Why are the Balkans overlooked by Israelis as a travel destination?

TRAVEL ADVISOR: There is simply no reason that Belgrade cannot be elevated to the ranks of Prague and Budapest.

 PEOPLE VISIT the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade.  (photo credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)
PEOPLE VISIT the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade.

When it comes to travel, politics plays a large role. When a leader makes antisemitic comments, few of us ignore the insults, and we do our utmost to avoid traveling to that country. We’ve seen in the past few years when a country covets us, be it the United Arab Emirates, Morocco or Egypt, the planes are filled with tourists eager to spend their hard currency. This summer Israelis and Americans looking for a bit of a respite will return to their time-honored destinations of London and Paris and Rome. Short vacation getaways will see the streets of Prague and Budapest and Vienna filled with Hebrew-speaking tourists.

What is slowly becoming the next hidden jewel, though, is Belgrade. Belgrade is a smaller city, compared to other European capitals. To see all the highlights of Belgrade, you don’t need more than four or five days. But what’s astonishing about Belgrade is that it has a lot of hidden secrets.

It is located at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, with a waterfront revival that makes Tel Aviv Port seem anemic. I was taken aback at how the city is primed for tourists. So much of the riverfront where the port lies has been transformed to kilometers of shoreside restaurants offering a wide assortment.

Belgrade is also known as the White Fenix or House of War. It was fought over in 115 wars and has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 44 times during its history. Most of us couldn’t tell a Serbian from a Croatian and would be hard pressed to state all the new countries that emerged after the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Serbia was involved in the Yugoslav Wars – in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo – which took place between 1991 and 2001. Many of us remember the former president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, who was convicted of war crimes and died in a Dutch prison in 2006.

 WALKING BY the bank of Sava river in Belgrade.  (credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS) WALKING BY the bank of Sava river in Belgrade. (credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)

When I was invited to be a guest of Belgrade, you can imagine my consternation. I knew that the vast majority of Yugoslavian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust and that only a few thousand remain. I learned that they had been particularly targeted, as Hitler sought to punish ethnic Serbs and Jews for the German defeat in World War I. I’ve traveled to Beirut in the past, and my lack of sensitivity to how Belgrade has been transformed was quite apparent.

To say I was blown away by what I saw and by the potential for a mass influx of incoming tourism would be an understatement. Start with the fact that Israel and Serbia have had diplomatic relations for over 30 years, and while the politicians have their differences, Air Serbia, the national carrier, flies several times a week between Belgrade and Tel Aviv. Israir isn’t planning on resuming its pre-COVID flights, but Arkia will be tempting the local public.

There is an honorary consul of Serbia in Israel and even a Serbian Chamber of Commerce, but the Serbian government doesn’t seem ready to invest in promoting the country.

Serbia a nation of incredible nature, nightlife and history

Serbia is a nation of incredible nature, passionate nightlife, and monumental history, but most visitors come away from the country with one very important aspect at the top of their “Reasons I love Serbia” list. That would be the Serbs themselves, of course. Or as my hosts loved to state: “Serbian hospitality.” The people make the country, and that is particularly true in a state that has spent most of the last two decades being frequently demonized. Serbs are a rare breed, unique in some incredible ways, and surprised me at every turn.

TAKE, FOR example, our visit to the Royal Palace.

The Royal Palace is the official residence of the Karadordevic royal family. The Royal Palace was built between 1924 and 1929 with the private funds of His Majesty King Alexander I. Befitting a royal palace, it was filled with treasures galore and even had a cinema in its basement. As the five of us were traipsing through this palace, escorted by security, our hostess informed us that the Serbian crown prince wanted to meet with us, as he heard we were from Israel.

Keep in mind that our attire was jeans and a shirt. Now imagine His Royal Highness Crown Prince Alexander in all his splendor entering his sitting room. His charisma was apparent. For five minutes he regaled us with stories of his father, King Peter II, who in 1944, in London, married Princess Alexandra of Greece and Denmark. On 17 July 1945, while living in Claridge’s Hotel, Queen Alexandra gave birth to a son – HRH Crown Prince Alexander.

Alexander, the heir to the throne, was born on Yugoslav territory, as the British government, under the orders of prime minister Winston Churchill, declared suite 212 in Claridge’s Hotel Yugoslav territory. He was baptized in Westminster Abbey with godparents King George VI and HM Queen Elizabeth II.

After the war, Peter II was illegally prevented from returning to his country by the Communist regime, which had seized power in Belgrade. He never abdicated. The king and queen lived in exile in many countries. Alexander was educated at Trinity School in New York City and several other places. He subsequently went to the British Royal Military Academy and in 1966 was commissioned an officer in the British Army. After leaving the army in 1972, Alexander, who speaks several languages, pursued a career in international business.

Although Peter II died in 1970, the crown prince, as the heir to the throne, decided at the time not to use the title of king – which he felt would have had little meaning in exile. He made it very clear at that time that he was not renouncing his title or the dynastic right to the throne.

