Belgrade, Serbia: Beauty in Dysfunction

Within minutes of exiting the worn threadbare seats of the ancient shuttle bus from the airport, we stepped out into the hot Serbian sunshine. The familiar smells and sounds of the Balkans immediately assaulted our senses. Cars espoused black thick emissions while “antique” trams with rust and peeling paint rumbled past. Much like Greece and Northern Macedonia, Serbia held a similar element of dysfunctionality. Everything seemed to be more complicated and moved slower than in western countries, often requiring extra steps or “work-arounds” to get something done.. Truth be told, I quickly realized I held an odd affection for it. It felt familiar.

PLOP! A large wet drop hit my forehead as I walked down the sidewalk. This was not new territory. Rusty window air-conditioner units rained dirty condensation on passersby quite frequently. It was a contrasting phenomenon that, after all this time abroad, I still had not adjusted myself to expect. I brushed my arm across my forehead and sidestepped out of the line of occasional drizzle coming from the apartment block.

Belgrade was a chance to catch our breath and do some “maintenance”. This consisted of replacing some shoes and clothes. We had worn the same outfits and clothes for 5 months and self consciously knew things appeared shabbier by the day. Thankfully, I met a nice Serbian man, Alex, on the flight from London. He suggested a trip to Block 70, the Chinatown of Belgrade. We picked up a dress and pair of shoes at great low prices as well as a clearance shirt at the nearby mall. After we had walked 9 miles that day, we collapsed into the air condition of our apartment.

The Museum of Yugoslavia was one of our main stops in the city. Cases upon cases held personal gifts, tributes, and stately items possessed by the communist leader, Josip Broz Tito. The House of Flowers nearby contained he and his wife’s tomb in a clearly significant display of admiration. Pictures adorned the walls showing various heads of state at his funeral from Liberia to Belgium. Modern video tributes explained his encapsulation of Serbian collectivism within the socialist society and its timeless effect on the population. He was a particularly interesting character in history as he was friendly to the US, despite his communist stance. With minds full of facts from a world we knew not much about, Hannah and I shuffled home in the sun through discussions of contrasting political systems.

It would not be a Josh & Hannah post if it did not mention great food. We found a favorite restaurant, called Zavicaj. It served traditional Balkan food and specifically Serbian specialities. One of the best was Sarma, a stuffed cabbage leaf. Another was a specialty dish similar to a casserole bake with a thick, oily white cheesy gravy with mushrooms, sausage, peppers, and chunks of beef. We could barely eat 1/4 of the meal, and the server thankfully boxed up the remainder for eating later. The food was so good, and inexpensive, that we went back a second time later that week.

By this point in the trip, we had likely seen well over 100 churches. The Church of Saint Sava had an eastern look to it with three large domes and a white alabaster finish on the outside. The main portion of the inside was still being finished, but the basement was open. Decadence was a fitting description. Gold chandeleirs and multi-colored mosaic tiles shimmered in the bright lights. Hannah mused that this must be what all the decadent ancient churches looked like when they were brand new before the paint faded and the walls crumbled as we see them today.

Belgrade’s fortress overlooked the intersection of two rivers which bisect the new city and old city. Alex, my seat buddy on the airplane, laughingly had explained, “Belgrade is very proud that is has, not just 1, but 2 rivers! How many cities can say that!” As we toured the crumbling parapets and age-stricken walls, I could not help but draw a comparison to the United Kingdom’s aged castles and note the differences between the level of care and preservation. Belgrade’s walls told stories of strife and war, of which the region still in many ways has not recovered.

Mustard yellow rows of sun-scorched flaccid sunflowers created the track upon which our bus slowly ambled from Belgrade, Serbia toward Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovena. This served as an apt metaphor. Serbia is a land with ample resources, especially concerning agriculture, but it has difficulties leveraging it. It has one of the oldest and fastest aging populations in the world, its death rate is higher than its birth rate. Compounding the issue is a lack of foreign investment. The Balkans suffer from a stiff prejudice. Visitors, both touristic and corporate, have an apparent fear of visiting due to the long history of war. The reality is far different. Serbia was safe, full of rich history, and culture and we were very glad we had visited.

Hannah and I heard this song come on while eating lunch in downtown Belgrade. Sometimes when western culture pops up where you least expect it.

This was the second time on this trip that we traveled into Balkan countries. During the first round, I had read a book by Robert Kaplan titled “Balkan Ghosts”. He is one of my favorite authors on current events and modern foreign policy. He paints a narrative and detailed history of how the Balkans take their position as the crux of modern policy concerning things such as genocide and terrorism. It is a comprehensive book, but an easy read that really adds background and flavor on an area that I think is already long forgotten, despite its recent timing and implications. Having read this in the middle of our first Balkans round, I found myself better understanding the absurdities, beauty, and difficulties on our second round. In short, I knew what to expect and why it was the way it was. The Balkan region is an absolute must for any traveler.


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