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Monday, September 5, 2016

8/27: Belgrade: A Walk Through a City's Turbulent Past

After a fun few days in Ljubljana, we were off to discover another city in the Balkans: Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, courtesy of Air Serbia. I had last been back here in the summer of 1974 while living for a year as an au pair for a Canadian diplomatic family in Geneva. They had returned to see friends whom they had known when they were previously posted to Belgrade. Everything had changed so much I had no memories of my brief stay from over four decades ago.
Our hostel in Belgrade. Not too shabby, huh! We didn’t realize until later that there were only two toilets and two showers for about 20 people. The toilet in one bathroom had no seat and the other bathroom had no lock! Can’t expect too much, right! 
I felt badly for the people in the adjoining dorm room as we had to enter and leave through their room to get to ours.
The view from our balcony!
After checking in and dumping our bags, we decided to go for a walk and explore some of the city as it was only about 1:30 by then.

The city’s only pedestrian street, Knez Mihsilova Street, was just a couple of blocks down from the hostel but it wasn’t noisy for us at all at night. We walked down it a couple of times in the early evening and it was jam packed - a happening place, let me tell you!

Scenes from the pedestrian mall:

After getting a map from the tourist information bureau on the mall, we strolled over to the Bohemian Quarter called Skadarska. There were scads of restaurants and bars there but few galleries and shops which we were expecting. 
Musicians serenading restaurant patrons:
Interesting story:
The Fountain of Skardaska:

In front of the Casablanca Bar, there were lots of men drinking beer and watching with delight at the football game on the outdoor TV. We would have called it soccer but, outside the US and Canada, the game is only known as football.
We slowly made our way over to Republic Square to wait for the Belgrade Free Walking Tour to begin as we normally enjoy them so much when we visit a new city. While waiting, I experimented with the new camera I had had to buy a couple of days previously in Ljubljana, Slovenia, when my previously trusty Canon's shutter refused to close when in Kyiv.

The photo below was of the top a building near the square. I had to use the zoom lens to get the shot as it was so far away.
Our walking tour guide, Jovana, said that Republic Square is a great meeting place in the city as everything starts here including political demonstrations, marathons, etc. 

The focal point of the square is a monument of Prince Michael who is considered so important in Belgrade as he liberated the city from Ottoman rule. The area was developed during the 10th century when the south Slavs migrated to what is now Serbia

Prince Michael developed both the National Museum and the National Theater across the street. The museum has been closed for 13 years and was always supposed to open ‘next’ year. The new year came and it never opened so the opening was delayed til ‘next’ year.

The National Museum:
That went for several years until finally there was a countdown clock which indicated it would open in 745 (I think that was the number Jovana mentioned!) days. The clock counted down until it reached 52 days and then it miraculously broke. Since then, there has never been any new information as to when it will open now.

The 'broken' countdown clock:
The National Theater:
We walked back over to Skadarska aka Skadarlija. During the 19th century, no one wanted to live in the district which is often compared to the Montmartre of Paris, Jovana said. Artists though did move in. She pointed out caffanas, places some of the people on the tour might want to eat at later. They are great for a family lunch, a business lunch or even a romantic rendez-vous. She said the worse the place looks, the better it is! 

She showed us the sign listing a variety of directions, one of them pointing up to the moon. That’s for those people who have drunk so much, they then fall down and don’t know which direction is up!
Jovana had brought along a small bottle of a drink, rakja, which is much loved by people all over the Balkans. She gave everyone a small shot of it. She joked you can start the day with it, use it if you have a toothache, use it to celebrate any occasion or use it if you have a cough, i.e. perfect for all occasions!
Jovana talked about all the musicians in the bars and restaurants. They will come up to people sitting in the restaurant, get in their faces and ask, “What song does your heart want to hear?” It’s sort of like a jukebox as Jovana joked! People are then expected to put money in the bowl part of the trumpet or in the accordion. Another option is to put a banknote on the musician’s sweaty forehead. If it stays there for the duration of the song, the musicians are not playing enthusiastically enough. Of course, the bills fall off every time!
We followed her then toward Belgrade’s Old Town but, since it only began at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, it’s not so old. She showed us some bullet holes that were from street fights from between the two world wars.
As Jovana said, we were all taught in our history books that WWI was started in Sarajevo when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian. He is actually considered a hero in Belgrade because Serbia was always part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and he and others wanted Serbia to be independent from the Empire. The first shots fired in WWI were in Belgrade.
During WWI, thirty percent of the Serbian population or 1.3 million people, died. They didn’t die on the battlefield but of cold and famine, Jovana related. That was more per capita than any other country in the war, she stated. I felt quite ignorant as I was totally unaware of the magnitude of the first world war on the Serbian people.

