We arrived in Belgrade, Serbia at 6 AM on a very cold, rainy morning and realized that our plans to check our luggage and explore the city for the day were no longer realistic. So, we headed across the street to the Belgrade City Hotel. The front desk clerk was super friendly and more than helpful in booking us a room until 6 PM, when our train would leave for Greece. The hotel was gorgeous and one of the most comfortable accommodations that we have stayed at in Europe. As the rain continued to fall heavily outside, we were happy to lie down and catch up on some sleep.
When we awoke, the rain had stopped and we were ready to explore the city. Our first stop was a local grocery store where we were able to try out our Serbian while we stocked up on provisions. The other shoppers in the corner grocery store helped up figure out how to use the produce scales (you had to tag the produce yourself), and a very kind lady insisted on buying each of the kids a treat. Unfortunately, after shopping the rain started up again in full force and we returned to the hotel for lunch.
Late in the afternoon the rain finally stopped just long enough for us to make our way to the largest Eastern Orthodox church in the world. The Church of Saint Sava was built to honor Saint Sava, who was the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The building was really astonishing. The size was very impressive, but it was the style and decoration of the church that made it so beautiful. The kids had been learning about the East-West schism of the church, and they were very excited to see their first Orthodox Church. They were also very impressed with the playground right out front, and especially the really unique swing.
At 6 PM we headed back to the train station to board the night train heading to Thessaloniki, Greece. We knew that this was going to be a tiring and possibly uncomfortable journey, but we couldn’t have imagined the condition of the train car that we would be riding in for the next 12 hours. The entire outside of the car was covered in graffiti and the interior of our assigned car had no heat or electricity. Each train car was made up of compartments with 6 seats. When we arrived at our assigned compartment there was a man sitting in the dark enjoying his dinner. When he realized that we were a family he very generously found a new compartment so that we could have the extra room.
However, he was soon to be replaced by a young man from Niš, Serbia. He politely asked if he could join us and at first we couldn’t understand why he would want to spend the night with our over-excited kids, but as the ride went on it was really comforting to have him with us. He explained that he takes this train often to visit his girlfriend, and it is in horrible condition but that it is safe. As the constant darkness became an annoyance and the temperatures dropped uncomfortably low, it was nice to know that he had made the trip on this train several times and lived to tell the tale.
One great thing about the lack of light aboard the train was that the kids fell right to sleep without an distractions. We dressed them in their winter clothes and wrapped them in sleeping bags, and they were out for the duration of the trip. They even slept through a second ticket check in Serbia where the conductor insisted that we hadn’t paid enough for our ticket. Serbia was recently added as an included country on the Eurail Global Pass, and the conductor had not been given that update. Unfortunately, we had no way to prove that he was wrong except to try and plead our case and show that our pass was accepted in Belgrade without problems. With the language barrier it was a tense discussion, but finally he accepted our story and was very nice about the whole thing. As we shivered our way through the rest of the night our hearts stayed completely warm due the generosity and friendly natural of the wonderful people that we had met that day in Serbia.