Београд, Србија - Belgrade, Serbia

by - March 21, 2011

Sunday 20th March - Introduction

I have now acquired a ghost writer for my blog.  Hollie tells me that people won’t read my blog if I don’t start it off with a bang, and nothing packs more of a punch than a Winston Churchill quote.  So here goes.  The great man once said that “the Balkans produce more history than they consume” and I have to agree with him.  For a region with a relatively small population, it has had a disproportionate influence on world history, and perhaps no place more than Belgrade.  Had I been born a few years earlier, I would have been brought up regularly hearing reports on the news about the city, but as it stands the Balkan conflict is consigned to the limbo between history and the present – too young to be taught in schools, but too old to be talked about regularly.  This limbo has impacted on Belgrade, one of the world’s most famous cities, but one that very few people would consider visiting.  However the arrival of Wizz Air at Luton Airport has opened up the Balkans and Eastern Europe to us Western Europeans, giving an unprecedented chance to visit a place that our country was bombing ten years ago.  But don’t think that it’s all about the war.  The city is keen to re-invent itself.

Leaving on a Sunday afternoon, team Serbia (consisting of me, Alex Rule and Hollie Hales) departed for Nikolai Tesla Airport in Belgrade.  And now Hollie wants to take it from here…

Currently drinking a few delicious authentic Serbian beers, Yakovicsh (or alex in his Russian hat), Ruley and I are settling in wonderfully. I must say, I had reservations about how I would adapt to the culture, but it’s a few hours in to our adventure  and I have not taken an instant dislike (there is a Zara across the road from our apartment.) I am very much looking forward to the modern art gallery, the tea and cake at the Russian tsar. I hope I can survive these two for five days. Ellie help me!

…and now back to me.  We got the airport to book us a taxi to the hostel after landing – Serbian taxi drivers are notorious for massively overcharging tourists, and we arrived in the city centre at about 7pm.  Our hostel for our five day stay was the hostel 360, but we were spending our first night in an apartment nearby as there wasn’t enough room at the inn on the Sunday we arrived.  The apartment was…interesting.  It was nice and spacious, but the kitchen drawers were stuffed with plastic bags and a hammer and the bedside drawer was stuffed with fashion magazines, tissues, baby wipes and the remains of a pot of moisturiser.  I guess its more exciting than a Gideon’s Bible.  Giggidy.  That night we went out into the rainy Serbian night to find somewhere to eat.  It was fairly quiet, being a wet Sunday night, so we had our pizza restaurant to ourselves.  On the way back from dinner we bought some cheap beers (60p a pint) and went back to the apartment to watch Serbian tv.

Monday 21st March - Part One: The Citadel

Castle Walls and the Danube, Belgrade

It seems that Serbian beer and food is packed with sugar, because all of us were literally unable to sleep.  We woke up thoroughly cranky and unrefreshed as we packed up and moved across the road into the main hostel, where we would be staying for the rest of the week.  After dropping our bags off, we headed out for an explore.  The dominating feature of Belgrade is the citadel (Kalemegdan), which overlooks not only the old and new towns, but also the confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube and as a result is one of the most strategically important points in the Balkans.  It is located in a park and the turrents and sprawling walls were vast enough for us to spend most of our day there.
Despot’s Gate

We started off by walking down Knez Mihailova, the main pedestrianised shopping street that our hostel is located on, in the direction of Kalemegdan.  The street is like any other European city, with a mixture of local shops and international chains.  The main difference is that there is a mixture of Roman and Cyrillic alphabets, and a mixture of repulsive concrete and attractive sculpted buildings.  The citadel is located at the end of Knez Mihailova, about 5 minutes walk away.  The first monument that we reached in the castle grounds was the memorial to the French troops who died defending Belgrade in WW1 - I didn’t even know France had sent troops here.  From there we walked around the walls.  Alex had a photo inside every single turret. I think he sees this trip as a photo shoot.  Highlights of this wall walk included the Victory Monument, Despot’s Gate, and just general castle stuff.

