My next bus trip was from Sarajevo heading to Belgrade, Serbia. After checking the buses, I realized that a minibus was the best option. It was only a few euros more expensive and provided door-to-door service. It turned out to be a much better ride than the trip I had between Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Sarajevo, where I was strip searched.
I was picked up from my hostel by an animated gentleman in his 50s. He was extremely energetic with his joking around, and he was happy to hear that I was from the Chicago area. His son, it turns out, has lived in Chicago for a few years. Apparently, there is a big Serbian population in Chicago (along with Polish, Bulgarians, Japanese, Greeks, and many more nationalities). This was just the beginning.
We ended up picking up 3 other Serbian guys and then started our way to Belgrade. A younger guy, in his 30s, told me that the others like to hunt for food on the way. I thought it was kind of a joke, but I was in for a surprise. About an hour from the Bosnia/Serbia border, we pulled into the driveway of a house in the middle of nowhere. “They want to buy cheese here,” I was told. So we all go inside this house, where we were greeted by and 75 year old man and his 18 year old grandson. We sat down in the dining area, which had a small kitchen attached. The wood floors and old furniture reminded me of an old country house in the US. Immediately, the grandfather pulls out an unlabeled bottle of a clear liquid, home-made rakija.
Rakija is an extremely popular type of alcohol in the Balkan regions made from plums. It’s usually home-made, like moonshine, and ranges in alcohol percent from 40-60%. They brought out shot glasses and started pouring rounds. Next, the grandfather’s son and son’s wife come in with two different kinds of home-made cheeses, one from cow milk and one from goat milk. We started digging into this delicious cheese with the bread they also put on the table. Between the grandfather and the minivan driver, they had a long, animated conversation. I was told afterwards that they were negotiating the purchase of two goats for Christmas. This was seriously the most interesting bus ride I’ve ever been on!
Belgrade has been an important settlement dating back thousands of years. Its location of being at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers has made it such a powerful city, from Vinca culture, to the Romans, to the Ottomans, to the Austro-Hungarians, and finally to Yugoslavia and now Serbia. The name Beograd (as it is in Serbian) is thought to come from when the Slavs arrived and saw the white walls of the fortress. As they arrived, they screamed “Beograd! Beograd!” , which means “White City”.
Belgrade’s long history of foreign invasions has given the city a large mix of architecture styles. Walking down a street, you may see a late 1800s Austrian style building next to a dull Communist style building next to a modern Western shopping mall. Walking all around downtown is like this. You’ll see colorful buildings next to big concrete blocks that might as well be a prison. It made me realize that everything that is constructed, in a way, is living history. It was all designed, influenced, and created by something in the past. Walking down any random streets in Belgrade makes this very clear.
Museum of Yugoslav History
The Museum of Yugoslav History, a 20 minute bus ride from the city center, drew my interest in the fact that it holds the mausoleum of former Yugoslavia dictator Josip “Tito” Broz. I knew next to nothing about him before visiting the museum and the mausoleum, so it was a good learning experience. Tito was in power for 39 years, which ended in 1980 when he passed away. For being a dictator, he was very famous around the world, even with the United States. The museum showed pictures of him with JFK and many other leaders from around the world. The museum was set up almost as a memorial to Tito, but it was interesting to see. It spoke of his style and careful elections of clothes, even changing 3 or 4 different times in a day. He traveled around the world to meet leaders and locals alike, and the pictures depicted these travels. His mausoleum is in the middle of the building they call the House of Flowers, and his wife, Jovanka, who died in 2013, lies next to him.
The Old Museum, located in a separate building, houses all the gifts that Tito received from countries from around the world. From traditional 1800s dresses from Montenegro, to a Carnival costume from Bolivia, he was given a huge variety of gifts. He was even given ancient Japanese daggers and instruments from Myanmar.
I took the free walking tour in Belgrade, as well. The tour had a surprisingly high amount of people, about 15, for being 40 degrees outside. Our guide took us around to the main sites as well as lesser known places but with great stories. The main site is the Kalemegdan Fortress, the fortress I mentioned before with the white walls. It overlooks the Sava and Danube Rivers, the most likely place of attack in ancient times. It is thought to have been built in 535 AD by Justinian I, the then Byzantine Emperor. Looking at the fortress walls, you notice different colors and shapes and patterns of stones – this is the variations from being rebuilt by different empires. From the Byzantine Empire, to the Slavs, to the Ottomans, and the Austro-Hungarians. Surprisingly and disappointingly, the tour guide mentioned nothing about the current conflict with Kosovo.
One unfortunately attraction are several buildings still left over from the NATO bombings on Belgrade in 1999. After Serbia refused to give Kosovo its autonomy and its subsequent occupation of military forces in Kosovo, NATO developed an air strike strategy on Serbia. Many buildings in Belgrade were bombed, including the Serbian Radio and Television building, Ministry of Defense, and the Chinese Embassy. To this day, several of the buildings are left standing as if they were bombed yesterday. These seem to be a memorial to those who were killed in these attacks and a reminder of what happened. These buildings reminded me of the Philippines after Supertyphoon Yolanda, only that this destruction in Belgrade was caused intentionally. To see these crippled buildings is a reminder of how brutal war can be and how recent this conflict occurred.
I must say that Belgrade is not the most beautiful city in the Balkans. As far as good looking architecture, Kotor, Dubrovnik, and Sarajevo are much more interesting. However, Belgrade does have a nice feel to it. Serbians seem to be very warm and welcoming people, the exact opposite of the stereotypical closed Eastern European that one may imagine. I definitely felt welcomed into their country, and I really enjoyed learning more about its recent history in the historical city of Belgrade.