You are slightly in trouble, in Serbia, if you cannot read the Russian alphabet. You are in less trouble if you can read the Russian alphabet, but actually, it doesn’t really matter either way, because you will definitely get lost as all the signs are in Serbian Cyrillic anyway.
This was the second lesson I learnt upon my arrival in Serbia. The first was that booking flights which cost less than a Domino’s Pizza – with an airline whose name sounds like someone clearing their throat of phlegm – will never, ever mean a luxury flight, and just might result in the boarding staff writing their phone numbers on your boarding passes (they did).
Our not-so-brief spell of wandering round the city of Belgrade, in the dark, with a map that was about as useful as a London Underground map would be to navigating the streets of London, ended when a kind couple took pity on us and decided to walk us to the street that we needed. The hostel was not promising – behind huge cast iron gates was an enormous, dusty council block. But as we got closer we saw the glimmer of fairy lights and the sound of laughter (ah, bring on the travelling clichés).
We, of course, after dumping huge rucksacks that we had prided ourselves on filling to their full capacity (error), did what most students do when they find themselves lost, uncomfortable, or in the company of strangers: accept the first alcoholic drink going, and precede to make merry. On local spirits. That the hostel had made themselves. That could quite possibly have been pure ethanol. Luckily, the fact that is was so unbelievably pungent meant that one glass was enough to be polite, but was also enough to make us very keen to try out the famed Belgradian nightlife. Reputably, every night in Belgrade is a Friday night, and whilst I’m unsure quite how that works, it was praise enough for us to want to go in search of that ‘Friday feeling’.
The most recognizable nightlife feature of Belgrade are the floating river clubs or barges (called ‘splavs’) that are spread along the banks rivers. In summer they form a party centre on the Makiš side of Ada Ciganlija Lake. We arrived, found one club absolutely rammed and decided by virtue of popular consensus that this was the place to go. It opened out onto the lake, which was a good thing in hindsight, because it was hot, sweaty and full to the brim. Everyone had come to enjoy what we discovered to be a live act, singing what appeared to be folk songs to dance tracks.
An ageing boy band reject was in the spotlight, wearing a lot of tight white, with a few too many shirt buttons undone and my companion and I entered, fully expecting to turn to the people surrounding us and have a bit of a joke at the poor man’s expense. Oh no. Everyone – and I mean everyone, including bar staff and surly bouncers – was singing along, with gusto. We were embarrassed not to know the words. I have been struggling to think of an English equivalent, and the only thing I could come up with was everyone in Bridge, militantly singing along to a remix of Jerusalem. It wasn’t quite our scene, but it summed up Serbia for me: taking you out of your comfort zone, but in the friendliest and most inclusive of ways.
Serbia, with its rather turbulent past, has yet to come within most people’s radar as a potential travel destination – the idea of travelling there is certainly not within most people’s comfort zone. The most exciting spot is undoubtedly its capital – a gritty, energetic city. It’s not a beautiful city by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s well worth a visit. Promise.