#BestNineIn2015 is quite the popular hashtag over on Instagram, revealing users’ most liked photos of the year. In the spirit of the tag, I put together Balkan Explorer’s own “Best of 2015,” highlighting nine of reasons I choose to live where I do. May this clear up some of the mystery and confusion and head-scratching that inevitably occurs when I say I voluntarily reside in Belgrade, Serbia.
2015 began with a shift from the Bay of Kotor to Bar, about three hours south (as the Balkan bus drives) and on the open waters of the Adriatic Sea. Few tourists find Bar, a working class town that serves as Montenegro’s main port, all that appealing. But its long promenade along the sea’s actual waves was exactly what I needed during the month I spent there — some time spent trying to clear my head and deal with the shock and confusion that comes with being fired from a job with no explanation given. There’s no good way to cope with the loss of a major part of your identity, but Bar’s beautiful sunsets helped a bit.
I took this photo before I realized there are photo editing tools available for your phone, so please don’t judge its quality. The important thing to note here is that this pan offers up an enormous homemade (!) burek. Burek, also known as pita depending — literally — on which way you slice it, is a savory pie filled with meat or potatoes or spinach or mushrooms or cheese. There will be much, much more written about burek on this site. Suffice it to say, in Montenegro it’s extremely difficult to find delicious burek in the bakeries, which is heartbreaking after having lived in Sarajevo, where nearly every pekara provides a perfect pie. We bought this (cheese) one from the next-door neighbor in Bar and it was spectacular. Finally.
Above the River — Zemun, Serbia
Zemun is a distinct neighborhood of Belgrade that retains a feel of its former life as a separate town. Again, there will be more coming on this subject. This photo is from the lookout of the old guard tower, looking down on the Danube and beyond to the city that would become my home. Serbia might be landlocked, but Belgrade is where the Sava connects with the Danube, and it is along the two rivers that the city both plays and relaxes.
Tron Pale Ale
Serbia is just getting into craft brewing, with its most recognizable (and delicious) brewer being Kabinet. But this beer is from the country’s newest producer — or its newest a few months ago — and this glass is actually from the first keg delivered to the little pub on the edge of Belgrade’s historic center. It’s a quality example of a pale ale and I’m excited to try more from Tron. And from any other microbreweries Serbia wants to serve up.
Swimming on the Bay of Kotor — Herceg Novi, Montenegro
Herceg Novi isn’t considered one of the more beautiful towns on Montenegro’s fjord-like Bay of Kotor, but it sure can be gorgeous on sunny fall days. It was difficult to get used to the lack of sand — that’s a bunch of concrete extending to the water — but it’s hard to miss that sand clinging to toes and ears and the backs of knees.
My Birthday Cake
I’ve yet to meet anyone from the Balkans that isn’t infallibly generous. They must exist, but hospitality seems ingrained in the vast majority of the people, and along with that comes generosity. This is the remains of my little birthday cake, baked just for me, to make sure I didn’t get too homesick on the day
Crvena Zvezda — Belgrade, Serbia
Red Star’s fans are known for being hooligans, thugs, violent jerks — whatever you want to call them. There’s no denying segments of the supporters have that reputation for a reason, but I’ve never felt unsafe at the Marakana, Zvezda’s home stadium, even when flares are lighting up the stands. In fact, I love watching the kids that come along to the games, knowing that another generation of fans is being raised for this team, rather than one of the elite European clubs.
Is coffee the most defining characteristic of the Balkans? Quite possibly. “Have a coffee” is shorthand for “let’s go hang out and talk for hours and allow a drink (not always coffee) to sit in front of us while we catch up, even if we saw each other yesterday.” For the most part the coffee is good no matter where you go, but one of the great things about Belgrade these days is its emerging coffee culture. New shops are opening that focus on fresh-roasted beans, different blends and single-origin brews. The same tendency to linger and relax remains, thank goodness.
It’s difficult to create a home away from home. Even the expact that’s most thrilled to be settled in their new country is likely to acknowledge this. The trick (for me at least) is finding a place that feels like it might be a home, as opposed to a place you merely sleep, and slowly filling that place with things you love. My Belgrade apartment is lined with hand-made bookshelves that display my treasures and, yes, my cats. It’s difficult to put into words just how much comfort my two cats bring me — they’re like portable loneliness blockers that always manage to sense when I’m feeling sad. A crazy cat lady? Perhaps, but at least I feel like I’m at home.
May 2016 bring plenty of travel, exploration, learning, wandering, and adventures to you — whether it’s across the world or across your street.
(and may it bring more actual Balkan Exploring for me, as this post showcases just two countries for 2015).