“So why are you here,” my driver asked.
I looked ahead, trying to come up with a good answer. Doing an arm sweep at ‘all the beauty’ in front of us wouldn’t work. It was 10:30 at night and our view was of communist bloc buildings. The real answer was: I needed to leave Switzerland because of my visa and… low and behold, there was a cheap flight to Belgrade. A non-touristy, gritty locale sounded exciting… and that’s what we were staring at. Trash blew down an empty dirt side street. Grey cement buildings faced dusty parking lots. A row of modern glass offices stood above an unkempt shoreline on the Danube River.
“I’ve never been here, so decided to come check it out,” I finally said.
He nodded as we made our way over the bridge into downtown.
* * *
Just an hour earlier, when I had exited the plane at the Nikola Tesla Airport surrounded by frowns and burly Eastern Europeans speaking what sounded like Russian, I felt out of place- and not just because I was a foot shorter than everyone else. My grey wool Banana Republic sweater that I had been wearing for a week straight in Switzerland suddenly looked showy next to the well-worn garments of my fellow passengers.
“You sure you want to go to Serbia this time of year?” my friend Iain had asked. I was starting to wonder if I should have come.
“Why are you here?” the immigration official asked, peering at me over my US Passport.
“I’m a tourist,” I said, suddenly worried the truth wasn’t good enough.
He hesitated, considering, then stamped the passport.
When I found my driver Bojan outside of customs, I suddenly knew what sailors felt like when they spotted a lighthouse. I waived, recognizing the sign: “Ivy’s Driver” (Ivy was my Air BnB hostess) and was greeted with a smile. He was Croatian with a long dark ponytail and sparkling eyes and he looked like casting potential for Game of Thrones. We headed out to his small 4-door car.
* * *
“What are they burning?” I had asked him while we drove. The air smelled like smoldering metal, which I soon learned was from an iron factory 30 miles outside the city. Adding to the chemical cloud was peat (or turf) burned for heat. It all settled over downtown and seeped into the sprawling outskirts. I’d later learn the air quality that night was especially unsafe and the city (on some days) was among the most polluted in the world.
Despite the haze, 2 people, looking a little drunk, waited at the street light which struggled to shine through the smog. As we drove through downtown, Bojan pointed out the many bakeries, pharmacies and casinos. “Those are the main industries here,” he laughed, “and if you don’t smoke, sit outside,” he said, referring to the cafes. I thought of the soot that hung in the air and wondered which was worse.
We turned down a side street near Republic Square and arrived at my new address.
* * *
Belgrade means ‘White City’ because of the white reflection the Belgrade Fortress makes on the Danube River below. It’s one of the oldest cities in Europe (with history dating back to 7000BC), and even lays claim to the first coffee shop on the continent (opened in 1622) thanks to the Ottomans. It was fought over in 115 wars, conquered by the Romans, Ottomans, Celts, Goths, Huns, Austro-Hungarians, and rebuilt from rubble 44 times. It was the capital of the surrounding countries for nearly a century during communist Yugoslavia, a position it tried to hang onto with the recent Yugoslav Wars and ongoing fight for Kosovo.
Today, China owns the iron factory and Huawei is a prominent building in downtown, thanks to capitalism and globalization. The government is rated as a flawed democracy (by the Economic Intelligence Unit) and hardship hangs in the air with economic struggle and corruption. The people here have been through a lot.
On a lighter note, the city is also known for its nightlife and savvy internet speed. It’s listed as having the Best Nightlife in the World by Lonely Planet and draws a digital nomad population that thrives on the wifi, a pumping club scene, and the low cost of living.
* * *
My Air BnB owner, Ivy, pretty and tall with dark eyes and long dark hair, met us at the car and took me inside for a tour of the large bohemian-style apartment that I would have for 3 days ($23/night) to myself. Windows overlooked the cobble stone streets of Skadarlija, a neighborhood lined with restaurants, bars and boutiques- a former artists’ enclave.
The following day, the sky and air had cleared and the sun warmed up the cobble stone streets. I walked through the National Museum (“the only place that’s not corrupt in this country,” Bojan had said), mesmerized by the archeological collection from the 7thmillennium BC and the thousands of Roman coins they had on display. I was amazed at the quality (and descriptions in English) of the Late Middle Ages, Byzantine, and Serbian art, and could have spent the rest of the day in there.
