Tuesday, 13 July 2010
Between Subotica and Belgrade the train passed fields of sunflowers and corn.
Reaching Belgrade, I feel like I am in the Balkans now. Understandably, since this was the demarcation point for centuries, when the Kingdom of Hungary ended just across the Danube River from here. I guess that technically Slovenia and Croatia might be considered “Balkans” (they were both part of Yugoslavia) but they feel much more European. Before WW1 Slovenia was administered by Austria and Croatia by Hungary.
But where are “The Balkans”?. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote an article (“”You may!) in 1999 in the London Review of Books. It includes the following observation about the term “The Balkans”.
Even racism is now reflexive. Consider the Balkans. They are portrayed in the liberal Western media as a vortex of ethnic passion – a multiculturalist dream turned into a nightmare. The standard reaction of a Slovene (I am one myself) is to say: ‘yes, this is how it is in the Balkans, but Slovenia is not part of the Balkans; it is part of Mitteleuropa; the Balkans begin in Croatia or in Bosnia; we Slovenes are the last bulwark of European civilisation against the Balkan madness.’ If you ask, ‘Where do the Balkans begin?’ you will always be told that they begin down there, towards the south-east. For Serbs, they begin in Kosovo or in Bosnia where Serbia is trying to defend civilised Christian Europe against the encroachments of this Other. For the Croats, the Balkans begin in Orthodox, despotic and Byzantine Serbia, against which Croatia safeguards Western democratic values. For many Italians and Austrians, they begin in Slovenia, the Western outpost of the Slavic hordes. For many Germans, Austria is tainted with Balkan corruption and inefficiency; for many Northern Germans, Catholic Bavaria is not free of Balkan contamination. Many arrogant Frenchmen associate Germany with Eastern Balkan brutality – it lacks French finesse. Finally, to some British opponents of the European Union, Continental Europe is a new version of the Turkish Empire with Brussels as the new Istanbul – a voracious despotism threatening British freedom and sovereignty.
Today has been my only full day in Belgrade (or Beograd as it is more usually known in Eastern Europe). Hence I don’t feel I am competent to pass definitive judgment on this city. I need maybe 2-3 days for that :)
Nevertheless I can record some impressions, even though I visited the downtown parts of Belgrade, and mainly the “Old City” at that. First thing I would say (and I know this is a wild generalisation) is that that the age of the average tourist here is much younger and their numbers less than in say, Prague or (extreme example) Venice. Belgrade is the place to go for a much edgier, rougher around the edges, (dare I say “keeping it real”) experience. Someone I met compared Belgrade to Berlin, and I kinda see where they were coming from. Of course my impression is probably skewed by something I should have known about, but was only dimly aware of, the “Exit” music festival in nearby Novi Sad.
This last point relates to another potential logistics “hitch”. I had booked accommodation for two nights at the Royal Hotel. Perfect position, near Student’s Park, the Kalemegdan fortress and the so-called “Bohemian” quarter, Skadarska. However, reception did not know about my booking (which was through www.hostelbookers.com, which I have used a lot on the trip and have been very satisfied with). I knew about a hostel just around the corner, Yellowbed, so I went there but they were booked out. And apparently most other places too, because of the four-day Exit festival. Apparently, it is very popular, one of the largest in Europe. The inaugural festival in 2000 was politically inspired and lasted 100 days!!
I thought I was going senile and had actually forgotten to book, but when the kind folks at Yellowbed allowed me to check my emails I found one with an official reservation confirmation, I took that back to Royal Hotel and they were forced to accept it. That was good because I am sure I could have found somewhere to stay, but somewhere probably comparatively expensive. I have noticed before that hotels have a different rate for “walk-ins” which is up to three times the rate you can get if you book ahead.
Anyway, this experience, and dealing with the hotel reception, gave me the indelible impression of Serbia as “The Land Where Time Has No Meaning”. I don’t want to be unfair, and hotel staff were very friendly, but they seemed completely unfussed about any urgent need to get the situation sorted out. I just let my natural “go with the flow” inclination take over, and had a few “Jelens” at the hotel bar while I waited for them to let me take my bags up to my room. One of the staff even agreed with my slogan (Serbia — The Land Where Time Has No Meaning) and compared his country to Egypt!!
After the situation was resolved and I had a room, it was evening and time to search for a place for a meal. I walked to the nearby area billed as “Bohemian”, quaint narrow cobbled streets etc. Well, I think it was “Bohemian” (meaning edgy and alternative) circa 1900, but nowadays is pretty much a tourist trap (albeit a pleasant one). There was even a signpost pointing to the Bohemian quarters of all the world’s great cities (e.g. Paris – Montmartre). I didn’t notice “Melbourne – Fitzroy”. Or is it Brunswick or Northcote now? I selected the least pretentious place I could find (an Italian trattoria on the edge of the area) and had a nice pasta and glass of Montenegran wine. The food and the wine were very good, and the prices quite reasonable.
As I have said, even in only one day, I detect an energy and atmosphere in Belgrade that is really alluring. I am sure there are real “Bohemian” areas in Belgrade and I would love to come back one day to spend more time here to search them out.
Just a few pics of the downtown streets, Kalemegdan fortress, the Danube River, an Ottoman mosque and Sufi’s tomb, the largest Orthodox church in the world and a building that looks like an earthquake or a bomb has hit it. I don’t know for sure but I suspect it may have been damaged by the NATO bombings in the 1990s. Perhaps they have left it that way to remind people of the infamy of those days (to quote a word America once used about Pearl Harbour). But don’t take my word for it — IANAH (I am not an historian).
In the Military Museum, in the grounds of the Kalemegdan fortress, there were displays dating back hundreds and thousands of years. It included a very small reference to the NATO bombings. Maybe I missed them, but the LP guide says there were pieces of a shot-down Stealth aiircraft and captured KLA (Kosovan Liberation Army) weapons on display. One interesting (to me) item in the museum was the following text along with a display of the document referred to:
“Croatian and Hungarian weapons of the time and a copy of the document of Union of 1102 between Croatia and Hungary”…”After a defeat suffered on the Gvozd Mountain in 1102 Croatia entered into union with Hungary. From that date Croatia was part of Hungary until 1918″. After 1918 it became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and later Yugoslavia, before regaining full independence in 1991.”
As I said, IANAH, and I am only quoting what I read in the museum. I find it amazing, inspiring and puzzling all at the same time how “little” countries manage to disappear and then reemerge after hundreds and hundreds of years. I met a guy in one hostel who took offence when I asked if he was from Spain. No, he said, Catalonia — Barcelona is my city. “The Catalan language is as different from Spanish as Spanish is from French” quoth he. And my friend Chris (whom I first met in Odessa and later caught up with in Olomouc) was, I think, a little put out by a fellow Aussie at the hostel who kept insisting (a little insensitively I thought) that Scotland was not a country and that only the United Kingdom was. Semantics perhaps, but wars have been fought over less.
You have been very patient to read this far, and so you shall be rewarded with photos.
I return to Budapest tomorrow (Wednesday) and stay there until I fly back to Melbourne next Tuesday.