Days 1396-1402, 27 Mar-2 Apr 18, Old Belgrade
Grad Beograd, Serbia
We’ve learned a couple of things during our first week in Old Belgrade. First off - Belgrade means White City. Secondly, New Belgrade, where we spent our first week was once nothing more than the dormitory for Belgrade proper - massive communist apartment blocks placed on a drained swamp in a part of Serbia across the Sava river that was originally in the Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s much better now of course - though still got the eyesore flats - but also shopping centres and headquarters buildings for many international companies. From a visitor’s perspective however, Old Belgrade is where it (and we) is at.
We left the hotel last Tuesday (27th) and requested a taxi when we checked out. Little did we know, the hotel actually has 4 dedicated Mercedes taxis with Crowne Plaza livery available for guests. Now out in the real world the phrase ‘hotel car’ is enough to make a credit card shiver - but here in very affordable Serbia, it’s just a metered taxi of well-maintained quality. Once ensconced we were pretty happy to see that meter - much better than the imagined exorbitant flat fee. In the end it cost around €3.50 into town. I even tipped - albeit not a huge amount. (By the by... did you know... the slogan for the Mercedes cars back in the day was ‘The best, or nothing’ - we learned that from the Belgrade Auto Museum website - on our list to visit).
Getting back to Tipping. Whilst generally it drives us bonkers and we think it is in fact a city in China and should not be encouraged - we must admit to doing a bit of rounding up lately. For instance, the fare in the cab was 360 dinara. Rounding it up to 400 meant a tip of about 30 euro cents. Over the last week we’ve really gotten our heads around the local currency. There is no big unit (dollar) and small unit (cents) - it’s all small units... dinaras. This means 1, 2 and 5 dinara coins and then into the notes... 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 (and apparently 5000 - but thank heavens the ATM didn’t give us one of those - that would have been impossible to change!) To put all these big numbers into perspective however (now that we are Serbian millionaires according to our ATM balance)... I found two 50 dinara notes crumpled together in the street the other day (woo hoo!) That’s the equivalent of around 85 euro cents (less than a 1 euro coin). Somewhat less of a woo hoo than originally thought - though it did pay for a kilo of apples. To make it easy on our mental maths we round it up a bit and call 100 the same as €1 - just shifting the decimal two places to the left. The mythical 5000 dinara (or less than €50) is rarely seen in day to day transactions because it is just such a huge amount of money - for instance we eat Chinese every couple of nights, spending 300 dinara between us for rice and two choices of main dish.
Having arrived and settled in to our spacious AirBNB apartment for 4 weeks, we stocked the fridge. More than enough effort for one day but pretty easy since the major supermarket Maxi is about 3 minutes walk away. Wednesday (28th) saw us kick off explorations and we google mapped our way to the centre of town - Republic Square. We had thought it would be a zippy 2 km walk - until we realised the road we were on was littered with excellent second hand shops. We were specifically looking for a lightweight summer jacket to add to James’s wardrobe for our opera and ballet outings in Bucharest. That and despite the fact that there was six inches of snow a week ago, our first day out and about was at 22 degrees and brilliant sunshine... walking up a hill... frequent stops for browsing were a must. Aside from anything else - the second hand shops here don’t appear to be charity based - they are full-on businesses and all the stock is washed and ironed to within an inch of it’s life and much less than half the price of equivalent new clothes.
We had no luck with the jacket purchase, but eventually made it to our destination, Republic Square, and started looking for the Tourist Information office on Knez Mihaila - the 1 km pedestrianised shopping street. Seriously? Shut? For 2 days while they move to the absolute other end of the street? Talk about timing. We gave up on that and just enjoyed the walk and sorted out postcards and a country badge for our ongoing collection. We eventually made a u-turn and pottered towards home with a visit to Zeleni Venac on the way. This is the most central of Belgrade’s farmers’ (or green) markets and the quality of the fruit and vege was sublime - made everything on the shelves of the supermarket look little more than half dead. As a ‘for instance’ of the value to be found - bananas were 120 dinara/kilo and pomegranates were 130! We were definitely peckish by about 2 pm so visited the bakery within Zeleni Venac for some savoury cornbread and a Serbian hot dog - still feeling very ‘Ms Moneybags’, paying 150 dinara for the 2 items (the notes are just so big!)
