On Wednesday I took the bus from Zagreb to Belgrade – a ~5.5 hour journey with exactly nothing to look at.
I couldn’t help but think, no wonder this stood as a border between Austrian and Ottoman rule for so many centuries, who would want to bother crossing this area on horseback?
Anyway, my first impression of Belgrade was not a fair representation of the city. As the bus pulled into Belgrade’s main bus station the “taxi sharks” literally race each other to be the first to attack you as you unload from the bus yelling “Taxi? Cab? Uber?” Then through a series of construction zones and up a big hill to the street where my hostel was, which looked to be the site of a recent earthquake (I have now learned that the skeleton of the building that remains in ruins in front of my hostel is the remnants of the old National Library, destroyed during Allied bombing in WWII). So my first impression wasn’t love at first sight, like it was with Zagreb and Ljubljana, but I kept an open mind because everyone I had talked to loved this city.
But by day two I really loved it. I did a “20th century” walking tour that was not at all what I expected it to be but great it its own way. I entered two Serbian Orthodox Churches and one orthodox crypt, the architecture of which were entirely new to me. I was shocked by how cheap this big city is – a ham and cheese croissant and a latte for $1.70! I immediately started considering whether I could just live out my life here on my current savings? Oh wait, they have really cold winters..
I wouldn’t describe the city as beautiful. It’s not clean, there is construction everywhere and instead of the typical detours for pedestrians you sort of just walk through the construction sites, everyone smokes everywhere, there is graffiti everywhere, stray dogs, and what seem to be piles of rubble situated all around the city.
But I also would describe the city as beautiful. For such an old city, it’s relatively new, with most buildings going up during the 19th and 20th centuries. The orthodox temples are gorgeous, they reminded me of the mosques in Istanbul though I wouldn’t want to say that out loud. Watching the locals interact with each other they appeared to be very jovial people, laughing all the time, and the odd mix of architecture is hard to take your eyes off.
I spent four full days exploring Belgrade, and as usual immersed myself in the walking tours. So, I guess I’ll dive right in to some interesting things I learned:
- Belgrade as a city holds the record for the most recorded battles (114), leaving the city to be rebuilt from the ground up 44 times. This leaves the city feeling very old but also very new.
- Belgrade, or Beograd in Serbian spelled using the Latin alphabet, or Београд using the Cyrillic alphabet (more on that in a minute) translates to “white city”. Belgrade sits at the confluence (this means joining of two rivers) of the major rivers Sava and Danube, rivers that run through many major cities, including Budapest, Vienna, Zagreb, and Ljubljana, so obviously an incredible location geographically. So, Belgrade built a fortress at the confluence which was continuously improved and expanded over the centuries. When the fortress was first built it was made with white limestone, so anyone approaching the city by river would see the white fortress and say look at the beo grad (white city).
- The dominant religion here is Serbian Orthodox Christian and the majority of the population are practicing. I learned there are many differences between Orthodox and Catholic Christians right down to the way they cross themselves (Orthodox from right to left, Catholics from left to right).
- They love basketball here. In five nights I watched four Euroleague basketball games. The Belgrade team, Crvena Zvezda, is terrible, but the locals at the hostel are loyal and watch them anyway (even Novak Djokovic was at the game). It was really nice to sit down and watch a basketball game with others (and not alone in bed on my iPad at 3am). I thought about going to a game until I learned everyone smokes inside the arena.
- Similar to Germany after WWI, there was hyper-inflation in Belgrade during the 1990s Balkan Wars. I am now the owner of a 100,000,000 and 500,000,000,000 dinar note. Serbians like to sit around for hours drinking coffee and it is said that you could sit down for coffee and by the time you paid the price would have tripled.
- The language comes from a Cyrillic alphabet, which comes from Greece. It’s confusing and also incredibly simple. There are 30 letters and each letter makes one and only one sound, so everything is said and written phonetically. The hard part is learning the alphabet. Below you can see Cyrillic above Latin. Some are easier, like the Greek delta (Δ) makes a D sound. But then our B = Б, V = B, P =R, N = H, so… yeah. Many street signs are in Serbian Cyrillic, Serbian Latin, and then English, and the street names have changed a lot over the years, especially as Tito’s name is removed from everything, so maps are hard.
- Just as in Zagreb, Belgrade’s main square (Republic Square) features a much-loved man on a horse, Prince Mihailo Obrenović III. Prince Mihailo liberated Belgrade and five other cities from the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s, after 500 years of Ottoman rule. However, the people didn’t love Mihailo’s personal life. He fell in love with the daughter of his first cousin which ultimately led to his assassination in a park near Belgrade.
