September 13 – October 11, 2017 (Beginning of Fall)
Greeting: добар дан (Dobar dan)
Gratitude: Хвала (Hvala)
Currency: Dinar (Дин)
Visa: 90 days in 180 RR
Cost of living: Low
Of all the places we’ve been on this trip, we found Novi Sad the friendliest. This compact Serbian city was surprisingly full of culture and curiosity. More than anywhere else, people wanted to know where we were from, what we thought of the area, and to help us find the best spots and foods to see and eat. Novi Sad’s history has been checkered; the region has been passed between empires and nations almost too many times to count. We heard it compared to a house built in the middle of a road – knocked down every time some else comes through. During Serbia and Kosovo’s split in 1999, it was heavily bombed by NATO. The city’s bridges and oil refinery were destroyed, and those scars have been slow to heal. Still, they have been healing, thanks to European Union investment and the resolute citizens of Serbia’s second city.
Where we stayed
This month we rented an Airbnb↗ right in the center of Novi Sad, on the main walking street of Zmaj Jovina. Our corner apartment spanned the top two levels of the building, the master bedroom and bathroom upstairs and everything else one floor down. The windows looked out in opposite directions over two separate courtyards (and had screens!). One was pretty empty except for a half dozen (kinda terrifying) kiddie rides. The was packed with table seating for a cluster of restaurants and bars. The din was pretty consistent in the evenings, but never too terrible and it quieted down at a reasonable hour. However, one of our apartment neighbors had no such curfew and sometimes blared music at all hours of the night or day. While our unit was on the nicer side, the building it was in had seen better days.
The apartment was nicely laid out. The first floor mostly consisted of a spacious living area with a TV, computer desk, dining table, and several couches and chairs. It also had a well-equipped kitchen and a small bathroom where the washing machine lived. An extra bedroom in the corner mostly stayed closed off and unused during our stay. We were much happier with the upstairs bedroom, which took up the entire upper floor between the roof pitches. A second, much larger bathroom even featured a hot tub. Our only issue was getting used to ducking around the low, angled ceilings upstairs – there were definitely some minor bumps and near-misses during our adjustment period.
What we did
We spent much of our time in the Old Town, since it was right downstairs and hard to miss. Most of the streets in the city center prohibit traffic and are given over to pedestrian-friendly pubs and shopping. The buildings in this part of town have a very Austro-Hungarian look and feel – a stark contrast to the ubiquitous communist-era construction everywhere else – with grand facades and tight passages that seem like they could hide all kinds of tantalizing secrets. We booked a free city tour↗ after we arrived, and it truly was free – our guide refused to accept even a modest tip. Novi Sad has a storied history, a crossroads of the region that has long been a melting pot of different nationalities and identities.
Perhaps for this reason, Novi Sad was one of the most anti-war cities in Serbia during the Kosovo War. Nevertheless, the city was targeted heavily during NATO bombing. All three major bridges across the Danube were destroyed (the final reconstruction only wrapping up just after we left town), and the local refinery was bombed in such a way that it enveloped the city in noxious chemicals. Despite this history, none of the Serbians we met were anything but kind and welcoming to us.
Just across the river, and technically in a separate town, Petrovaradin Fortress protected the Danube’s waters and now towers over the much-flatter neighbor Novi Sad. The sprawling stronghold houses restaurants, artists’ studios, museums, sculptures, and cafes. The giant upper courtyard is completely free to enter and affords great views of the river and the city below. Its also quite a popular spot for wedding photos. For a few days each summer the Fortress hosts the Exit Festival, a music festival that was founded as a protest against Slobodan Milošević in 2000 and which has grown into one of the biggest and most celebrated festivals in Europe. Almost as much fun? Seeing the castle from the opposite bank, which featured the most pleasant river-walk we’ve seen anywhere in the Balkans.