The following day (Thursday 29th) we ventured further afield. Turns out Old Belgrade is actually quite hilly - and the reason that the iconic St Sava’s Temple appears to overlook the city when seen from a distance is because it is, in fact, on a massive hill. Well it was a steady climb the whole way anyway (fabulous on the return trip of course!). St Sava’s is the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Balkans and considered (by Serbians) to be one of the most important Orthodox cathedrals in the world. It sits on the spot where the Ottomans burned the relics of St Sava in 1594. The saint himself was the first archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox church and lived from 1175 to 1236. The plans were actually drawn up in the 19th century but construction didn’t kick off until 1935. It was then interrupted by WWII. We knew all this before we went in, but were still shocked at how much there is left to do. Obviously the structure is complete (1989) and the golden mosaic on the interior of the dome is complete... but other than that, it’s still a dust filled building site that was consecrated in 2004. Who knows when we might visit Serbia again - it might even be finished. Maybe.
Behind the temple is another farmers market - Kalenic - some consider it to be better than the central, Zeleni Venac, but not us. Highlights - there is an interesting flea market section with all the usual stuff - additionally had a quiet giggle when we saw a blanket spread out with, amongst other things, a whole raw chicken still in supermarket packaging, a roll of lunch meat and a tub of yoghurt. Not sure who would buy those items... but definitely not your standard flea market fare. Lowlights - many of the stalls with fruit and veges didn’t have price indicators (unlike at Zeleni Venac in the centre of town). It’s easy enough to get ripped off as a visitor - scales getting fiddled, dodgy change or not enough change being given, so unless there’s a per kilo price marked we don’t bother purchasing. There are enough chances to get ripped, robbed and rorted without having at least a starting point of price to work with!
We are building up our endurance day by day and last Friday (30th) saw us head into the centre to visit the newly opened location of the Tourist Information Office. Still in disarray however and no computers (so no opportunity to book our places on the free tram tour...) We had a look around the exceedingly posh Rajiceva shopping centre at the end of the shopping street then took an impromptu look around the National Bank of Serbia’s visitor centre. We have discovered over the last few years that these money museums are usually a) free and b) excellent as they are located in stunning palace-like buildings of a bygone era. We learned all about the financial crash caused by the war in the 1990s and even had our pictures printed onto Serbian bank notes. All good fun. We nipped into Zeleni Venac on the way, loaded up with fruit and veges, picked up Chinese (or ‘Kineski’) for dinner and eventually made it home. Collapsed (but in a fitter kind of way).
It’s lucky the fitness has improved with our daily excursions because Saturday (31st) was ‘Last Saturday of the Month’ and so off we went to enjoy ‘Free Day’ at the various Belgrade City museums. We planned out a detailed route (Google Maps is up there with the microwave in terms of our favourite inventions). We headed off at around 11.30 am as none of our 3 chosen museums opened until midday. First stop was an apartment filled with furniture and art from the estate of Paja Jovanovic. He never actually lived in the apartment in question being based in Vienna for most of his career, but it was a great visit. Though a little weird. For instance, when we found the address there was a huge door with apartment buzzers to ring. The two women in front of us were also heading to the museum, so that was good. The door eventually creaked open and we followed the signs (and the women) to the next locked door. Can’t imagine this place gets a lot of foot-traffic. They headed up the stairs to the fourth floor but we saved our feet for the rest of the day’s outing and took the lift - a classic cage elevator with a 1920s feel. We even beat them there by a couple of minutes and arrived in style. A gorgeous apartment furnished very luxuriously awaited us and one of the staff gave an unrehearsed tour in perfect English. Turns out he wasn’t a popular artist with other artists because he was seen as a sell-out. In other words he painted flattering portraits of wealthy people, made loads of money and lived a life of luxury... so rare amongst the names of the great artists of the world... broke, drunk and insane being the usual adjectives used. It was also blessedly cool inside - though we imagine it could be a bit nippy when it’s minus 22 outside vs. plus 22 degrees.
