brutal. uninformed. opinions.
(based on first impressions)
Quite frankly, when was the last time you heard a travel review of a city that was not raved about and added to a top ten list with the description reading “you must visit this city if it’s the last thing you do”. Bullshit.
Travel has its ups and downs, with the former being in great supply and yet seldom written about. One of the downsides while travelling is having a not-entirely-positive experiences in one or many cities you may visit over your life. Though usually with time and a positive outlook, a little nostalgia develops and seemingly risky situations become categorised as character building.
It’s okay to be wrong, it’s ok to make mistakes (something that is not emphasised in our education), and it’s ok if you didn’t fall in love with that city. Learning to accept the situation for what it is and see the positives is a lesson far more valuable and memorable than that great time you had wondering the streets of Paris.
My first entry in a series under this category is from Niš in southern Serbia.
Niš – Serbia
(Friend) Q: Have you been to Niš? Did you enjoy it?
(Me) A: Yes. My friend got bashed in a bar and I got followed by two old men who I think wanted to pay me for sex in the cities castle fortress. And then there was the German Shepard I met while exploring an abandoned cemetery ruled by dogs that wanted to bite my face off.
Arriving in Niš after a week in Sofia, Bulgaria hanging out with some great travellers, and 2 weeks in the extremely hospitable Islamic Republic of Iran before that, walking through the streets to find my hostel at night, I was convinced every oversized, track suit wearing angry looking male staring me down was going to be the last oversized-tracksuit-wearing-angry-looking-male I’d ever have the displeasure of being stared down by. But I survived and arrived at the hostel. It was entirely empty and the owners treated me as though I was a nuisance intruding their space. So I left the next morning.
I had a good time in Niš, thanks mainly to my Couch Surfing host, a really cool Spanish guy and his dog named Gato (Spanish for cat, it was a dog with an identity crisis). We shared the best shopska salad I had in the region, danced, drank too much rakia and learnt some Ottoman history at the human skull tower.
My host worked for an EU volunteering program helping teens. From what I could tell they mostly drank beer and smoked weed, but hey, they organised some interesting events in between and it kept them off the streets so who am I to judge.
I thought I would see the number one tourist attraction in Niš – the castle fortress located right in the city. A perfect day out. Until I reached the far end of the fortress walls, and while exploring a few abandoned buildings noticed I had picked up a friend. An old Serbian man wearing a clear plastic bag on his head as it was lightly but constantly raining. From a far the bag could have maybe been mistaken as a gangster inspired bandana, but I can assure you it was definitely your common plastic bag.
He followed me around for a while. He was slow and old and I didn’t feel threatened, just assumed he was a curious local with no job and nothing much else to do. After a while I started doubling back and misleading him in the direction I was headed to throw him off, but to no avail, time after time he appeared 20 metres behind pretending to be a part time astronomer and starred into space each time I looked. I started getting… weirded out. But still thought nothing of it. After all I was in the city, a busy road with cars was in view and other people were walking around the fortress.
That was until I climbed down some rocks into the old moat that surrounded the fortress and lost old man #1, only to find myself 10 minutes later being followed by a new older man #2 wearing a long black coat, he had been hanging out in a small cave near a decaying basketball court. Again, highly confused, it didn’t click until I realised that the hand gestures he was making was not because he was hungry and asking for food, but asking for something a little less appropriate. I quickly walked back to the main path and back into the city, grossed out and not sure what to do or think. I had stumbled upon the local Grindr meeting place for Serbian grandpas or so it seemed. I do like to travel off the beaten path, but this was too far off for me. Time for a drink.
One night we went to a bar with my host and his colleagues. He drank A-LOT, stumbled into someone inside the bar and ended up on the floor with a guy stamping his face into the ground. This, one week after returning from Iran and I was starting to question why people think Iran is dangerous and first world alcoholic countries are not…
I saved the only thing left to do in Niš for my final day: explore the nearby abandoned cemetery. Entirely ruled by stray dogs, it was keeping in line with the theme that represented my time in Niš. The dogs kept their distance, following me from a far, but although I felt surrounded by dogs, there were some (1) dog walker that I saw. So I ate my lunch and continued photographing. After an hour the final tipping point arrived when I came across a German Shepard that was behind a fence in someone elses property 50 metres away, inside a locked cage, absolutely going crazy at me. Barking at me like it wanted to rip me apart, then find everyone I knew and do the same. He had a serious bone to pick with me (as no one else was around the overgrown cemetery on this overcast gloomy winters day). Despite the physical barriers between me and the dog, it was perhaps the most scared I have felt in 2 years of travelling, which includes surviving speeding drunk driver motorbike taxi’s in Uganda and getting separated from my raft while white water rafting down the crocodile infested Zambezi river.
Summary: I enjoyed my time in Niš, for all the reasons I don’t overly enjoy visiting a crowded tourist city. Niš was raw, unfiltered and always kept things interesting.
Conclusion: Always worth a visit. Definitely poorer than the more progressive and very cool student city of Novi Sad.
Verdict: Novi Sad I could live, Niš I would struggle.