Belgrade, Serbia: Part One

14 Jul

BELGRADE, SERBIA

7-8 2011

When we arrived in Belgrade I was beyond sweaty. I felt like I had just gotten out of a pool in full clothing; black had not been a good choice, and I envied the many women were making use of Spanish-style fans. Belgrade was big and shiny—I was incredibly impressed with the city. People had very good things to say about it, and it certainly lived up to my expectations. I would never have thought that it had been host to political craziness and the NATO bombings just over 10 years ago. It also was not incredibly cheap, at least not as cheap as Romania and Bulgaria. There was a cow installation around town, as well as big statues of animals like bears and tigers and painted and randomly placed throughout the city center to prompt tourists to say things like “Art! My, that’s interesting.”

ART! COWS!

With the National Museum of Art closed for renovations, the city has placed replicas in the center.

My hostel was off of the main square (10 euro a night) and pretty great, except for some random older guy who would sit in the living room and sing along to Serbia’s VH1 channel. I thought he was affiliated with the hostel staff, but the receptionists told me that he was not, and she was annoyed that he had kept ignoring her requests to not smoke in the building. When I arrived, the young woman at  reception offered me Serbian coffee, which is basically Turkish coffee (even Serbs will admit it), something that I absolutely adore. I was dead tired and happy that my dorm room was thus far unoccupied, but I decided that there was no time for a nap. I had to see the city! That’s the thing about having a short amount of time, I’ve really been pushing myself to sight see regardless of weather conditions, although the heat has definitely become a challenge.

Dude cooling off in a park

There is a very active Couchsurfing group in Belgrade, which made it incredibly easy to hang out with locals. Ivica had posted that he would be showing around a traveler, and invited others to join. So, after a brief text exchange, I walked down to the main square, bringing with me a Dutch guy who had just arrived at my hostel. He had come from the Exit music festival in Novi Sad, which was the talk of the town that weekend. Ivica was a jolly guy, born and raised in Belgrade. He currently works at the post office “for my living,” and as an arts and culture journalist for fun. He was meeting up with a Polish/American girl who was biking from Budapest to Greece—so nuts! She averages 100 km a day, and judging from her floppy hat, oversize ‘polska’ t-shirt and long skirt, I would not have pinned her for a biker. Ivica took us to a traditional Serbian ‘fast-food’ place. I had something like a Serbian version of Kebab, although the meat was more like a thin hamburger. The polish girl, Klara, immediately began to ask Ivica a series of heavy questions about the past 20 years in Serbia. I didn’t mind; this was exactly the kind of thing I had wanted to learn about during my brief stay in the country.

The history of Serbia is incredibly complicated. Although things are ‘peaceful’ now there is still a lot of controversy when it comes to topics like Kosovo etc. I’m not going to attempt to go into detail about something I don’t fully understand, but you can look it up online somewhere, like here for a very basic idea.

The book I’m trying to read: Through the Embers of Chaos by journalist Dervla Murphy starts by describing the fearful state of Belgrade’s citizens in 1999 during the NATO air strike. It’s hard to imagine professionals once hawking their goods on the street after a brief visit to the present-day hip and lively city.

The Kosovo war details are complex. However, I was able to better understand Yugoslavia post 1945. It seems like a lot of people my age in the US and Western Europe don’t know very much about this entity. This was maybe one of the most successful socialist nations, and was ruled by the popular dictator Josip ‘Tito’ Broz. It was known as pretty much as liberal as communism can get, and many, but certainly not all, Yugoslavians enjoyed life under their emperor’s rule. After his death in 1980 and the rise of the new leader, Milosivec, the empire began to crumble. Certain western forces wanted Yugoslavia to break apart, while inside there was a push by some countries for independence. This led to a complicated war in the early-mid 90′s where both ethnic and religious groups turned against one another, in what was largely a dispute over territory.  So yes, the 90′s were a mess and still the reason that friends and family are worried about my safety on this trip. “Didn’t you know there was a war there?” They ask. As you can imagine, there’s still quite a bit of tension remaining between neighboring countries, and I was told that these topics are more or less-taboo when speaking to someone from an older generation. After 20 years, many people are sick of talking politics.

Anyway, back to being a simple America tourist. Ivica gave us a great tour – he’s a history – telling us many interesting factoids about various important buildings like the big fortress and the St. Sava, the largest orthodox church in the Balkans.

Under construction until further notice…

The church was huuuuge but the inside is still being renovated. Tarps covered most of the walls since the church had simply run out of funds to pay for the rest. We spent the sunset strolling around the Kalemegdon, Belgrade’s large Ottoman fortress. Here, you can see where the Danube and the Sava rivers meet.

Inside the Kalemegdan

A church in the fortress

We walked through some nice parks and ended up meeting a bunch of other couchsurfing people at the main Republic square.

Republic square

Belgrade is the place for nightlife. Period. From budget bars to incredibly chic clubs, the city is electric on the weekend. It was still bloody hot at 11 p.m., and I noticed plenty of people wearing clubbing outfits scant on the skin coverage, not that I could blame them in this heat. I have to say, I’ve been really impressed by the foot-binding high heels that I’ve seen girls wear on this trip. I don’t know how they manage, but it does make them look even more stunning, since many Serbians seem to be quite tall and beautiful.

Our big group of couchsurfers headed to a park to drink a beer before going out. It was kind of a bohemian place along the lines of Santo Spirito in Florence, lots of shady looking young people and stray dogs. Nothing special. The group was a lot of fun and included a friendly American guy, Eric, who was temporarily based in Belgrade for his work with a Disabilities non-profit, a guy from Quebec, a couple of local people from Belgrade, a couchsurfer Bao and his friend Jenny who were also tourists, and Jo, a girl who lived in South Africa but was born to Serbian parents.

Hey gang!

We had a rollicking night of going out to several bars and clubs. I tried apricot flavored Rakija, a typical Balkan brandy that varies slightly depending on the Balkan region. A homeless-looking guy approached Eric and I at our end of the table. Thinking he was just some crazy dude looking for money, Eric waved him away as he handed us a paper, and upon opening it, we discovered it was a portrait of us! He had been sitting at the table across discreetly sketching our faces, and we hadn’t even noticed. He left it as a gift and we both felt bad for dismissing him so rudely. One of the Americans in our group took us to a bar he had found the night before, it was a hidden little place right next to the water, kind of alternative and Berlin-esque with colorful picnic tables scattered about.

After a couple of beers I could not keep my eyes open. It’s almost embarrassing to be such a lightweight on this trip, but it’s become apparent that I can’t party AND do the amount of sight-seeing that I seem to pack into each day. The Dutchman and I took a taxi back to our hostel—I keep forgetting that taxis are dirt-cheap in the Balkans. If you can get over the shadiness of their fake-looking signs, it’s definitely worth paying 2 euro to get back at night.

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