- Gavrilo Princip (the guy who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, essentially starting WWI) is viewed as a hero by many Serbians. This isn’t to say Serbs were happy about the deaths of the archduke and his wife; it’s about what Princip stood for. He was a young guy, a 19 year old student, so he knew his life would be over if he were caught. But he risked all of this to take a stand for independence by fighting back against the Austrian Empire. You can find streets named after Princip, t-shirts with his face on them, and Princip graffiti all around Belgrade.
- Milošević (President of Serbia during “second” Balkan Wars in the 90s) remained President of Serbia until 2000 when he was overthrown. There were massive protests in the streets of Belgrade against him. He was eventually tried for war crimes and died in his prison cell in The Hague before a verdict was reached.
- Many Serbians like to refer to the communist era as “Titoism”, a mix between communism and socialism. As with Croatia he is both loved and hated here. Generally, if you were a very religious Serb you hated him because religion was taboo during communism. Could you still practice? Sure. But if it got around that you were attending church you may be discriminated against which could be as small as losing friends to as big as losing a promotion or even your job.
- I didn’t really know anything about Kosovo or the Kosovo War (what some here call the Third Balkan War) before I came here, but once in Serbia you quickly learn about the Kosovo War and resulting NATO bombings in Belgrade. I now understand that Kosovo is a very holy place for Serbs as it is really where the Serbian state started, and this is why many feel so strongly that it should remain a part of Serbia (it declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and the legality of this independence is still disputed). However, it is presently occupied mainly by Albanians, who are, to massively oversimply, culturally and religiously different, which has generated a lot of tension. I have only skimmed the top in terms of educating myself on this topic but in just five days in Serbia it’s obvious that both facts and opinions differ significantly depending on who you talk to.
- The NATO bombings went on in Belgrade every single day from March 24 to June 10, 1999. The intent was to target political buildings, like the defense ministry, media centers, etc., but of course there were mistakes made and civilian casualties resulted. You can see remnants of the bombings all over the city. As the United States played a key part in the decision making, Americans are still strongly hated by many here. This is the first place on my trip I received a true look of disgust in response to my nationality.
Rightly or wrongly, I guess coming to Belgrade I was expecting an attitude more similar to that of Berlin or Munich, a city which knows its country’s history is dark and addresses the history with brutal honesty and facts. That is not what I found in Belgrade. Generally, even when talking about the war, locals and tour guides chose to keep these topics light by talking about anything good that came from it. It was normal during a tour to hear “I don’t want to depress you so I will try to keep the stories light”.
For example, during the NATO bombings in 1999 there was one TV channel that played Disney cartoons 24/7 which helped the kids keep the bombings off their minds, and bands held many free concerts on certain bridges which attracted enough civilians to stop NATO from bombing them. The National Theater continued their productions throughout the bombings and made tickets affordable so that anyone could go. Also, during the wars with Croatia and Bosnia the city of Belgrade had extremely limited food, so Serbs would wait in line for hours to get basics like bread and water, which caused everyone to get to know their neighbors and drew the community closer together.
At first I was a little disappointed in this attitude. I was there to hear the Serbian side of it, not to have everything sugar-coated. But I think I grew to understand and appreciate it. It’s very recent history. Most Serbs were against what was happening at the break-up of Yugoslavia, and many of them had family, friends, co-workers, army buddies, that were suddenly on the other side. Their economy is still in really bad shape, the average salary is around USD $4,200/year and a tour guide can make more than a surgeon as the surgeon is paid by the government. Their government is still extremely corrupt (the prime minister, Zoran Đinđić, was assassinated by a group connected to the Serbian mafia in 2003) and the rumors and conspiracy theories run wild through the city (for example, that the National Museum has been closed for so long because the government sold the paintings for profit, that Tito was a Western spy hired by the United States, the list goes on).
So I guess the attitude I picked up is that many feel the city is so far beyond repair that instead of dwelling on the past, they have chosen to do their best to move forward and just enjoy life the best they can. I can’t say whether I agree or disagree as I can’t possibly put myself in their shoes, but I think I can understand it, and I know I can say that the locals I interacted with were extremely kind, open, and intelligent, and I was incredibly grateful to get to know them.
I’ll end with food!
Homemade food made with love from Balkan Soul Hostel: