There’s a heat wave in Novi Sad. It gets up in the 100’s during the day (forecast says up to 108 degrees), so everyone just stays home, indoors, or relaxes on the banks of the Danube. The outdoor cafes blast cold water from fans to lure people in. Once the sun starts setting, Novi Sad turns from a ghost town to a hustling city center. Families come out, feeding their children cotton candy as they walk along the cooler streets, friends chat over a Coca Cola or mineral water and vendors start coming out to showcase their wares. It’s too hot to go exploring by day, but the city in the evening, oh it’s beautiful.
Novi Sad (“Big Plantation” in Serbian) is the second biggest city in Serbia, after Belgrade, and has been called “Belgrade on Valium”; it’s similar to Belgrade, but the pace is slower and is more similar to molasses than to salt set loose out of a shaker. With a population of 250,000, it actually feels smaller once you’re here and citizens and tourists alike avoid the streets and common attractions in the thick heat.
I stumble upon an Indian restaurant in Novi Sad called Real India Indian Cuisine which is next door to my hostel. The one vegan restaurant I’ve found online in Novi Sad appears to be closed for good. Before I sit down, I thumb through the menu and spy a vegetarian section (Indijski Vegetarijanski Kutak) on the inside first page. The first time I came for lunch, my waiter translated a few of the dishes for me. In the end, I ordered a soy nugget curry dish, just because I could. Soy nuggets? Meh. In Serbia? OK! There were no potatoes in it, which I was told there would be and was looking forward to, but it was chock full of vegetables–green beans and corn and broccoli and cauliflower– and seasoned exquisitely.
The following day, I end up at Real India again.
Peering at the menu, trying to make sense of the Serbian language and remember what my kind waiter told me the day before, I am approached by a man. He’s the owner and the chef. He shakes my hand, and tells me he sees I’m trying to read a menu in a language I don’t understand. I tell him I’m vegetarian (will work up to vegan in a moment, I think) and that the waiter yesterday was a big help.
“Ahhh you are vegetarian? I am vegetarian too!”
Lovely. Makes sense that there’s veggie options on the front page.
I reply, “Actually, I’m vegan, so no egg or cheese or milk.”
He nods in understanding, then translates all the vegan items on the menu–four kinds of soup, three kinds of salad, several kinds of Naan, and seven entrees. Then, as my mind is wrapping around all my options, he says he can make other things for me, too, that aren’t on the menu. I tell him to surprise me, to leave my lunch experience in his hands. He asks if I like spicy food. I laugh, thinking of my roommate back home and the fridge full of hot sauce.
I am blown away by the kindness here.
On the train in, I ask the woman sitting across from me how far we are from Novi Sad. From that simple question, even though she speaks very little English, she takes me under her wing. She draws me a map to the bus on a piece of scratch paper, presses bus fare into my hand despite my protests, helps me get my backpack down from the upper rack, and, once the train stops, leads me down the stairs, through the entrance and to the #4 bus that I need to get into town. She then runs to catch her own bus and waves with a big smile on her face as the bus is pulling away.
What a welcome to Novi Sad. Everyone I’ve met here so far has been kind. The hostel, though loud and so so hot, has very kind owners and employees. I’m offered Serbian beer, Turkish coffee or tea every single time I come in.
My best friend back in Portland, the one with with a fridge full of hot sauce, jokes with me.
“You’re going to Novi Sad? I hope it’s Novi Happy!”
“So it’s kind of a sleepy town, huh? More like Novi Meh.”
(I love her.)
And it’s true. It’s a sleepy town, and Serbia as a whole still isn’t used to mass tourist infrastructure; there are so many breathtaking sighs I’d love to see, but there simply isn’t a way to get there without a car. My hostel runs tours to places I desperately want to go (A monastery vineyard: ruins and wine! My idea of heaven: think of the Instagram posts.), but only with two or more people. So as a solo traveler without a drivers license, I’m for better or worse stuck in Novi Sad’s city center.
I think it’s for better.
Because the people here are kind. Food and lodging is very affordable– my hostel costs me $ 10-13 (USD) per night, and a meal out costs $4 – $6. Beer and wine is usually under $3 and mineral water is under $1. And tap water–something surprisingly hard to get in several European cities-is complimentary here and comes without the evil eye.
It’s so hot that I can’t go exploring and wandering during the day, but I can relax with a big glass of ice water and my Chromebook or Kindle on a shady cafe patio. And toward evening, I can venture out and walk to the Danube and watch the sun set. The colors here are different. Budapest is bright blue and vibrant. Novi Sad is sepia-toned.
And on my way back from the waterfront, I can wander through a park, and past a popcorn stand (!), and through the streets increasingly swollen with people. I can take a seat outside as the temperature drops to a more manageable degree, and order a glass of chardonnay and a bottle of mineral water (to combine together into a spritzer, my new favorite drink. And yours too, if you were here).
OK, on to:
Vegan Eats in Novi Sad
The DM 5 minute walk from City Center
This is a German-based drugstore chain throughout Eastern Europe. I’ve come to find throughout the countries I visit that I can purchase raw vegan fruit and seed bars here. Each location has different varieties, but there’s always a few that are labeled vegan. Those are my breakfast on days I’m traveling. If cooking at the hostel, they have a small Organics Food section, which typically seem to have a few clearly-labeled vegan options. I also found vegan sun cream (like sun screen, but much thicker and gloopier) at the DM in Bratislava.
The Juice Shop City Center
Rehydrating with fruits and vegetables is almost necessary in summertime heat. A juice here is around 260 Dinar, or $3. The juices aren’t very cold–sometimes they’ll come with an ice cube or two–but they’re refreshing. This is my breakfast most days.
Real India City Center
As established, I love it here. After a lengthy chat with the owner, Kapil, I find out that everything that is vegetarian is also vegan, and he cooks and stores his vegan ingredients separate from the meat.
He also treats me to dinner one night–he had his cook prepare an Indian spaghetti dish, because I mention I like pasta. For lunch one day he makes me a special off-menu item: Pakora. This tasted beautiful: deep fried little nuggets battered in chickpea flour and containing spinach, red onion, potatoes (fresh-cut into strips like french fries), served on a bed of butter lettuce with raw carrot rounds flowered throughout and lemon date sauce on the side. Everything I ate off-menu was just as good as what I ordered on the menu; I don’t think you can go wrong here. The potato naan is a revelation. At only 45 dinar (that’s US .50 cents), it has layers of potatoes inside the warm bread and is perfectly filling. I miss it already.
Ananda 10 minute walk from city center
The one vegan restaurant in town. It was close the two times I tried dining there, and I heard from a few locals that it was closed permanently, but if you’re headed there, it might be best to double check.
Novi Sad is a sweet little city on the Danube. The friendly inhabitants, quality vegan Indian vegan food, good prices and free WiFi in the city center all make a lovely and relaxing tourist destination. If you’re planning a visit to Serbia, put Novi Sad on your list. (DO IT. It’s an order.)