The Citadel Restaurant
Lunch, as recommended by lonely planet, was at a restaurant in the castle walls overlooking the Danube.  There was, of course, a view tax but the prices were actually fairly reasonable and it was silver spoon service - for under a tenner.  We had planned to eat a snack, but it ended up being a bit of a carnivore’s paradise.  Alex ate an entire farm.  Our salad was a bit of a minefield, as the chef had hidden burning hot chillis in amongst the cucumber and tomato.  Me and Alex now have first degree throat burns, but aside from that it was pretty good.  Once outside we found the restaurant was next to a zoo.  It turned out that the walls weren’t very high, so being students we took photos through the bars. It was quite an odd zoo - beside the standard zebras and giraffes were things like a petting zoo which included friendly animals like rabbits, chickens, pigeons and a peacock.  Needless to say we left this in the “may return later” category.

Our plan was to then go to the military history museum - what with Belgrade being such a wartime city.  Unfortunately, having strolled through the grounds and taken some hilarious pictures with cannons and torpedoes, it turned out that it was shut.  Our lonely planet based tour had been de-railed and with no alternative plan, we went back to the hostel for a 10 minute lie down.  Unfortunately we all forgot to set an alarm and we ended up sleeping until the early evening.  With the day nearly gone and not really much to show for it, we decided to go back to the castle to see it at night - which was pretty, before going out for an evening coffee and tea.

Before (check out the super cheese frappe)
After such a big lunch, we didn’t feel capable of eating another meal, and thought we would just have a delayed dessert at the “Russian Tsar” coffee house - which is famous across Serbia.  We didn’t know quite what to order - there were four pages of cakes to chose from and two pages of coffee.  After much deliberating, I settled on the “Russian Tsar” coffee, with white chocolate profiteroles, Alex went for the Trio Chocolat cake with a frappe on the side, and Hollie chose a Kinder Cake and a hot chocolate.  When it arrived, we found out just why it was famous.  My coffee was loaded with liqueur, Alex’s frappe arrived in like, a fish bowl and was mainly marscapone cheese, and Hollie’s hot chocolate was essentially a bar of chocolate that had been melted down.  That’s not to mention the cakes.  My profiteroles were swimming in a pint of white chocolate, Alex had slab of chocolate and Hollie just about got away with hers.  It wouldn’t be an overestimate to say that there were about 10,000 calories on the table.  Our eyes lit up, and the first bites were glorious.  Unfortunately we realised that there were thousands more gloopy sugary bites where that came from.  To quote the famous Serbian phrase: “too much of a good thing clogs your arteries”.  Hollie finished first and watched in horror as me and Alex ploughed through calorie after calories, each one more repulsive than the last.  By the time we finished, we were in agony, my coffee was cold and Alex’s marscapone had curdled.  But we had conquered the Russian Tsar.  On our way back to the hostel we had to stop at the supermarket to get some juice.  Anything to cleanse our palates and provide vitamins.  While we had only had one meal today, it felt like we had had ten.  We rolled back into the hostel and collapsed on the balcony which is where you find us now.  With ten stone food babies all around and an off the scale cholesterol level.  HAHAHAHAHA believe it or not, Hollie just broke the chair she was sitting on.  Fabulous timing.  See you tomorrow

Tuesday 22nd March - Part Two: Sveti Sava’s, the House of Flowers and Zemun

The view of Belgrade from Zemun

Sveti Sava Cathedral

Lonely Planet set aside two days for Belgrade, so on our second full day we headed for the further flung sites that the city had on offer.  The first of these was the Temple of Saint Sava, to the south of the old town, which is the largest Orthadox cathedral in the world.  The grand dome of the building is visible across most of the city and is one of the few aesthetic buildings on the city skyline.  On the inside however, it is completely unfinished and has been for 200 years – and it clearly has a long way to go.  The inside reveals the bare bones of the cathedral structure and is little more than a grand construction site, complete with vast amounts of scaffolding and the odd cement mixer.  And as yet no seats.  It is a hugely impressive building from the outside however – similar in sheer scale to something like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and would be worth coming back to one day to see it in its entirety.

From the temple we headed further south, along the side of a motorway through the city suburbs to our next site.  On the way, we decided that we were hungry and, after going over a motorway footbridge, we ended up at some kind of Serbian service station restaurant that Hollie said looked nice.  I can’t fault her on her choice of building, but the restaurant itself was surreal, despite being built like a little swiss mountain hut.  There were no customers and a shy waiter soon arrived with a menu that had no prices and had pictures of the food which seemed to bear no resemblance to the English descriptions beside it, except where the dish was so basic that the English couldn’t go far wrong.  Such as in the case of “plate with two peppers on it”.  After a quick drink we decided that the motorway chalet was a bit too weird to eat at and we moved on to our intended site. 