In 1991, accompanied by his family, he traveled to Belgrade, where they were very enthusiastically received by hundreds of thousands of people, who saw him as the embodiment of all that is best for democracy and a constitutional parliamentary monarchy.

His family has been battling the Serbian government to have the palace returned to its control, stating unequivocally that his grandfather built it with private funds. I did inquire how he felt about visitors traipsing through his home, to which he simply smiled.

It was his candor about the government of Israel that left all of us gobsmacked. Most politicians are by nature quite sanguine in their comments about a foreign government; few feel obliged to opine to a group of commoners what they truly feel. He told us how much he detested the Communists who ruined his father’s life; how he abhorred anything that smacks of dictatorship. He feels strongly about his Serbian homeland, and will be proud to serve in whatever role the government determines.

He knows the prime minister of Israel; in fact, he met him the first time in Amman at King Hussein’s funeral in 1999. So when he went on a 10-minute diatribe about how he viewed the potential judicial reform, our jaws dropped. It is not what he said about the demonstrations or what he would do if he lived in Israel, it was the directness that took us all aback. Few of us have met royalty; even less have been jawboned by a 77-year-old blue blood who showed so much emotion. Now whether he spoke to us in confidence or expected us to pass the message on is unclear, so I shall keep his explosive comments to myself.

Soon after, we had the opportunity to break bread with the Israeli ambassador, Yahel Vilan. A Foreign Ministry appointee, he’s been stationed in Serbia for over three years and has seen the city develop. While he was convivial and warm, he was the prototype of the proper diplomat. Not a word was raised about the government he now serves. We spoke openly about his struggles to converse with the Serbian leadership. When Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, Israel was quite vocal in its support. The Serbian prime minister has yet to meet with the Israeli ambassador – a form of being diplomatically snubbed.

THE SERBS are accused of a lot of things, but lacking passion is not one of them. It can often land them in particularly hot water, but the people of Serbia have an inherent tendency to give their all to the subjects that they care about the most. It is infectious, to say the least, and just asking them about their basketball team or their tennis legend, Novak Djokovic, leads the Serbians to explain why they prefer basketball and tennis over soccer. It also means you probably shouldn’t go starting any arguments with Serbs on sensitive subjects.

You don’t survive countless wars and international demonization without being incredibly tough. The people of Serbia survived an entire decade of such misery, as the Milosevic regime lurched from one chaotic mistake to the next and left the ordinary folk to clean up the mess. Ordinary Serbs were bombed by NATO in 1999, despite doing their utmost to get the despot out, but still they refused to be beaten down. Instead of cowering in bomb shelters, the people took to the roofs and had BBQs while wearing T-shirts with targets printed on them. If that isn’t toughness, I don’t know what is.

What overwhelmed me about the staff in the hotels and salespeople in the opulent malls, along with the waiters and waitresses we encountered, was the Serbian hospitality. The entire Balkan region is renowned for its hospitality, and the Serbs are well and truly a part of this. The Serbs will go out of their way to make sure a good time is had by all, and nothing is going to get in the way of that.

While their cuisine was beyond reproach, with 17 restaurants holding a Michelin star, their creativity with dairy and vegetables is what tickled our fancy. They do have a problem with kosher food. In the past the rabbi of Belgrade was able to assist with kosher meals at several hotels, but we were told this is no longer an option.

The only kosher meals provided are to Holocaust survivors living in Belgrade, and this is subsidized by the Joint Distribution Committee, so they cannot provide meals to tourists anymore. Kosher meat in Serbia is available only for the small Jewish community living in Subotica. As for importing kosher meat from Hungary, the European Union has put an end to that, as Serbia is not yet a part of the EU.

Otherwise, the Balkan cuisine is something worth trying. It relies on vegetables and cheeses to create mouthwatering dishes.

There is simply no reason that Belgrade cannot be elevated to the ranks of Prague and Budapest. The infrastructure is there; the riverbanks are throbbing with good food and music. While reminders of Belgrade’s rich history are present throughout the city, most notably in the old Belgrade Fortress, Belgrade features an abundance of cultural attractions and a wide range of events that draw visitors from across Europe. As one of Europe’s oldest cities, located at the crossroads of the East and West, the capital of Serbia is an incredibly rich mosaic of different cultures, influences and styles, with a mysterious and exotic atmosphere.

European but with oriental influences, Belgrade is a great three- or four-day break, with tons of interesting sights and attractions, splendid architecture, a fast-paced nightlife, great and affordable shopping, as well as a thriving cultural scene. Serbia shares its borders with Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo, a country it doesn’t recognize.

I have been blessed to travel to hundreds of cities, and my short journey to Belgrade led me to one simple conclusion: Once the Serbian government realizes that now is the time to invest in tourism, it will be overwhelmed with visitors. Until then, I will imbibe my rakija.

The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem, and a director at Diesenhaus. For questions and comments, email him at mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il