Sunday, 7 May 2017

Belgrade Easter 2017

Easter 2017

In the literal sense, I love going the road less travelled. Two short flights with Lufthansa, via Frankfurt, got me to a European capital which is definitely off the beaten tourist track, but one which is undergoing a renaissance in having downbeat areas being restored and gentrified, and which has, as it stands, a wealth of fun, interest, and beauty to entertain the visitor.
Arriving at Nikola Tesla Airport, named for the great Serbian scientist, I was greeted by bonsai trees lining the passage to passport control, which was speedy, and onwards to baggage reclaim. The carousels are quirky in that the as yet unclaimed luggage appears to retreat into a car boot. My bag arrived quickly, and out I went to meet my hackney driver whom I had arranged through Viator. He provided me with an impeccably safe drive to my hotel.
I checked into the Radisson Blu Old Mill Hotel, which is a revamped industrial mill building, with the old chimney and yellow brick walls evident to the rear. The interior is totally avant-garde with clever use of lighting. I was warmly greeted at reception, and my luggage carried up to my room by a very helpful and informative bellhop. We encountered an English bulldog in the corridor outside his room, and I gave him a little scratch on his furrowed brow. The door to my room was designed to stay in whatever position was required; it did not slam closed on you. Every detail in the hotel was a little piece of engineering and design, and I was pleased to have made a good choice of a place to spend my three nights.

Breakfast was quite a feast featuring a great variety of traditional and local specialities, with explanations of what each item was. An orange juice squeezer was there to fill your own glass. I was to discover that identical citrus squeezers feature in all the city’s cafes. Home-baked breads were on offer, local cheeses, a Serbian type quiche, traditional red pepper condiment, cold fish, bacon, eggs, sausage, salads, yoghurts, fruit and pastries. I had a private tour booked for myself online through Viator.

My Big Belgrade Private Tour began with a visit across the beautiful modern cantilever bridge (similar to the ones over the Boyne and in Dundrum) across the River Sava to New Belgrade, an area of green spaces and buildings of various merit and which divide opinions. There are those dreary functional communist era blocks of flats devoid of aesthetic, and the ultra-smart new apartment buildings and housing. A lot of the hotels, conference, cultural and sporting facilities are located in this district, which locals consider to be the best location to live in Belgrade. Floating nightclubs on the Sava and Danube rivers, with DJs playing the ever popular Turbo-Folk mixes provide fun after dark.

Back across the river we hit what might have been real city traffic, only it was light because of the Orthodox Easter weekend. In 1935 building commenced at the first location where we stopped. Like the Familia Sagrada in Barcelona, Saint Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Church, the largest ecclesiastical building in the country, is still incomplete and awaits charitable donations to finish a large amount of interior work. The great white edifice stands on a plateau away from the city centre, and is only rarely used for worship as it awaits completion. Outside, sweet stalls displayed colourful arrays of the traditional confectionary of Serbia, the Serbian Love Heart.
The Parliament Building is perhaps the most iconic of Belgrade’s structures, and its picture features in news items and Eurovision jury votes. A very busy road passes between it and a park full of trees, so it is quite difficult to get a good picture of it. Also spoiling the picture was a giant protest banner across the foot of the building protesting about Albanians killing Serbs. Kosovo is still very much a hot issue and continuing legacy of the last Balkan war.  

We drove through the old Belgrade area of Dorcol, very much in need of face-lift, but considered as the near future hotspot in the gentrification of Belgrade. A very prosperous looking veterinary hospital is located here, reflecting the popularity of pet animals. The city’s main marina is located here and due for further development. In spite of current grittiness bohemian Dorcol is considered a desirable place to live on account of its position in the heart of city life and overlooking the Danube.
Kalemegdan Fort is the greatest focus of touristic interest in Belgrade, and almost as iconic as the Parliament building. Its fortified walls encompass a lovely and interesting park which is free to enter by all denizens. Just beside the fortressed park is the small and tidy city zoo mainly housing smaller creatures, a popular attraction for a city of animal-lovers. Within the fortress moat and buildings is the Military Museum with a fascinating display of tanks visible from the bridge over the moat. A park of moving roaring dinosaurs which can be “ridden” by children is a fantastic family attraction, and I know it would have impressed or terrified me endlessly as a child; these creatures were of serious dimensions, but would probably be forbidden in EU for health & safety reasons. Aptly named Jurassic Park!

