Serbia: Impressions of Belgrade

Impressions of Belgrade…

…a long walk…and rain

 

“OK, finish,” the white haired bus driver told me making a slashing motion with his hands. This was it. The last stop on the bus line that links the airport with downtown Belgrade.

I thanked the driver, grabbed my small backpack and began to walk into town. I checked the time: 6:35am. Too damn early for anything. I had been up all night catching the early morning Air Serbia Flight from Tirana to Belgrade. I’m not really one for all-nighters and a fog blanketed my brain that matched the weather of the city.

Colorful striped building in Belgrade, Serbia.
Colorful striped building (Belgrade)

The streets were eerily quiet – a hush settling over them like the thick mist that hung in the air and partially obscured the concrete buildings.

I walked past the dark windows of the shops along Kralja Milana and under a deserted underpass and along Knez Mihailova, Belgrade’s popular pedestrian-only thoroughfare, toward the tip of the city: Kalemegdan park.

Like the rest of the city, Kalemegdan park was shrouded in the soft white of the morning fog. It swallowed the trees of the park and the brick and stone walls of the Belgrade fortress. It swallowed the joggers and dog walkers in their bright jackets. It swallowed the souvenir kiosks that stood near the entrance awaiting the groups of tourists with their flag-waving guides. It swallowed the expanses of the Big War Island and the Sava and Danube Rivers far below the heights of the castle.

The main gates into the fortress were closed. Huge banners hung around them advertising some kind of festival and security guards firmly turned away locals and tourists alike. I walked back along the fortress walls, pausing to take in the huge guns that are part of the military and then turned back toward Knez Mihailova.

Just as I reached the street, the heavens opened and curtains of rain soaked the already-damp ground. I sought shelter under a tree and wished I’d brought my umbrella.

When the rain finally abated, I went in search of coffee which I found in a small shop on Knez Mihailova. It was now almost 9am and the cafe’s along the street were open but still largely empty. The coffee was fine – nothing spectacular, but drinkable and satisfying. I was soon to learn that this mediocrity was the standard for coffee in Serbia.

The impressive defences of the Kalemegdan fortress descend to the Sava River.
The impressive defenses of the Kalemegdan fortress descend to the Sava River (Belgrade)

 

 

…and finding hostel wisdom

 

At 10:30 I decided it was late enough to attempt a check-in at the hostel. I walked through the tiny passageway toward the millennium shopping center. A small sign on the mailbox instructed: “Hostel 360 – take lift to 5th floor.”

The lift was tiny and old and really slow. The inner doors barely stayed closed on their own – and when they swung open, the lift stopped – the open doors revealing the rough cement of the elevator shaft. This auto-stop is a useful safety feature that undoubtedly caused panic in many travelers. I pushed the doors closed again and the lift continued to the fourth floor and I followed the signs to the top of the stairs, ringing the bell to gain entrance to the hostel.

A fountain in the park of the Belgrade Fortress, Kalemegdon
A fountain in the park of the Belgrade Fortress, Kalemegdon

The hostel owner was in the tiny office leaning back in his swivel chair with a relaxed attitude.

As we chatted for a while, he told me how his practice of Falun Gong meditation changed how he saw the world. He talked of the difficulties of the 90’s when Serbia, burdened by old debts, hyper-inflation and the Yugoslav wars was struggling to get by and how his discovery and practice of Falun Gong helped him change how he viewed the world. Not just the difficulties, he explained, but everything from how he interacted with other people to what he wanted from life.

I was drawn to his experience. Too often in life we find ourselves caught up in our circumstances – even defined by our circumstances. We even allow circumstances to make our choices for us forgetting that our circumstances are defined by our own world view and that altering a world view can alter the circumstances.

After a short tour of the hostel, I fell into my bunk for a much-needed nap.

…another long walk…and more rain

 

It was 7:30 am on my third morning in Belgrade that I crossed the Sava River on the Zemunski bridge. I was heading for the village-suburb Zemun, an eight kilometer walk from central Belgrade along a river trail. I was looking forward to some time to reflect and think and slow down. The steps down from the bridge smelled like urine. It occurred to me that cities rarely install facilities where they are most needed even though the place most needed is pretty easy to find with a relatively decent sense of smell.

