Belgrade isn’t a destination you go to without some sort of preconception, perhaps that it won’t be modern or that it won’t feel safe to walk around alone. Turns out both are wrong and it’s a very aesthetically pleasing city.
Emerging from a night train from Sofia, I was essentially a puddle. No air con, as I’ve said before, and the heat isn’t letting up for anyone. Again, travellers on the train were friendly and we all had a good laugh about it and the fact some Dutch girl had been sold a ticket for a seat that didn’t exist. That was a tricky one to navigate!
En route to the hostel, I saw a Syrian refugee camp in a central park and understand from over travellers that this has been building for some time. This was a shocking sight to see as the living conditions were very poor. Since leaving, I’m aware that some hostels were full of refugees who were hesitant about being out in public.
Once checked in to my hostel (who let me check in over four hours early), I headed to the famous meeting place, Republic Square, for the free walking tour. As the square emerged, an huge art project was evident, featuring transformer like models. What would Optimus Prime think?
It was a big group and again the guide was a born and raised local, so there was no danger of getting lost. During the tour his showmanship was incredible and ‘Jacob’ presented us with many gifts; a shot of honey alcohol, a postcard and a billion dinar note, making us all instant yet worthless billionaires 🙂
Through the streets we went and I loved the mix of architecture; because the city has been bombed so many times, not many old buildings remain but what does still stand has great significance, like one of the largest mosques in the Balkans and the first theatre in Belgrade, which rests to the East of Republic Square. As we saw more of the old town, and walked through Strahinjica Bana Street where artists used to congregate, I felt like all the conflicts were linking up and I could see how tumultuous the history of the whole of Europe has been, even in our very recent past.
The highlight of the tour for me was visiting the White Fortress or ‘Belgrade Fortress’, where the city had protected itself from invaders along the river Danube. Here, the old conflicts become rationalised; Belgrade sits on an enviable site in Europe, between the West and the East, so naturally when any wars occurred it got the brunt of both forces. Even in WWII, it was attacked by both sides.
At the fortress you get a fantastic view of the Danube and also of the more modern parts of the city and the large number of bridges. The bonus here is that the climb up is minimal, so it’s all reward and no effort! The naked statue up here is also interesting; called Pobednik or ‘victor’ it was built to celebrate victory against the Ottomans during the Balkan Wars.
Left to my own devices for the afternoon, I decided to grab a proper lunch in an actual restaurant. Luxury I know! I then went to visit several churches, the palace (where a crazy man was being crazy in a language I didn’t understand, but I’m betting security did… ), a couple of parks and perhaps most interestingly, several buildings bombed by NATO fifteen years ago, back when it was a part of Yugoslavia. Seeing how central these were and what remains around them was definitely food for thought. These buildings feature on a website for dark or unusual tourist attractions if you want more information on how to see them.
Thinking of what else there is to do in Belgrade, there is a well-rated communist tour starting at Republic Sqaure at set times during the week. It lasts for fours hours and seems quite in-depth and the only reason I didn’t go on this tour was due to a mild case of heat stroke. At 37, 38C, it wasn’t wise to walk in the heat for so long while I was feeling nauseous.
To me, this city is a cultural hub that was extremely welcoming and open to questions and apprehension, which the residents must find frustrating to some degree as they try to move on from their shared past. As with Bulgaria, it is still recovering from communism and hyper inflation, but is a growing tourist destination within Europe, which should give it a reputation and economic boost.
As I left on a Gea Tours bus to cross the Bosnia Serbia border late at night with a Slavik friend I made in the hostel, my eyes were well and truly opened to visiting anywhere in the world. Whilst on the night train, the conductor told us to lock the doors and shut the windows because Bosnia is a dangerous country, and I’m sure it can be, but it’s also fascinating and full of optimism for the future.
*A note on Gea Tours: This company is extremely well reviewed online, which is why I booked with them. However my experience was that they are a shoddy company. I tried three times to book with them and in the end had to get help from the hostel staff as they were either hanging up on me or just put the phone down to ‘check something’. The customer service was non-existent and the hostel wasn’t surprised either. The driver actually almost crashed into a lorry and made a couple of cigarette stops where we were left in the car to wonder when he might be back.
I’d say they are only worth it to get the door to door trip, as this is very handy when you might not know where you’re going and don’t want to get stuck at odd hours of the day or night.