Just a quick bus ride past Petrovaradin is Sremski Karlovci, another historically important Serb city. Though small compared to Novi Sad, this town was home to Serbia’s first gymnasium (equivalent to a high school in the US, not a workout facility), the second-oldest Orthodox seminary, and probably Serbia’s highest concentration of wineries. The latter was what drew our attention. We found two places during our visit that were happy to share their wares. Vinarija Mrdanin, a family operation in its fifth generation, produces its vintages in their own home and uses grapes from their own fields. Their Merlot stood out as one of our favorites from anywhere in the Balkans. A short distance away, Dosen Winery had a tasting featuring several varieties of Bermet. A local specialty, Bermet is fortified and infused with at least 20 herbs and spices, similar to the “hunter’s wine” we tried in Lithuania↗. It was originally intended to be medicinal, but today serves as an aperitif or dessert wine. Sremski Karlovci was just the right size to see in a day, but had more than enough on offer to tempt us to return.
The Vojvodina Museum, just a few blocks from our apartment, traced the history of Novi Sad and the surrounding region. Only about half of the exhibits were in English as well as Serbian, though many were self-explanatory. The focus was clearly on the distant past rather than recent history, from the Roman era to the arrival of the Slavic people, and conquests by Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and others. Some of the most brilliant artifacts were the Roman helmets and pre-Roman figurines. One particularly interesting hallway was set up as a main street from a turn-of-the-century village. Given the fairly low price of admission, the museum was worth a visit, but only just. We would have liked to see their perspective on the events of the Yugoslav Wars.
We met a local at one of the many excellent conversation meetups who offered to take us hiking on Fruška Gora, which we of course accepted. The day we picked had lovely weather, sunny and just slightly warm. Starting from the town of Bukovac, we made a loop up the ridge behind the town, through the National Park on the mountain’s slopes, and then back across a different ridge line for our return. Farm fields (including those famous vineyards) cover the land next to the forest. We came across a number of interesting sights along the way: one of the world’s premier mountainboarding – which is apparently a thing – courses, the remains of an installation bombed by NATO during the Kosovo War, and of course excellent hiking on Fruška Gora itself, the “jewel of Serbia.” The entire day was a fantastic experience and our best hiking in months.
Food & Drink
Serbia has fabulous food, both spots for eating out and ingredients for staying in. We did a lot of both this month. The wonderful aromas of the courtyard restaurants outside our apartment were largely thanks to Toster Bar and Se7en Deadly Sandwiches. We had a “Serbian-style” burger at Toster, a thinner take made with both beef and pork. Of course it was delicious after a full day of travel. But nearby Se7en Deadly Sandwiches was objectively good in all conditions, arguably the best meal in town. The owner divulged that he was inspired by West Coast sandwich shops and food trucks, and it showed. These were easily be best sandwiches we’d tasted since leaving Seattle. Our favorite was the Gluttony, a huge portion of succulent beef, cheese, and grilled onion – aptly named!
We took care of most of our shopping at Republic Market, or at Maxi or Idea. The market had local and imported fruits, fresh eggs and cheese, and butchers selling poultry and red meat. It also had kiosks with great baked goods and to-go dining options. Burek King sold fresh breads and especially burek, the standard by which the filo-dough pasty would be measured all across the Balkans. They were essentially savory baklava, filled with cheese or ham or even pizza toppings like pepperoni. In Novi Sad, the signature style was a pie-style pan, distinct from the coiled-up strip common elsewhere. The market featured a tent for grilled street meat, and the best ćevapi we found during our stay. Serbian-style ćevapi came with a big scoop of pavlaka (a type of sour cream) instead of ajvar, but the combo worked surprisingly well.
The streets of Novi Sad were flush with popcorn vendors, an anomaly outside the United States and a real surprise for us. Chips and peanut crisps also featured heavily into our snack budget – quality was middling but Chipsy and Clipsy were acceptable choices of each.