Zemun is a very pretty old town surrounded by modern urban developments and is part of the city of Belgrade. We parked along the café-lined esplanade by the Danube and walked through the crumbling cobbled streets up the hill to Gardos Tower. From here I got the classic view over Zemun town with its many spires and red roofs, spilling sown to the broad Danube.
En route to Tito’s mausoleum we drove along the most upmarket road in leafy Belgrade suburbia, where stand some grand old embassy buildings and quite elaborate mansions, some of them in need of renovation for want of money by the people who inherited them. It wasn’t the kind of place you’d care to stop and take a picture on account of the gun wielding guards outside the embassies.

Tito’s Mausoleum is situated in a conservatory type building named the House of Flowers on account of the maintenance of floral planting alongside the burial tombs of Josip Broz Tito and his wife Jovanka Broz. Marshal Tito, the socialist dictator of Yugoslavia, died one year after I visited the Croatian sector on my first foreign overseas trip post Leaving Cert in 1978. On display is an elaborately carved writing desk which belonged to him. However, he always considered his items as possessions of the people which he made good use of, and left all his items to be put on display for future generations to see, rather than pass them down through his family and friends. My guide has mixed feelings about him, and considers that he is quite a cut above most of the rest of the Soviet era despots, and the ordinary people could afford a very nice annual family holiday in a decent hotel in any Eastern Bloc destination of their choice. On location I visited a museum which was filled with all the diplomatic gifts which had been given to Tito by dignitaries from the many countries which he had encountered during his leadership. It is a fascinating medley of items, some of them absolutely absurd or grotesque items of supposed national pride by the donating countries and it’s no wonder he put them aside for a museum rather than have them decorating his house.

For lunch, the driver brought me to at an atmospheric restaurant in the suburbs for and I had choice of whatever I wanted a la carte. Usually on these set itinerary tours you get a set menu, but I was given freedom to indulge. As it happened my stomach was still fairly full from the large breakfast, so I decided on the meat soup (more of a stew), bread, followed by  cevap, which are minced pork balls a bit like koftas and a bowl of Serbian salad, all washed down by a glass of beer. My driver too enjoyed a glass of beer as this amount is permitted in Serbia. A group of musicians moved through the various rooms of the restaurant playing folk music.

After lunch my driver announced that we were “going up the mountain”, the one and only mountain in the region of gently rolling lowlands. Entering through the forest park gate a narrow winding road brought us to the top of the modest peak where a car park and restaurant looked out to the nearby stern concrete Avala Tower. A short walk gave beautiful views of the surrounding country and brought us to the Monument to the unknown Hero, a little temple perched regally at the tip top of the hill, reached by a series of steps. It is dedicated to Yugoslav soldiers, from all regions of former Yugoslavia, who fought in all wars throughout the times.

Down the hill we parked by Avala Tower, a 670ft concrete tower originally built in 1965 for television transmission. It looked stark and sinister against the bright sunlight as we approached its entrance up a series of ramps. The original tower was destroyed during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999; no longer needed as a TV transmitter, the locals missed their landmark badly and money was raised to have it rebuilt purely as thing of beauty, if you could call it that. Like many Belgraders do on a weekend outing, we ascended to the viewing area by lift and got a bird’s eye glimpse of the distant city, Sava and Danube overs, of the mountain very close by, and of a delightful little wooded Orthodox church in the woods below.

My driver suggested we drive back to the city via a different route which took me past a series of very fine new mansions, about 6 or more bedrooms to each, with plenty of green space around them. I remarked on the size of these houses and he said that they go for a song, about €75K each, as nobody wants to live far outside the city and have to drive in and negotiate traffic every day. They have to build them big out this far to get any buyers at all. Reaching back to my hotel I said that the commute from those grand houses is no length, and he replied “But its Orthodox Easter Saturday”.

For the second day of my weekend in Serbia, I originally had the idea to explore some of the fascinating areas outside the capital, but this being Orthodox Easter Sunday, nobody in the country was working. It’s the equivalent to Christmas Day in Dublin. There are mountains, film sets, a historic train, monasteries, fortifications, vineyards, notable towns, caves, and craft centres to see and visit. But I resolved to see Belgrade more intimately, on foot, and I’m so glad I did. This is a place that deserves a longer weekend than I had planned.

