Even though it was expected, it was still a shock. Thirty Euros was the taxi driver’s price, and with no way of bartering, we knew we were at his mercy.
After getting our passports stamped, Michael and I had wandered into the arrivals hall of Belgrade Airport. Almost immediately, the taxi drivers set upon us. Acting cool, I pointed Michael towards the airport bar, hoping our nonchalance would aid our quest to get a better price. But it was a false hope. As we sipped our first Serbian beer, I consulted the guidebook and immediately realised our mistake.
“We should‘ve rung a taxi before entering the arrivals hall,” I told Michael. “But there is a bus! It leaves every hour, on the hour.” We both swivelled our heads and looked outside just in time to see a bus move away from the terminal. It was 8pm exactly.
Resigned, we both got some Dinar, the local currency, and like antelope, we stood in the middle of arrivals, waiting for the first bite. It took about ten seconds.
“Ah, you boys want taxi?” came a deep voice to our left. Dark hair, in his thirties,
the man tried to disarm us with a smile. “I take you to centre very quick. Come. You not get any cheaper. And look, bus has gone!” He grinned at his observation. He knew he had us caught.
“You Americano?” the taxi driver asked as we turned onto a main highway towards Belgrade. Michael told him we were from the UK, a town quite near Manchester. The man grinned. “Ah! Manchester United! Good football team! Why you here in Belgrade then? Business?”
We explained that we were in the city for leisure and with that, the driver nodded and started pointing out sights along the road. “This the Danube, And if you look over there, you see the fortress on hill. Very nice place. You must go there. And you boys very lucky! The weather is very hot. And you know what that means? The girls wear nothing!” He laughed throatily to himself. “But you will see this for yourself, I’m sure!”
Stifling was the only word to describe the weather in Belgrade and since it was already early evening, we were soon sat in a bar enjoying a Jelen Pivo, the most popular
beer in Serbia, costing only 100 Dinar (85p) a pint. I regarded a busy street to our left. The Cyrillic alphabet on some shop signs, mixed with English lettering, seemed a little strange to me, and as I mused on this, I suddenly realised I was quite peckish. A man at the next table already had some food in front of him. It seemed to be some sort of strange kebab-type thing. We ordered one each, wondering what we’d be getting.
It turned out to be a really tasty meal. Sausages of some kind as well as another meat, probably lamb, all filling a pita bread. And it was so cheap. Satisfied, we headed off towards Belgrade Fortress as dusk began to settle over the city.
Situated high up on a rocky ridge, Belgrade Fortress looks out over the River Danube. It is perhaps most famous because in 1914, the Austrians fired upon it, effectively starting World War I.
As Michael and I clambered up the pathway, wandering through the Fortress Gate, we soon came to the highest point of the complex, a place offering an amazing view of the river below. We weren’t
the only people up there. All along the wall, and in the park adjoining it, were groups of teenagers. Some sipped the odd can of lager while others enjoyed ice creams. Some kids to our right were kissing and canoodling, but most of them were just chatting. What a contrast to the UK. Unlike the hoodie-wearing yobbos of back home, these teenagers seemed peaceful, happy to be out in the evening sun.
An hour or so later, after the sun had set, we were back in a central square enjoying another Jelen Pivo. And then a few more after that. Finally we retired back to the hotel.
The next day it was even hotter, Thirty-Six degrees Celsius. No sooner had I stepped out of the shower that I felt like I needed another one. After breakfast we headed outside, passing through Republic Square before coming across a quiet part of town known as Skadarlija or the Bohemian Area. The main street taken up by traditional craft shops and quaint cafes. “Look at those buildings,” Michael pointed out as we walked through the area. I turned and saw a set of tall buildings decorated in
an interesting way. Daubed over the otherwise boring façades were colours and designs, which made the buildings seem much grander. One building, with only three windows, caught my eye. Due to some skilful painting, it now had nine windows. “I think I once saw buildings like this in Venice,” Michael said as we wandered off.
Beyond Skadarlija, across a busy road, we walked through a large open-air market selling fruit and vegetables. The market was packed with people. As we made our way through, a small boy of about eight attempted to ride through the crowds on his bike. The result was faintly comical to watch. He soon rode into the side of one elderly woman carrying a bag of lettuces in one hand a wooden cane in the other. With an angry outburst, she clipped the boy around the head with her stick and as he attempted to ride off, she whacked him again, shouting something incomprehensible. Uninjured, he cycled off, but did not get far. After failing to turn in time to avoid a collision, he went into the back of another woman. She was younger, and after spinning around, she gave the young lad a
hard shove, causing him to topple from his bike. But he wasn’t perturbed in the slightest, he simply climbed back on, peddling away, soon becoming lost in the crowd before us.
