I have told you that I have always been fascinated by world travel!As a boy, I remember telling my friends and family that I wanted to travel to the U.S.S.R and everyone just shaking their head. One of my favorite authors…. Robert Pelton wrote “The Worlds Most Dangerous Places” and I have read three of them. They are what motivated me to explore places that are “off the beaten path”….He is a motivated writer that will travel to places that most wouldn’t venture. He didn’t specifically mention Serbia but I remember his chapter on Bosnia. He did discuss the Serbs and it planted a seed in my brain that was hard to remove. …If you would have asked me before I traveled to Serbia… what the first words that came to my mind when I heard the word Serb it would have been “BIG, STRONG and MEAN.” It isn’t surprising but its very sad! This book was probably my first recollection of hearing something about Serbs… Then in 1999 President Bill Clinton come on tv tell us about the “horrendous acts” that the Serbs were inflicting on others. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBKGjMB6Uwk We also had the HUGE influx of Hollywood movies that had a HUGE ANTI-Serb slant…. so you can imagine my thoughts and fears when I realized I was going to be arriving in Belgrade for a two day holiday and it just happened to fall on March 24, 2012 . That is a date that every Serb will always remember. It is the day that NATO started “Merciful Angel.” It led to the three month bombing campaign and the loss of many lives and untold billions in damages to infrastructure! I had received a death threat a few days earlier from some nutcase so I was a little on edge. I had been to Belgrade on a few occasions but never had two FULL DAYS to explore. I jumped on the bus in Zrenjanin at 8:55AM on a beautiful Saturday morning. It is amazing how timely and clean the buses are. If you have ever ridden Greyhound in the USA you know what I am talking about! They pulled away from the station and arrived in Belgrade in a little over an hour… exactly as scheduled!!! My buddy, Rade, is a Kosovo Serbian that is studying in Belgrade. He was going to show me the sites and would arrive 20 min to pick me up. The first place I headed was McDonalds! hahaha.. I know, I know…. TYPICAL AMERICAN! They had a McDonalds in Zrenjanin but it shut down a few years back. I had to get my fill! I ordered a Big Mac meal, french fries and coke. It was around 400 Dinars or close to $6. If I remember correctly … its about the same or a little cheaper in state of Illinois. The cashier was a beautiful little brunette girl. I asked her if she spoke English and she said ” Yes, I do” I told her what I wanted and she asked me where I was from. I told her and then complimented her on her PERFECT English. She smiled from ear to ear and thanked me. I could tell that the compliment made her day. She was whispering to the other employees and smiling. It feels good to make a strangers day by throwing them a compliment. Everyone should try it.
A little white lie won’t hurt anyone and it can really make someones day! ;)…. I finished my meal and my buddy showed up to greet me. Him and I have been Facebook buddies for many, many months and it was great to finally place a face with a voice. We have very different political views and beliefs on many things but he is a great friend. We decided we would stop at a little cafe for a coffee. The social aspect of coffee in Serbia is very important. It is VERY rare to see someone ordering a coffee to go. We sat at a little cafe in the heart of the shopping district or Knez Mihailova Street. We sat and argued many subjects. There is nothing wrong with having friends that you don’t agree with on every subject! It makes it more exciting.
We decided to go to Kalemegdon fortress first. The walk there was fantastic. You see so many people out enjoying the day, street musicians, street artists, puppet shows and kids trying to sell you these little cards to help the poor kids. It is really a great place to sit and watch the crowds. I heard a guy speaking in an American accent. I asked him where he was from. He said “I am from Sweden but learned the American accent because I didn’t like the British!” haha..http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3Xi-7orutI We continued on. The street has an ENORMOUS amount of people. The women in Serbia dress like they are attending the wedding of a queen. They have small salaries but always dress VERY WELL! We get to the fortress and my buddy explains some of the history and walks me all over it! It was stunning. It is a great feeling to walk over this ancient structure and imagine all the battles and history it has to offer. We found two little caves that were cut out in the lower walls of the fortress. We walked over to get a closer look and found some belongings from a homeless man and a make shift bed. hahahaha.. The fortress is massive and covers a large area. The area serves as the central park and contains a restaurant, a couple bars, tennis court, military museum, basketball courts and statue of Pobednik and great views of the two rivers… the Sava and Danube!
