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Belgrade, Serbia: Hedonist Hostel

Running low on travel funds and needing to survive the two weeks until my flight back to the states, I asked the internet to please tell me which cities in Europe are the least expensive to visit. Krakow and Budapest were high, but in addition to having already been to each of these wonderful cities, Belgrade was rated even more highly for the cash-strapped. And so, knowing little or nothing about the history of Serbia, former Yugoslavia, or even the contemporary culture, I bused overnight from Zurich to Belgrade.

The area around the bus station, which was my first glimpse of Belgrade, seemed greatly dilapidated. I had talked my friend into joining me in this Balkan Country, and as we were holding our hands over our wallets and shivering in the cold, I worried that he was lamenting desirable locations such as Vienna and Prague; locations which had been superseded by, what initially, appeared to be an “all too authentic” cultural experience for westerners.

We found a trolley and what we thought was a corpse inside. We watched the man, heaped over a chair, for signs of breath, for a rising and falling of his back. Turns out he was just drunk. Only hours later, when my friend and I first experienced Serbia’s greatest attraction—the nightlife—we understood why the streets around the bus stop may be neglected, the bombed buildings left standing, and trolley’s burdened by drunks: the nightlife is too good to worry about anything else.

And the best way to experience the nightlife of Belgrade is with the guidance, and if you’re lucky, the personal leadership, of Hedonist Hostel’s staff. Hostel World rates Hedonist at 95%, and if you read the posted reviews, this is mostly because of the exemplary staff. As we opened the door we immediately heard a, “welcome!” shouted from the reception desk. And then, only seconds later, we were playfully being made fun of and chided.

“A little early for such friendliness,” I thought as I closed the door to our room. A moment later there was a knock, and just like the breath of the man not dead but drunk, there was the jokester holding two cups of freshly made Turkish coffee.

My stay in Serbia’s capitol could be explained most effectively as a series of revelations. First—a necessary bit of backdrop—when I was a boy, a Croatian family stayed with my family for a bit of time because Serbian authorities had sacked their small shop. This was prior to NATO’s bombing of Serbia. As you can imagine, the opinions and emotions expressed by our guests had a powerful impact upon my young consciousness, and that in addition to the unavoidable bias of all media, created certain predisposed notions within myself regarding the former home of Milosevic. Well, though the atrocities of ethnic warring, and the proved guilt of many Serbian war criminals in not debatable, there is most certainly, always, another “side” of things—another perspective that by definition is not the same. From Serbs my own age I heard stories of their village’s bridge being bombed, the economic difficulties that life had presented so far, and the consciousness that westerners looked down upon Balkan peoples. I heard all of this from someone who was not consulted by any of the decision makers of Serbia’s dark days.

Another revelation was that our hostel workers were not working for tips.

My friend and I, confused by the seemingly genuine care provided by our hosts, as well as their playfulness, assumed that a small sign inside of our door, written in Serbian, must be a “tip scale.” Days later, while out with a hostel host, drinking at a wonderful bar hidden high in an apartment building—a place we never ever would have found and could not find again—we finally felt comfortable enough to make a joke about how the hostel staff “really earns their tips.” They don’t get tipped. They are simply the best staff, of the eleven or so that we encountered on our trip, a hostel can have.

The last revelation was the nightlife. While sitting in the common room, shortly after initially arriving, everyone who met us asked us if we had come for the “legendary” nightlife. “No,” we said, “we came because the Internet told us that it wasn’t expensive (which was correct).

“Well what else does it take to make a place’s nightlife legendary?” almost all of them responded. And they were right. If you like a hybrid coffee-shop and bar, the traditional kafana or a hidden “apartment bar” will suit. If for you, “nightlife” means a late dinner, the Bohemian section of town is not like a rowdy college street, but is a mixture of traditional restaurants of kafanas. And for those who like house music, electronic music, or even hip-hop, the club scene is dense and rich.

Give Belgrade a chance; I’m glad that I did. And if you’re still unconvinced, check the conversion rate.

Published December 31st, 2012 by Wilson Sims
Posted to Wayward Traveller

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