Some fascinating street art:
Wonder who this is?
Jovana said that Yugoslavia means South Slavs and all the people that comprised Yugoslavia at the end of WWII did so in part because of their having a common language. Many people mistakenly think that Albanians are also Slavs; however Albania is only a neighboring country.

We walked next throught the Dorcol neighborhood of Belgrade. During Austrian rule, this area was called the Danube Town. Jovana pointed out the oldest residential house in Belgrade which was a Turkish house which had belonged to a rich Turkish family until it became a school.

Bajrakli Mosque and the Sheikh Mustafa Tomb in Dorcol:
Jovana mentioned that there are 30 letters and, more importantly, only 30 sounds in the Cyrillic alphabet which originated in Bulgaria and is the script used in Serbia. Think how English would be if there were only one sound associated with each letter!

She said that kids growing up are so exposed to the Latin script in everything they see on TV and do online, etc that it has become a significant problem for young people growing up in Serbia as they are way less familiar with Cyrillic script. The fear is, she said, that kids in time will lose their knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet. She said all government documents are now only written in Cyrillic to force people to remember it.

Jovana said everyone knows the word ‘vampire’ but probably never knew the word is actually Serbian. To Serbs, it means a creepy creature. They often explain away things they don’t understand as being vampires or creepy creatures.
On the way to our next stop, I couldn’t help but stop and admire a really neat playground that had a soft surfacing called ‘poured in place.’ Just before we left Denver in mid August, I had been very involved in helping to build a new, handicapped accessible playground in our neighborhood. 
As a result, I look at playgrounds in other cities and countries with a deeper appreciation than most tourists, I am sure!

Walls of Kalmedegan or Fortress: 
It was so strange seeing this stretch limo with the Florida license plates of all things just outside the fortress walls.

Jovana explained what a great strategic location Belgrade is compared to so many other cities in Europe. There were 114 battles (remember that number for later!) waged in the city and the city was completely destroyed 44 times. I cannot begin to fathom rebuilding so many times after so much destruction.

Entering the Austrian Gate (I think) of the Fortress:
I love this photo of Steven especially as he had no idea I was taking it.
Now the presence of the limo made sense!

The fortress is considered to be the museum of Belgrade history and to have one of the most beautiful outlooks in Europe. Certainly hard to dispute that when we saw the view in front of us with the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers before our eyes.

There is also a large island right in the middle of the confluence of those rivers. Many battles were waged on that island that once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was interesting to learn that the island is always three degrees Celsius there both winter and summer. There is a residential area on the island called Zemun that only recently merged with Belgrade.

Jovana mentioned how she and so many of her friends liked to play right at this spot on this hill at the Fortress in the snow when they were young. Residents only found out in 2008 that a military bunker had been placed right there in 1948 and that was the cause of the hill! 
The temperature in the bunker is kept at a constant temperature of 11-12 degrees Celsius and is open for tours, she said. Somehow being underground once again did not appeal to us quite so soon after visiting the Postonja Caves in Bosnia Herzegovina.
Just beyond 'Jovana's snow hill' was a  statue of a naked man representing Victory in the first Balkan War: The man was intentionally left naked so that no one side could take umbrage if he had been wearing a uniform favored by one side. The rifle is in the down position which indicated, Jovana said, he came in peace.

The sculpture had formerly been placed right in front of Hotel Moscow, a major hotel downtown, but hotel patrons took offense at the frontal views so it was moved. 
A better view of his rifle.
Jovana only talked briefly about the Serbian wars of the 90s. She purposely chose not to dwell on that part of her country’s history saying she wanted the tour’s participants to come away with positive memories of her city. I am so glad, though, she did speak about her family’s experiences during that dark period so that we would gain a better understanding of the war’s impact on one family. 

