Visiting Belgrade: beyond the first impressions

My first impression of Serbia was a bleak one.

As an extremely English twenty-something year old lass (I’m all about that cream tea life), my only knowledge of the country I’d had up until the point that I visited it was pretty limited, and mainly garnered from what flashbacks I could recall from watching Newsround back in the days when TVs only had four channels and the Test Card Girl patiently waited next to her chalk board game of noughts and crosses throughout the night until it was time for TV to start again in the morning. Remember the 90s, pals!? What a time to be alive!!

I knew that not long ago they’d been at war, though I wasn’t really sure who they’d been at war with, and I was pretty sure I’d heard the term ‘war crime’ used fairly often next to Serbia’s name. I knew it was located in a part of Europe which was once called Yugoslavia. (About seven years prior to my visit I’d written a Facebook status declaring that one day I’d make it to Yugoslavia simply because I liked the sound of the word ‘Yugoslavia’, so I was genuinely extremely proud to be able to fulfil this Facebook dream in the closest way possible- considering that Yugoslavia no longer actually exists.) I also went to secondary school back in the day with a Kosovan lad who’d escaped almost certain death in his home country by crossing Europe and entering England via the Channel Tunnel in the back of a lorry, and I was pretty sure if I remembered correctly that the situation in Serbia in general had something to do with him needing to seek refuge here. If you were to ask me what Serbia looks like, all I had to offer up were images of the country’s capital Belgrade on fire or reduced to ash and rubble along with shots of hungry looking children and camouflage jackets.

Fast forward to 2016, the last war is long finished (there have been several throughout Serbia’s history), and I was working and living on a ship with a whole bunch of people from across the world, several of whom were Serbs themselves. It’s pretty strange to talk to a person the same age as you and hear them referring to their childhood as being ‘during the war’, with stories of starvation and queuing in the street for hours for bread the norm, and of family members camping on a bridge in an attempt to prevent the bombing of one of the only routes in or out of the city and the subsequent cut-off of supplies. I mean, not only are we talking people of the same age as me but also from the same continent. The only people I’d ever heard talking about ‘The War’ in such a blasé way up until then had been my great-grandparents.

Let’s face it guys, all this combined doesn’t make for a great advertisement at the best of times, does it. So why on earth would I want to visit Serbia!?

We drove from Budapest to Belgrade on a freezing cold day in December just before Christmas. The ground in Budapest had been covered in a thin layer of ice, and snow was falling as we left the city; by the time we made it to the border the snow that makes everything seem slightly more magical than it actually is, was falling no more, and I was pretty certain that the ground in the grey fields around us would have been solid as a rock and completely impenetrable if anyone had tried to dig into it. In my mind, which has a habit of making things seem far more cinematic in hindsight than they actually were at the time, everything was in black and white. Or at the very least in differing shades of grey. The sky was that dullish pale grey colour that sticks around for weeks and sucks the colour out of everything. The fields were grey, with sprigs of dry grey grass attempting stubbornly to stay alive despite Winter’s best efforts, the odd skeletal tree in the distance like wizened old men bent over in the chilly air but determined to stick it out despite the risk of hypothermia. The ground was completely flat as far as I could see. Flat and unashamedly grey.

Like I said, my first impression of Serbia was a bleak one.

After miles and hours and miles of flat grey, we were nearing Belgrade. And that, pals, is where I realised that my first impression of Serbia was wrong.

Belgrade is like a full on Phoenix!

One of Europe’s oldest cities, (people have lived there since back in Ye Olde Prehistoric days, so we’re talking old old), Belgrade has really drawn the short straw in terms of being under attack. The entire place has been destroyed and rebuilt a grand total of 44 times since it’s humble caveman beginnings, and has been conquered at various points in time by Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Slavs, Bavarians, Turks, Austrians…to name BUT A MERE FEW. And after all that palaver, things kicked off even more with the rise of Communism, a casual dictatorship, and a good old-fashioned bombing by NATO.

However, this is a city defined by its resilience and ability to rebuild itself again and again and again no matter how many times you knock it down; I feel like the individual people are pretty much the same to be honest. There is new and downright raucous life to be found in Belgrade, and let me tell you it’s a gigantic contrast to the countryside that we’d driven through to get there. Nowadays the city is a hub of liveliness and jolly good times, and the nightlife in particular is something the city is increasingly well-known for. The city centre is a busy one, and although Christmas is celebrated in January (the majority of Serbs are Serbian Orthodox where everything happens a little differently), leading up to Christmas in December the lights were up and everything had a bit of a rosy festive glow to it.