As I started along the river path, the Belgrade fortress rising from the Sava on my right, the stomach pounding thudding of club music penetrated the morning calm. Each night-club boat and pier along the river had a catchy name: 20/44, Blowup Barka, Hot Mess, and Splav Play. Most of the clubs looked quiet, but one was crowded with people and thumping loud music into the park – the party still going.

The Gardoš, or Millenium Tower in old Zemun
The Gardoš, or Millenium Tower in old Zemun on the outskirts of Belgrade

I continued walking and gradually the sounds of the party were replaced by chirping birds. Then, even the birds fell silent as the grey clouds covered the sun. Soon only the soft patter of raindrops hitting the canopy of leaves provided by the trees and of my own footfall permeated the quiet.

The light shower let up just as I reached the edge of Zemun. Technically, Zemun is a suburb of Belgrade, but the town has a very different history and a completely different vibe. The southernmost outpost of the Austrian Empire in Serbia, Zemun was on the front lines of the seemingly perpetual war between the Ottoman Empire and that of the Austrians. Today, it feels like a strange quirk of history that two sections of the same town can be so completely different in so many ways.

I spent the morning wandering old Zemun, climbing to the Millenium Tower and catching a view of Belgrade’ towers in the distance just as the sun began to peak through the gaps and cracks in the cloud cover. Feet tired, I caught the bus back to Belgrade.

Old Zemun and Old Belgrade are linked my way of spacious river walk.
Old Zemun and Old Belgrade are linked my way of spacious river walk.

…and frantic endings

 

On my last morning in Belgrade I had a whole slew of things I wanted to see before catching my mid morning bus out to the airport. I’d been in Belgrade for three days and how I managed to leave all of this for the last morning was beyond me, but I was determined to get to all of it.

Nebojsa Tower, Belgrade
Nebojsa Tower – once a notorious Ottoman prison – now holds an interactive exhibition about its dark past (Belgrade)

The first item on my list is a stop at the “Theatre Museum.” I saw the sign while investigating a local burger place and had been wondering about it ever since. A Theatre Museum could be really cool – costumes, props, playbills, video…It could also be really boring. Either way, I wanted to know.

As it turns out, the Theatre Museum in Belgrade is two small rooms that hold temporary exhibitions on Serbian Theater. There is also an impressive library of all Serbian Theatrical Works the museum can obtain. As I peruse the old photographs and playbills documenting more that 100 years of theater, the sounds of children playing in the schoolyard next door permeate the small museum’s walls.

I thanked the curators, still smoking on the stoop and head across the park to Kula Nebojša, the 15th century defensive tower-turned-museum. It took longer than I hoped to cross the Kalemegdan Fortress-park. I checked the time. 30 minutes, no more – to explore this museum.

A local recommended this museum to me as being ‘an excellent’ museum. Before the suggestion, I’d had no intention of coming here, but when people who live in a place enjoy a museum, it must be special. The entry to the museum was grey and modern – a huge, wooden model of the city took most of the entry way.

The interior of the tower was divided into levels, each level presenting a different part of the Ottoman Occupation of this area and of the tower’s notorious use as a prison and place of execution.

It took me 40 minutes to walk from the Kula Nebojsa to the Temple of Saint Sava. This huge Orthodox church is the largest in the Balkans, and the largest Serbian Orthodox church in the world. The building has been under construction for the last 75 years. Just two blocks from my bus to the airport, I gave myself a piddly 20 minutes to visit the church.

The exterior, made almost entirely of marble and white granite, is exquisite. The interior, still under construction,was an enormous, hollow cement shell with some sections covered in scaffolding – still an unrealized dream in the minds of her creators.

As I raced to the bus stop and jumped on the airport bus a mere minute before her departure, I felt an odd mixture of accomplishment and sadness at the nature morning’s frantic pace.

Saint Sava Temple in Belgrade, Serbia
The white exterior of Saint Sava Temple in is beautiful in its simplicity (Belgrade)

 

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