From Romania I set off to Belgrade, Serbia, the first of the former Yugoslav countries I’ll visit. When I first learned about Belgrade, it was the capital of the country Serbia and Montenegro, though it is now only the capital of Serbia as Montenegro is its own country. The beautiful train ride was enjoyable, and I took the opportunity at each station to practice reading Cyrillic.
I think I can read Serbian Cyrillic now, which was one of the goals for this visit. Not being able to read something bothers me, so I’ll be making an effort to learn the writing systems everywhere I go.
The first thing that struck me about Serbia is how friendly people are. If I wanted to get somewhere at a certain time, I would factor in a few minutes for random conversations on the way. When I left the train station, I had been walking only 5 minutes before I was stopped. I have a Canadian flag patch on my backpack, (which has been great for being found by other Canadians), and an older Serbian man asked me where I was from in Canada and was curious about why I came to Serbia. He said that they are all portrayed as horrible renegades by the media and was surprised I was there. After a pleasant conversation I went on my way with that warm reception as my introduction to Serbia.
I arrived at my hostel and found that I was sharing an 8 person room with only one other guest, who was also Canadian! Over the next few days it was enjoyable talking about traveling, Canada, and the differences in culture we’ve noticed together.
The hostel was directly across from a park that extends from the front of the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Mark.
One of Serbia’s greatest rulers, Tsar Dushan, is buried here.
I was fortunate enough to make friends with a local Serbian guy, and learned a lot more about the city than I would have alone. First of all, because I find etymology interesting, I learned that Beograd (Serbian spelling) means ‘white city’ in Serbian.
As I mentioned in my Bratislava post, there is a geographic separation among the Slavs. All of the south Slavic nations were once part of Yugoslavia; “jug” means south. The time spent under the ruler Tito and subsequent breakup of the country are a huge part of the new nations’ identities today.
This is the Serbian parliament.
Walking through the city to the Kalemegdan fortress, I realized that I already liked it here. One thing I never got used to though was the indoor smoking. There have been some café experiences where I’ve found myself missing Canadian air.
At this time in the trip I was definitely starting to feel the loneliness much more, so I made an effort to make some friends. It can also be frustrating to meet someone you really connect with only to leave town a week later!
Still, seeing these sights with a friend makes the experience much different.
The Kalemegdan fortress overlooks the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.
The river also acts as the boundary between what used to be the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.
I was told that this house is an example of genuine Serbian architecture.
Now that I’m out of the Schengen Area, with its awful 90 day restriction, I am able to take some time and go at an easier pace. My week in Belgrade was made better by how good my hostel was. I got to see this every day.
But most importantly, Serbian coffee was included.
Many parts of the city were beautiful. The gardens were nice, there were some statues, and this was mixed with the dull communist architecture. The years of history and multiple influences made for an architecturally diverse city.
I went for dinner one night to an authentic Serbian restaurant and had ćevapi for the first time.
This was complimentary.
Ćevapi is a grilled sausage made with different meat depending which country you’re getting it in. It’s really good, but I didn’t know you had to specify a smaller portion and ended up unsuccessfully trying to get through ten of them.
It was also my first encounter with the salad that’s actually just an onion. Didn’t really know what to do with that. When I finished, the waiter encouraged me to stay, relax, and enjoy my book. Throughout the Balkans, I have been surprised by how popular cover songs are. I never thought I’d hear a Jamaican version of Take On Me or a slow jazz version of Wonderwall, but I have.
Since the park was right in front of the hostel, I took some time to read one afternoon.
I finished my third Khaled Hosseini book, “And the Mountains Echoed” and was happily sad for a little while.
There is still evidence of the NATO bombing of Belgrade in the city. NATO intervened on the side of Kosovo based on allegations of mass killings, and Serbia eventually withdrew its forces from the area. This was, however, after buildings such as the radio tower and a hospital were “accidentally” hit by NATO.
As if to drive home the point that history is rarely one sided, I came across this statue of Gavrilo Princip – the guy who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, starting World War 1.
I’ll have more to say about him when we get to Sarajevo, but he is viewed here as someone who stood up to oppression and tyranny.
The largest church in the Balkans, and one of the largest Orthodox Churches in the world, is the Church of St. Sava in Belgrade.
It is unfinished inside, but the exterior is awesome!
The crypt was finished, and as I understand it, doesn’t follow the usual Serbian style by using a lot of gold in its design.
If you’re wondering why the name Sava keeps coming up, St. Sava was the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Belgrade turned out to be a great place to make friends. I think it was partly because I was there for a full week, and perhaps the locals influence everyone into being nicer.
This cat knows how to live life.
I went to coffee with my Canadian friend one day in this amazing multi-floor café. The floors were arranged by quality of coffee, and the place was packed. We found that the most striking difference between here and a Canadian café was that everyone was there to socialise. It wasn’t just a place where people bring their laptops for hours.
On the last day, I met an American girl originally from Ohio who knew the church where my grandfather was a minister. We got along really well and decided to check out the Museum of Yugoslav History together.
This is also the location of Tito’s mausoleum, the House of Flowers.
It was a fascinating museum. We first watched a movie about Tito’s life, but that was a little disappointing. It was more of a propoganda video that frequently mentioned how everybody loves Tito, but I didn’t learn much of anything else from it. The rest of the museum was much better though, and includes timelines of Yugoslavia and discussed Tito’s international impact and reputation.
I believe that Tito is viewed as having been a benevolent dictator who developed and treated equally the constituent countries of Yugoslavia. He seemed to be respected internationally as well, as there was a whole room full of gifts he received including a vase from the pyramid of Djoser and this Corinthian helmet.
Whether it was the food, the history, or the people, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Serbia. There is certainly a complicated history here, and I’ll talk about it a lot more in the next few posts, but my experience was completely positive and I’d recommend Belgrade strongly to anyone who wants to experience an interesting European country at half the price. Serbia has a lot to offer!