What do you do when you’re trapped indoors because of freezing temperatures in the middle of a snowy Budapest winter? You go to the train station and find the cheapest ticket south. This is what my friend and I decided to do when the thought of hibernating for yet another day of sub-zero weather made us want to cry.
After a pretty thorough screening process, which involved a comparison of weather forecasts and ticket prices for possible destinations, we settled on Novi Sad, Serbia because of its proximity (only a 6 hour train ride away), the price of the tickets (around $20 or $30 roundtrip), and the excellent weather forecast (well above freezing in the low 50s). Not to mention its notoriety as a stop on the European summer music festival circuit.
Being the crazy, young, budget-minded travelers that we are, we decided to take two overnight trains (one there and one back the next day) in order to avoid the hassle of packing clothes and finding a hostel. So at 11pm, we boarded a train from Budapest’s Keleti station, hoping, rather than believing, we would fall asleep on the ride there.
True to expectations, we each caught only a couple hours of inconsistent sleep on the shaky train ride to Serbia. Upon arrival in Novi Sad at 5:00 am, we stumbled off the train into the frigid, dark morning. Of course, nothing really was open at that time besides a few cheap burek shops, which would have been perfect except for the fact that we didn’t have any Serbian currency. So, effectively penniless and without shelter, we decided to walk into town to warm up a bit and to kill some time before the banks and currency exchange offices opened.
After maybe 30 minutes of walking, we arrived in the deserted old town center. It was almost completely dead and we still had about two and a half hours before anything opened up. So, like sleepwalkers, we wandered aimlessly around the old town, exploring the side streets as well as the tourist-friendly center, trying our best to fight off fatigue.
This initial aimless wandering set the tone for the rest of the day. As the city started to come to life, my friend and I were steadily becoming less and less conscious of our surroundings. The only things we responded to were food stalls and park benches.
Let’s Begin with Park Benches:
Like I said, Novi Sad was supposed to be in the low 50s that day. Before leaving Budapest we had visions of unzipped coats, loosened-up limbs and normal-colored fingers. To our complete and utter disappointment, Novi Sad was only very slightly warmer than Budapest. Trying to keep warm completely drained any energy that remained in our bodies. By 10am we had already taken over a couple of park benches, trying desperately to soak up some sun while conking out in one of the only somewhat acceptable public places to do so. This happened periodically throughout our visit.
Thankfully there are some excellent open public spaces in Novi Sad. Most notable among them is the old fortress on the hill across the Danube from the old town. There’s not a whole lot to see up there besides the remaining structure, but there are excellent views over the river and the sprawl of the city. Plus, you can find plenty of lawn space for picnicking, or in our case, napping.
Another great park right next to the main shopping area in the old town has a pretty pond in the middle of it and tons of cats, too. There was an old lady walking around the park, strategically placing mounds of cat food at the bases of trees and under bushes. Seeing all the cats lazing about made it that much more acceptable for us to do the same.
On to the Food Stalls:
Serbia is a glutton’s dream come true. The streets are lined with bakeries, cafes, restaurants, and food stands. All of our money (once we finally found a currency exchange) went towards salty, greasy pljeskavica and equally salty and greasy burek.
If you haven’t experienced either of these, they should be put on your radar immediately. Pljeskavica is the Serbian version of a hamburger. It’s basically a spiced up beef and/or pork patty laid out on grilled flatbread, topped with raw onions and the magical ingredient that is ajvar (a fiery roasted red pepper paste). And while the thought of plejskavica still makes me salivate, it was burek that stole my heart, taste buds, and stomach all at once.
Burek is a very special, labor-intensive dish found in the Balkans. It consists of layers of thin flaky, oily dough (think Phyllo dough) interspersed with layers of salty cheese. It can also be made in meat, potato and spinach versions, but my favorite by far is the cheese one. If made well, the cheese literally melts in your mouth; the dough perfectly crisped on the outside and pleasantly soft and warm on the inside. In Serbia, and throughout the Balkan region, this is available almost everywhere. It’s commonly eaten for breakfast, putting our hearty American breakfasts of bacon and eggs to shame. A slice of burek easily weighs as much as four or five scrambled eggs.
This alternating between eating and sleeping took up a good portion of the 18 hours we spent in Novi Sad and it afforded us plenty of opportunities to explore the city. Would I do it again? Yes, definitely, if only for the burek! Would I take two back-to-back night trains again? Not such a high probability. By 4pm, we were dying to get back to Budapest and back to our beds.