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Once, in the Blue Moon ...

Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro

Belgrade is a fascinating city; not particularly beautiful or visually extraordinary, but culturally one of the more interesting places I have had the chance to go to. The first person I met was the taxi driver who despite being fairly friendly didn't set the meter and overcharged me, I later discovered, by 400%. I then found the hostel, which although central, was up four flights of stairs in what can only be described as a 'work in progress', or a building that appears to virtually be being rebuilt whilst people live inside it. I arrived quite late in the evening and couldn't at once tell who worked there and who was a guest, such was the laid-back atmosphere, but I was shown to my room and then had the opportunity to meet everyone.

Although I have met great people in every city I have been to, there were more during my five days in Belgrade than anywhere else. The hostel was so small that it felt like we were flatmates, albeit very briefly, and strangers would come and go as they pleased. Neighbours and friends of the owners would walk in for a conversation or to use the computer and one night a woman brought her young daughter in so that she could use their bath. The owners themselves were friendly, helpful and generous with their supply of rakija, a deadly concoction that I have vowed never to go near again. Being so centrally located and with the advantage of the local knowledge of the owners, we went out most nights to spots that few tourists probably ever get to see. It was to a venue called the Blue Moon that I twice went with two Canadians from the hostel. As musicians, they even got a couple of chances to jam with the band, though for the rest of the time the music was mostly in Serbian. The atmosphere here was so much more intimate and inclusive than most of the places I used to go to in London, and despite speaking a different language it was easy to at once feel welcomed.

During the day, the weather was pretty downcast for the first 48 hours, and so I decided to extend my stay to five nights so that I could see more of the city and make the most of the great company. On the third day, however, the sun came out and it became so hot I was able to sit in the park all day reading and listening to music. I probably never did see as much of the city as I should have, but what I did see was unlike anywhere I'd previously been to. The old castle, dotted with tanks and missiles that have been installed there as part of the military museum also gives views out over the rivers. And it is here that you notice just how close the centre of the city is to the open countryside, as trees line the waterside for much of the northern part of the town. The most extraordinary site, however, was the location of two bombings in the centre of town that are around a decade old. Many cities would have cleared these up by now - Ground Zero in New York is probably the closest comparison I could think of. But here, nothing appears to have been touched, and you can see the damage that the bombs have had on the buildings, with floors and walls ripped apart. Perhaps unsurprisingly in a nation who so recently was bombed by America, there is a certain attitude that many of the older residents take on when they hear you speaking English. However, most of the younger generations are more open minded and are in fact happy to talk to you. One time I did fail to pick up on the difference in culture was when I wore shorts to an Orthodox Church. I remembered just in time, as I was about to go in, so stopped at admiring it from the outside. The church, the biggest of its kind in the world, was quite a distance from the hostel, however, and I did not have the energy to go back the next day.

Back at the hostel I met a mixture of local Serbians and travellers, some of whom have been on the road for years. The state of mind of a traveller is so different to the people who you meet at home that speaking to them is very enlightening, even if you can't quite understand the mentality of someone who is permanently on the move.

For my final day or two in Belgrade, I made the most of everything a Westernised city has to offer; for although it is obviously an Eastern European city, in the centre are all the shops, cafes and restaurants you will find in London, Paris and New York. In fact, if anything it was more like London than any other capital I've been to, and many of the shops were British rather than American or continental. I did my first bit of shopping, having realised that I didn't quite have enough clothes with me to compensate for some of the slower laundry service turnarounds I have come across, and several times had access to an internet cafe and even to Costa for coffee. (A note on Serbian coffee - it is not coffee in the sense that we think of coffee in Britain and America, the bottom 25% of the cup being filled with a thick grainy goo; so Costa was a life-saver).

On our final night, I went with the two Canadians to a restaurant near our hotel that is enigmatically named '?'. The full story is complex, dating back to some argument with the church it is opposite, but the restaurant is a popular and famous one for tourists and locals alike, and offers authentic Serbian cuisine. Of course, most Serbian food has a pretty heavy meat content, so I went for something a little more Westernised. We later met up with a guy from Slovenia and an American, and went to a small and well hidden bar playing live music that would have been more at home in 1950s Louisianna. The walls were adorned with pictures of Elvis and an old motorbike - quite a surreal experience in Belgrade. Finally we headed out to a club we had been advised to go to, and although the entrance fee only came to less than 1GBP, I can safely say it is not somewhere I will be going again on my next trip to the city. Unbeknown to us, the theme was of the gothic variety. I was, I believe, the only person wearing white, and under the UV lights I glowed boldly in a place where only people's teeth and eyes were visible. Some time later, we thankfully escaped with our lives. I went to bed knowing that I had a train to catch in four hours.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 12, 2009 from Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Serbia

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