Serbia in 2011 was still a very rough place to be. I’m glad I went, but it wasn’t easy. I look forward to returning to Belgrade someday. I felt as scarred as the city by the time I left – and that’s reflected in this decidedly unfair remembrance that I wrote soon after.
Belgrade is more than a gritty city filled with bad graffiti and dog turds. I know it. and while I found pockets of what seemed like paradise, for the most part, the city felt like what it is, a scarred and damaged war zone where unspeakable atrocities have taken place. Despite having the reputation of being the Paris of Eastern Europe and having the best night life of just about anywhere in Europe, the Serbians I met generally said the nightlife wasn’t so great. While I didn’t visit the many museums of Belgrade, I still did get a sense that this is a cultured place with a highly educated population. I wanted to experience that, but somehow just missed it.
From the apartment I’d been staying in, I wandered to a hostel called 1001 Nights. The owner ran a clean place with a friendly vibe. I arrived at around 8 a.m. and he offered me coffee and rakia. I accepted. Nearby was a wonderful little cafe called JazzYoga which had great jazz playing and illustrated yoga postures on the walls. The food was carefully crafted healthy vegetarian fare. These two places told me that there is certainly more to Belgrade than graffiti, dog turds, and obnoxious fans of the former regime.
In fact, as I walked around, I saw signs of cultured life just about everywhere I looked. In a city of approximately 1.7 million that has been influenced by Turks, Celts, Romans, and many others since it was founded in the 4th century there are signs of art and refinement everywhere you look…if you look past the dog turds and bad graffiti which were everywhere. One thing that was disturbing me but took me a while to figure out was the lack of diversity in Serbia. Serbs are almost 100% white. No blacks, no browns, no coffee colored, no shades other than white and often with blond hair and blue eyes. I usually live in incredibly diverse places and having no skin diversity was frankly pretty creepy. The fact that Belgrade is nicknamed “White City” and has a magazine named the same just made it creepier. Utah has more diversity.
In many ways it is like a nightmare with the stories of kidnappings, organ stealing, human slavery, bombed out buildings, ripped up streets, and utterly shitty grafitti on every possible surface. While for the most part, the Serbs I met were kind, intelligent, and gracious I had to wonder if the interior landscape is as scarred and fucked up as the exterior landscape.
I spent the day wandering through streets of the city. I strolled down the main pedestrian shopping area Knez Mihailova Street and then took a little side trip to the Bohemian cafe section. I snapped a few photos of the famous horse riding statue of Mihailo Obrenovic in Republic Square. I saw quite a few giant cathedrals and plenty of museums that I didn’t get the chance to visit because they were closed on Monday. The Temple of Saint Sava was impressive in its massiveness though only dating from about 1935 so not an ancient site by any means.
A highlight was a visit to the massive Kalemegdan Fortress which was once the cities main military fortification. These days it is the Serb version of Central Park. The park is filled with museums (closed on Mondays) and has wonderful views of the old fortifications, some interesting public art, and incredible viewpoints of the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.
Housed within the fortress is the Belgrade Zoo. I have to say, I’ve never seen so many bizarre animals in one place before. The highlight was this massive white tiger that sat in it’s cage looking about the size of a VW bug. I’ve never seen such an impressive animal. This is the king, never mind the lion.His name is Khane and he was awe inspiring. In some cases only a small fence separated me or other visitors from the many big cats, wolves, or dangerous ostriches of the zoo. I’m certain that people have lost limbs or body parts in this zoo which is housed in an ancient fortress. I spent the better part of four hours wandering around the zoo and getting up close and personal with the animals. Because it was freaking cold, there weren’t a lot of people there. Just me, the caretakers, and a handful of others. The animals from tropical areas were inside a winter barn which was heated for them, must be a long winter since the barn wasn’t all that big judging by the number of animals inside. Think Noah’s Ark. Oddly, there was a section of the zoo that seemed to be all domestic dogs put in zoo cages. I wonder if they were wild dogs caught amongst the dangerous packs in the city. The man at the hostel told me that people are killed by dogs on a regular basis in Belgrade. Seems like a big problem.
I enjoyed my day of wandering around in Belgrade though I have to admit that I’d been feeling a vague sense of unease since I had arrived in Serbia. It’s a little hard to describe, but suffice to say that I have felt the same thing in the United States, in particular after coming back to the USA from places like Canada. I kept looking over my shoulder. I wasn’t really looking for dogs, though that might have been part of it. It was more like I felt like I was being watched. I felt completely observed, just as in the United States. In the USA these days, if you look around you will find a camera, someone is watching you and chances are there is someone with a gun not too far from wherever you might be (FBI, CIA, DEA, Park Rangers, Forest Service, City Police, State Police, Highway Patrol, Homeland Security, Federal Marshals etc etc etc). Serbia feels the same way.
Later, when I returned to the hostel I asked the owner what the sign that was flashing outside my window was for. To my surprise, he told me it was for a laundry. Sex is used to advertise everything in Serbia it seems.