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Published: August 23rd 2012
“They used to hold Beer Fest in Kalemegdan, until a guy fell into the zoo and got eaten by a bear…. Oh, and here is the Roman well; a tourist fell in and died….”
I had been told that Serbia was quite safe these days, but apparently wandering around the sprawling citadel complex of Kalemedgan in Belgrade is not for the faint-hearted. If I was to believe these stories my friend Duscia was telling me, this was treacherous territory indeed.
Actually, I found Belgrade, and Serbia in general, about as warm and welcoming – and safe! – as one could hope for. I was visiting mainly to indulge in some Ottoman tourism (see my blog entry at: http://boundarystones.blogspot.com/2012/08/ottoman-ghosts-1-serbia.html
), but I had the added bonus of getting to see, if briefly, a Serbian friend from Khartoum. And through her and her friends, I managed to experience a slice of Serbian life I might have otherwise missed.
On my first night, we had dinner at a Serbian kafana - technically a neighborhood restaurant, but somehow much more. Designed to look like a house from the Serbian countryside, chickens roamed the floor, pecking at crumbs; ropes of dried vegetables hung from
the ceiling; the waiters were dressed in traditional garb. It could have been touristy-schlocky, but somehow the overall effect was more nostalgic than kitsch. And the food, while far from vegetarian friendly, was excellent, hearty fare: cured meats and sausage, cheese, kajmak (something between clotted cream and cheese), cornbread with pepper spread, a pile of roasted meats and potatoes. All washed down with quince brandy.
We continued our evening in a very different venue, heading over to “New” Belgrade to Beer Fest, a crowded affair that seemed to bring out most of Belgrade. There were stages with rock performers and tents serving as clubs – and of course stand after stand doling out beers, both local and imported. This is a city that takes having fun very seriously….
The rest of my stay in Serbia was a whirlwind of Ottoman tracking. I searched the hidden quarter of Belgrade to find the few remaining traces of the era when they city was a part of the Ottoman domain, right on the frontier with the rival Habsburg empire. I circled through the southern region of the country, which due to its being deeper in Ottoman territory retains much
more of a “Turkish” flavor. Towns such as Niš and Novi Pazar have parts that reminded me of villages from Turkey’s Anatolian heartland.
Towards the end of my stay, I also wandered the ramparts of the neglected Smeredevo Fortress, where the Ottomans took control of the medieval Serbian despotate. And during last night back in Belgrade, I was given a lovely tour of the neighborhood of Zemun by Dusica's friend, Beba - Zemun having once been the Habsburg border town across from Ottoman Belgrade.
But beyond the Ottoman theme travel, I began to appreciate contemporary Serbia. Although when people hear “Serbia” they often have negative associations – images of the conflicts that ripped through the Balkan region in the 90s as Yugoslavia dissolved often coming to mind – I was pleasantly surprised by the warm hospitality that I received everywhere I traveled. This was not a place or a people that felt particularly “warlike”. Quite the opposite.
Well, there still is the danger of being eaten by a bear….
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