this point, I’m seeing some familiar faces on the plate. We’ve got a variety of soft, white cheese, a kind of Serbian corn bread (proja), more gibanica, fried dough balls (uštipci), something like chitlins (čvarci) that Serbians call “pork candy,” and spreads of kajmak (a buttery texture that comes from milk skimmed from the top after boiling) and ajvar––a relish of sweet bell peppers and sometimes egg plant that can be found across former Yugoslavia. Oh, and of course, more cuts of meat.
Back to ajvar, this wonderful condiment that’s been missing from my life for far too long. It’s simple but you can easily imagine all of the possibilities. Ambar certainly did with their eggs benedict topped with a healthy dose of ajvar. I mean, just phenomenal stuff. I implore you, find yourself some ajvar today.
Before slipping into a food coma, I followed my new Serbian friend for a meandering jaunt around Belgrade’s Fortress in Kalemegdan––an expansive park with winding footpaths around the ancient structure. There was a wedding party taking photos, somehow enduring the heat under their tuxes and dresses. We admired the views of the Sava feeding into the Danube and made our way to the shade.
It would seem my time in Belgrade was coming to an end. But there was one final, important stop we had to make––Luna Park Nomad, a longstanding amusement park within Kalemegdan. My new friend wanted, no, insisted on riding the bumper cars.
And so the cloud of the city’s heavy history felt like it lifted as I watched squealing children and their parents holding them while navigating their bumpers cars around two grown men slamming into each other.