It was a 25 minute, somewhat uphill walk into the city centre, the quickest route being via a narrow grey backstreet. I encountered plenty of folk walking their dogs along the way; everybody seems to love their pets here as in most European cities. Give me a map, I love navigating my way around on foot, and was enjoying my adventure in spite of some neurological difficulties with legs and balance; I was going at my own pace, nobody to follow, nobody to rush me. I didn’t encounter even one dodgy looking person or a homeless individual, a far different scenario from my native Dublin.
I passed by a fine old railway steam locomotive tucked in close to a grand building; it was the Railway Museum, of course closed today. Shortly I came upon the Hotel Moskva, the most iconic hotel in the city, a relic of the Russian Empire, built in 1903. A beautiful building, with the city’s first font of potable water placed right in front of it.

Soon I came upon Republic Square, the very centre of the city, where all the people gather for various reasons. However, being my equivalent of Christmas Day, few were here. A crane and building works were taking place in front of City Hall, somewhat spoiling the photographic opportunity. But I had it almost all to myself, probably a unique experience!
I stopped off at one of the cafes which was open on this day of great significance in the religious calendar, and enjoyed a long glass of freshly squeezed half orange and half grapefruit juice, which seemed to be a staple thirst quencher throughout the city.
By this time I was strolling down Mihailova Street, the main pedestrianised shopping street of the city, an impressive thoroughfare which started as a big city street and ended as a pretty small town style street at its far end at the main entrance of the Kalemegdan Fort.
Not much was open, and few enough people were in town. It made for relaxed viewing of some fine buildings, especially the intricate architectural detail which could be examined looking upward. In every old European city I visit I just love to stand and gaze at such features.

The pharmacy was open and I took the opportunity to look in and examine the lovely wooden counters and shelves, a throwback from history. But then I recall my visit to Yugoslavia in 1978 and the local chemist shop had the same style interior, harking back to the time when the first pharmacy in Europe opened down south in Dubrovnik. A small souvenir shop was open and I bought a couple of items to take back to my work colleagues. Also open was a bookshop which proved a magnet to the few folk wandering down the street.
One of the cafes had books old and new placed casually about, with the people inside relaxing over a cup of coffee and a good read. A tea shop had in its window-display an array of old teapots from far and wide, and another café featured old coffee cups in its windows. A Balkan restaurant had a large canopy of red umbrellas across a patio by its entrance. I was later to read that such a display of umbrellas is a traditional feature in Balkan establishments, especially in Bulgaria.

Throughout the city, fountains are a popular feature. They come in all forms and sizes, and have given safe drinking water for decades. Nobody bothers with buying bottled water here, they carry around an empty one and fill it at the next drinking font, which is invariably of decorative merit.
Rain had been promised by the national forecast and it delivered exactly as promised. Starting out grey, it turned drizzly, then wet, and finally constantly saturating. My waterproof camera was challenged only by blurring of the images, but survived electronically. I could hardly see anything through my misty wet glasses and beyond my hood. Yet I was having fun in my own kind of way! A city is the best place to be in rotten weather; the wet shows up detail in the glistening stone, and no sun casts buildings as mere silhouettes.

It was raining quite heavily by the time I reached the beautiful Pionirski Park in front of the Parliament building. Purple and white flowers graced the beds, with a couple of attractive fountains and inspiring statues to grace the picture. Several important buildings surround the park, and of course the copper-domed Parliament building is the main city icon in the manner than the Eiffel Tower is of Paris. The statue I loved best was that of the Serbian Fauvist artist Nadezda Petrovic, it is in my opinion a masterpiece of simplicity and grace and its image lingers strong in my head.
The rain was at its peak as I turned downhill along the long grand avenue leading to my hotel. I  had done nearly four hours walking, in not the best of shape, and crumpled down on my cosiest of beds until I enjoyed a nice evening meal and a nightcap.

My Lufthansa plane took off and followed the silvery Danube for some while. Coming towards Frankfurt the aircraft very suddenly started pitching, fortunately nobody was making their way to the toilet at the time or there could have been injuries. It only lasted a few moments, then the captain came on to apologise for this unexpected disturbance which happened during entry through a small cloud which happened to have strong updrafts. We continued to Frankfurt without further incident, and I caught my connection homeward bound to Dublin.


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