I steered the car off the highway in Serbia after navigating the mountainous roads for more than an hour. My wife, Melody Gilbert, and I needed a quick break. Belgrade, the first stop on this weeklong driving trip from our home in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, was still three hours away.
We weren't looking for gas or provisions when we pulled into the first place we saw, and that proved to be a good thing. The "gas station" was abandoned. No gas. No goods. No services. Then we spied the restrooms on the far side of the building. We weren't sure where the next stop would be, so we tried the door. One restroom was open.
Just as Melody headed inside, a man with well-groomed gray hair and a tailored sweater came striding across the vast parking lot. He wasn't menacing. He was smiling, but he also was telling us, in Serbian, to just wait a minute.
The gentleman had keys and was eager to tidy up the place before we entered.
After he finally allowed Melody to go in, our new friend approached me. He had something to show me. He hustled into a small office-like enclosure, reached under a barren countertop and pulled out two plastic jars of homemade pickled peppers, their sides sticky from vinegar that had leaked out.
The bounty was mine, he said, for 5 euros. I shrugged. I didn't need them and the cost seemed exorbitant. But I also didn't want to offend. The peppers looked fine, and the rest stop was a welcome sight. Besides, I thought, sometimes you have to pay for toilet privileges around here. So I dug out a 5 euro note and handed it over, poorer in euros but richer in peppers.
While I took my turn inside, Melody was similarly cornered. I came out to see her haggling over another two jars. Should we politely excuse ourselves and take off? Would that be an affront? Though this was getting pricey, we decided to buy.
Then, as we were leaving with the peppers, the old man thrust out his hand. Not to wish us well, or send us off on our journey with a friendly handshake. Nope. To use the bathroom, he said in so many words, would be 2 euros.
The experience proved expensive, but fortuitous: It heightened our sense of discovering the unknown as we drove our rental car through the Balkan Mountains to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and then headed across Hungary to its capital city, Budapest.
We had moved to Bulgaria in August for teaching jobs at the American University in Bulgaria, a country uniquely situated at the crossroads of the East and West. After a few months there, we wanted to visit some of the area's beautiful and frenetic capital cities. We navigated the area's challenging mountain roads and its confusing city streets. We enjoyed a front-seat view to some of the region's awkward and slow-moving border crossings, and avoided what at first we feared would be rigorous and frequent speed and document checks. We also saw things you just can't see in the States. Ancient things. Unusual things. The culture of these old cities: places that were in flux, haunted by history, but overcoming it, too.
First stop: Belgrade
The ankle-turning cobblestone streets of the Skadarlija pedestrian area in the old city are among Belgrade's must-see sights. But the too-cute and touristy restaurants, bars and galleries sent us fleeing for more authenticity.
We preferred the larger and more modern Knez Mihailova, the main pedestrian street. It boasted bars, restaurants, coffee shops, museums and galleries and a thriving street scene featuring artists and performers. That new buildings were buttressed by old concrete block structures, some in various states of demolition, only added to the area's chaotic nature.
The pedestrian-only street led straight to the ancient Belgrade Fortress. We followed the crowd along the Knez until we were walking in the footsteps of first-century Romans, who built an early fort on a cliff overlooking the confluence of the rivers Danube and Sava. The vast stone fortress is imposing and awesome, especially at night when lights shine on the ancient walls.
That its now-dry moat features clay tennis courts and a small soccer field, only steps from modern-day weaponry like tanks and anti-aircraft guns, added to the contrasts evident at almost every turn in Belgrade. Modern cafes and ancient buildings. New cars wedged into and weaving through ill-designed streets.
Our affection for the city, though, had more to do with its current civilization. We scouted the well-appointed coffee shops and restaurants on the Knez but couldn't find one to our liking. Then a friend, Serbian filmmaker Darko Lungulov, brought us to a new design center and restaurant called Supermarket. Though it occupies the site of a former supermarket, you won't be picking up a gallon of milk there. The Supermarket feels like a trendy Manhattan nightspot with spare wooden tables, white plastic chairs and industrial-looking light fixtures that hang from a warehouse-like ceiling. While you wait for food and drink, you can shop the adjoining "market," which offers designer clothes and shoes, a vintage brown leather duffel bag and even boxing gloves should the mood strike. We settled at a table, ordered a few small dishes, picked at the food and devoured the visual feast.
The bright lights and cheeky design at Supermarket and elsewhere in Belgrade serve as veneer for the city. Once part of the former Yugoslavia, a country torn apart in the past couple of decades by wars and internecine conflict, Belgrade still is struggling to find itself. "The city looks OK on the surface," Lungulov said. "But the people, they're sad. There's just been too much war."
Next up: Budapest
We had only one day to soak up this vast and beautiful city. Our first stop was the historic Castle Hill, which has soaring views of the Danube and the bustling city of Pest, one part of the "twin cities," Buda and Pest. After drinking in some of the old city's colorful past, we made our way downhill toward the river. On our walk, we navigated a maze of ancient apartment buildings, hotels, bistros and coffee shops. But we had our sights set on the Central Market Hall.
The historic Chain Bridge, completed in 1849, is said to be the first permanent span connecting Buda and Pest. It was destroyed nearly 100 years later, near the end of World War II, but was rebuilt and remains a vital and picturesque part of the city. After a walk through the pedestrian malls on the other side of the river, we found our way to the indoor Central Market. This isn't your Mall of America, but you can't buy fresh fruit, sausages and palinka at MOA. It's a tourist attraction, for sure, but there are plenty of locals buying fresh meats, bread and cheese for their evening meal.
After walking for most of the day, we headed for one of Budapest's signature indulgences, a hot mineral water bath. We steered clear of the baths located near the city center and in its dozens of international hotels. We opted, instead, for the Széchenyi thermal baths (a six- or seven-stop metro ride away).
The place is far from fancy. Plaster is peeling off some of the walls and ceilings. The changing areas are dingy, the locker rooms are overused and under-cleaned. But warm water is the cure for what ails you.
We spent two hours soaking in the 100-degree water in one of three outdoor pools. During that time, young travelers chatted excitedly, barrel-chested old men played chess on tables set along the pool's edge, and young lovers clung to each other, oblivious to all around them. Fog rose off the surface in the cool evening air, blanketing us in moisture and offering a thin cloak of privacy amid the hundreds of bathers.
A few days later, we headed back to our Bulgarian home, having learned a few Balkan road-trip basics along the way. To wit: There are no fast-food billboards, and hence no fast-food restaurants (this is good news). There are precious few gas stations until you hit a major highway or city (plan accordingly). People drive fast here. Really fast. In spots the speed limit is about 80 miles per hour, but we were getting passed by cars going 30 mph faster than that. Speed limits are rarely posted (or obeyed). In many countries, you must purchase a "vignette," a small sticker that indicates you've paid the toll for driving on their improved highway systems. And there are few public restrooms. Even when you do find one, be prepared to shell out.
You might not be lucky enough to land a peck of pickled peppers, but if you have a few extra euros there's no telling what you might gain on a road trip through the Balkans.
Mark Wollemann, on leave from the Star Tribune, teaches at the American University of Bulgaria, in Blagoevgrad.