A case of mistaken identity – Part One – Belgrade

20 12 2013

Tell someone that you are visiting Eastern Europe as a tourist. Instantly they will think of Budapest, Prague or Krakow. Fantastic architecture, culture and cheap beer springs to their mind. However take their mind in a more southeasterly direction towards the Balkans and the perception changes. Mention that you are going to Serbia, their expression will change and you are rewarded with ‘Why the hell are you going there‘!

To most westerners Serbia is still a dangerous country. Images of terrible atrocities committed during the Balkans conflict are still fresh in peoples minds. More recently the impression has changed to hardened criminal gangs who will steal your kidneys, then murder you until you are dead. The media certainly hasn’t helped with this perception, only solidifying the preconceptions deeper.

So as mentioned previously, telling my family that I was going to spend five days in Serbia visiting friends was not received well. I was not particularly worried about the journey, but I did check that my travel insurance covered me.

The plan was simple. Fly into Belgrade and meet my friends, then stay in Novi Sad. That was the sum and total of the itinerary. Although I did have one request to my friends ‘show me Serbian life‘. It sounds easier than it actually is.

Belgrade was a typically busy city, but with very nice architecture. I did feel very far away from my roots in Liverpool though. This feeling was exacerbated by the Cyrillic text everywhere. They pointed out a couple of former government buildings that had been bombed by NATO. It is insane to see the extent of the damage caused by the bombs. You could see that the bomb had dropped into the centre of the building, carving through the concrete spine and blowing out every window. However these were the only signs of any conflict.

We visited the Saborna Crkva Sv Arhangela (Holy Archangel Michael Church), with huge fresco’s adorning the walls. This was my first visit to an Orthodox church. Then to a really small but interesting cafe called Kafana Pavle Korcagin celebrating the former Yugoslavian dictator/leader (delete as appropriate) Tito and communist life. Lots of original propaganda posters and artifacts from the communist era adorned the walls whilst people of all ages drunk rakija and beer chatting away. This was a very impressive place, like taking a beer inside a museum. Maybe the best cafe that I have ever visited the world over? My hosts (Marko & Mirjana) and their friends were informative and keen to tell me about how Tito was revered by the people of Yugoslavia. Again a completely different picture was painted by western media of Tito. It made me wonder who was actually correct. Western media with a hidden agenda, or the people living under his leadership?

Onwards to walk around Belgrade’s expensive shopping areas, which felt rather sterile given the vibrant atmosphere on a Saturday evening. Serbian’s certainly know how to party! We visited Belgrade’s oldest cafe, literally called ‘?’. Cafe ? made a very bohemian impression on me. I imagined long discussions between men with beards and small glasses on how Slavic artistic style was influenced by rakija!

The hour was getting late, and Marko still had to drive to Novi Sad from Belgrade. So bidding farewell to Belgrade, it’s amazing cultural secrets and it’s incredibly cold winds…we drove into the night.

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