We left Zagreb and took the highway over the border to Belgrade, a journey of about 4 hours and $21 in tolls ($17.50 on the Croatian side and $3.50 on the Serbian side). Crossing the border was an almost trivial formality – we didn’t even need to get out of the car.
While the roads are in excellent shape on the Croatian side – comparable to Germany or the UK, on the Serbian side highways are less well maintained. However, as we were about to discover, most things are also much less expensive here. It’s also easy to tell that we are in Serbia rather than Croatia as the signs in Serbia are in Cyrillic (although sometimes with Romanized signs alongside). The language is essentially the same, so it was a good way to practice my Cyrillic reading as I could just compare my decoding to the adjacent latin letters.
For those of you not up on your Balkan geography, the former Yugoslavia consisted of six states: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzeogovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, which contained the national capital Belgrade. While we’re at it, some linguistic decoding might also help. “Yugo” means south, so Yugoslavia was the country of southern Slavic states, as opposed to Eastern Slavic states like Ukraine and Russia or Northern Slavic states such as Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Grad is the slavic word for city (think Stalingrad, Leningrad, etc.), so Belgrade means “white city” although what is “white” about it, I am not sure.
Arriving in Belgrade we discovered that the local drivers are extremely aggressive. As soon as traffic slowed a bit on the highway, I was overtaken on the inside by people driving on the hard shoulder. Twice. Only to be followed by two police cars speeding up behind me in traffic with flashing lights but no siren and overtaking me on both sides at the same time! As we exited the highway near our apartment people started making 2 lanes out of only one marked lane on the curved exit ramp.
Google took us to a location that did not match the address on our reservation, but it turned out to only be about a block or two down the same street. But when we pulled in to the correct address, we couldn’t see any signage for our apartment. After calling the contact number we were told to wait 20 minutes at they were on their way. In the end it was 45 minutes before they got there and could let us in to the apartment.
Unfortunately this apartment turned out to be a mixed bag, While it was spacious and nicely decorated, it immediately smelled of smoke, although in theory it was listed as non-smoking. In reality, I don’t think anything in this country is non-smoking. Later evidence of cigarette burns on the couch and butts on the balcony confirmed as much. Since a pack of cigarettes costs the equivalent of US$1.50, smoking is something else that is much cheaper here.
There was what looked to be a decent kitchen until you opened the cabinets and the only cooking vessel was one frying pan. No mixing bowls or the like, so basically fine for breakfast and microwaving things, not so good if you wanted to actually cook anything. The other odd thing was that although the apartment was spacious, the bedroom was tiny. Like I mean it could barely hold the bed tiny. Also unfortunate was the fact that the a/c unit was in the lounge and did nothing to cool down the bedroom, but thankfully it naturally cooled down a bit at night while we were there.
The location isn’t bad. On the ground floor is a restaurant, which we ate at on our last night, and there were nearby bakeries and other facilities. The city center was about a 50 minute walk so we took a bus in, but later walked back to the apartment.
We headed for Kalemegdan – Belgrade Fortress which has a good view of the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. The fortress is today a park and includes several rings of battlements. What’s kind of interesting is that the old moats have been repurposed for use as tennis courts, basketball courts, etc.
The park contains a zoo, gallery, a number of museums and restaurants. But with the exception of the latter, most of these were closed by the time we got there. However, the Military museum has a number of pieces that are kept on open display in one of the former moats. This included a number of WWII tanks from Allied and Axis forces, as well as other bits of military hardware of various vintage. The thing that most caught my attention was a 300 mm mortar that is huge. One can only imagine the sort of damage a shell from this might inflict.
