Discovering Belgrade

From Nis, the bus to Belgrade only took 3 hours. There’s no need to buy bus tickets in advance since it’s a very popular bus route. There’s a bus leaving every hour. Unlike Nis, Belgrade is larger and more crowded. That’s to be expected since it’s the capital of Serbia. The trip would have probably taken only two hours if not for the rush hour traffic– as soon as we reached the city, the bus slowed to a crawl. As soon as we reached the bus station, a lot of taxi drivers came rushing to meet the passengers, some trying to grab our bags. I had no intention of taking a taxi, but out of curiosity I asked how much. I showed the address of the hostel, and the taxi driver said “flat rate, 1,200 Dinars”. That’s about 12 USD. That’s not much in the US, but definitely overpriced for Serbia. And I’m certain the driver was quoting a “tourist fare“. I though to myself, screw that, and continued walking. He then lowered the price to 1000 Dinars, and then adding I can’t find a cheaper rate elsewhere. I just ignored him and continued walking. The hostel was only 30 minutes away anyway. Even though it was still a little hot i preferred to walk since I wanted to see a bit of the city already. Although I was still young then I’m quite aware of the events that transpired in the late 1990’s, and that some parts of Belgrade were bombed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). I was curious to see how the city has recovered since then.

Just like in other European cities, you can find a lot of free walking tours. I joined the one offered by the hostel. It basically took us to the Belgrade Fortress and surrounding areas, stopping at several places of interest along the way. If you don’t have much time in Belgrade, make sure to visit the fortress at least. It’s massive and you can see a lot in it. And since it’s located in the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, you get amazing views as well. There were many locals hanging out in the area. It’s divided into three parts: The Upper Town, the Lower Town, and the Kalemegdan Park by the river. As we were walking through the fortress, our guide told us a lot about Serbian history– from the medieval period up to the years when it was part of Yugoslavia. He also told us a bit of the history of the other countries that were also part of Yugoslavia, as well as how they view each other presently. A notable monument in the Upper Town is the Pobednik Statue. It commemorates Serbia’s victory during the Balkan Wars and World War I.

 

To further spice up the tour, we stopped at one local pastry shop to try some Burek— the guide bought two kinds for us. One was filled with meat, the other was filled with cheese. It’s actually pretty good. To wash it all down, he gave us shots of a local drink called Rakia— it’s a kind of fruit brandy. he was proud to say that it’s home made, therefore it was stronger than those you can buy in stores and at bars. He wasn’t kidding. Man, one shot made my throat burn and my stomach turn. In lesser amounts it might be pretty good, maybe if you take a few sips at a time. But with one shot that you have to swallow all at once, there’s something about the taste that i didn’t quite like. I thought i was done with the Rakia, but before we left the fortress the guide taught us some local dance. To put us in the mood, we need to drink more Rakia. Since he already threw away the small disposable cups that he brought, he just passed around the flask and we all took sips. Not very sanitary I know, but the alcohol content in that Rakia would probably be enough to kill any pathogens any of us might be carrying lol. The drink tasted better in small sips as I’ve suspected. I was able to discern the fruity flavor.

When we got back to the hostel, we signed up for the pub crawl that night. I’ve heard that nightlife in Belgrade is unique and I intended to check it out. They’ve turned a lot of boats into bars along the riverbanks. Those boats we saw earlier by the river? They were all bars apparently. before the pub crawl, we had dinner first at Skadarlija Street, considered the Bohemian quarter of Belgrade. It’s an attraction in itself, giving you an old school feel. There are lots of restaurants as well as bars in the area. The bars were definitely better than some of those we went to during the pub crawl. You know how those things go. They include crappy bars that offer something in exchange for them bringing in people. Those bars gave us free shots– of Rakia, what else.  The last stop was on a boat though, and it was quite an experience. It was pretty shitty at first. There was no DJ when we arrived, they were actually streaming music from Youtube. But later that night when the place became packed and a DJ arrived, it turned out to be a good night.

 

The next day, a couple of my room mates wanted to check out the Nikola Tesla Museum. Although I’m not into museums, I did want to check it out as well. I’ve done some research online, and people were only recommending the place if there is a guide available. It’s a small museum and without a guide you’ll see everything pretty quickly and it would be quite underwhelming if there’s no one there to explain what you’re seeing. We checked the schedule for that day and found out there was no guide available. My room mates still wanted to check it out though since two of them were leaving the next day. I opted to do my own thing and just visit the museum some other time. As soon as I made the decision to visit Belgrade, I knew i had to see those bombing sites. I’ve made friends with several locals and it doesn’t seem to be a topic that they are fond of discussing. The sites were included in the map of Belgrade that the hostel gave me and they were marked as “attractions“, so i didn’t have any problem asking the hostel staff for directions. If those sites are marked as attractions, then a lot of travelers have asked them about it. The closest one was only 30 minutes away by walking. Since it was cloudy outside, it shouldn’t be a problem if I just walked. I’ve also had too much Cevapi (grilled minced meat) and Kajmak (kind of a bland sort of cheese) for lunch, so I could use the exercise to burn off all those extra calories heh.

