16 Jun Belgrade
Lodging at the economy end of the market here in Serbia’s jaded but fascinating capital, we’re staying in the Hostelche hostel. Housed in a rather forbidding block of flats, it’s a warm colourful place with a fridge stocked full of beer and a rack stocked full of leaflets to entice you to exotic locations and diversions in the city. Staffed during the day by the big wide-eyed bear of a boy, Milos, who smiles all the time and is a perfect gentleman, and during the night by the slim and handsome Niko whose looks echo the strong Ottoman influences on this country, this is deep hostelling, man. Down with the young people, the backpacker community – we have raised the average age by about 40 years – strange, often solitary beings who talk a lot, well into the night, have American accents even when they’re not American (unless they’re Aussie, of course) and listen to the TV very loudly and late.
Right next door to the hostel is the oldest ‘kafana’ or tavern in town, famed for its food, music and its name which is simply ‘?’. The story goes that people objected to it being named after the church that stands opposite so Prince Milos invited suggestions for a new name but meanwhile called it ‘?’ and that stuck. Not the vegetarian’s dream, it must be said, with delicacies such as ‘Grilled intestines’ and ‘Glands’ – not sure if the absence of ‘grilled’ means you take ’em raw. We are working our way through the Balkans largely on a diet of grilled or roasted vegetables, salads and a variety of local cheeses.
Decided to kick the habit of a lifetime and do the City Walking Tour this morning. Great decision – excellent tour led by the animated and knowledgeable Jovana. We learned a lot, and needed to. We came here knowing very little about Serbia and the Serbs and realise we brought assumptions and prejudices acquired largely during the 1990s. Quite a story unfolds here of the hapless but brave Serbs facing invasion after invasion by Romans, Huns, Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians, the last two taking turn about for quite a while. Things I’d forgotten or maybe never knew: where WW1 truly started; what a big part they played as partisans fighting Hitler; attacked by both sides in WW2; and how citizens came out night after night to stand on one of the main bridges across the Sava river to stop the NATO planes bombing the bridge during the war of the 1990s.
7 million Serbs and 2 million of them live in Belgrade, a sprawling, grey, rather ugly city for the most part, perhaps not looking its best today under heavy grey skies. Victim of so many different demolitions and rebuilding programmes that inevitably put cost and speed ahead of aesthetics, the hotch-potch of styles tells its own story. Ljubljana and Zagreb would always be hard acts to follow, such attractive cities that you can enjoy with ease. Belgrade is harder work; you need to dig a bit to see past the exterior. Yes, it has its quaint ‘Bohemian’ quarter where the tourists are herded to try the local food and especially the local drinks and hear the musicians (who, incidentally are playing mainly Hungarian stuff). But there’s also the bombed out buildings just a few blocks away, right there on the main drag, bombed less than 20 years ago. It’s been a revelation.