Through the other side of the market, we came across a pitiful sight. It was a dark-haired woman of perhaps thirty, fast asleep in a doorway. How she slept in the intense heat I didn’t have a clue, but what made it worse were the two children. A boy of maybe five and a girl of about three were huddled next to their mother, also alseep, both wearing next to nothing. We walked on, wondering how they lived and survived in such deplorable conditions.
To cheer ourselves up, Michael and I found a nice park and sat a while, observing life going on around us. One overalled man was hosing down the plants in a possibly futile attempt to keep them from expiring in the heat. Young couples sat on benches with their arms around each other, kissing and gazing into each others eyes. Further over, to our right, on another bench, a couple of old men were talking and laughing. It was all a
pleasant affair, and after a while of quiet thought, we moved on to a cafe.
After lunch, we headed back up to the Fortress. With more time on our hands now, we wandered around the military machinary on show. Canons, tanks, machine guns and missles were everywhere just outside the walls of the fortress. It really was an exstensive display of harware. But it was so damned hot. I could imagine my brain beginning to sizzle. To escape the terrible heat, we found a quiet museum located inside one of the tower entrances. Luckily, the air-conditioning was on and after paying 200 Dinar (£1.80) we set off around the small, two-roomed museum with a young woman as our guide.
“The fortress was destroyed by the Turks in the Sixteenth Centruy,” she told us, as she pointed to a model of the inside a glass cabinet. “Razed to the ground! But eventually the Austrians took over and rebuilt it.” We then looked at some Serbian and Turkish pottery before being taken into a small room dominated by a small canon. “This is a Turkish canon,” the guide told us. “And it is how the Turks took
Belgrade. They had this sort of firepower and no one else did.” We thanked the guide, a university student we found out, and headed back into the heat outside. During a coffee break, Michael announced he wanted to visit the Nikola Tesla Musum. “Have you heard of him?” I had.
I remember owning a 1980’s rock album by an American band called Tesla. They’d called their album The Great Radio Controversy. I told Michael this. He was impressed. “Yeah, but he was also mad inventor. Have you heard of the Tesla Coil?”
I shook my head. This seemed to please him. “They might have one in the museum. If they do, you’ll like it. I promise. Let’s go.”
The museum itself was quite small, taking up only two rooms, one of which contained some of the great man’s perosnal belongings. But in the other room, there were cabinets containing some of Tesla’s inventions, but the main exhibit was a Tesla Coil in the centre of the room. It was about ten feet high, made if metal, and looked, quite unimpressive. The poster behind it was more exciting though. It showed Tesla sitting
uderneath a coil whilst sparks of electrictiy danced all around him.
Tesla was a Serbian born in 1856. Best known for his work in the fields of magnestism and electricity, there is a belief he was in fact born during a lighning storm. Whether this is true or not, the man certainly liked electricity. In 1884 he arrived in America and started working for Thomas Edison as an electrical engineer. At some point, he invented the radio, a discovery Edison eventually claimed victory for. Destitute, Tesla eventually died aged 86, eccentric and with heavy debts. However, later that year the US Supreme Court acknowledged his patent, meaning Tesla effectively became the inventor of radio.
In Serbia, his legacy lives on, not only with the museum, but in other ways. For instanse, the 100 Dinar banknote bears his portrait and the international airport is named after him. “Watch!” said Michael. “The Tesla Coil is about to be switched on!”
A museum guide had just dimmed the lights and was powering up the strange device. As it cracked and hummed, faint blue sparks could be seen coming fron the top of the coil. And then it
came to life with a bang, followed by long, crackling blue arcs of electricity sparking all over the joint. It sounded like we were in some sort of electrical sub-station, and then it suddenly stopped, the power turned off. The lights were switched back on and we were soon outide.
“Did you like it?” Michael asked. I nodded. I had to agree, the Tesla Coil was something worth seeing.