From there we meandered to St Mark’s Church where there was a great deal going on. Lazarus Saturday! Or ‘The Saturday before Orthodox Easter’ - it was a carnival out the front - fairy floss, toffee apples, sweets and all the children were wearing ribboned garlands in their hair and bells around their necks. Probably a lot more to it than that, but we quizzed our guide on Sunday’s free walking tour and even he was a bit in the dark - mainly it’s a devotion to traditions verses a huge devotion to their religion - but still fun to see (there was a queue to go in, it being a big day and all, so just took a peek from the doorway). We haven’t run across Lazarus since our stay in Cyprus a couple of years ago - when we visited the church that reputedly held his remains.
Next stop, the Museum of Jovana Cvijica (in his home). Another gentleman world famous in Serbia - but nice to visit - although again, we were the only ones there and the caretaker had to stop working in the garden to unlock the house and supervise us walking around. That was number 2 of our 3 museum day. It was a quick look around but the interior painting and decoration was ornate and unexpected and remember, free.
Finally with the end (almost) in sight, we visited the Bajlonijeva Pijaca (another green market). This was originally just a green field at the base of the Bohemian quarter - the market now takes its name from the Bajloni family brewery which once existed in the quarter (and now is just a picturesque chimney amongst the bars and restaurants). We took a short break for lunch then came to the conclusion that we were still more than happy with our central farmers market. The main claim to fame in this part of town is not actually the market, but the Skadalija district or Sardarska Street.
We enjoyed a quiet walk through Belgrade’s Bohemian quarter before crossing back through Republic Square and onwards to The Residence of Princess Lubica. This grand home was built in 1829 and was the residence of the ruling Obrenovic dynasty and home to King Mihail/Michael and his wife Lubica. They were the last of the Ottoman period and the home now features interior decoration in the Ottoman style and is also a museum of 19th century interiors. It wasn’t particularly ornate inside - but it was spacious and beautifully built - the evidence of wealth and grandeur was everywhere. Fortunately, we were now back on our side of town so it was only a couple of kilometres back to the apartment for recovery drinkies after a long, hot day of sightseeing.
The only way to top Saturday was obviously to do it all again on Sunday (1 April). We kicked off our free walking tour of Downtown Belgrade at The Horse. The horse monument in Republic Square in fact. This is the only equestrian statue in Belgrade and depicts King Michael (son of King Michael who was Princess Lubica’s husband actually). But mainly it’s just called The Horse and is the rendezvous point for visitors and locals alike. Back in the day, long before the National Museum was built behind the horse, there was a cafe there - The Dardanelles. When people planned to meet there they never even referred to it by name - it was simply known as The Horse’s Arse - due to it’s unlucky positioning behind King Michael’s monument. The museum has been under restoration for the last 15 years... a very grand edifice which I can’t imagine anyone referring to in those terms... perhaps ‘The Equine’s Posterior’ would do instead. Hearing about Ottoman history from a local historian was excellent but when he said we’re going to start the tour in Skadalija, the old Bohemian quarter - we went ‘oh no’ as we’d been there on Saturday. That’s when the magic begins of course and we then enjoyed several stories and history from a local’s perspective - much more fun than our gentle stroll through the day before. (Not to mention our guide pulled some home made honey Rakija from his back pack and poured us and the other non-saintly types a little Sunday morning pick-me-up as we enjoyed stories of Skadalija’s drinking culture... it was 11.30 am after all.)
Skadalija was Belgrade’s Bohemian quarter and is still full of bars/clubs and amazing architecture. It was home to many kafanas (coffee houses during the Ottoman period that evolved into many and varied drinking establishments). It was an area that allowed very late opening and thus kept the noise down in the rest of the city. The first movie ever seen in Belgrade was played on a projector in one of the local Kafanas. The street itself is winding and cobbled and one of the few remnants of the Ottoman period in Belgrade’s history - once their era came to an end, the Austro-Hungarian approach of straight, planned streets removed the rest of Belgrade’s innate windy-ness.