When I left the museum, I headed out front to Republic Square. It felt bare and abandoned, closed off to dismantle a Christmas-themed ride. Despite it being February 20th, Christmas market pop-ups were still selling chimney cake and mulled wine, and 3 young girls played ‘Memory’ from Cats on violins. “Christmas lasts a long time here,” one person had told me.
I walked the half mile or so to the Belgrade Fortress, built in 279BC. Having once surrounded the city entirely, the walls of the fortress now rest inside a 160-acre park with fountains and benches overlooking the Danube River. A dry moat has an empty tennis court in it, and a drawbridge is open for public access. At the far end of the park, among crumbling walls and slippery marble stairs, a warning sign states, “WALKING IN THIS AREA YOU RISK YOUR LIFE”.
This was the area I was walking (and I can’t say I hadn’t been warned) when I realized my iPhone was gone, though just moments earlier I had used it to take a photo. Had someone pulled it right out of my purse on the stairs (where I was worried about slipping), or had I somehow dropped it? Hours of search and desperation unfolded (including finding my way back to the Air BnB without a map, searching Find My iPhone online, calling Apple help desk, messaging Ivy), before I accepted the fact that it had been stolen. That’s when I had gotten myself to the police station.
The police used arm signals and broken English to instruct me to find a translator- any passerby would do. And so I waved down the first person I saw. He spoke perfect English and without questioning it, agreed to follow me into the police station and translate for both me and another couple from Turkish Airlines who had also been robbed. He wouldn’t accept a drink or dinner in return, but kindly gave up an hour of his day to help us all. (I’m just sorry I can’t remember his name to thank him properly here.)
Later that evening, stabbing boiled cabbage with a fork in a local restaurant, I recounted my day to Ivy, trying not to breath in the cigarette smoke. She was appalled at my unfortunate experience in Belgrade, but I was growing more and more aware at how lucky I had been up until now. Having traveled to 36 countries in 4 years, I had encountered very little crime- despite traveling through sketchy areas alone: walking at twilight in Cape Town, South Africa, or at night through the Candelaria in downtown Bogota, Colombia… even one afternoon in an area of Buenos Aires typically off-limits even to locals, and the list goes on. I wasn’t seeking danger necessarily, those poor decisions were mostly made out of ignorance. With everything that could have happened over time, being inconvenienced for a few days without a phone seemed minor.
A Tour Through the City
Belgrade got colder on my last day (20℉), but I took the Belgrade Free Walking Tour with a 24-year-old local guide named Irena who was open, vibrant, and a walking encyclopedia. Pieces of history started to snap into place for me, questions I didn’t realize I even had were answered. I could see the locals and their struggle more clearly- through the changing governments, conflicting ideals, and corruption. There were only two of us on the tour and we walked from Republic Square to Saint Sava in the chilled air, with stops along the way including Palace Albania (the city’s original skyscraper at 12 stories), and Hotel Moscow with it’s famous fruit and cream ‘Moscow Cake’. We passed protesters at the City Hall and veterans permanently camped outside the New Palace. We walked by the Nikola Tesla Museum, which I visited later (the Serbs consider him Serbian, though he was born in today’s Croatia), and even used the bathroom in the first McDonalds to be built in a communist country (opened in March, 1988). We ended the 3-hours at the Church of Saint Sava, the most recognized building in the city and the main cathedral of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Astonishingly, it has 130,000sq ft of gold mosaics, but my favorite part of the church was the pianist who played Bach out front, flooding the walkways with a lighter mood. I gave Irena a tip equivalent to US$7, the other person didn’t give anything, and as I watched her walk away, immediately wished I had given more.
I left Belgrade at 6 the following morning and Bojan met me on the cobble stone street. 3 nights was enough. I loved the vacillation between modernity and the communist past, lack of tourists and raw grit, but between the air quality and having my phone stolen, I was ready to shake it off and give the city another chance during warmer weather. As an about-face, I was headed to Montenegro (off-season but still touristy), just a $50 flight to the coast, where sunshine and warmer temperatures awaited, and where no one would question why I had come…