 

I loved walking around Belgrade because there is so much variety in the architecture. A lot of buildings were distinctly from the communist era. On some parts, it looks like your typical city in Central Europe. It’s certainly different enough to distinguish itself from other cities.

I did a lot of stops, so it took me almost an hour to reach the first bomb site. It’s just two old buildings across from each other. If you’re unaware of what happened, you’d think they were just old buildings that were being demolished. Serbia doesn’t get a lot of tourists compared to other European countries, and that’s part of the appeal for me. But I also wanted to see how the country was doing these days— after all, the Yugoslav Wars ended fairly recently in 2001. If I hadn’t seen those building up close, I would never have realized the extent of the damage. To put it simply, Belgrade has changed the way I look at what’s happening in the world right now. I hate to be political in a travel blog, but this is something I just have to say. If you’re unaware of what happened, NATO decided to bomb specific targets in the city without the approval of the United Nations Security Council. They also did bombings in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina a few years earlier, but that was approved by the UN Security Council. The bombings in Belgrade were not. Up to this day they refer to the bombings as humanitarian. Never mind the fact that numerous civilians died because of it. Never mind the fact that there are numerous testimonials that the number of victims of genocide was grossly exaggerated. Present day Serbians do not deny that many people were killed and that they were mainly the aggressors. They also admit that the civil war was utterly pointless. But were those reasons enough for other nations to play God and meddle with Yugoslavian affairs? they were for NATO. They could have done more research first. Or they could have tried helping evacuate refugees first. Or maybe there was a diplomatic solution to handle the crisis. But nah, those things would be time consuming. They just went ahead and bombed the city… along with other targets in Serbia. In their eyes, it was necessary to play the master of an independent, sovereign nation. They accused the Milosevic Regime of excessive and disproportionate use of force. Hey, that’s probably true. So their solution was an even more excessive and disproportionate use of force. Oh and there’s also the fact that they bombed the Chinese Embassy by mistake. Oops. In Nis, I was told that they bombed a bridge just as a passenger train filled with  civilians was passing through. Oops again. These events sound eerily familiar. Didn’t the US accidentally bomb that hospital in Afghanistan about two years ago, resulting in many civilian casualties, including many healthcare volunteers? Now they’re just hoping the whole thing would blow over. Because eventually, most people forget. This makes me think about what’s happening in the world right now. Just look at Iraq. It was invaded because they were supposed to be harboring weapons of mass destruction. Until now they couldn’t find any proof, and Iraq is presently considered a failed state. Look at what happened in Libya. The official statement was that it was another humanitarian effort led by NATO. Again that sounds eerily familiar, and it reeked of the the influence and machinations of more powerful countries. Look at North Korea. Don’t get me wrong, I think their leader is a loose cannon. But what’s with all the fuss about making nuclear weapons anyway when other countries are allowed to have them? Does it automatically mean they will wage war with other countries? Isn’t it possible that they are only making those for defense? That’s what they are saying, and there’s a possibility that it might be true. And who gets to decide which countries can keep their nuclear weapons? If you demand that a country stops making them, it would only be fair for all countries to stop making them altogether. But with what’s happening now, we have self appointed watchmen who keep all the other countries in check. We have self designated watchmen who put it upon themselves to keep the world in order. They do not like other countries meddling in their affairs, but it’s all right for them to invade sovereign nations as they see fit. To keep the world in order. Allegedly for humanitarian reasons. In matters of proven atrocious deeds like genocide, I am sure everyone would side with them. But a lot of the things going on in the past couple of years do seem questionable. There are doubts. Throughout history, this Latin quote hasn’t lost its relevance. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? These watchmen watch over us. But who watches over them?

 

For anyone visiting the former Yugoslavian territories, especially those coming from developed countries, I highly encourage a visit to war torn sites like these. I highly encourage talking to locals who were there to witness all that has happened. It made me make a long and hard look at myself and all those countries I hold in high regard. Hopefully, it would have a similar effect on others.

 

 

 

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