In 1993, the hyperinflation in Belgrade was the worst in the world up until what is happening now in Zimbabwe, Jovana said. (I felt so ignorant as she said this because I was/am totally unaware of that country’s current fiscal crisis and we are going to be there briefly in a few months’ time as part of this trip.) She recounted a story of a doctor who had delayed spending her monthly paycheck by one day. That meant her salary wasn't even enough to pay for a newspaper or a cup of coffee.

Jovana recounted how friends would go out for a cup of coffee and, by the time it was finished three hours later, another cup of coffee was three times higher.

The war started in 1991 in Slovenia and ended in Croatia four years later. Everyone was under sanctions so no one was allowed to leave the country unlike previously when Yugoslavs had been free to visit other nations. The only items on the grocery shelves were vinegar and sugar. Though there were massive food lines every day, Jovana explained that they were also very socializing as people knew they all had to wait in line and thus had friends they could chat with.

Her family were billionaires just like Bill Gates, she joked. However, her family’s 500 billion was only enough to live on for a few days.

A 500 billion banknote:
As part of the war, that began four years later in early 1998, between the combined forces of Serbia and Montenegro (the only remaining countries in Yugoslavia) against Kosovo, NATO forces started bombing military bases and radio and TV stations in Belgrade. They also announced the plan and the timeline when they were going to blow up the strategic bridge below. To try and stop that from happening, many people started to print targets or bulls eyes on their shirts and then congregated on the bridge. Concerts were organized that also took place on the bridge so that bombing could not occur. The people’s goals were accomplished and the bridge was never bombed.
Jovana had been, without a doubt, the best walking tour guide we’ve ever had and we’ve been on walking tours in so many cities around the world. She brought the city’s history to life and was even able to bring a sense of humor to the travails of war. Everyone on the tour appreciated the free shot of ‘medicinal’ rakja near the beginning of the tour and how she had free postcards and even a copy of a billion banknote. 

Then, at the end of the 2.5 hour tour, there was a pop quiz. Jovana asked everyone who had remembered how many battles Belgrade had been involved in. I was the only one to pipe in with the correct number of 114. People joked that I could only remember that because I had been writing notes the whole time! Steven had thought she had said 140 as his hearing is off. My/our prize was the small, empty sample bottle of rakja. I was thrilled as that was about the only time I had won anything. Nina: You would have been so proud of me as I know how good you are at winning prizes!

When the walking tour ended at 6:30, we headed over to Ruzica Church, which was also located in the Fortress. On the way we stopped at a couple of other sights. 

The first was the Tomb of Damat Ali Pasha:
Sahat Tower: No idea what it was but it 'towered' over a significant area of the park where the Fortress was.
Wish I knew the meaning of this sculpture we saw in the park.
Still more of the Fortress walls:
Our first view of Ruzica Church was the spire peeking out over the walls:
Photos of Ruzica Church:

It was very eerie seeing the chandeliers made of bullets:

Steven and I remarked that we had never seen votive candles outside a church before.

Just a couple of minutes away was Petke Church which had beautiful mosaics both inside and outside. 

We exited Kalmedgan Fortress by the city zoo. Fun to see a real ‘zebra crossing’ aka pedestrian crossing in this spot. I think that’s the only one I’ve ever seen like this.
The pedestrian street was hopping that night, just packed with wall to wall people. We found another restaurant, also near the hostel, and collapsed in it at 8:30. We would have liked to eat outside but virtually everyone outside was smoking and the only two tables inside were reserved for non-smokers. We felt like pariahs this time, not like the smokers in the US and Canada! 

About the only thing I can think of right now that makes traveling in Europe and many parts of Asia tough is the preponderance of people, especially young people, who smoke. I hate to think what the cancer rates are and will be in so many nations due to cigarette smoke and also second-hand smoke. That's my soapbox moment for the day.

To get up to our hostel on the third floor, we took this positively ancient elevator, just like the one you see in the movies about a bygone age. As it very slowly made its way up two flights, creaking every moment of the way, I admit to sort of wondering if we’d make it up in one piece. As tired as we were though, since we had started the day in Ljubljana, we had no intention of walking up the stairs!
Good night and sweet dreams wherever you are!

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