Published: June 7th 2010
June 7th 2010
On the train ride to Belgrade, I was accompanied by 2 Canadian girls who were staying at the hostel in Sofia also. When we arrived in Belgrade, one of them met up with her boyfriend, and the other followed me to my hostel. After checking in we decided to try the local Serbian restaurant. The main course was a nice plate of grilled meat, but the highlight was the Serbian salad. It was a mix of tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and hot peppers in vinegar and oil. Sounds simple I’m sure, but it was very tasty. I would end up eating it for just about every meal while in Belgrade. We returned to the hostel and I sat down in the common room with my laptop. I was pretty tired after the train ride and was expecting to take care of some business before going to sleep. After all, I wanted to explore the city the next day. Four college girls were apparently meeting some German guys at the hostel and planning their night out. One of them looks at me and says, “Hey American, you want to get a drink with us?” Not knowing how to turn that down, I accepted.
The group of 8 of us went to an Irish Pub near Republic Square nearby. As soon as we sat down the girls start ordering tequila shots. Instead of the salt and limes that I am used to, the server came with a tray of cinnamon and orange slices. An interesting twist, but it worked pretty well. This would prove to be a continuing trend. In the hour the pub was still open, and in the time I managed to drink one beer, we would have somewhere around 5-6 shots of tequila. Now everyone at the table spoke English, and the Germans spoke German as well, and the Serbians spoke Serbian as well, but soon we discovered we each had roughly the same knowledge of Spanish as well. So at any given time you could hear us speaking English, German, Serbian, or Spanish. I can only imagine what that must have sounded like to an outsider. After we left the pub, no one was ready to call it a night. We bought some beer at the local store and continued to drink in the middle of the square until about 3 am. I definitely enjoyed this very interesting introduction to
The sign says, "Walking in this area, you risk your life"
The next day I woke up to a rainy Belgrade. The sky cleared up for a little in the afternoon, which was just long enough to explore the park to the north. The park, Kalemegdan, held the ruins of the old fortress from when Belgrade was first established. It took up the north western corner where the Sava river runs into the Danube. Old castle walls partitioned the different areas of the park. I passed a zoo on my way into the park, then through a large gate into a courtyard on a large hill overlooking the river fork. The view was spectacular. You could see across the Danube, and across the Sava to an area called New Belgrade. In the middle was a small uninhabited island full of forest. The story was that a concert was once held there, but the intensity of the sound killed half the birds on the island. Since then concerts have been prevented, along with everything else apparently.
That night I followed the advice of the hostel worker, Marko, and went to Skadarlija for a dinner at a historic restaurant. The restaurant was filled with art hanging from the walls. I
With the college girls
ordered the pork karadordeva, which is pork rolled with cheese and sauce in the middle, breaded and fried. It was delicious. I could hear a woman talking and singing while music was played in the next room. Soon after I finished eating she made her way into my dining room. The actress was dressed very conservatively, but well decorated. She first gave a speech in Serbian, and I thought well that is a shame. However, after a while, she turned to me and said, “Welcome.” She explained that the restaurant was first established in the 19th century, and catered to artists seeking inspiration. It had been visited by Shakespeare, among other great writers. She then told me a Serbian joke: According to Shakespeare, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” and according to some “To drink or not to drink, that is the question”, but according to Serbians, “Two beers or more beers, that is the only question.” Then the band started playing as she sang and danced.
The next day I awoke to more rain, but I didn’t let that stop me from exploring a little. I walked through the main streets of the city,
seeing the shops, cathedrals, and municipal buildings. Two adjacent buildings had sustained heavy damage from a recent bombing. I didn’t ask, but I think it was NATO that was responsible back in the 90s. The buildings still stood, however, as a symbol or a memorial of sorts. Towards the southern end of one of the main streets was a very large cathedral, St. Sava’s Church. You can tell by the domed architecture that this is an orthodox church. A fountain display lay in a courtyard in front of the church. When I went inside, I discovered most of it was blocked off for renovations. I crossed over and walked back along another main street where I saw the Parliament building. The Parliament building was large and well decorated with two statutes of what looked like horses overcoming men and green copper domes on top. However, it too was under renovations, and scaffolding hid most of the outer features.
When I returned to the hostel I found that I was the only person there. Well, the only person other than Marko. Marko was watching the French Open, and I soon took an interest in it as well. We started talking
about tennis, then other sports, and were soon having a very long conversation without any definable bounds. I told him that in Paris I learned of the board for preserving French culture, the group responsible for renaming word that sound too English, and giving the iPod a gender. He laughed and said that a similar group existed in Croatia, and, like the group in France, sometimes the people followed it, and sometimes they laughed at it. He said one of the more popular jokes surrounds the Croatian group renaming the word for “belt”. The Serbian and Croatian languages are very similar, so many of the decisions are in furtherance of separating the Croatian language from Serbian. He told me the word for belt, which was an easy, one-syllable word. However, for some reason, the Croatian group thought this was too Serbian sounding, so they decided to come up with a new name for it. The name they came up with, literally translated, means something along the lines of “around the waist, to hold the trousers up”. Now this word is, almost necessarily, extremely long. So it should come as no surprise that when the Croatian group announced to the people
Flooding of the Danube
Anyone have a squeegee?
that they needed to use this new word instead of the old word for “belt”, everyone laughed. Now it is apparently nothing more than a joke, or a tool for Serbians to make fun of Croatians.
