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Salsa Festival – Havana En Belgrado – Belgrade – Serbia

Travel is cool! On a holiday, my friends and I were discussing the fact that in recent years we’ve flown more than we’ve traveled by train. It’s not about the travel way, but the destination.

This time about flying as the primary travel transport. Destination Serbia. There will not be many tourist attractions as the main idea of the destination is a dance festival (Havana En Belgrado). Lots of parties and activities, almost a week long. A few days for sightseeing in Belgrade, and all the rest of the time dancing, including the night hours. Will need a lots of energy.

The day starts slowly. Outside is Latvia’s grey autumn. The leaves of the trees are still stubbornly holding on, but most of them have already given up and are lying on the ground. Clothes have been packed overnight, so I just need to zip up my bag, drink my morning coffee and go.

I am going to the airport in a Riga traffic limousine, i.e. a bus. According to plan, everything is leisurely and with time reserve. However… on the way to the bus I meet a woman who asks me to deal with the parallel parking, which I do quickly and successfully. I’m at the bus stop with two minutes time reserve.

The airport is quite empty on this grey autumn day – security control and I’m on the airport area for another coffee break to meet fellow travelers. There will be six of us. Me, Janis, Ralfs, Liene, Zanda and Inga. Today is Inga’s birthday! We’ll celebrate with a glass of prosecco at the airport! Just a few moments and the roar of the engines makes our iron bird take to the skies. We fly to Poland (Warsaw). We have one stopover on the way to Belgrade. Both flights are with LOT. The grey autumn is replaced by white clouds.

– Mini bottle by Zanda

Our landing at Warsaw Airport is a little bit shaky, but the touchdown is easy. There is less than an hour between connecting flights. Passport control and we are already in the queue for the other plane, where sunny skies and LOT buns await us. The airline gives buns to all passengers. On the first plane there was a no-choice sweet bun, but on the second plane we had to choose between salty and sweet. Hunger satisfied, followed by active conversations. The flight passes very quickly. There, behind the clouds, is Serbia. Our iron bird lands peacefully at the airport, although the last kilometers in the air were accompanied by turbulence. We have arrived in time for sunset. The sun is barely visible as the sky is mostly covered by dark clouds.

– Over Warsaw

It’s night when we leave the airport. The sky is overcast, but it is moderately warm. A long corridor and we are out of the airport. Not hot, not cold. A little confusion as to where the public transport to the city center is. Long queue of “official” taxi drivers at the airport. At the airport you can pick up a voucher and go to the first taxi driver for a ride to the center. The ride costs 3 000 dinars. We choose to take public transport because there are six of us, that would be two taxis. There is a bus line next to the taxi queue where two types of buses arrive, one circling the airport from the car parking area to the airport entrance, the other is our preferred minibus which has no set departure/arrival time. The minibus arrives relatively quickly (~20 minutes). The ticket price is 400 dinars (~3.5 euros), but the price on the ticket is 300, crossed out and replaced by the amount paid. Following the offline map we see our stop will and soon we are in the city center.

– Belgrade Airport. The queue of the taxi and further is a minibus line. At the top is the bus mentioned at the end of the post.
– At the airport, we exchange local currency (dinar). 10 euros approx. 1200 dinars.

The road to where we live is with twists and turns, but we deal with it easily. Before we reach the apartment, it starts to rain. We are happy with the apartment and its layout, it looks very good. And, given the price, the result seems ideal, if I compare to the recent Italian trip. The apartment manager takes a photo of our passports and we move in. Outside the window we hear heavy rain, but it doesn’t bother us. We choose our rooms, unpack our belongings and go out into the city streets for our first meal of the evening. On the way, we pop into a shop and buy some breakfast goodies.

– Room lamps in the apartment
– Our evening and morning place at the table in the apartment

Our first meal is at a nearby bistro (the name of many eateries here). We take the local dishes and are not disappointed. Delicious. The rooms are also very well decorated. With full bellies, we go back to the apartment to continue our evening. We think about what tourist attractions are available in Belgrade and what we want to see. Time is running out. Soon we are under the covers and our first day of walking starts to approach.

Bistro Grad wall decor (Very much, almost all eateries smoke indoors, this is a consideration for non-smokers as we ate outside on the terrace most days. Here we were lucky that it was not smoky.)
– Karl Malden (1912 – 2009). Serbian-born, Oscar winning actor. The statue is located in front of the Film Archive in Belgrade.
– A statue of Prince Mihalo. Located in Republic Square. A very important figure in the twists and turns of Serbian history. Behind the statue is the National Museum. We lived on a street named by Mihailo. This is one of the few streets that has not been renamed by different historical regimes (from the tour information).
– First group selfie in Belgrade

It’s a sunny and chilly Wednesday morning. We can hardly see a cloud outside the window, but the temperature is deceptive, as it is 20 degrees during the day, but after sunset, around 17:00, it rapidly gets colder. We have a light breakfast, a coffee and are ready to explore the streets of Belgrade.

