I spent the night with three Finnish girls (I love misleading sentences like that) on the train in from Budapest, and arrived in Belgrade in time to watch the sun rise on Serbia. It was a good example of the “wrong side of the tracks” reality. On the left side of the train rose giant, modern, ominous apartment complexes looming in repeating patterns of cement walls, glass windows, and moderate variations on the theme of gray, gray, and gray. Out the right side were rubble expanses and near-shantytowns that made it clear I had finally left the more wealthy areas of Europe. (I was back off some of the “Europe” guide books, which apparently consider Europe to end at Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Italy.)
In case the rubble scenery wasn’t enough to make me feel like I was finally someplace substantially different from home, I headed out to find my hostel and discovered that my list of streets to follow was useless; Serbian street signs are in Cyrillic. (So I was looking for “Zagrebacka Street” and found “БупеДар Аесиота СґєфаИа.”)
(*One of the streets I was looking for was Gavrila Principa Street, named after the guy who shot Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and kind of started that whole World War One thing. You know, the War to End All Wars, that basically wiped out an entire generation and plunged the world into hitherto unknown suffering and death? Interesting choice to name a big street.)
I found a fruit seller under an overpass who recognized the street name despite my undoubtedly substantial accent, and before long I was standing outside the hostel. Probably. It was 6:00 AM, and the hostel opened at 8:00 AM. So putting my trust in the address number (there was no visible signage) I sat my sleep-deprived arse down and watched a Belgrade street wake up.
Across the way was a school, whose student body seemed to be around 14 years old, although it was hard to tell through the clouds of smoke from their pre-school cigarettes. Yup, not in the San Francisco Bay Area anymore* although the teen angst was still palpable. Some things transcend culture. It was beautiful. Girls hanging out of windows yelling demonstrative hellos to female friends while energetically ignoring the boys standing below or lurking in the next window.
[*I bet we have plenty of 14 year olds who smoke too, but I’m going to be optimistic/naïve/nostalgic enough to believe they don’t brazenly puff away while standing in school doorways and hanging out of classroom windows.]
Right about the time I was growing concerned about the lack of feeling in my buttocks, the serious looking hostel staff girl arrived and showed me up the stairs. Then some more stairs. Then another few flights. Neither of us mentioned the elevator…it clearly was not an option. But the hostel was cozy, and it turned out that for most of my time there I was the only guest, so after the staff went home at 8:00 every night it was like having my own personal flat near downtown Belgrade.
Sign from my hostel in Belgrade:
The building seemed to be mostly uninhabited, and at night I would only hear occasional sounds from the other units as old women hung wet clothes on lines strung on their balconies, or rumors of Serbian television floated between the buildings. The nights were much colder, and with the temperature changes came plenty of popping sounds from the walls, and creaks from the floors. Realizing I was all alone, far away from anyone I knew, with no way of calling for help of any kind, I made a game of convincing myself the place was haunted. I got pretty good at it.
Belgrade is a peculiar place. My hostel was in the Stari Grad (Old Town) section, which was nice because I admit, I did not manage to decipher the public transportation system of Belgrade. (Did I mention the Cyrillic?)
There was an interesting little downtown pedestrian area, with modern swanky Euro boutiques, above which is one of those incredibly obnoxious giant TVs showing a looped set of commercials, which while I was there relied heavily on an ad for an indiscernible product featuring a woman in torn acid washed jeans, a striped neon blouse, suspenders and a headband dancing around, poorly, in various areas of an anonymous city after apparently time traveling from the mid 1980s. It was like Cindy Lauper had emerged from her time capsule and decided to boogey down in Anytown, Serbia.
The people in the pedestrian area generally belonged to one of two groups: chestnut roasters or runway models. I’m telling you, peculiar place. There was a sprinkling of Roma, punk rockers, babushka grandmothers, businessmen, and presumably a few other tourists, but the majority seemed to either be strutting by on the invisible catwalk with fashion pizzaz splattering off their designer boots, or looming over their post-apocalyptic amorphous metal bins, roasting chestnuts and chain smoking with ash floating down into the nuts like mana from heaven, only gross. (Seriously, it was like the guys were doing their Vesuvius impersonations for your carcinogenic amusement.)
Outside of this district Belgrade seemed a lot more grey, with battered buildings, enthusiastic graffiti, and clunking cars either speeding past, trailing clouds of dark air, or hulking in stillness like they fully intended to rust away to nothing exactly there.
At the west end of Stari Grad lies Kalemegdan, the cliff-like ridge that overlooks the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. With a commanding view of such a tactically important spot, in this part of the world, you can guess what its history is like. That hunk of hill has been fortified, attacked, razed, and re-raised more times than anyone cares to count. Kalemegdan means “battlefield fortress” in Turkish, and legend says old fun-loving Attila the Hun is buried underneath it.
It’s the type of place where old men sit and play chess, while a half dozen others offer unsolicited and generally unheeded advice. Where a boyish police officer in a new uniform tries to flirt with girls sitting on the bench.
Where a couple of homeless guys sleep on benches in front of small unmarked stone structures that appear to definitely be centuries-old. Sunlight sneaks through bare tree branches to lie, off duty, on the chilly ground. A scattering of geometric paths take you deeper into the park-like grounds. And then you turn a corner and there’s the muzzle of a Soviet tank aimed at your face.
The southern corner of Kalemegdan is called Veliki Kalemegdan, and has several museums and monuments, including the Military Museum which displays Greek helmets, Roman swords, and western Medieval armor. Alongside the ancient relics are the pieces of the US F-117 stealth aircraft shot down by Serbian forces during the Kosovo conflict in 1999. (There are also somber exhibits from the Balkan War about a variety of weapons used that may have violated international law, including cluster bombs, depleted uranium, and graphite bombs.)
The outside walkways are lined with tanks, howitzers, anti-aircraft guns, and other boys’ toys of war. All slowly rusting away, their interiors filled with beer cans and cigarette butts. Thick moss and relentless damp. Plants grow over some of the torpedoes, and leaves from a small tree hang down over rust-flecked grey depth-charges.
And there just may be some pissed-off ghosts lurking around.
The Soviet tank at the entrance is massive. The American Sherman just past it looks ready. The Italian tank behind that is rusting far more than anything else on the field. And the Polish one? Oh dear. They call it a “tanketa” and no offense, but it looks like the most badass piece of military hardware ever built…by the kids in your neighborhood. And only little Jimmy Tonselburger would be small enough to fit in the thing.
After wandering around the spooky machines, which look just a little senile now, sitting harmlessly in meadows, their killing powers long gone. I headed back into town to continue the endless walking that is a blend of tourist curiosity and animal grazing that happens when you never know where your next meal will come from and how hard it will be to procure. I think that night I ended up with a sort of sandwich whose name I could not pronounce, with meat I could not identify, but tasted pretty good.*
(*I’m pretty sure I had a horse burger one night (big mistake) but I think that sandwich may have been a version of rostilj, which is a variety of unseasoned grilled meats, wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese. Maybe I need to go back…)
I fully realize and readily admit that my experience in Belgrade was heavily influenced by my not speaking the language, and traveling alone in the off-season. Belgrade is known as one of the top cities in Europe for parties. In fact, in their 1000 Ultimate Experiences book, Lonely Planet ranked it as the number one party city in the world. There are bars everywhere, including on barges that line areas of the rivers.
Belgrade is a fascinating place, but after three days of wandering and awkwardly attempting to flirt with the hostel staff, I was ready to move on again. So I bought a ticket to Bar, Montenegro.