Our historian guide spun a tale about white wine in Skadalija. Once a group of poets, artists and otherwise unoccupied intellectuals gathered for a lively debate about the best white wine in the street. The argued and argued - Chardonnay? Something else? Until an elderly philosopher walked by the bar and they called out to him for his opinion to settle the debate once and for all. He thought for a moment and said ‘That’s easy. The best white wine must have three characteristics. First, it must be cold. Second, it must be copious and third, it must be free!’ We’d have to agree.
Another story involved an artist/writer called Djuro Jaksic who is represented by a sculpture in Sadarska Street. Djuro used to eat and drink and run up huge tabs at a kafana - until they cut him off. He would then move his custom to another unlucky venue and continued on his merry way. One day he ate and drank his fill and when it came time to pay, the owner demanded that he do something to work off his debt. Perhaps paint a new sign for the restaurant? Djuro went outside and looked around for inspiration. He saw seven workers from Germany enjoying their lunch nearby and decided to incorporate them into the new sign. The owner was so happy, he said Djuro was able to eat and drink there for free for the rest of his life. The sign even saw the name of the kafana change to ‘The Seven Hungry Germans’. It’s stories like this told by local guides (in this instance, a paid up, card carrying, historian), that make local tours so much fun.
We learned so much more about Skadalija on Sunday’s walking tour including the reason for Belgrade’s stunning, but crumbling, architecture. After WWII, as part of Yugoslavia under Tito, Serbia became a communist country. Rich people weren’t popular (obviously) and their fabulous family mansions/mini-palaces were confiscated and redistributed. In recent years, since the fall of communism, a reparations law was passed by parliament and the original owners are now in the process of reclaiming their homes and heritage. Not a single finger has been lifted by the occupants or the government in the intervening 70 odd years so some of these stunning buildings are down to bare brick in places with render falling off (amongst other things). Every so often you see one that’s been restored and it’s just outstanding... that’s when you know the ownership issues have finally been resolved. It’s sad to so many structures in such a parlous state, at the rate they are deteriorating, there may be nothing left to restore. We saw a many examples of this as the tour continued through the Dorcol area - or “The Crossroads” where Christians and Turks (as he explained... that was anyone either a) not Christian or b) brown - so covered Greeks and Muslims alike). In Dorcol we were lucky to come across a community street fair as we walked with food, drinks, crafts, live music etc. Perfect money saving opportunity as we were walking too fast to stop and browse.
In due course we made it to the jewel in Belgrade’s tourism crown - Kalemegdan park and the Belgrade fortress. Some free walking tours cover a city block... safe to say this one covered most of the city. We took a walk around the walls of the fortress, admired the Victor monument and saw the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers from the lookout. We also took note of some interesting features including a Roman well (that isn’t) and a bunker from the start of the cool war (1948... when Stalin wanted to be besties but Tito wasn’t so keen - but we’re keeping those for we we take a tour of Belgrade’s Underground Secrets later this week).
We finally made it back to Knez Mihaila whereupon we started (!) the 2.5 km walk home. Being Sunday the regular shops in our district were mostly shut, except for a second hand shop just around the corner from home. It was really just a wishful thinking/drop in visit. The calendar for May at the National Opera House in Bucharest had just opened that morning (Sunday 1 April) and before we left for the walking tour I was online at 9 am nabbing seats for the ballets (Sleeping Beauty and Romeo & Juliet) and also two operas (Aida and Cavallieri & Pagliacci). Seats in the front row of the balcony for all four shows set us back a grand total of €120 / A$180 approx - or significantly less than it costs for one person to go to one performance in Sydney. Culture is affordable in Bucharest - not even considered a luxury item - so we indulge when we are there. Wanting to look the part we finally found James a tailored lightweight summer jacket to fill out his wardrobe choices - at 1000 dinara (€8.50) we were super happy to cross this job off the list.
Now the week that was may sound exhausting (it was a bit...) but we were hugely entertained and we’ve learned and explored so much about Belgrade - our adopted home for a month. Monday (2 April) was an officially gazetted rest day and as such, outstanding. Even Columbus must have had the occasional day off.