We found the Serbs to be very outgoing and generous in face-to-face interactions but that all dropped away on the roads and biking in Serbia is a white-knuckle affair. Like in Croatia, they drive with a "Get out of my way" attitude towards everybody and everything on the road. Their rudeness isn't reserved for bikes. The narrow roads with little shoulder make for a difficult riding situation. We rode north to south through the major cities of Novi Sad, Belgrade and Niš along a road that paralleled the freeway, which should have off-loaded much of the traffic. We won't do it again--too dangerous.
Maps & Guide Books
Good road maps in Serbia were hard to come by. On our way out of the country a tourist info person gave us a gem called "10 Perfect Places, Road-Tourist-Geographical Map, Corridor X" put out with the support of a US agency helping to develop tourism in Serbia. It's not a detailed road map but indicates key places along the north-south corridor through the country. It lists the things we had longed to know, like which towns have lodging, the 3 towns in the country with Wifi, and locations of special interest. The "10 Perfect Places" are not however, the top 10 sights in the country but contest winners for a tourism development project in 2004.
Bradt Travel Guide: Serbia, edition 1 by Laurence Mitchell and the Serbia section of Lonely Planet Eastern Europe were our sources for travel information. The Bradt Guide was just Serbia so of course had more detail but their city maps were far less convenient to use than Lonely's. Both guides listed addresses and street names on their maps using our familiar Latin alphabet whereas most of the time we only saw Cyrillic on the streets which was totally frustrating. If you'll be in 'Cyrillic-land' for more than a few days it's worth an evening to learn the alphabet to ease navigating on and off the bike.
Serbia seems to be on a 2-tiered pricing structure. Fresh local produce was incredibly cheap--in the range of 25 cents a pound or less for peaches, plums and tomatoes. An ample quantity of bread for our lunch cost 25 cents in Serbia and we often paid $2 elsewhere. Other foods in grocery stores were a little cheaper than other countries but not dramatically so like the bread and seasonal produce. Bus rides were 30-40 cents each way and museum entrance fees were often under $1. But telephone calls to the US on an antiquated system were the most expensive we'd paid in Europe, running about $1.50/minute. Elsewhere, discount phone cards can drop the rate to under 10 cents a minute when we are lucky. Mailing a small box the size of a Harry Potter book was $27--ouch! A bare-bones, 3 person university dorm room serving as a summer youth hostel seemed overpriced at $30 for 2 people per night for the economy as did comfortable hotel rooms with private bathrooms that ranged $50-65. A half gallon bottle of beer sold for a dollar so it was the empties for these beverages rather than water bottles that peppered the road side.
Learning the Cyrillic Alphabet
We had a lot of resistance to learning the alphabet but surprised ourselves by getting a working knowledge of it in an evening. We broke the alphabet into 4 categories. The first were the letters that are the same in the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets which we learned as the mnemonic "MAKE JOT." The next group where the imposters, the letters that look the same in both alphabets but aren't: X, H, Y, C, B, and P. The third group were the letters with 2 or 3 variants: c, d, l, n, s, and z. (For our purposes it was enough to recognize a Cyrillic letter as "1 of the c's" without knowing which 1 it was.) The last group was the remaining odd ball letters. Be aware that in this hurried little system 1 "n" and 1 "s" are learned twice.
By the way, in conversation, German was the most useful second language in Serbia but in print, it was clearly English.
For calling the US, dial "991" instead of the usual "001" for the country code.
There don't seem to be any discount phone cards available and the largest phone card, 500 dinar ($7) will buy you less than 5 minutes for calling the US. The telephone centers at the post office are the only other option. At some you leave a deposit and they refund what you don't use, at others you pay after completing your call.
We call in once a week to our voice mail box to pick-up messages left by family and friends and to update our 3 minute outgoing message with our travel plans. This maneuver requires a touch tone phone and the some of the Serbian post office phone systems are rotary despite their numeric key pads. But a clerk in Belgrade knew a trick that the one in Novi Sad hadn't known: dial your US number, beginning with 991, then the area code and number. Once your US number is ringing, press the "*" key, which will switch something somewhere from the analog system to touch tone. We were then able to enter our voice message system with QWest and use all of its keypad functions.
Connecting a laptop to the internet is challenging in Serbia.
Belgrade: we finally found one internet shop with an Ethernet plug for our laptop though never found any WiFi in Belgrade. The shop is XPLATO at Akademski Plato 1 off the main pedestrian area on Knez Mihailova near tourist info. The phone number is 3030 633. The internet shop is in a bookstore that is engulfed by a cafe.
Niš: The cafe/bar Incognito near 'Trg Svetog Save' a mile or 2 from the center of the city has WiFi and a very helpful manager.
Novi Sad: we never did connect there.
Vranje: A map showed an internet cafe with Wifi in southern Serbia at Radicka 6/2 in Vranje though we didn't get there.
Don't expect to buy airline tickets or birthday gifts online while in Serbia as credit card purchases can't always be made on the web. We thought that restriction only applied to Serbs in Serbia but we were blocked also. They do use an account system in which you deposit money for online buying but that's more than most of want to take on for a brief stay as we gave up after weeks of trying to make it work.
We were in Serbia in late July - early August and struggled with the temperatures in mid 90's and humidity in the mid 80% range. That combined with the ever-present mosquitoes made sleeping at night an ordeal. Unlike Hungary, the moderately priced accommodations didn't provide a portable fan to give some relief. Here are a couple of moderately priced hotels with air conditioning that we found that weren't in the guide books:
Bačka Palanka (in the north, near the Croatian border by Vukovar) Hotel Fontana, Ul. Jugoslovenske armije 15. Tel 381 21 740 055, turistbp@EUmet.yu, www.turistbp.co.yu. In 2005 the rates for a double room were 3600 din = 43Euros = $51. The marketing director in the office adjacent to reception speaks good English and works from 8am to 4pm.
Belgrade, about 5 miles west of the city center in
the town of Zemun is
Hotel Lav: Cara Dusana 240, Zemun,
www.hotellav.co.yu. Prices for 2 in a double room were 4400 din = 52 Euro = $63. The
quiet rooms, off street parking and across the street from a very frequently served bus line into the city
make this a winner. . The air conditioning is a rare treat at that price,
which also separates one from the persistent mosquitoes in the region. BBC on
the TV is welcome, as are the bath tubs in some rooms.
The website www.fco.gov.uk for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK has more detailed and specific safety related information than the US State Department's site. In Serbia and Macedonia it listed specific towns and roads of concern and why (like random shootings). This site's recommendations were dated and frequently revised.