The final step in my Balkan road trip was Serbia. I was going to spend a day in Novi Sad and a day and a half in Belgrade. Unfortunately, the weather was just horrible and I figured going to Novi Sad was really a waste of time and money.
This is mostly what I saw during my first day in Belgrade; the interior of cafes.
On the second day, the rain died down to a drizzle, and I was able to go on a guided walking tour of the city. The guide was quite entertaining and good at mixing the serious and the funny. After showing us one of Belgrade’s last remaining mosque (which was torched twice in the last decades following tensions with Albanians over Kosovo), she said: “and if you turn around and look at the window, you will see my mom and my cat”! Turns out she lived in front of that sometimes dangerous building.
We walked in the bohemian quarter, where artists and intellectuals have been gathering for centuries. This was even the case during the Cold War. While Belgrade was certainly not Montmartre at that time, it was much more liberal than for example, cities in the Soviet Union.
Since for artists, inspiration often rhymes with alcohol, the sign indicating the distances to various cities also points towards the moon. Apparently at the end of the evening, some need to be reminded which side is up and which is down.
I really enjoyed this short homage to the bohemian street, Skadarlija.
The fortress siting on top of Belgrade gave it its name. While the structure dates back to Antiquity, at some point it was rebuilt using light coloured limestone, and some invading army called it “white city”, which translates to Belgrade. In the background, you can see an office tower which used to house a TV station belonging to a warlord accused of war crimes. In 1998, it was destroyed in a NATO bombing. The intent was not to collapse it, but to make a point. A smart bomb went trough the roof and, after going through several floors, exploded and left the entire building without windows. It made a point.
The people of Belgrade also made a point I did not remember, or at least had forgotten. Fearful that an important bridge would be destroyed, they organized a kind of sit-in and threw all night parties on the bridge for the entire duration of the campaign. Since NATO’s main focus was to prevent loss of life while applying strong economic pressure on Serbia, the bridge could never be attacked. I must say it felt a little strange to be a tourist in a country that was bombed by my own country’s airforce only 15 years ago. That being said, I never felt the slightest sign of hostility.
On top of the fortress stands Victor, the nude statue built to commemorate Serbia’s victories over the Ottoman Empire. Originally, a fountain was built downtown where Victor was supposed to be installed. However, Orthodox women of 1920’s Belgrade were adamant that downtown should be a penis-free zone and they won that battle. So, Victor was sent to the fortress, where nobody would really see him much. That is, until the fortress became a popular park. Now, Victor is the undisputed symbol of Belgrade.
Some people hope this will become the symbol of the new Belgrade, the Ada Bridge. It holds some records for the highest or longest something. When completed, it grabbed international media attention and was featured on the Discovery Channel’s Build it bigger. It was a very welcomed event for the citizens of Belgrade to heard people talk about their city without referring to wars, protests or other forms of destruction, including economic destruction.
This banknote was produced during the hyper-inflation crisis that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. The crisis exceeded in severity the one which Germany experienced in the early twenties (the failed state of Zimbabwe later took the honour, before abandoning its currency altogether and switching to a mixture of US dollars and South African Rand). This note was worth 500,000,000,000, or half a trillion Dinars! In terms of purchasing power, it wasn’t worth much at all.
You still see a lot of damage and destruction when you walk downtown Belgrade. The city holds the record for having been destroyed and re-built the most times in its history, an incredible 40 times. That, and the economic difficulties, have certainly left their marks. On some facades, you can still see the damage caused World War II battles.
And yet, you can turn the corner and see this kind of beauty.
As pleasant as our walking tour was, the bad weather still limited what we could do. Along with a few fellow tourists, I decided to focus on finding nice restaurants and places to go to. Serbia is not exactly known as a gastronomical capital, but it is known for drinking! Especially drinking rakia, a very strong fruit brandy which is sold in countless types and flavours. Pretty much all Serbian families have a relative who makes it at home. Our tour guide had the nice idea to have us try a little.
It was not to everyone’s liking.
Earlier in the day, I had tried the traditional local breakfast along with a girl I had met on an overnight train. English was not the waitress’s specialty, so I am not quite sure what everything is, but basically is consists in: fried dough, cured meat, a cottage-like cheese, a squishy white cheese and tomatoes. Quite nice, different and despite the fried dough, not too heavy.
We contemplated going to this restaurant but chose not to, after hearing success with tourists had spoiled it and driven away all the Serbs (otherwise known as the Lonely Planet effect). Countless decades ago, the owner named it after the nearby church. The priests were outraged and police forced him to tear down the sign. Until he could come up with a different name, he just wrote “?” on the wall. It caught on and the place has been know as the “Question mark restaurant” ever since.
We settled on Little Bay, a small English chain with four restaurants in the UK. For some strange reason, they have a fifth one in Belgrade. It was a very fun meal, but the fun came at a cost, as two of the girls had confused the price of the wine – per glass vs per bottle! An expensive night by Serbian standards, even though the food itself was incredible value.
Mixed grill for 2, a veritable slice of Noah’s Ark, for $15.
And the best: an opera singer! Not exactly something I get often on my travels around the World.
Overall, this too quick visit to Serbia proved more interesting than I had anticipated. I’ll be looking forward to re-visit this country, in which I felt a very positive attitude, despite the country’s painful history and economic difficulties.