Mordor of the Balkans

Heading into the ninth and final country on our Balkan tour, we’ve seen some common themes emerge. Just like much of Europe, kebaps are very popular, but they prepare them totally different in the Balkans (they look like little breakfast sausages). Gelato presentation is elevated to a high art in order to draw your gaze. There is an “old town” every few kilometers, and every one of them is the best anywhere. They love hatchbacks, especially the VW Golf, in the Balkans possibly more than anywhere else in the world, and they keep the models from the 70s and 80s running strong. Oh yeah, and almost every car is diesel or LPG. Let’s see, what else… ah yes, the war a couple decades ago that tore the region apart. Each country seems to have been invaded and suffered immensely from outside aggressors. Who were these outside aggressors? “Chetniks,” or “The Yugoslav Army.” Ah, but there is no more Yugoslavia, so really, nobody around to hold a grudge against, right? Oh, wait…

I started this trip not really knowing anything about the players in the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. I know there was systematic rape and genocide, but as far as who were the perpetrators and who were the victims, I had no idea. Well, let me break this down as briefly as I can: It was Serbia. It was the Serbs. Back then the names were a bit different, but the seat of power was in Belgrade. They tried to take over what amounts (currently) to multiple sovereign states and they killed and tortured many civilians trying to do so. The role of  NATO and USA in stopping that (after far too long IMO) is why there remains a lot of gratitude for American intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia and Albania.

Belgrade Parliament (with banner for Kosovo conflict "murder" victims)
Serbian Parliament (Banner for Kosovo “murder” victims)

When we mentioned our upcoming stops to locals on this trip, you could see them register some discomfort when we mentioned our last stop was Belgrade. It’s a touchy subject, and one we danced around carefully. Throughout the past couple of weeks though, the upcoming stop in Belgrade had started to loom like a journey into the heart of darkness. After seeing so many museums and monuments to the suffering that emanated from that center of power, I really began to wonder what version of events is being spun there. Visiting the sites of other genocidal regimes (say, Berlin or Phnom Penh) has been different, for a number of reasons. For one thing, the killing on such a massive scale that took place in the Balkans is one of the most recent (save for, say, Darfur or Syria). Another difference is that there was never a true reckoning for the crimes committed. Milosevic died before his trial could be completed and there hasn’t been a genuine pursuit of justice for the crimes of his regime. But the main difference is that there are still nationalistic supporters that allow for the possibility of renewed conflict for the same reasons. Anyhow, with all of that in mind, our visit to Belgrade seems like an accidentally perfect close to a trip that had us circle the entire peninsula.

Hotel Moscow, in Belgrade
Hotel Moscow, in Belgrade

I do feel that I should qualify some of what I’m saying. We’re coming into a place after a whirlwind tour through a number of countries that have been in conflict for decades. What we’ve seen has also come through the filter of an American understanding of the conflict in the Balkans. I’m sure there is more than a little bias mixed in there. Also, I get that enough time has passed that there are adults now in Serbia who have no personal recollection of the events from the early nineties, let alone any hand in what happened. At some point, it really should be in the past. And don’t get me wrong, Serbia is far from alone in glossing over or ignoring the crimes committed in their name. What I’m saying is based on the most cursory of impressions. I’m sure there are voices of dissent like anywhere else. It would be just as unfair to assume that all Americans hate blacks and Latinos and want to round up all Muslims into internment camps. I suppose my point is that we didn’t exactly cruise into Belgrade as a clean slate. Wrong or right, we came in with some preconceptions.

Belgrade pedestrian area
Belgrade pedestrian area

The flight to Belgrade from Ljubljana was very short, maybe 45 minutes total. The Air Serbia In-Flight magazine read like a piece of Pro-Russian nationalist propaganda, which might have reinforced some notions we already had. For this stop, we booked at a normal hotel at the city center and were happy to have a driver waiting to take us there. The airport has some rural space separating it from town, but it’s a straight shot down nice roads and maybe only a 15-minute drive. My first impression of the place is, honestly, that maybe I was a bit harsh ahead of time. Belgrade, while doing better than maybe Kosovo or Albania, is certainly behind, say Croatia and Slovenia in terms of development. Serbia may not be underdeveloped, but they’ve moving at a slower pace than some of their European neighbors. It may be that other Balkan countries fared far worse in terms of acute human suffering and death during the conflict in the 1990s, but I believe Serbia may have paid it’s own toll in the ensuing decades.

Belgrade pedestrian area
Belgrade pedestrian area

Once we got into town and starting getting a feel for the place, it was hard not to be charmed. I’ve seen Serbia mentioned as one of the more “underrated” tourist destinations, and I can see why. Maybe people have impressions from prior conflicts (just like we did) that color their ideas of the place. Serbia is interesting culturally and isn’t overrun by tourists in the way that some of their coastal neighbors have been. Belgrade has a pedestrian area in the center of town lined with high end shopping and small boutiques and cafes on side streets. Starting from St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Parliament Building, you can spend half a day working your way towards the old fort and the Danube River. We spent a while doing this at a leisurely pace after starting out the day visiting the Nikola Tesla museum. My impressions touring the town were mostly unremarkable. Belgrade is clean, the people are very friendly and welcoming, and the food is fantastic. After sampling it in other places, we were happy to finally try some Serbian barbecue at the source. One of our guides in Macedonia mentioned that they loved it so much that him and friends would sometimes take a trip to Serbia just for a meal. Our dinner at Zavicaj restaurant lived up to the expectations there. I normally expect a lot of sauces with what I would consider barbecue. This is different, and totally doesn’t need anything extra.

Serbian barbecue at Zavicaj
Serbian barbecue at Zavicaj

So, there have been a number of times on this trip that we tried in vain to get to a scenic vantage point ahead of the sunset. We missed a few really nice ones while trying to get a good view. On some of the days where we had a perfect spot (like the rocky beach on the edge of the park in Split), the sunsets were not very colorful. We managed a pretty interesting experience for our last sunset here in Belgrade. Just as the light was really softening, we were heading back to our side of town and we went to the lobby of what we knew to be the tallest building in Belgrade. The “Belgrade Palace” has a radio and TV station that broadcast from the top. I assumed there was a possibility they offered viewing from the top. Well, we were stopped by plainclothes security who spoke absolutely zero English and it seems that while there is no formal viewing platform, they were happy to take us to the top for about $5 each. This place was just so incredibly cool and absolutely not a place for normal visitors. You have to go up through a couple of elevators and then through a lot of back hallways. Then, in the back of a janitors closet, there is a very small doorway with a sign warning of death by electrocution and a precarious spiral staircase packed with all sorts of wires and equipment that dumps you out onto the roof. The roof has no guardrail, and being more than a little afraid of heights I had to do some focused breathing as Martha seemed to want to go right up to edge on this gusty roof and look right over the edge. The sunset was behind all sorts of clouds, but it played some interesting tricks with the light. It was a really cool way to close out the trip.

Belgrade Palace, one of the tallest in Serbia
Belgrade Palace, one of the tallest in Serbia
Roof access in Belgrade Palace
Roof access in Belgrade Palace
Belgrade Palace roof
Belgrade Palace roof

I can’t say a single bad thing about our time in Serbia. We had a great time there and it certainly stands out as one of the more memorable stops in the Balkans. I do wish we’d had a little more time to see some additional museums and maybe have take a trip outside of Belgrade. After this we’re up super early for our first flight home via Frankfurt. Until next time…