Our apartment is in a good location, so walking destinations are almost next door. We go to a local park. It looks big on the map, but it’s not very big. Looking at the map, there should be a zoo, children’s rides, a fortress, a museum, a famous statue and other attractions, but everything is packed in compactly. The park is located on a hill, so it has a magnificent view of the confluence of the Sava and Danube river (the second largest river in Europe, by length). The furthest corner of the park is the confluence of the rivers, which is the area of the fortress. The area is home to Belgrade’s most popular tourist attraction, the statue. After a few days we will return to the park area with a guided tour. We will learn interesting, funny and historical facts. We will also take a look at the museum’s military equipment exhibits. For an additional fee, you can see the inside of the fortress, which we skip this time.

– View from Kalemegdan City Park. The green area is a small island surrounded by the Danube River, and the water in the foreground is part of the confluence of the Sava River.
– There are eight bridges over the Sava River, but only two over the Danube. That’s because the Danube is a much wider river.
– The park was historically a fortress. This is a model of a fortress.
– With a camera in hand, I regularly find myself behind the group.

– Fighting vehicles (destruction vehicles) in the park.
– The Dinosaur playground, where you have to pay to enter, is more for children, as you can see the monsters themselves from the outside. Admission 400 dinars.
– Squirrels are actively moving in the park’s trees

After the walk, you need a meal break, which can be done perfectly in the park, where there is a large outdoor terrace and the weather is suitable. Warming our faces and backs, we order local dishes and enjoy the warmth of the sun, which has already ended in Latvia.

– Eating the traditional dish Pljeskavica

It’s afternoon and not far from sunset, just a few hours and it will be dark. We decide to take a walk around the city. The idea was to go to the promenade, but initially we moved further, away from the river. With several twists and random turns we are in the Belgrade botanical garden, which is one block in size. A small tropical house, a corner of Japanese culture and in less than an hour we have walked the whole area.

– Eating raspberries from the local market on a stroll around city
– Tropical house decor as part of a temporary installation
– Flamingo flower
– Small waterfall in a corner of the Japanese garden
– These fish also identify with Japanese culture
– Planet of the Green movement in the botanical garden
– Also flowers!

It’s almost dark, but the plans for the walk are still on our minds. We walk to the nearby church (St Mark’s), then check the map for the shortest route to the promenade. Along the way, we see various sights of the city, which will also be mentioned in our guided tour. The aim is to get to the promenade and, yes, eat again, as walking is energy consuming activity. I would say with big twists and turns we are on the promenade where we can see the Belgrade bridges over the Sava River. Beautifully lit. Eating plans by the river are not realized as we do not find a suitable place to sit. Along the shore we go back towards the morning park. On the way we turn towards the town and find a place to eat. Delicious local food.

– St Mark’s Church
– The building left next to the church. There are several in the city. They are a reminder of recent events when NATO was actively bombing the region.
– City Council. A building with a rich history. As elsewhere, politicians are not loved here. The balcony is used as a place to honor people who have achieved success, such as athletes. Above the building, in the middle, is the Serbian national flag, which has no coat of arms in the middle, and can be carried, for example to sport events, and wave it as support for your team.
– Bridges over the River Sava are illuminated as darkness falls

The day is coming to an end, as an earlier trip out of the city center is on the plan for the next day. After a good day’s walking and eating, we going to the apartment. A visit to a shop puts an end to the day’s walks. We are back at the apartment, where we continue our conversations – playing cards to round off the day’s activities.

The earliest morning of the week is here. Early for us, as the morning starts around nine, for someone an hour earlier. A light breakfast and researching transport route to get to the desired destination.

Belgrade has two transport zones, A and B, but if you want to use both, it’s called Zone C, a combination of the two. We buy our day tickets at a nearby kiosk and we’re ready to go. We use day tickets, which are very cheap compared to other countries (120 dinars ~ 1 euro). Single tickets cost 50 dinars. There are signs at the transport stops telling you what type of transport stops at the stop and what numbers. On the first day of using public transport we did not pay attention to this and almost missed the scheduled times. The numbers on the bus stops are of two types, i.e. in two rows. The second row has the letter H. And this is a number that we do not need, because it is simply not the right type of transport. All the misunderstandings are successfully resolved and we are on our way to Avala Hill, where the telecommunications tower is located (it was destroyed in 1999 during a NATO military operation, but restoration work started in 2006 and was completed in 2010. Several buildings from that period still remain in the city).