Communist architecture might be ugly but it sure is atmospheric

I’m gonna get straight to it here pals: Belgrade is not a traditionally pretty city. (Soz, Belgraders) It’s heavily dominated by buildings that were all the rage back in the days of communist Yugoslavia, cheerless high-rise Lego blocks sitting squarely side by side in concrete sharp-cornered and sometimes graffiti-splattered peace. (For a bit of background info, Yugoslavia was a socialist republic made up of Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Bosnia Herzegovina)

Novi Beograd (that’s New Belgrade to you and me, folks) is an area which was built over several decades following the city’s destruction in the Second World War, with each block of housing (or blockovi as they’re actually called), sometimes holding thousands upon thousands of residents. Driving or walking around these concrete areas made me feel as if I’d stepped back in time a few decades or was suddenly on the set of This is England. It was all a bit 1980s with a touch of Handmaids Tale thrown in for luck.

(Image by Peotr Bednarski)

It’s not all communist blockovi…parts of the city are BEAUT.

I’m not gonna lie, my preconception was that due to its communist days as Yugoslavia, pretty much the whole of Belgrade was molded out of concrete. AWKWARD. Obviously that’s not the case; the city centre is somewhat different to all that concrete business, in fact I’d almost describe it as downright resplendent! Although there aren’t many buildings older than a hundred and fifty years old or so, due to the fact that most of the older city was wiped out (again) during World War 2, the House of the National Assembly and the square that it sits on is very much on the majestic side, and wouldn’t look out of place in somewhere like Paris (or at the very least Budapest, it’s next door neighbour).

The Church of Saint Sava is another incredibly impressive building and landmark; a Serbian Orthodox Church whose foundations were laid in 1936 but which then took up until last year to be fully built. Every time they started building, a war would break out and construction would halt until it was over. How downright unfortunate, to put it lightly.

Kalemegdan Park is the home of Belgrade’s Fortress, which has been sat on a cliff overlooking the meeting of the Danube and the Sava rivers seemingly since the dawn of time. (Maybe not the dawn of time exactly, but definitely for bloody ages, with people setting up on this spot back in the Roman days and the fortress having been added to, taken away from and reconstructed much like the rest of the city has, countless numbers of times.) It’s kind of remarkable that it’s lasted so long in a place which must have felt very much like an easy target at the best of times. (Just FYI there’s a Torture Museum in an underground portion of the fortress which is quite terrifying in all honesty but intriguing nonetheless. Humans are so weird.)

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Finally if you fancy getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city you could head out towards Ada Ciganlija, the beach next to the city on the banks of the river. In the Summer it apparently turns into party central station, with water sports, nightclubs and all the sunbathing going on, but in winter when I was there it was more of an extremely cold but pretty situation, with a few quiet coffee shops or restaurants open overlooking the water.

The food and drink is of utmost importance

It’s pretty normal in Serbia for the food you eat to be fully seasonal and nine times out of ten, homemade. (Even things like pickles, sauerkraut and jams which nowadays most of us lazy English folk would just buy from the supermarket, meaning I left the country with several jars of my pal’s mum’s jam smuggled into my hand luggage.) Most of the food I experienced during my short wintertime visit involved a whole lot of pastry, pork, cheese, and an even bigger amount of red peppers. They full on love red peppers, I’ll tell you that for free, and I’d highly recommend sampling ajvar, a dip-style-side-dish made of red peppers and olive oil if you ever get the chance. Coffee is, as always, the best way to start your day, but as with some of it’s food habits the coffee scene is drawn from Serbia’s day’s spent under Turkish rule.

Now. Onto the drink. I hate to be stereotypical here, but I’ve now worked with and befriended many a Serb in my time, and I am yet to meet one who doesn’t like a drink. Belgrade’s drinking culture is embedded into the walls of every pub and bar and street corner, and although these days I’m not a mahoosive drinker I had a bloody marvellous time with pals old and new in several hilarious nights out in Belgrade. Rakija is the nation’s traditional drink of choice- essentially it’s an incredibly strong and intoxicating-smelling Brandy made from fermented fruit- and although I did try it a few times you wouldn’t want to spend an entire evening on that stuff as you legitimately might die.