That night I took another recommendation from Marko, and went to a restaurant called Question Mark. As I ate I overheard a table of people who looked my age speaking English. I had to laugh a little when I heard them talking about the exact same belt story that I had just heard. This was a clue that someone else was being introduced to Belgrade. Thinking that I might fit in, I went over and introduced myself, and asked if I could join them. They welcomed me to sit and I told them of my travels and how I had gotten there. That is when I was introduced to Jelena and her friends Arsenije and Laila. Jelena was finishing medical school at the University, and had taken time off to travel to the USA in between. She worked with Laila at Martha’s Vineyard, near Boston, and Laila was visiting Belgrade for the first time. We had a good conversation and exchanged contact information
View from Kalemegdan
to meet later.
Indeed, we met a couple days later to explore some of the city. We started back at Kalemegdan where I was happy to get some insight about the area. We also went to the Military Museum where Arsenije explained some history of Belgrade to me. Belgrade was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for quite some time. North of the Danube, however, was controlled by the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, ruled by the Hapsburgs. Present-day Serbia encompasses both north and south of the Danube in the area. The Turks were extremely vicious to the Serbians during their occupation, with acts ranging from impalement to decorating their houses with Serbian skulls. It wouldn’t be until after the invention of the firearm that Serbia would free itself from Ottoman rule. Shortly before WWII Serbia joined Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Macedonia to form Yugoslavia. Each of these countries had its own symbol, and the symbol of Yugoslavia was a fire lit by 6 torches. During WWII Serbia suffered Nazi occupation until liberated by the Soviets. The Soviets installed President Tito as ruler of communist Yugoslavia, who would rule for a very long time. Many people loved Tito and he is still
I'm on a boat!
an icon today. However, his fans did not include my present company. I was familiar with the more recent historic events including the fall of communist rule, quickly followed by the separation of Yugoslavia back into their respective countries. Most of the fighting has calmed since the break-up, but a small portion of Serbia, known as Kosovo, is trying to break away as an independent nation. Though many Serbians have migrated from Kosovo due to the influx of immigrants, it still represents a large history of Serbia from the time when Serbia first broke free from Ottoman rule. For this reason, Serbia has not given up Kosovo easily. After leaving the military history museum we explored more of the fortress including a cliff-side restaurant and a small church. Before parting we made plans to meet later that night.
We met at the movie theater where I saw the first movie I had seen since coming to Europe about 2 months ago. Though the movie was subtitled, it made me feel like I was back in the US. As we walked back outside I had a moment of memory lapse before I remembered, much to my pleasure, that I was
still halfway across the world. I was taken to a jazz bar nearby called Our Bar. This was a nice place where we could talk and listen to music. I was introduced to Jelena’s friend and colleague, Jelena. Yes, apparently half of the women in Serbia are named Jelena. The 5 of us had a good time talking about our different experiences for the rest of the night.
I set out for Zemun the next day. I walked across the bridge and through New Belgrade to get there. Zemun was a small yet dense area of town which was once its own city. And if you ask someone from Zemun, it is still its own city. There were many restaurants along the coast of the Danube, and I ate at one called Kod Kapitana. There, I had the best steak I have had in Europe so far. It was a thick cut of beef perfectly grilled to a medium-rare. I found out this was not the local way to eat steak because many locals will order it well-done. Even so, they sure know how to grill it medium-rare. That evening I met up with Jelena and her friends again
for a night out at the club. We went to an area alongside the Danube where clubs were floating in the water. Long walkways led from the shore to each club. The club was made of an iron frame with thick fabric paneling. The paneling could be pulled open as the club heated up. As we entered we discovered that every table was reserved. I wouldn’t have minded this except that all the bar space was also reserved! We got there early and had a space at the bar for a while, but the club quickly filled up. We found ourselves completely surrounded by the club-goers. Go-go dancers were showing off their skills (among other things) on a platform above the bar. The bass from the electronic music literally shook the club. A very gentle sway was evident by the disco balls hanging from the ceiling. It was an interesting experience, but as a whole, I didn’t see much difference between this scene and the club scenes I’ve been to back in the US.
I followed Jelena’s recommendation and set out for Ada for my last day in Belgrade. Ada is a small island surrounded by the Sava river.
However, the near side of the Sava river has been damned at both ends of the island, and an artificial lake has been formed. The sides of the lake are covered in pebbled beaches while the island contains a golf course, paint-ball arena, soccer fields, basketball courts, and more. I saw a sign for bungee jumping also. The lake water looked very clear compared to the river water. However, since it was cooler and cloudy, I didn’t see many people out using it. Toward the south end of the lake, I saw an interested setup for water-boarding. A long track went in a square about 20-30 feet above the lake. I watched as the track towed a water-boarder from a line around a course in the water. The course had ramps and other jumps for the water-boarder to take as he makes his way around the course. No motorboat required!
Although it rained practically the entire time I was there, I found Belgrade to be a very nice and interesting city. The people are very friendly, and there is a lot of night life there. This is also the first place I’ve been where I’ve been confused for a local. I had people coming up to me speaking the language with a speed and tone that suggested they were absolutely sure I spoke Serbian. Definitely more so than in all the other cities combined. Some of them didn’t speak English and were simply frustrated. However, some spoke English and were happy to engage in conversation anyway. The food is delicious in Belgrade, and it might just be the cheapest place I’ve been to yet. You can get a full lunch for about $1.50, and you won’t pay more than $20 for a complete dinner at the nicest restaurants there. A lot of the restaurants seemed very proud of their Brandy. I only tried it once, but I am not much of a Brandy person. I enjoyed the local dark beer, Jelen tamno, much more. I’m not much for clubs, but if you are, then I would definitely recommend Belgrade’s night life. You will not get bored. For me, the friendly people, including the beautiful women, will probably make me come back to Belgrade sometime soon.