Upon reaching our destination, we have a cup of coffee at a local café and climb a hill for a view of Belgrade in the distance. The climb up the hill is along a winding path. The length of the trail is not too long, about 1.5 km, but the steepness makes it a time-consuming. On the way to the top we are joined by the dog of a local café, who halfway up, hears the sound of bushes and turns and runs away. Soon, without the dog, we reach the top of the hill. After a look around, we go to the tower to make an expedition of the area from above. The view is spectacular! After exploring the area from above, we stay right there in the tower’s café, which is one floor below the tourist viewing platform itself. We continue enjoying the view for a while with drinks, and take advantage of the social break (wi-fi connection). None of us used mobile data from Latvian operators, as they are relatively expensive. The café and public transport wi-fi (also in the apartment) were enough for us.

– Caught on a hill trail
– Church at the foot of the tower
– Everything looks small at the foot of the tower
– The same church, but from above
– Belgrade from the top of the tower

A visit to the telecommunications tower is not the only attraction in the area. Next, we visit the nearby monument (Monument to the Unknown Hero). The site itself should be seen at least in pictures. Amazing! The sun is not far from the horizon anymore, so we enjoy a bit of the view. The plan is to go to the first salsa festival party at the end of the evening, so it’s time to go back to town.

– We meet a dog on every corner, and at the tower we met this friend
– The foot of the Unknown Hero Monument
– Tower from the monument area
– I wasn’t behind all the time, there were times when I had already gone ahead to look back and see them coming
– Caught in motion
– Explore the city from a distance
– Monument in all its glory
– View from the monument area
– This is what the trail to the top of the hill looked like. Turn after turn.

Before we reach the city, the sun has already disappeared and darkness begins to cover the city sky. On the way back, we enter the Church of St Sava (a very visited place in Belgrade, both by tourists and locals).

– The Church of St Sava moments before the darkness arrives

It is located on the site where the body of the founder of the church were burned by the Ottomans in 1594. The church was deliberately built is style like St Sophia’s Cathedral in Istanbul.

Visitors to the church, and also passers-by, give the impression that the locals are very religious. When we enter the church there is a little bit light outside, but when we come out it is already dark. The play of lights and the clear sky surround the church with a magical view.

– Central part of the church interior
– The darker it gets outside, the more impressive the church looks

The party is coming up, but before it’s time to eat well. We go towards apartment and find a place to eat. The evening is chilly, but the food and drinks are warming. Time to get ready for the dance.

– Fountain on the way to the apartment

We take public transport to the dance place, five stops – we find out that transport doesn’t go on time here. Longer than we would like, but the transport is here.

The venue looks good, but we are a little disappointed with the sound quality and the suitability of the venue for dancing. The desire to dance and enjoy Salsa music is greater, so side things cant change our mood. Time flies fast on the dance floor. Not quite as fast as this sentence, but time to go to bed.

At night, public transport takes different routes or doesn’t even reach the desired destinations. We plan to use a taxi. Our first experience with a taxi ends in a trip three times as expensive as it will be the following nights. Transport expensive in Belgrade is a relative concept as we compare prices with Latvia. A taxi cost us 1500 dinars per car (~13 euro).

I recommend using taxi with meters, the same route cost us around 600 dinars (~5 euros), like Pink Taxi.

As Friday starts, it feels like the whole week has flown by, but in reality the biggest dance activities are still ahead of us. We start the day with the idea of having breakfast outside the house. We do it successfully. Today it is raining outside, sometimes very hard and not everyone has umbrellas. Eating breakfast, which could be called lunch, we see the rain filling the puddles. After the meal, we are supposed to go on a tour organized just for the participants of the salsa festival. A walk around the city and a new information. The weather is quite tricky.

We go to the meeting point with the guide. There are quite a lot of us – about 50 people. Our guide is a great storyteller. This is tour 3873 for him. He has been working since 2011. We learnt the important things about Belgrade, presented in a fun way. I can safely recommend this guide (Instagram: Zeljko Petrovic) to others. Our tour is of medium length – about two hours. At the end of the tour, we all get a traditional Serbian drink brewed by the guide – rakia. Our version of raki is honey-based and not as strong. The weather was really tricky. It didn’t rain the whole walk. It started to rain while tasting the drink, but in the last 200 meters of the tour it started to rain heavily. A little rain and we all into a local bar, which was supposed to be the end point of the tour – at the same time a new start for a small dance party before the official opening of the festival.

