Beograd Part I: The Not-So-White City

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!

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8 responses to “Beograd Part I: The Not-So-White City

  1. “I guess I don’t see how Kosovo being independent would prevent them from visiting ancient battle sites and monasteries.”

    Because the ethnic Albanians have always been violent and hostile towards Serbs and Serbian shrines. They systematically burned down and exploded hundreds of Serbian churches and monasteries. Today the remaining ones have barbed wire around them and are guarded by the police.
    There is no freedom of movement for Serbs, nor can the Serbian population return to their homes. 200,000 ethnic Serbs and non-Albanians (Roma, Gorani (Slavic Muslims), Kosovo Croats, etc.) have been cleansed or displaced (many to the northern part of Serbia which has a Serb majority) and still can’t go back to their homes safely after over 12 years.

    The remaining Serbs who live surrounded by Albanians can’t farm or ranch their land properly as they are attacked and have their livestock stolen and the Albanian and foreign police don’t bother solving any of these cases.

    Allowing “independence” only legalizes this massive property and land theft. It was Serbia and Serbs’ taxes which built or financed most of the infrastructure in Kosovo and “independence” just takes it all away.

    Also NATO bombed Serbia because it was a set up war and NATO wanted to sever it from Serbia. They supported the KLA terrorists and trained them at bases in Turkey, Austria, Germany and other countries for the war.
    The U.S. has one of its largest foreign bases in Kosovo called Bondsteel, and I believe the land was owned by Serbs.
    The entire wars in the Balkans were set up by key NATO countries – U.S., Germany, and Britain – with others going along.
    The NATO countries were clandestinely selling military communications equipment and smuggling arms to the separatists BEFORE the wars kicked off.

    Also incidents were staged for the cameras and/or purposely provoked.
    Even UN personnel in Bosnia, for example, have written books or testified (there’s a book by a Canadian soldier called “The Sharp End” that they had to dodge staged attacks from the Muslims and the Muslims would time attacks for when foreign visitors were visiting.

    To sum up NATO bombed Serbia because it resisted the theft of Kosovo and also it generally bombed Serbs because they resisted the breakup of Yugoslavia into weak ethnically pure or divided statelets to be more easily controlled and eventually absorbed into the EU; also to expand NATO and U.S. bases and hegemony; and other reasons besides.

    • Thanks for your very detailed comment – I admit I don’t know a lot about the situation, and I suppose I was imagining that if some kind of peace was made it would mean they would be able to visit these sites. It all seems very confusing to an outsider from far far away, which was why I was wanting to find out about it from local people. I came across some of the points you have raised after leaving Serbia – another traveller I met recommended a documentary called ‘The weight of chains’ which I found very interesting, and certainly enlightened me a bit on some of what was happening there with the foreign involvement. I really appreciate the information you’ve given me. I like to learn about the places I travel to, but sometimes it’s hard to ask questions without offending people!

  2. Not many posts out there cover the story of Beograd. So, this one of yours has been a nice reading. By the way, I love your picture of Sveti Sava Cathedral. Too bad it’s still unfinished.

  3. BEOGRAD! You know I’m a big fan of this place. When I read this post for the first time I really wanted to answer all the questions you had about Bosnia, Kosovo, the buildings of the Ministry of Defence that were bombed and still stand there on Kneza Milosa, etc…. but I went for coffee and calmed down a bit 😉 As you probably have figured out yet, nothing is simple in the Balkans! Maybe that’s why I love the region so much. But you are right that there is not much to “see” in Beograd. Every time someone would ask me what I like the most in Beograd I would always say: “the people”. And that would also apply to Sarajevo, Zagreb, Pristina, Podgorica or Skopje!
    Look forward to reading Part II…. and hope you’ll get the chance to go back in the summer, when it can get above 40 degrees and the city never goes to sleep!

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