28.07.2007 34 °C
Belgrade was the first city in which I extended my stay to four nights. There are a number of reasons for this decision, with my indecisiveness over my next destination likely leading the pack. But a big part of my sticking around was how friendly and welcoming the city and its people were to me, and most travelers, passing through. Its likely because there are so few of us, a city which has yet to attract a great number of tourists in spite of being such an important city in the region, known for its great night life and to some extent its history at the crossroads of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires. It truly is a great city, and to be honest, having also visited Budapest in the past, a consistently promoted stop on most backpackers' itinerary, there seems little reason for Belgrade to be neglected in favor of it, unless one considers Budapest's proximity to other destinations like Prague and Krakow, and of course, the recent war. But in spite of their combative reputation, and more so, the fact that the United States had bombed the city less than a decade ago under the guise of Nato, I was subject to virtually no hostility, even as their memory and willingness to engage in conversation over the war is quite fresh, high.
When I use the word war though, I don't refer to the conflict over the breakup of Yugoslavia which is remembered so vividly in Bosnia, for that violence never reached Belgrade and resonates little with the young people in Belgrade. It is the Nato bombing which is remembered, the sirens which called for all of the people to head to the bomb shelters, and limitations on electricity, water as a result of it. There are a few buildings still vacant, but only one person - and I say this with all due respect - died during the half year or so of bombing. People are quite willing to speak of the time, but once on the subject it can be difficult to get them to move on from it. As for the earlier breakup, its amusing to hear the bias they have toward Croatia and Bosnia for having left Yugoslavia. Its as if they started the war because they seceded, not because Serbia laid siege to these countries to prevent their becoming indepedent.
As I read this over, seems not so different from the North declaring war on the South in America, but to an extent the motivation for the unification of such disparate people no longer existed. Yugoslavia was created as a counterweight again the Ottoman and Austrian empires, strength in numbers. For most of the communities it was a marriage of convenience, and once stability seemed to have arrived, and Tito had died, they no longer wished to take orders from distant Belgrade. Because of the capital's location Serbia has always held greater control over Yugoslavia's destiny, so when Slovenia, Croatia, and soon after Bosnia declared independence, they sought to keep it intact, or at the very least maintain control over portions of these countries with sizable Serbian minorities. This is the issue in Kosovo, referred to as the cradle of Serbian civilization even though its 90% Albanian today. The conflict here seems not so different from that of Israel, or to an extent Kashmir. Each community has a historical claim on the land, depending on the year chosen, which in some conflicts with the facts on the ground.
There is a sizable portion of the Bosnian state which is governed under what is termed the Republic of Srbska, a region which operates fairly independent of the government in Sarajevo. Serbia sought to incorporate this region into Greater Serbia, as well as some portions of Croatia which had come to be dominated by Serbs. And this is why to travel to Belgrade my only option was to trek 45 minutes from the city center to a small bus station on the tip of town which served this region, and had 8 buses a day to Belgrade as opposed to the 1 bus leaving the main station located in the center before 6am each morning. Quite the political statement, and is by no means unique in the region. Now that I am in Macedonia, travelling to Albania and Greece isn't easy. One can do it, but only by taking a bus to the border, walking across, and hiring a taxi or minibus to take you to the next city of consequence. Even as I sit here typing in Ohrid, Macedonia's second busies town an hour from the Greek border, if I wanted to head to Greece I would have to backtrack several hours to the capital to find good public transport that direction. When coordinating travel routes some days I wonder whether im in Europe.
The hostel I stayed out was a big part of my experience. The place had opened less than two weeks ago and was still in the process of being set up. Though the girl running the place could at times be a know it all, she and her boyfriend (who lived in the spare room soon to become another dorm) genuinely seemed to be interested in showing the guests a good, and more so authentic, Belgrade experience. My 1st night in town I was their only guest and they took me out on the town to see some of the bars in a nice cobble stone area of town. My second night happened to be her birthday, and we and some other guests who'd arrived stayed up most of the night hanging out with some of her Serbian friends. These included a mafia wannabe with big sunglasses and Kangol hat who promised to get me anything I might want in town half price and a girl DJ studying Arabic who desperately wanted to move to Jamaica. Some real characters, but still people my age who were interesting in talking to me, offering a glimpse of their lives to me. While I'm meeting new, interesting people every day, there are usually fellow backpackers from distant parts of the globe with whom I can swap stories. Rare is there an opportunity to talk with locals for more than fleeting conversations, so really quite unique.
And at last, the City:
As for the city there is plenty to do. It sits at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, at which point there is a great fortress which has been turned into a really cool park with basketball and tennis courts construted between the ramparts of the almost fully intact fortress and plenty of green space and benches for the citys people to enjoy when the sun goes down. Beyond the park, there is plenty of pedestrian only shopping streets with cafes brimming with people at all hours. There is no real old town as the city has been destroyed so many time in its history, but it does not detract from the citys charm and in a way prevents tourists from been quarenteened away from the locals. There are some great museums, some fantastic orthodox churches which are always interesting sites given how rare it is to find one in Western Europe. Tito was buried here as well, with a small museum complex and g The bar scene is quite varied, with cafes which blend into pubs and a slew of house boats along the river which to an extent are the liveliest of the city's club venues. It is a dirty metropolis, but somewhat endearing and pleasant change after so many of the small capitals that I had seen in recent weeks. Its new, and grandiose, and was built up to serve as a capital of a country far bigger than Serbia is today.
Aaron and Tito, Monument within Mausoleum Complex:
Fortress at juncture of Sava and Danube River