“It reminds me of Williamsburg circa 2010,” said ex-pat Davis Richardson, 27, who was looking to escape New York City a few months ago and wound up putting down roots in Serbia's capital city, Belgrade.
“I now pay half what I paid in New York during a pandemic to live out of a suite overlooking all of Belgrade. It’s a no-brainer: Either I pay double and live with more restrictions, or I pay half for more amenities and experiences with amazing people who want to go out to restaurants and talk about things other than politics,” said the communications specialist.
Richardson meets up with friends for coffee, goes out to nightclubs and hookah bars, and even hits the gun range while living out of a boutique hotel called Mama Belgrade.
“The Serbian mindset is very proud,” he said. “They don’t see a virus as getting in the way of their success and happiness.”
A woman walks through an underground passage by a homeless person and inscription on the wall reading "Serbia has the strength" in Belgrade, Serbia, Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. (AP)
With no quarantine requirement for Americans, the formerly war-torn Balkan country’s hip Belgrade has been a big draw during the coronavirus pandemic. Air Serbia announced 34 flights to JFK in October, far surpassing the 24 routes from October 2019, even in a plagued year for traveling.
But Monday, the US Embassy announced that thanks to 3,482 new COVID cases, the Serbian government has ordered that “all services, including bars, restaurants, cafés, stores, supermarkets, shopping malls, theaters, and cinemas” be closed from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., from Nov. 17 through “at least” Dec. 1.
Yet even with the thumping nightclub scene along the river tamped down, New Yorkers are taking in the sights: the Temple of Saint Sava, the Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade Fortress, and Kalemegdan Park.
“This city has a magical way of healing you: You can explore hidden underground fortresses, observe traditions going back centuries and have conversations with nuance,” said Richardson, adding that the new restrictions won’t change his views. “If things keep going the way they are in the United States with social unrest and lockdowns, I think more and more people will come here.”
That’s what lured Yoni Yosef, a 35-year-old event planner from Williamsburg, to Belgrade in September.
“Over there, I didn’t have the pressure of COVID,” he said. “It’s like going back to the way things were before the pandemic.”
Others are reticent to share their discovery for fear of being judged.
Atousa Farahani, a Williamsburg resident, said she largely kept quiet about her visit to Serbia in October.
People sit in an empty cafe in downtown Belgrade, Serbia, Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. (AP)
“I’m fully aware of how it seems to people to travel during a worldwide pandemic,” said the 36-year-old who works in online operations. “People are either happy that I’m still traveling and doing my thing or say, ‘You’re putting others at risk.'”
Farahani said she follows mask rules, travels with hand sanitizer, and appreciates establishments that enforce health regulations.
Katka Lapelosová, a 33-year-old from Bed-Stuy, fell in love with the city after visiting in October.
“I went there initially just to get out of NYC but I ended up buying an apartment in Belgrade,” she said. In January, she’ll be moving into her $55,000 “tiny, cozy” one-bedroom on a street she likened to Park Avenue, perplexing some of her kin.
“My friends and family didn’t know where Serbia was. They thought I was going to Siberia,” said the content manager.
“Some of them think that (Slobodan) Milosevic is alive and kicking,” she said, referring to the former president who died in a prison cell at The Hague in 2006, while being tried for war crimes.
Instead, she said, she found a sophisticated country where she met a disproportionate number of local doctors and lawyers.
But “it’s not all peaches and cream,” said an anonymous Upper East Sider who visited earlier this month. “The pollution was appalling … with nasty, acrid air.”
According to AirVisual, the air quality in Belgrade landed it in the top five most polluted cities for October. In 2019, it scored 16th in a list of the world’s most polluted cities.
Still, the social scene is nothing to sniff at.
Last month, Jennifer, a 36-year-old from Hell’s Kitchen, took a whirlwind three-day trip to Belgrade via Air Serbia from JFK to celebrate her birthday. Her four-star “hotel was just $50 a night,” and she exulted over a dinner party at a greenhouse-style restaurant called Franš. She plans on going back this spring.
“The men are very handsome — tall, dark, and handsome,” she said. “I think I have to go back just to find a husband.”
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