Beograd, or Belgrade as it’s better known, while having a number of interesting sights and fascinating museums, felt like a place where you could just ‘be’, rather than having to always be ‘doing’ something.
I arrived in Beograd just after it got dark, and spent my first fifteen minutes in the city helping a hunched over old lady cross a bunch of different roads. I missed the tram I wanted and had to wait for another, and I hadn’t figured out how to buy a ticket – I was hoping that it was the same as in Nis, where a conductor sells you the ticket on the bus. It turned out that wasn’t the case, and the driver looked very confused when I asked for a ticket – he didn’t have them either and indicated I should get off the tram. I didn’t, and spent the next ten minutes worrying than an inspector would get on the tram and give me a fine. That didn’t happen so I was pleased with my fare-evading tram trip up the hill to the centre of town.
My main mission after finding the hostel was finding food, as I was starving – I’d bought a slice of burek at the bus station in Niš and had devoured that hours ago while trying not to fly headfirst down the aisle of the bus. I’d got the third-last ticket and thus the worst seat, especially when you’re left questioning whether the driver got his licence from Grand Theft Auto. [Probably not, as no grannies or skaters were run down on the way.] The guy working at the hostel, Marjan, recommended I go to Loki for a quick meal – my request had consisted of FOOD! NOW! and Loki was apparently ready to deliver this.
It was just around the corner, a little nondescript place that’s open 24 hours and is a bit of a Beograd institution. And quite rightly. There’s no English menu, and how much menu information you can get depends on who’s working and/or who else is waiting in the shop. As in Niš, I got lucky. This time one of the women spoke a bit of English and was reading things out to me. A man waiting for a burger threw in his two cents and was telling me that I absolutely HAD to get this burger – someone else disagreed and insisted I have something different. In the end I ordered a chicken fillet burger, and it came with a spicy feta cheese, cabbage, onion and some kind of sauce. It was everything I’d hoped for – actually, it was more. It was massive, and looking at it I thought there was no way in hell I was going to finish this giant burger. Turns out I was wrong…must have been even hungrier than I’d thought!
The next day I did the free walking tour. It was interesting enough, although when it comes down to it there’s not really all that much to see in Beograd. What I found interesting was that the guide, when talking about history, focussed almost entirely on the period when Serbia was part of the Ottoman Empire, talking about all the atrocities perpetrated by the Turks against the Serbs. No mention was made of recent history, and direct questions about it were directly ignored despite being told to ask any questions we may have.
The closest she got was mentioning that there was a street with some buildings that NATO had bombed in 1999. When I asked her why NATO bombed Beograd in 1999, she reluctantly said that it was because they thought Serbia was attacking Bosnia. [The 1999 bombings had nothing to do with Bosnia and related to the Kosovo War.] It’s something that I found people in Serbia don’t talk about, which was a little bit of a disappointment as I would have liked to hear the Serbian perspective – there’s always two sides to every story, and when it comes to the Balkans I swiftly discovered that there’s usually far more than that. She did talk a little bit about the reaction of people in Beograd when they found out that NATO intended to blow up the bridges linking parts of the city – rather than hide, thousands of people gathered on the bridges, wearing tshirts with targets on them and throwing parties there to help save their bridges. And it worked.
We visited Kalemegdan Fortress and it was absolutely freezing. I’d made a stupid decision – deciding that I needed to get used to the cold, and it wouldn’t be so bad, and so I left my coat in the hostel. Thermals, a t-shirt, a cardigan and then a polarfleece just wasn’t enough, and when we got to the fortress it was absolutely bitingly cold. I’d wrapped my scarf around my face to try to preserve some kind of feeling, and my gloved hands rarely strayed from my pockets lest my fingers decide to abandon ship and fall off. And of course it was windy, which only helps the cold to creep its sneaky little way into your bones. It was quite foggy, impeding the view over the river, and the park was heavy with mist and a delicate layer of snow-covered one side of each tree. The guide explained to us that it was Kalemegdan Fortress that gave Beograd its name – Beograd means ‘white city’ and the stones of the fortress apparently used to be shining and white. They are neither shiny nor white anymore, however.
There was a sign that warned against walking across part of the fortress wall, so of course everyone decided that this would be the best route to take. Myself included. I laugh in the face of warning signs…sometimes…
After the tour, I went out to lunch with another Australian girl, Anna, and the guide. I asked the guide about Kosovo, and why it’s so important to Serbians that Kosovo be part of Serbia and not independent. She explained to me that the region of Kosovo holds great significance to Serbians in terms of their history and their cultural identity – many historical events relating to their nation took place here, and the heart of Serbian Orthodoxy lies in Kosovo. She said that to Serbians it’s important that these not be taken away from them, and that they always be able to visit the sites that are basically sacred to them. I guess I don’t see how Kosovo being independent would prevent them from visiting ancient battle sites and monasteries. Plus, being a complete outsider I don’t really understand the complexities of the issues involved.
The following day I went for my own wander around the town, checking out the main boulevard and accidentally making it all the way down to Sveti Sava Cathedral. I hadn’t planned on going there as the idea of walking 3KM in the freezing cold did not appeal, but when I spotted it down a street when I was heading elsewhere I thought ‘that’s not so far away after all’ and decided I would pay it a visit.
As it turned out, I had been grossly misled by the cathedral. It wasn’t all that close at all – the damn building is just so large that it makes you think it’s nearby. I was walking and walking and it slowly got bigger, and then bigger, and then bigger. It was a good fifteen to twenty minutes walk from where I’d first seen it. I’m not convinced it was worth the effort to tell the truth. It’s the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Balkans…or at least it will be, once it’s finished. It had lied to me again. The outside is all there and it looks impressive and imposing, however when you get inside you see it’s basically a large and empty concrete space. Metal construction fencing blocked off parts, and a small section on the side is used as a makeshift chamber with photocopied pictures of icons and the obligatory candles. It’s under construction and has been since 1935 – sporadically. Construction stopped in 1941 due to the invasion of Yugoslavia, and did not begin again until 1985. Twenty six years later, construction remains ongoing and the church remains incomplete. I doubt it will be finished in my lifetime!
From Sveti Sava I headed to the road where a number of buildings bombed by NATO in 1999 remain untouched. The bombed and partly gutted apartment buildings are opposite a government building, and I’m guessing that was the target. They are surrounded by eight foot high metal fences so you can’t see in at ground level. I considered jumping the fence as I wanted to have a look around inside, but the soldier on the corner of the street made me reconsider – especially after he told me to stop taking photos of the buildings. Personally, I think that if they don’t want people to take photos of them or visit them, they should pull them down – they’ve had twelve years to do so but they’re still standing. Still, I’d got a few shots and he didn’t ask me to delete the pictures – he was very polite. I think he might have been a little less friendly had I tried to climb over the fence.
That’s it for Part I… Part II will be coming soon!