Hey everyone! I’m doing something a bit different today: a bit of a travel journal with pictures from my trip to Belgrade. If that’s not your thing, scroll down to the end for the story of this dish and my take on it!
After my best friend Katerz and I spontaneously decided to book a little trip to Belgrade a few weeks ago, neither of us did much in terms of preparation. So come the Monday morning when we flew out, we didn’t really know what to expect. I hastily Googled things to do in the city and took notes, but after dropping our bags off we pretty much sauntered into the world with only a vague idea of what was in store for us.
View of Belgrade from Kalemegdan park
Giddy with excitement, we started our first day in Belgrade with a wander through Kalemegdan park, which is super close to where we were staying.* The park is home to Belgrade fortress – basically a collection of walls and gates from fortresses built throughout centuries, dating back to the Roman times. You can wander the grounds for free and get spectacular views of the Danube & Sava rivers. During the day the park is essentially yours for the roaming, but at night it turns into a bumping place for the locals.
*Side note: for 40 euros a night, we had a private apartment complete with a lovely deck, our own kitchen, wifi, and breakfast. SO inexpensive, and very comfortable! Plus we were within walking distance from everything we wanted to see and do in the city centre. Only one down side: our first two nights were very quiet, but on the third (a Wednesday), the lovely little family neighbourhood suddenly seemed to turn into a mini rave district 😛 Something to bear in mind if you’re thinking of planning a trip!
View on the Sava from Kalemegdan park
Next, armed with our maps and with our cameras around our necks – rather like sandwich boards with TOURIST written in big block letters, particularly as tourists seemed to be few and far between – we set out towards the downtown area.
Belgrade is unlike any place I’ve ever been before. The streets are steeply hilly, almost reminiscent of Paris in certain areas, and lined with wildly contrasting structures. Even in the Knez Mihailova area, the main shopping district, there’s a sharp juxtaposition of stately, glistening buildings laden with engravings and sculptures; dilapidated, sometimes even boarded up apartments & shops spattered with bullet holes (leftovers from the first and second world wars, we were told); and distinctly communistic blocks dating from Tito’s reign.
The parliament is made up of pristine structures on the one hand, and the crumbling remains of buildings that NATO bombed in the 90s on the other.
Typical sights in downtown Belgrade
The main street in our neighbourhood, Cara Dusna
In our three days in the city, we took two excellent walking tours with Belgrade Walking Tours – the free downtown walking tour and the communist walking tour. They were two VERY different experiences, but both were excellent and I highly recommend them. The communist walking tour in particular was fascinating. My advice: brush up on your history before you take it, be open minded, and be prepared to think critically. Vague I know, but it dealt with some pretty loaded topics so I’ll leave it at that.
A hilly downtown street
On our third day, we headed over to Zemun, a part of Belgrade across the river. We walked, which I definitely DO NOT recommend doing… we were at it for over two hours! But it was well worth it. Apparently you can rent bikes, but to be honest neither of us thought it seemed like the safest option – particularly on and around Branko’s bridge. We took a bus to get back, which contrarily to what we’d been told was perfectly fine. If I went back, that’s definitely what I’d do. You can grab a few near Republic Square that will take you there in about 15-20 minutes for 150 RSD (that’s just over 1 euro, and you can buy tickets on the bus).
Zemun has a very different feel than the downtown area does – it’s almost like a little beach town (or at least it was when we were there), with a nice promenade down by the water, lots of ice cream stands, and colourful buildings everywhere. It’s also home to Gardos Tower, where for about 2 euros you can climb to the top and get absolutely stunning views of the city. I highly recommend making the trek out there!
Beautiful church across from Gardos Tower
View from Gardos Tower
One of the highlights of the trip for both of us was our dinner in Skadarlija on our first night. Which brings us – finally – to Serbian baked beans.
Skadarlija is described as the Bohemian area of the city. The streets are cobblestone and pretty as a picture, and lined on both sides with lovely restaurants. We headed to the Three Hats, which is what the Serbs apparently call a kafana: a sort of hybrid between a café and a restaurant, where traditional food is served and musicians circle the tables, playing folk music. We were lucky enough to get a table right out on the patio, and in combination with the food, the atmosphere, and the warm night air, it was one of those perfect travel experiences that I feel like I often seek out but that are ultimately impossible to plan.
Vegetarian food isn’t exactly plentiful in Belgrade – the girl at the hostel pretty much laughed when we asked about it! – but Katerz had already been to the Balkans and so she knew exactly what to do. Under her wise direction, the table was soon groaning under a basket full of warm, pillowy soft bread, kaymak (a Serbian specialty cheese that you NEED to try), grilled vegetables, a fresh & crunchy salad, and – of course – smoky, hearty, delicious Serbian baked beans.
As we feasted, the band serenaded a table of young girls clearly dressed up for a special occasion, and soon they were all standing, singing & dancing to apparently very popular Serbian music. Seriously, the scene could have been straight out of a movie. And then it got even better: suddenly, there were kittens scurrying under the tables. I may or may not have cried tears of happiness…
In my defence, we’d also ordered honey rakija (a Serbian brandy) – SUPER delicious! We later tried an apricot variety that was so strong that it was barely drinkable to us wilting petunias, but the honey was a big hit.
Keen to recreate at least some part of that magical first evening, I’ve tried my hands at my own Serbian baked beans.
Full disclaimer: even though the menu indicated that the dish was vegetarian, based on my Googling of recipes I’ve since come to the conclusion and accepted that the beans were likely cooked in some sort of meat fat 😛 Maybe that’s skeptical of me, and obviously I’d love to be wrong about that, but I have my suspicions! To bring in that smoky, meaty flavour here without compromising on my principles, I use smoked paprika instead, and in my opinion the flavour is quite comparable to the original dish.
Final thoughts: both of us absolutely loved our trip to Belgrade. There is so much history and culture, and there are so many beautiful things to see. Since our return, we’ve continued to marvel at our time there, and we’ve already promised each other that we’ll be heading back to the Balkans next time Katerz is in Europe! In our experience everyone was very friendly and willing to help out, whether they were waiters or strangers offering us directions on the street, and the city itself is quite walkable and easy to navigate – even for me! 😛
My take on the lovely Serbian baked beans I had as part of a delicious dinner out on a terrace in Skadarlija, Belgrade.
*Some of the recipes I looked at explicitly called this caramelization, but I don't bother to bring them quite to that level of jam-ishness, as I don't remember them being that way at the restaurant. **The beans we had in Belgrade were very dry, which I quite enjoyed, but based on my Googling there are 100 different ways to go here, so if you want them more stew-y and saucy, then by all means, add in more stock!