Next up……a look at many of the beautiful buildings in Belgrade. One of my teachers told me about a site for ESL teachers. It is a guide book for teachers that are going to specific countries. She told me to read the description of Serbia. I was DISGUSTED. A few of them said that Belgrade was big, dirty and had old communist style block buildings. THIS COULDN’T BE FARTHER FROM THE TRUTH!! I have been to many of the worlds biggest tourist cities…. Sydney, Australia…. Paris, France….. Los Angeles, California….. San Jose, Costa Rica…… Mexico City, Mexico…. Guadalajara, Mexico….. Brussels, Belgium…… Toronto, Canada…. Auckland, New Zealand….etc and feel that Belgrade has the most historic, unique and gorgeous buildings and the friendliness of a small town!! We walked all over town while my friend explained some of the history behind some of the beautiful buildings. My favorites had to be the Parliament building, house dedicated to Vuk K, and many others that I can’t spell!! ;)…
Next up…. Churches… .. Most of you know that I am not religious. I have friends from every single faith and love them equally but I feel that Orthodox Christianity has some of the MOST AMAZING churches and monasteries you will ever see!!! I swear some of the pictures of Orthodox monasteries throughout Serbia will lower your blood pressure just looking at them!! They are BREATH TAKING!!!!! We walked up to one the many churches and there was a priest coming out. I joked with my friend that I wanted to get my picture taken with him. My friend said ” I will ask him!” i said “NO! He will probably not want to take one with an American!” He asked him all the same. The gentleman was very kind! He smiled and positioned us to have the church in the background. I smiled and said “Hvala puno!” I wish I could have remembered to say “SIR” in Serbian but its something that starts with a G.. ahahahah.. We walk inside and i notice all of these candles burning in different sections. They also have many pictures of saints all over the interior. One unique difference between Orthodox churches and others I have been in is the lack of seating and benches in them. They have only a few chairs along the walls. The ceiling and paintings were unbelievable! We walk to a couple more and then we headed to St Sava…
St Sava is a MONSTER!!! This GORGEOUS church has been under construction since the 1930s! The exterior is close to being completed but the interior still has work to be done. The ground floor covers over 30,000 sq ft. This should be one of the WONDERS OF THE WORLD! It sits in a little park with fountains, benches, grass and flowers and a statue of Karadjordjevic…the guy who led the first uprising against the Ottoman Turks… Sitting beside the temple is a little church where they conduct services. It is TINY in comparison but filled with some of the most exquisite murals you will ever see! We walk up to the entrance of St Sava. The doors are MASSIVE in size and when you enter the temperature drops about 20 degrees! The cold chill and enormity of the building is truly shocking!!! There is a little gift shop inside the entrance and a place to purchase candles. They light candles for the living and for the dead. My friend explained that there are two different trays to put your candle in. The top for the living and bottom for the dead. This temple only had the top tray because they are still under construction! They have some amazing portraits of their many saints inside. No trip to Belgrade would be complete without a visit to St Sava! It will be ingrained in your memory for a lifetime!!!
Next up…. PIVO……. I had heard of a little club that was simply called “?”... They said it is the oldest pub in Belgrade and dates back to the 1800s …. we sat out on the patio and across the street is the building where Pavle, the patriarch of the orthodox church, was brought after his death so the people could pay him their last respects… my friend said that the line was backed up all over Belgrade and he didn’t get a chance to see him. They say Pavle was a great man. He did most of his own repairs on his residence and walked everywhere he went. They claim he said ” i will not drive until every Serbian has a car!” The “?” pub was full and I went inside to take some photos they had of slava bread and the old log furniture that was inside. We leave there and head to another pub called “The Retirement pub” … it sounds like a old people hang out but was small, homey and had bright beautiful walls and cheap, cold beer! Last but not least…. we were headed to this bar my buddy had told me about a few times. It is called “RED CREW”. It is a pub that celebrates communist and socialist leaders and philosophy! It was one of my favorite parts of the trip! Being brought up in the largest Capitalist country on earth, i felt a little strange entering! The first thing you see when you enter is a large star , the symbol of communism…. Inside they had hundreds of pictures on the wall.. They had Fidel Castro, Chairman Mao, Josef Stalin, Lenin, and most of all TITO! He led the former Yugoslavia from the 1940’s till his death in the early 1980’s. They had pictures, statues, books, records, etc… It was truly an experience!!!! The beer was also cheap! It was 120 dinars for a draft. I know because I accidentally took the menu!! 😉
Next up…..finding a place to stay….. On my previous stay in Belgrade… I stayed at my first hostel.. I met some great guys from Iraq and decided to try that hostel again. It is the Chillton Hostel that is located across from KFC! http://www.chilltonhostel.com/ Very close to the center, clean, friendly and the staff speak perfect English! It is very cheap at 13E a night. While I was checking in, we met a guy from Spain, Australia and a Serbian muslim from Novi Pazar. My two serbian buddies were with me and we invited the three guys to go for a pivo.. We went to a little bar that was below the bookstore. We drank many beers and had a great time. If you ever need a cheap place in Belgrade and like to socialize with other foreingers…. CHILLTON HOSTEL ROCKS!
Belgrade has so much beauty, history, nightlife, annual festivals, great food and hundreds of excellent little cafes and bars! It is also very cheap in comparison to Rome, Paris, London, Sydney etc…. The people are friendlier too!!!! GIVE BELGRADE A SHOT!!! You won’t want to leave!!!