We arrived in Belgrade a little bit later than I would have liked, after a rather painful bus trip. In our haste to get to the bus station on time, we left behind a bag of pre packed lunch, drinks, snacks and a few other things in the fridge! Nine hours later it was dark and we arrived in the country’s busy capital without any idea of our proximity to our hostel. The bus station was adjacent to a park with hundreds of people just loitering around. There was rubbish everywhere, a few temporary tents, mobs of children playing next to the busy street – basically a massive homeless community. We felt a little bit uncomfortable at first and we were trying to figure out who these people were. I knew there were a lot of gypsies in Serbia, but then we realised that they must be Syrian refugees!
These people had been journeying cross country from Turkey to Kos, Greece, through Macedonia and had now arrived in Belgrade. At this stage their destination is most likely Germany – one of the most promising country’s in the EU. They also have by far the most welcoming stance towards refugees and hundreds of thousands are now trying to get there. These people range from young to old, and some are reasonably wealthy. They just don’t have the required documents, and as such are trying to make it there by any means possible. The bus station was heavily guarded, and it would have been extremely difficult to get onto a bus heading in that direction. The reason there was a backlog in the park we soon found out was because Hungary has stopped letting them enter, and are actually building some sort of barrier at the border. Besides the fact that it was uncomfortable being around so many people whom were obviously living a very horrific and tumultuous life, we didn’t feel under threat. Intrigued by the situation, we spoke to a few local Serbians whom didn’t like the fact that they were passing through Serbia one bit. They stated that this country has gone through its own struggles, and people here lived in a very “low economy”. With Hungary refusing to let them through there was a risk that some would settle here, which would affect their own job prospects. That being said, there was a common respect for refugees as previously many modern Serbians themselves fled to this country during the dissection and demise of Yugoslavia.
There is just so much history about this place, I cannot begin to recite even a fragment of it. Just to give you an idea, the Belgrade fortress has been involved in over 190 battles, and has been demolished and rebuilt over 40 times! Through different times throughout history this could have been by the Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, the Hungarians and probably many more.
Here is a pic of one of the fortresses entrance doors. Notice the bullet holes and a dent from a cannon ball!
What makes Belgrade such an integral part of this region is the fact that it was built upon the location where the Danube and Sava rivers merge. Going centuries back, when there were no established roads, these rivers granted access and thus a trading route linking the middle east (Istanbul) to the rest of Europe. If you controlled Belgrade, you controlled everything that went accross the river as well! Here we are at the top of the fortress looking over the rivers.
Most of this was learnt only on our final day when we did a tour of Belgrade’s catacombs. Our guide was absolutely fantastic – one of only two in the whole of Serbia that is licensed to do so. Times must have been quiet as Megan, Dan and I ended up getting a private tour! Whilst we saw a lot of the ruins and walked around the fortress he told us such interesting stories of what it was like for him growing up. I have already touched on some of the atrocities committed by Serbia only 20 years ago in previous posts, and now it was interesting hearing about them from a Serbian’s perspective. He spoke about not being able to get a passport until he was 31 years old. He said that throughout university he was there with his picket, protesting against the corruption and ruthlessness of the Milosevic government. When his involuntary conscription into the army came up he feigned being mentally insane. He obviously was completely sound of mind, but he maintains that if you look at their records he will come up with mental disabilities. That’s how much he detested what was going on, and how strongly he felt against war. He did have to go to Kosovo though and was ‘present’ there for 72 days of which he describes as a living hell. He openly stated that most people turned to drugs, including himself, to get by.
We walked into an amazing underground system, with grand rooms and ancient artifacts inside. One room in particular was being used by a drama/re-enactment performance to a small crowd of about 20 people. We poked our heads in and took a look around. Our guide spoke fondly about the times he spent here whilst growing up. With all the youth of Serbia being confined with very little to do, the government funded the development of some world class nightlife. They would pay for many of the world’s most famous DJ’s, particularly in the genre of Electro/House, to come and perform for the youngsters of Belgrade. He said that this room was open 24 hours a day for a period of 10 years straight!! He had his own theory that it was the government’s intention for the youth to party from Thursday to Sunday, and be hungover for the rest of the week. This kept the protesters off the streets and out of their hair! He pointed at a 2000 year old Roman sarcophagus in the corner of the room, which was ‘his spot’. If he jumped on top, apparently it allowed him enough room to really get his groove on into the early hours of the morning!
We ended the tour in another amazing cave where we were served a complimentary bottle of local Serbian white wine which was really unusual and not like a typical white wine. I would describe its taste as really raw and young, but it was actually pretty good!
It was here that we continued our conversation about his life. He joked that he hadn’t told us even one fifth of what he usually does about the fortresses history, and that all we wanted to know was about him! My favourite story of his was when the Ukranian president and his wife came for his tour. He had to do it twice – the first time for one of the security officers (to make sure it was safe) and the second time for the actual president. As they were underground walking up these steep dark steps he explained how the wife’s body guard Ivan had to lift her up the stairs! Ivan was about 7 foot tall and apparently just extended his arms under her shoulders and lifted her the whole way because she didn’t want to climb them!
He now talks about politics with complete indifference. If one corrupt leader goes, another will just come in. The most interesting comment of all was the sentiment that people were better off when the region was Yugoslavia. Given that this was a communist government I found this really curious, but he maintained that people were just better off. I can also say that he was not the only person that I spoke to with this sentiment. Later in my travels through Albania (as I write this) we made a friend called Giant who had a very similar opinion. Fascinating considering the Serbians and Albanians are historically brutal enemies.
I could go on about the history of Belgrade and some of the interesting things we learned, but I would have to write a novel! A majority of our time was also spent walking down Belgrade’s main strip. The girls did a bit of shopping, and we ate out at a few nice restaurants. There was plenty on offer, and if you were in the market for your designer brands and other trendy outlets, this was the place. There was also a very quaint strip in the ‘old town’ with restaurants lining the edges of a really old cobblestone street.
Much to Dan’s delight we found a fantastic vegetarian restaurant one evening where we shared a delicious, cheap meal. Just down the road, along the Danube river, was a string of ‘hipster’ bars and clubs. Although we weren’t up for the nightlife that evening, there is definitely a thriving scene for those so inclined.
Our last day was spent at the local waterhole. Given Serbia is landlocked, the only place to get a bit of sun is along the river. There was a body of water adjacent to the Danube where the local council had spent a significant amount of money excavating and cleaning. They apparently ran dredgers across the floor and now it was a great place to go for a swim. Although we have been completely spoilt with amazing beaches this trip, it was nice to relax again and have a quick dip.
That ended our time in Belgrade, and sadly – our time with Megan was also up (for now). She had plans to head toward Munich for Oktoberfest, and had some unfinished business in Bosnia along the way. Next stop for Dan and I?Kosovo. Probably the most war torn country in modern history that I can think of!