Beer proved slightly better than in the neighboring Balkan nations. Sure, shelves were primarily stocked with awful lagers, but there was plenty of craft beers to go around, and even Jelen, the dominant macrobrew, was mostly inoffensive. We were lucky to live very near Beer Store, a craft brew shop full of solid local options like Kabinet (south of Belgrade), Razbeerbriga in Bukovac, and a bunch more. Tamno (dark) and imported options popped up here and there but were less common and often a bit pricier. Serbia’s bottle deposit scheme was a little obnoxious, requiring a receipt and return to the same store of purchase in exchange for waiving the deposit on the next purchase. Lots of legwork in exchange for still leaving money on the table when we left!
Like everywhere in the Balkans, rakija (brandy made from grapes or plums) was the liquor of choice, but like everywhere in the Balkans, it was pretty boring. Instead, wine from Fruška Gora was the true star. Besides the ones we tasted at Vinarija Mrdanin and Dosen Winery, we found plenty more to enjoy. We discovered a wine shop behind the Autoturist Agency on Mite Ružića. It specialized in very local wines, all from the surrounding area. Most bottles were under $10. The lower price tiers were more miss than hit, but anything above $5 was pretty much guaranteed to be quality.
We had thought that getting from Timisoara, Romania to Novi Sad would be relatively easy, as the two cities are a scant 120 km apart. Oh how wrong we were. There was briefly a train route that united Timisoara with Belgrade, crossing the border at Vršac, Serbia where we could then bus to Novi Sad. But just days before our transfer, that route was canceled and now stops short of the border crossing. Instead, we decided to order a door-to-door transfer from Autoturist↗. The price was steep, €75, but this was much better than any other car service, and we had to get to our reservation in Novi Sad somehow. Astonishingly, this was also our first land border crossing that required a passport check this entire trip (thanks Schengen↗!).
Though Uber↗ wasn’t yet available in Novi Sad, public transit was cheap and easy. And anyway, the city center was quite compact and walkable. We used the bus to get to Sremski Karlovci and Bukovac. Tickets can be purchased directly from the driver and start at 55 dinar, increasing with distance to outlying areas. Ours were a little over $1 pp each way.
For long-distance international travel, bus is clearly king in Serbia. Online ordering is still uncommon – most people purchase tickets inside the bus station – but we managed to find a website that sold us tickets to Sarajevo. However, we discovered that this price only covered the passenger fare, not the standard-in-Serbia “station fee” or “baggage charge.” Despite being early for our departure, we ended up racing the clock between the station agent, teller, exchange office, and back to catch our ride. We had spent down or converted all our dinar already, so the (admittedly modest) station fee of 130 dinar required a particularly hurried currency exchange. The driver charged the bag fee directly, just 60 dinar each.
Stuff of interest
This month we used Telenor SIMs↗. The SIM and the necessary top-up credit can be bought at any Tisak stand. We forgot to buy sufficient top-up credit on our first pass, so the lady at the kiosk got to know us a bit. The SIM itself was about $3 and enough credit for 3 gigs of data was around $4.
The exchange rate between US dollars and Serbian dinar was almost exactly 1:100, making conversions unusually quick and easy. Our favorite bill was the 100 dinar Tesla note.
Serbia uses both Latin and Cyrillic scripts. We were told which one is more common at any time depends on whether they are trying to align themselves more with the European Union or with Russia at that particular moment.
Foreign visitors are supposed to register with the Serbian police and provide their address. Hotels take care of this paperwork for guests, but those staying with friends or at an Airbnb are responsible for it themselves. We didn’t realize this until we’d been there a while. Apparently going too late is just as bad at not going at all. We asked around and it seems border agents usually don’t ask about it, which luckily proved accurate for us. Still, we highly recommend registering and we made sure not to repeat our mistake in Bosnia or Croatia.
As in the rest of the Balkans, smoking is deeply ingrained in the culture and still allowed inside many bars and restaurants. Some cafes even had cigarettes on the menu alongside snacks and beverages.
For a smallish city, there were a surprising number language exchanges, and meetups. The American Corner↗ even had a library of English-language books, movies, and games, and library cards were completely free.
What we learned
For our sort of travel, a place like Novi Sad is almost ideal. We could see the whole city and still have plenty of time for work. The quality and pace of life were a good fit. And it was cheap! Definitely a great choice for digital nomads.