28 May – 29 May, 2014
I awoke on the morning of my third day in Belgrade to find myself alone in my dorm room. I had two roommates, but neither of them had come home the night before. Belgrade has earned a reputation as having a crazy party scene, and I guess my roommates were taking full advantage.
After a cheap breakfast from the local Idea market, I bought a reloadable Bus Plus pass (pronounced boos-ploos) from a kiosk and boarded the bus to spend a day exploring the side of Belgrade across the river. Right after I boarded the bus, it passed right by Alexander, the Dutch guy I’d hung out with the night before! What terrible timing. I never did see him again.
Belgrade has two rivers that run through it and converge, the famous Danube and the lesser-known Sava. While the majority of the city is on the east side of these rivers, there are a few noteworthy neighborhoods on the west side: Novi Beograd, or New Belgrade, and Zemun, an old fishing town that used to be a separate village but is now considered part of Belgrade.
I first spent a few magical hours wandering around Zemun. I loved the green market, a tight jumble of stalls selling everything from clothes and household supplies to produce and flowers. From there my rambles took me along the beautiful bank of the Danube and then up into the hills in a very old part of town. A friendly cat rubbed against my leg as I ascended a stairway to the tower at the top of the hill. There was an art exhibition in the tower, but I prefered to admire the view of the river and the city, as well as snap a photo for a young teenage couple. I also stumbled across an amazing cemetery, packed with old dilapidated gravestones in Cyrillic. After so much wandering, I was quite hungry, and thought I’d treat myself to a fancy seafood lunch along the water, but I cheaped out and got ćevapčići, the delicious meat-in-pita I’d discovered the day before. I think I ate ćevapčići everyday while in Belgrade.
I did a much different kind of exploring in Novi Beograd: I checked out the fancy shopping mall. It sounds weird, but when traveling internationally, I like to hit up a mall at some point. I like to see the fashions and trends of that country, and watch the locals hang out and shop. I did buy a sweater that has since become one of my favorites, and got a few little things from the Sephora there that I hadn’t seen stateside.
My plan from the mall was to walk across the bridge back to my hostel, but I got a little turned around and ended up at the wrong bridge, a long way south from where I needed to be! Curses. So I turned around and went back to the correct bridge. Old Sava Most is reputedly the nicest bridge in Belgrade, but after getting lost I was pretty hot and sweaty by the time I got back to my hostel, so had a little rest.
That night I went to the National Theater. Seeing live performance is another thing I like to do when I travel, and though the play was in Serbian, the tickets were so cheap that I figured it would be a good experience. The play was about Nicola Tesla, a figure that Serbia is obsessed with, and while I could tell that the actors were very good, I didn’t know the story and had no idea what was going on. I also had pretty strange neighbors. The woman on my right was an intense lawyer who was very distraught over the flood disaster and looked like she would burst into tears at any moment, while the man on my left was a creeper who alternated between blowing his nose every ten minutes and trying to touch my arm. Without an escape route, it was a tense time at the theater. I practically ran back to the hostel, and told my harrowing tale to some college kids over ice cream in the common room.
On the morning of my last day in Belgrade, I had a nice breakfast splitting the college kids’ leftover food with “Serbian Fabio”, a hostel worker whose name I never caught but whose tan skin and long hair made him seem to me like Fabio. He introduced me to two strange Serbian customs: eating raw onion with salt and vinegar and raw garlic. With breakfast. He insisted they were good for you, and I’m sure there’s truth to that, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d want to do daily. By this time I had perfected the art of making Turkish coffee, so wired and full I went out for a final day of sightseeing.
I made my way to the city center to catch a tram bus, and there was an incredible religious parade happening! It was nuts, so many people in different Serbian Orthodox religious costumes, holding banners, crosses, and icons, all chanting. The main street was completely blocked off. At the epicenter in front of the gorgeous steps of the Hotel Moscow there was an elaborately dressed old priest leading the chant. I never did figure out what it was all about, but it was fascinating.
I boarded my tram bus like a pro, and 20 minutes later realized I’d gone in the wrong direction and was back where I’d started. Later in my travels I would swallow my pride and just ask for directions, but I was still new to this solo travel business, so shrugged it off and got on the right bus. Finally I made it to the Yugoslav History Museum.
A little out-of-the-way, the Yugoslav History Museum is probably not a place that many casual tourists make it too, but is a must-see for history and culture buffs. The best attraction is the House of Flowers, a fabulous mid-century building with a tiled central court housing tropical plants and the mausoleum of Josip Broz Tito, the president of Yugoslavia. Tito and his wife would hang out here when in Belgrade, so he requested that this be his final resting place. In the surrounding rooms are various personal items of his that give an interesting portrait of this relatively uneducated rebel who became the president of Communist Yugoslavia from 1943 until his death in 1980. Loved and hated by many, he was a fascinating man of impeccable taste, and the House of Flowers is a historical highlight.
