Every so often on one trip or another, there is a place that keeps drawing you back time and again, somewhere that can feel like a semblance of a home during the transient lifestyle of long-term travel. During our Eastern European travels, we found this kind of solace in a place not conventionally synonymous with the term: Belgrade, Serbia.
Belgrade is no hidden secret among Balkan backpacker crowd as it has become notorious in the past years as one of Europe’s top party destinations, and in that aspect, it certainly does not disappoint. But there is something at its core that makes it so wild, so alive, so bursting with vivacity.
The city has had a troubled past, that fact can be unanimously undisputed, but it has rebuilt itself with such fervour and audacity you could never know of the devastation that Belgrade had seen just seventeen years previously. In that lies its magnetism; the young citizens of Belgrade seem to be steadfastly forward thinking, determined to leave the connotation of the war-torn Balkans rightly in the past.
Belgrade is not a beautiful city, not on the surface anyway. It doesn’t have the aesthetic appeal of Budapest or Prague or Paris. It can be gritty, dirty, and derelict in places; but it does carry a sort of deep, visceral beauty that can manifest itself if given a chance. It is a city that kept calling me back again and again and it was always a privilege to return, to carefully chip away at what Belgrade had, at its core, that spoke to my soul in such a way.
We weren’t the only one’s to feel this aching draw either. No, we met myriad travellers who kept returning; we knew a few who found it almost painful to leave. At one time, the hostel was half-full of people who were there on their second or third or fourth visits. And it was a certain kind of person who continued to return as well; someone who was looking for something more from their journeys than an SD card full of photos and a handful of hazy memories. Those who end up really loving Belgrade are those who allow it to envelop their soul. And there is no denying it; the city is magnetic.
Multi-layered and complex, Belgrade seemed to be like the ultimate backpacker’s sanctuary. But beyond wild parties and litres of rakija is a city full of people determined not to let the past define them but intent on remembering where they came from; welcoming tourists with a warmth and hospitality that is nearly unparalleled – darkly humorous and unbelievably kind. Above all, Belgrade is a city that needs to be experienced and understood and it deserves to be seen as more than a party destination.