The House of Flowers
The site in question was a complex of buildings that included the Museum of Yugoslav History and the House of Flowers.  The former of these, as seems to be the way on this trip with museums, was shut.  The latter however, was more than worth the hefty walk across town, as it was the resting place of Tito, the revered leader of Yugoslavia.  It seemed, at first, a strange place for a mausoleum – in the middle of a Belgrade suburb, but after climbing the steps up to it, it became clear that Tito had been buried with a fine view over his capital.  The building itself is a bit like a marble greenhouse with velvet curtains – a bit of an odd choice, but it was apparently Tito’s wish.  The complex is in a bizarre state of disrepair – while the mausoleum itself is spotless (a permanent military guard on the tomb remained for a decade after Tito’s death), the grounds are not.  A large water feature at the entrance to the site was filled with a thin layer of stagnant water along with two old mattresses - and there was an abundance of graffiti.  It seemed like a bit of a desolate place to be buried when compared to say, Napoleon in Les Invalides.

Gardoš, Zemun
The plan from here was to go to Zemun – a “town within a city” on the north western edge of Belgrade.  When Belgrade was a part of the Ottoman Empire, Zemun marked the southernmost point of the Austrian Empire – a real border of east and west about 8km out of Belgrade city centre.  Lonely Planet suggested that Zemun and the House of Flowers would be all in a day’s sightseeing, but forgot to mention that it would include a walk from one end of the city to the other.  Upon realising just what a trek it was, we decided to go ahead with it anyway and set out on the tow path of the River Sava (stopping on the way at a supermarket to pick up some bread and cheese for lunch).  On the bridge over the Sava, we stumbled upon (much to Hollie’s delight) a Serbian film crew who were filming a “walking up stairs” scene.  As we wanted to climb said stairs, we ploughed through the middle of their set and found a place to overlook the filming.  At first we thought something exciting was going to happen – like a fight scene or something, but it soon became evident that the actors were literally walking up and down a set of stairs.  So we quickly moved on.  The River Sava meets the River Danube to the north west of Belgrade, so we soon ended up walking along the Danube tow path.  The weather forecast hadn’t been great, but it was actually a really nice day and lots of the locals were out walking their dogs in the late afternoon sunshine.  I had bought my pedometer with me to Belgrade to see how far a person walks on city tours, but today I think I tainted the data a bit – by the time we had reached Zemun we had walked a total of 9 miles and burned off 1000 calories.  Needless to say we were pretty tired. The town of Zemun is dominated by an Austrian watchtower that overlooks Belgrade and is called the Gardoš.  Lonely Planet describes it as a “misplaced lighthouse” and Hollie said it looked like the tower out of a Series of Unfortunate Events.  Both seem pretty apt.  After a few photos of the tower and its stunning view over Belgrade – a view which was historically vital as a watchtower that separated empires, we had a drink at a nearby tavern with the same awesome view.  In Britain the view tax here would be extortionate, but the tavern was empty apart from a few locals and the beer was about £1 for a pint.  Which wasn’t too bad.  We sat and watched the sun set over the city, before getting a cheap taxi back into the city.

Our day wasn’t quite finished yet, as we had one of Belgrade’s top restaurants to visit.  We were eating at the famous “?” tavern – a place that from the name alone would suggest some kind of edgy and chic bar, but which actually couldn’t be further from that.  The tavern is the city’s oldest and was once named after the church opposite.  The church was unhappy however, at having a tavern named after it – believing that it corrupted the name of the church and therefore launched a formal complaint.  The owner of the tavern, not quite knowing what the fuss was about, stuck an exasperated “?” over the existing sign and the name has remained ever since.  The menu was real central European fare – from “calf’s head in tripe” and “young bull glands” at one end of the spectrum, to the more palatable goulash and grills at the other.  We opted for sharing a few dishes (glands not included) to get a real sense of the local cuisine, and it was pretty good.  It was followed by Baklava for desert and, for me and Alex, our first shots of the local liquor – the infamous Plum Brandy, which makes whiskey seem like tap water.  With the lining stripped from our mouths, we headed back to the hostel for a fairly early night – we aim to be up in the morning for a 7 o’clock train.  Whether that happens remains to be seen.

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