After a fairly lengthy walk we came to a magificant church - St Sava’s, named after a thirteenth century Serbian Saint. It looked superb, and is one of the largest Orthodox Churches in the world. And it wasn’t actually finished yet. After the Turks burned the original St Sava’s in 1595, it was three hundered before plans were drawn up for a new one. Tenders were put forward, but all plans had been rejected as not being good enough. Then the outbreak of World War I halted any further progress. In 1919, a society was formed with the sole intention of getting the chuch back up and running. They sent out invitations for some new plans and received over twenty of them. One was finally chosen.
In 1935 construction began at last, but things were not going well. The scuppering came in the form of the Second World War. Construction halted once more, with the German army even using the unfinished church as a car park. Things turned from bad to worse. After the war, the Soviets used it for the same purpose, before finally using as a storage facility. And with communism firmly in place, the society ceased to exist altogether. And then, suddenly, in 1958, the idea was ressurected once more, but it took a staggering 26 years before permission was actually granted. Work started a year later and by 1989 the massive dome had been put in place. By 2004, the outside was complete, leaving only the inside to finish. Michael and I went into it, seeing a few people standing by lit candles, others praying by the entrance. It still looked a long way from being finished. After we’d left the church, we both agreed that when it was finally completed, it would be a truly magnificent building, one to dominate Belgrade’s skyline.
Later that night, Michael and I caught a taxi to the Airport for our short flight to
Sarajevo. But two days later, we were back in Belgrade, this time not about to be ripped off by the taxi drivers waiting in the arrivals hall.
“You want taxi? I take you now. Very quick!” said a small man in his early forties. “No thanks, we’re waiting for the bus,” I said. It was due in five minutes. The taxi driver shugged. “But I can take you now. But might not come. Come come!” I turned to face him, eyebrows raised. “Okay, let me guess, thirty Euros to the centre is it?” I said smiling. “But only ten on the way back.” The taxi driver smiled too. “So you been to Belgrade before! You know how it works! Oh well, at least I try!”
An hour later we were back in central Belgrade. In 1999, Nato carried out airstrikes against Serbia in an attempt to make the Government put an end to the civil war in Kosovo. Cruise missiles hit specific targets in and around the city, the wounds of which are still visible today. We soon found one such building - the Yugoslavian Army Headquarters. It looked like an earthquake
had struck it. Collapsed floors, missing windows, bent girders, and sections with no roof all lent an air of war to it. Why it had been left to rot, we had no idea. But as a stark reminder of the conflict, it couldn’t have been better placed. A truly remarkable sight in an otherwise unremarkable part of the city.
We had to catch a plane to Dusseldorf, but just before reaching the airport, Michael and I decided to visit to the Aircraft Museum, located not far from the aiport. After paying the entrance fee, we found we had the whole place to ourseves.
Reconstructed aircaft, ranging from old bi-planes to Russian Mig Fighters were on display inside the Mushroom-shaped building. There was even a Spitfire, painted in the colours of the Yugoslavian Air Force. But one section caught my eye above the others. It was the tail section of an American fighter plane shot down during the NATO airstikes. Just along from it was a section of an American Stealth Bomber, this one taken down by a Serbian surface to air misile. And then I was at a display showing the battered and frayed tail section
of a Serbian Fighter plane. Despite the damage, the pilot had managed to get the stricken plane back on the ground, and on a nearby display, a photo showed the smiling pilot standing next to his aircraft. He looked a happy man.
So our trip to Serbia was over. We sat in the departure lounge. Belgrade had been a good city to visit. There were definitely highlights to be seen. But there were some weaknesses too. But that could be said of nearly every city around the world. Overall, I was glad to have visited the Serbian capital, but it wouldn’t be somewhere I’d be in a rush to get back to.
Strengths: • Cheap! • The Fortress and nearby parks are really special. • War damaged buildings are amazing to look at. • Very friendly and safe city. • Nice food if you’re not a vegetarian. • All the sights can be reached on foot. • Teenagers are not the hate-filled street yobs like back in the UK • No tourists!
Weaknesses: • Lot of run down buildings • Taxi driver jackals of Belgrade Airport. • Not really that much too see beyond the main
My aim was to visit at least 100 countries, and with Brazil, I finally did it.
Unlike a lot of fellow travellers, I tend to only dip my feet into a country, quite often only staying a day or two before heading off somewhere else.
Country numbers 54 and 55 were my first trips alone - something I never thought I'd do.
In 2013 I published an e-book entitled The Red Quest, detailing my mission to visit each and every country of the former Soviet Union. Along the way I sample fermented mares milk in Kazakhstan, am detained by the police in ... full info