There are reminders of war all over the place

Call me crazy but once I’d got used to the fact that Belgrade is a modern kind of a place, the Newsround images of my 90s childhood had vanished from my mind and I’d got on with having a jolly old time exploring, checking out the Christmas lights and meeting more of the locals. Joyous!

But you don’t have to look far to see that the city is still very much connected to its past. The first moment of realisation on my part was when one of my Serbian pals stuffed a titovka on my head after I became fixated by a cart in Kalemegdan selling army-based souvenirs including a whole load of those badboys. Titovkas are the green felt hats which were part of the uniform of the Yugoslav People’s Army, so it seemed strange to me that they’d be selling them as a sort of war souvenir. Go even further into the fortress and you’ll find a war museum housing equipment, weapons and general artefacts from throughout time, including a few NATO shells and US army jackets found after the bombing.

When NATO bombed Belgrade in 1999, it’s reasoning was debatable (they targeted civilian buildings and didn’t have the backing of the UN, causing many to point the ‘war crime’ finger at NATO itself as well as to the Serbian government), but it’s effects were gargantuan. Without going too far into detail (partly because I’m no expert on this matter but also because I’d like to casually reserve judgement on a state of affairs I know hardly anything about), when Yugoslavia began to break up as more countries wanted independence, it sparked a whole chain reaction of events which started off as general civil war and and ended up as basically ethnic cleansing and mass genocide of the Kosovan people at Serbia’s government’s hands. Although some people claim that the scale of these deaths was exaggerated propaganda in order to back up NATO’s decision to bomb the hell out of a city full of innocent civilians, it’s clear that whichever way you look at it, to put it bluntly, hundreds of thousands of innocent people were murdered, on various sides.

This was also a war that was built on propaganda. In fact to be fair I think pretty much every war is. One of my pals showed me some clips of pop songs and adverts from back in the day which explicitly urged Serbs to fear, hate, and quite literally rape and kill, Muslims and Catholics neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia. Stories were broadcast across the country of how Muslims and Catholics were attacking and murdering Orthodox Serbs in the surrounding former Yugoslav nations; stories which were often actual lies. The government ran the media, so it could broadcast whatever news it wanted, even if it was completely fictional. Sound familiar, guys?

NATO recognised the media as a weapon of war when it chose to bomb the Radio Television of Serbia HQ in the city centre, amongst various other targets. Several of these buildings (of which there were many) have been left abandoned in their post-bombed form, windows blown away and a cross-section of each one now visible like destroyed concrete dolls-houses. Guys. It is MENTAL. My pal, who was doing his absolute best to fill me in on an incredibly complex situation, took me to see one of the bombed buildings, which looked more than anything to me like a savage giant had come along and taken a bite out of it, as if he was tucking into a chicken leg. At least, I preferred to think of it like that instead of the reality that people had been killed there.

In conclusion…it’s one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited

Aside from the fact that the city is an intriguing looking place with such an insane history, the people are what make Belgrade the place it is today. Hilarious, lively, and incredibly welcoming; proud of their country but also generally somewhat self-deprecating. Tourists are gradually venturing into the Balkan area, though Serbia is still fairly low on people’s list of priorities to visit which was also a draw for me. Whilst Belgrade clearly hasn’t completely forgotten about it’s bloody history, I’m quite glad I know a bit more about this brilliant city than I did as a child of the 90s, and at the very least have some happier images to add to those horrific ones of the past.

LOGISTICAL STATISTICALS

  • Currency is Serbian dinar, and £1 equals around 130 dinar.
  • Nikola Tesla Airport is about half an hour’s drive from the city, and an airport bus costing 200 dinars leaves on the hour every hour.
  • Not only is English not the first language here (duh), but neither is the alphabet. Signs, menus etc are written in Cyrillic letters, though often at the very least an English-alphabet version of words will be provided as well so you at least know how to pronounce things.
  • Within the city itself it’s possible to find English-speaking people to help you out, however out in the countryside this might not be so easy. DEFINITELY attempt to learn a few words just to be a nice human being and also to broaden your mind.

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