Also part of the Yugoslav History Museum was a quaint ethnological museum with various artifacts from different cultures around the world that were all given to Tito during his travels. I of course loved the regional costumes displayed there. The cute old museum worker pressed me to take a lot of pictures, perhaps so I could show friends back home and encourage them to visit Belgrade, and snapped a crooked photo of me with a Bolivian Carnival costume. I also loved the tiny gift shop at the museum, with the best and cheapest collection of communist kitsch around. I made a killing there on souvenirs, some for friends and family but many for me.
I hopped on the (correct) tram bus back to town and hit up another museum, the Nikola Tesla Museum. As I said earlier, Serbia is obsessed with Nikola Tesla, the famous scientist and inventor. While he was of Serbian ancestry, Tesla was born in Croatia and did most of his work in the United States, but don’t bother telling the Serbs that! The museum was interesting but pretty dense, and I managed to get a sort of informal tour when a bored young museum worker started explaining and turning on the various motors and transformers for me and the other visitors. That was great, because I didn’t really understand what the machines did until I saw them in action. The best was when he demonstrated the large transformer, a huge machine in the center of the room with much copper wire wrapped around it, the quintessential Tesla invention. The guide had us all hold a long flourescent tube light bulb, and when he turned on the transformer it sparked at the top and all of our lightbulbs glowed!! It was my very own Star Wars moment.
My last sight-seeing stop of the day was at Sv. Sava Cathedral, the largest Orthodox Cathedral in the world and dedicated to Saint Sava, the founder of the Orthodox church. While crazy impressive on the outside, it is quite a strange church because it is completely empty on the inside. From my time in Bulgaria, I’d become accustomed to Orthodox churches being lavishly decorated with icons and gold, but the walls of Sv. Sava are bare concrete. At the time, I thought it was undergoing a renovation, but as it turns out it wasn’t built until 1958 and is still incomplete, like many construction projects in poor Serbia. I lit a candle and bought a small icon from the shop that was there (even an incomplete church needs a gift shop) and went back to my hostel.
I had no plans for my last night in Belgrade. I heated up more leftovers in the common room, and was wondering what to do when I was interrupted by the long-haired worker who I’d dubbed “the Night Watchman”. He usually had the graveyard shift, so this was a fitting title. “Mo, would you like to go watch some Japanese drumming?” asked the Night Watchman. Would I ever! “Alright, get your shoes on!”
Ten minutes later, I found myself on the tram with him and Dragana, another hostel worker. Once downtown, we sprinted to some sort of cultural center that was having an exposition on Japanese art and culture. A Serbian girls’ choir sang pop songs in Japanese, and there was a Japanese woman who did traditional dancing with her young children in kimonos. Best of course was the Taiko drumming, which was also a Serbian troupe that included Jovanna, yet another hostel worker that I mentioned in my last blog about Belgrade. I’d never thought much about Taiko drumming, much less that I would see it performed live while in Serbia of all places. It was fantastic.
That night I didn’t hang out with any tourists, just Serbs. Dragana, the Night Watchman and I helped the band pack up their massive drums and cart them back to their studio, then I accompanied them to the Bohemian Quarter for drinks. Jovanna and I hit up a bakery for a cheap snack, a big bread roll-type thing with your choice of filling; stew for her, kaimek (Serbian cream cheese) for me. After that, a weird, but awesome night of drinking with Serbs ensued. The band members left after a couple of drinks, but I stayed with Dragana and bounced back and forth from a couple of her favorite places. I really liked the second place we went to, a cool bar with retro art on the walls, pinball and darts, and a DJ playing funk music. I actually did not suck at darts for once, which was great. After a bit, we went back to the first place and ran into a bunch of friends of hers who were apparently well-known musicians in Serbia, a couple from a rock band and this diva opera singer who spoke English with a perfect British accent. For a while, we all sat on the patio hanging out, but the thing about drinking with Serbs is that they can go from boisterous to moody at the drop of a hat. They were all chatting in Serbian, and for some reason the opera singer started picking on Dragana in English so I could hear. That made things pretty awkward, and we called it a night not long after.
I made it back to the hostel in one piece, and was able to have a final chat with Re, the artist who worked in the lounge that I’d hung out with for the past couple of days during my time there. We had a nice bonding moment where he showed me his sketch book and I gave him some movie recommendations, and late that night I finally stumbled up to my bed. Belgrade gave me all that I wanted and more from my first few days as a solo traveler: new friends, food, scenery, history, and unexpected experiences. It was an amazing time, and very hard to leave, but there would be so much more to come.
Next time, a new country: Croatia!
Good Luck and Happy Travels,