– The guide is dressed in traditional Serbian clothing, but the hat and scarf were part of the story of the recent past, which is also familiar to Latvians
– The story continues about Prince Mihailo and his contribution to Serbia
– Returning to the Kalemegdan area on a guided tour
– Clouds play their own games
– Statue of the naked man in the park. In one hand a falcon, in the other a sword. Symbolizing peace and war. Nakedness symbolizes a new beginning. The falcon watches what is happening, while the sword points downwards, reminding the man that at any moment he is ready to point it upwards to defend peace.
– The confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers. The island mentioned above. Ominous clouds approaching.
– The tour ends with a raki toast

We don’t stay in the bar. After waiting a bit for the rain to stop, we go to the apartment two blocks away. Yes, the chosen place of stay was very central to all the events of the week. At the apartment we meet Elina, the seventh member of our group. While waiting for Elina, we wonder where she has disappeared to, as she was originally supposed to be with us in the middle of the day, but due to flight delays she was a few hours late. It’s dark outside, her phone is switched off, it’s a foreign country. Soon we receive the first news that she is nearby. All is good.

Time to eat well and go to the next dance party. The chosen eating place is excellent. Delicious food. The wine was not as good as the wine we tried after the first day’s walk. Local wine Regent. Practically the whole group enjoyed it – almost everyone will have a bottle on the flight home.

– Outdoor decor of the selected eatery. A good tourist magnet, plus it was the most expensive place we ate.
– My choice of food. Delicious!

Some things start to repeat – eating and dancing. But we don’t mind spending time like that. Time to go to the party and dance. The route is already known, just pack up and go. On the way to the transport stop, we meet other dancers who are salsa dancing in Republic Square. We don’t have to think much. We join in for a few dances.

The party on the second day is better attended, although the first night was also crowded. Dancing, dancing and dancing. Salsa, salsa and salsa. The next day starts with dance classes, so we don’t wait until morning (the strongest ones dance until dawn). We take a taxi home, which is already adequately priced by local standards. Table talk and dreams are here, as well as the next morning.

– Drinks are bought with tokens at all parties. One token costs 200 dinars (under €2).

Every night when we get home, we visit a nearby shop that is open 24/7. We start the morning with breakfast in the apartment. Anyway, a bit sleepy, we go to the transport to go to the classes. Another misunderstanding about transport. We wait for transport about 20 minutes, but it’s not coming. We take taxi and go to classes, because we don’t want to be late. The ride is not far, but for us everything happens in minutes. At the place where the taxi drops us off, I see the transport we were waiting for. Maybe he left too quickly, because not all the transport lines stick strictly to the schedule.

The dancing will be intense. Five classes of one hour each. Lunch break in the middle. Four different dance halls. There is a lot of opportunity to choose the type of dancing you want, although with so much choice it is not easy. I want to have different classes at parallel times. A day of dancing. There is some time to relax, eat, gather energy and go to the next party. Tonight, part of the party will be a concert. Of course you can dance during it! After the classes and the party, it’s not a quick process to get yourself together. When we arrive at the party venue, the concert soon starts. The audience mostly enjoys the concert – not dancing. The concert was almost three hours long, ending before three in the night. We decide to go to bed, as there is another day of classes ahead.

– Lots of people. Lots of dancers. Musicians in the distance.
– On the day of the concert, Janis stays at home. Resting his legs after an intense day of classes, because there’s still one more day to go.

The second or last day of classes starts in a similar way. Breakfast at the apartment, transport – this time it was on time, and we can start dance lessons. The choice of classes is just as difficult as the day before. This time there are six possible classes, but some of us skip the last class. The sixth lesson is a talk about the world of salsa dancing.

Last evening in Belgrade. One last dinner, which I liked the best of all the previous times. There is still a chance to go to the last party, but we feel the will to stay in the apartment. And so it happens.

– My only dessert of all meals. I think others don’t even tried anything sweet outside the apartment. Cheesecake, but not even close to what we call cheesecake in Latvia.

Elina is the only one who has to get up early, she’s gone by 6. The others sleep for a few more hours. What better way to refill energy than sleep – lots of it.

A leisurely Monday morning and the last breakfast in town. Souvenirs for some, chocolates for others.

We take a different public transport to the airport. Normal city transport (bus), as we arrived in a minibus supposedly designed for airport transport. A normal bus costs only 50 dinars. We are outside the European Union, there are different rules on how we get our tickets. We queue up with all the baggage people and show our passports to get our tickets. The flight is again via Warsaw. The first part goes very quickly. We have about four hours free at Warsaw airport. One last meal and the flight to Riga.

– Festival wristbands at the airport
– A short video of how we got on with wine and dancing

Arriving in Riga we notice the drastic change in the weather. Rainy and chilly. Goodbye to travel buddies. Home.

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