It was about dinner time, so we went on the hunt for someplace to eat. We had read about a restaurant that sounded interesting, but were completely unable to find it. Using Google Maps to pinpoint its location, no one seemed to know about it, even though there were recent reviews. We are figuring out that Google Maps is less useful here than in Western Europe. While it’s accurate much of the time, there seems to be a number of addresses and driving directions that are incorrect. In the end, we found an outdoor café on a busy street that had a live singer and guitar player. Kelly ordered vegan Mexican fajitas and I ordered a tuna pizza. Mine turned out to be pretty much what I expected. Kelly’s turned out to be kind of a burrito made from pizza dough casing, filled with corn, mushrooms, and fake cheese. Note to self, remember the #1 culinary rule of travel, don’t order the Tex-Mex outside of the SW US or Central America. On the plus side, they had a lemon-mint cider which was something new for me and very tasty.
We stopped at the market on our way back to the apartment and since it had a washing machine, we decided to make use of that, necessitating the purchase of washing powder. The prices in Serbia seemed significantly less expensive than Croatia and way less than Western Europe or the USA (unless we are talking about imported goods). For instance, a box of washing powder, maybe half the size of a small box in the US cost the equivalent of 0.60 cents.
The dominant religion in Serbia is Eastern Orthodox. The largest Orthodox church in Serbia, which is also one of the largest in the world is being built 10 minutes from our apartment. It is called St. Sava Temple and it’s being built by donation, sort of like an Orthodox Sagrada Familia. The church is huge and the quality of materials, from what we could see, were very fine. The location of this church is where in 1594 the Turks burned down relics of St. Sava (founder of the Serbian Orthodox church in the late 12th/early 13th Century).
It struck me that when we travel and see classic churches, synagogues, and mosques, it seems like they’ve been around for a very long time and so it’s unusual to be able to see a religious building of this magnitude in the process of being built.
The other thing we wanted to see in Belgrade was the Tesla Museum. Nikolai Tesla is one of the few figures revered by both Croatians and Serbians. He was a Serb, born in what is today Croatia, who later moved to the US and became a naturalized US citizen. He is famous for his work in electricity and advocacy of a/c as the primary means of electrical distribution (rather than the d/c system proposed by Edison). He was also a futurist. At the museum an engineering student demonstrated a number of Tesla’s experiments, including using a Tesla coil to wirelessly light a bunch of unconnected fluorescent tubes held by various members of the crowd. We also saw a system that was used to remotely control a ship via wireless power signals, which Tesla pioneered. In Tesla’s time, many who witnessed this demonstration thought he was a magician or that there was a trained monkey inside the ship that responded to his commands. Also on display were some of his personal effects. In fact, this museum is the repository of his papers and is a serious research institution. Tesla never married and died with no children, but he had wanted his effects to be donated to Serbia when he died, and the government dedicated this building to that purpose.
Before setting out this morning, we had stopped in the restaurant on the ground floor of our apartment to see if they had anything we could eat. A nice waiter by the name of Sasha told us of a number of options that sounded good. He told me however that he would not be working later, but to ask for his colleague “Troll” who would be on duty tonight and who spoke English. They called him “Troll” because he is so large. When we arrived in the evening we had no doubt as to who Troll was, but he was surprised to hear us use his nickname and instead preferred that we call him Igor. Igor had worked on cruise ships and apart from speaking English, he was exceptionally friendly and helpful in arranging a meal that we could safely enjoy. Kelly and I started with some fresh tomato soup, after which Kelly had seared salmon and vegetables while I had a fresh forest mushroom risotto. I had a pear cider with dinner that was served over ice with chunks of fresh pear. It was really very nice, as was all the food. We finished up by sharing a slice of chocolate mousse cake. All-in-all the meal probably cost about half to two-thirds of what it might in Dublin and was a nice cap to our time in Belgrade.
On our way out of Belgrade we needed to gas us and there was a roadside filling station close to our apartment. However, they do things in a manner I’ve never seen before. They charge your credit card before they fill up – not put a hold on it, but actually charge it, so you have to decide how much fuel you want beforehand. The idea of “fill it up” didn’t seem to exist at this station and if I were to charge say US$40 worth, but only have room for US$30, well hard luck me. Luckily I was able to make a pretty accurate guess and ended up filling the car in one shot.