Serbia: A day in Belgrade

We finally come to the last stop on our trip – Belgrade. After a cheap taxi ride to Podgorica airport (a tiny place, by the way) we hopped on a quick flight to Belgrade. The decision had come months ago when looking at routes back to Prague, and the decision was between flying and taking a train for roughly the same price (around £40). The train would have taken ten hours, the flight was 45 minutes, and we even got free drinks.

Upon arriving in Belgrade, we felt a little lost. There were buses leaving from outside the airport, but most of them were big, confusing coaches. Now I can tell you – look for the little shuttle bus, the one that advertises a trip for 250 dinar. Dinar is the currency of Serbia, and 100 dinar is roughly 1 euro, so it’s 2.50 for your trip into the centre. This shuttle takes half an hour to 45 minutes and goes to the main bus station, as well as a couple of other places. I’d found out that the bus station would store our bags (our Couchsurfing host couldn’t meet us until the evening) – we didn’t want to carry those heavy beasts around all day. It only cost 150 dinar to store a massive bag for the day, so we dropped it off there and found a small nearby café for a quick lunch. I think we had a toastie and some beer. It was very cheap, the service was much more efficient than it had been in Croatia (as I said, they would bring you your first drink with the bill and ignore you for the rest of the time, usually) even if not friendly, but it’s what you come to expect in that part of the world. The waitress didn’t miss a beat – it was just a shame that while we ate three different people wandered in from outside trying to ask us for money for various reasons.

After trying their standard beer (it was good) we headed out, only to see a small van parked outside the train station, its back open and revealing a glistening keg next to the sign “PIVO 70 DINAR”. That’s 50p for a half litre of beer, which is even cheaper than Prague (apart from a few special places and offers). We’re talking something like 15Kc (Czech koruna), 0.70Euro, $0.80… and this was good beer! Obviously, we had to sit down and try it. Beautiful. A glance at a few daily menus showed soup+drink+main meal offers for 250 dinar.

Belgrade was apparently a surprisingly modern place during the communist era – while (then) Czechoslovakia was mostly cut off from the outside world, Western music and ideas forbidden, Belgrade somehow managed to let a lot of it in past its borders. I know this from one of my students, who lived there in the 1980s – I’m sure he even told me that there was a McDonalds then. So, it was a modern, vibrant place to be, and then of course there was all that horrible business in the 1990s that I’m too young to really remember. My research tells me that huge protests were held in 1991 against Milošević, and again in 1996-1997. It was only then that a non-Communist leader came to power. Then, as recently as 1999, NATO bombed the place because of the whole Kosovo thing… you know, I won’t pretend to know all the details, but I have been trying to learn about it. One thing I know is that a lot of people aren’t going to react with unadulterated joy when they learn that you’re British. And another thing I now know is that Belgrade wears its history like proud battle scars…

Some say that the bombed buildings are left up to remind people of what happened, while others say that it’s because the city can’t afford to have them knocked down. I find the latter unlikely, as a few minutes down the road we found cathedrals and church being newly built, looking lovely from the outside – but on the inside, we found souvenir shops, clingfilmed concrete and people praying, waiting for their churches to be complete.

We wandered around this city, marvelling at the strange, patchwork feeling of it. On the one hand, you have these shells of buildings, a raw, painful reminder of recent history, while around the corner you find all manner of chain shops, parks, cute little streets with market stalls, restaurants with outdoor seating, people trying to rebuild their city again. I couldn’t feel a true ‘centre’ to life here, everything felt a little disconnected, as if the city’s identity was struggling to recover what happened to it only a few years ago. But we found little gems – a strange statue here, a stunning piece of graffiti there, and there was plenty going on that it seemed a nice place to live (though not as beautiful as Prague, of course). And, oh, there was this sign pointing to various cities – and the moon!

I can’t really tell you what we did that day – we just wandered around, checked out the fortress in Belgrade’s main park, tried some ajvar with bread. I’ll show you some of the pictures we took…

“Struggle” – a fountain near the fortress
Around the fortress (also has a military museum)
At a famous bar called just “?”, a nice place, the toilets have men/women in a lot of languages – and at the bottom, someone added Welsh!! Made my day!

And, as we went to fetch our backpack and meet our Couchsurfing host, a friendly stray dog decided to follow us for a good 10 minutes. Poor thing… in the end, another girl started petting it and it wandered off… ah well! Look at it!

Eventually, we met up with our host, a British guy (75% Welsh in fact) and chatted to him – he was lovely, made us a cup of tea and told us about his interesting life, then we found a nice restaurant that was more or less outside and had some not-so-Serbian food (burritos I think). By this point, it was dark but so hot that I was sweating. In the morning, we flew to Vienna and took the Student Agency bus back to Prague. It was a wonderful trip, but I think  I was glad to be back in Prague after it all!

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