Archive for the ‘Serbia’ Category


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.


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Monday, 12 July 2010

I have been travelling for so long mainly in the EU Schengen Visa area, I had forgotten about cross-border passport checks. The first one, between Poland and Ukraine, was pretty frustrating, taking 4 hours between about 1am and 5am. The next one, between Hungary and Croatia was comparatively straightforward, maybe only one hour’s delay. The latest between Hungary and Serbia was similarly unproblematic. It took about half an hour for Hungarian immigration officials to check everyone on the train at the last stop before Serbia (Kelebia) and about the same for the Serbian officials at the first stop over the border (Subotica, where I just wanted to get off and find my accommodation). The Serbian police guy looked at my passport and in a stern voice announced: “Norman John Carson – mafia“. I managed a weak smile and a half-hearted ha-ha at his little “joke”.

Subotica is in the region called Vojvodina which was in Hungary before WW1. It still has a large ethnic Hungarian, Hungarian speaking population. Recently Serbia allowed a Hungarian government official to make a tour of the area, as part of the Hungarian government’s efforts to support and maintain contact with culturally Magyar populations. In my view this was good, and not as paranoid as the attitude taken by Slovakia which banned a similar visit on its territory. Many of the nations surrounding Hungary (Romania is another) are a little suspicious and fearful about their large ethnic Hungarian populations having divided loyalties. Hungary has recently proposed giving ethnic Magyars Hungarian citizenship, which has added to the tension. Slovakia has similarly exacerbated tensions by enacting a language law, emphasising the pre-eminence of Slovak over other languages (including Magyar).

This multi-cultural stew is evident in Subotica, with signs and street talk in both Serbian and Magyar.

Exiting the train station at Subotica (coming from Budapest) in the late afternoon I went in search of my lodgings for the (single) night. I wasn’t too surprised that I had trouble finding it. It’s name, after all, was the “Incognito Hostel”…

Subotica is not big enough to rate a map in the Eastern Europe LP guidebook. There was a Googlemap I found on a website but very sketchy and actually misleading. I walked across the park next to the station and up the pedestrian street (Korzo) to the Town Hall on the main sqaure (Republika Trg) to get my bearings. My hostel was supposed to be only 300m from the Town Hall. I couldn’t find it so decided to have a bite to eat. The place was called “Green Food”. I don’t know why, the food did not seem particularly green (in either the good way or the bad way). I had cevapci (the Balkan sausage) with Srpska salata (Serbian salad) and my first Serbian beer (Jelen, with a picture of a stag with antlers on the label). It is a good straightforward Pilsner, very thirst quenching in this hot weather. The temperature is about 33 deg by 9.30am currently. Not surprising since we are now deep into summer and Belgrade will be the furthest south in Europe I have been on the trip.

In a better mood, I decided to go back to the station and get a taxi (an unusual necessity since I have been travelling light). The taxi driver didn’t recognise the street address but we drove to a shop near where he thought it was, and a customer overheard and offered to walk me there, since she lived in the same street. I paid the cab fare and followed after her. It was only 2 minutes away. I marched in the door and up the stairs but there was no-one around, so I went back to the shop and the shopkeeper very kindly phoned for me. I paid her the money for a local call or a little more.For some reason my mobile phone didn’t work at all in Serbia (no connection to a local carrier) unlike every other country I have visited. I went back to the hostel and a short time later two guys showed up and checked me in. I had forgotten, but this time I had booked a “private room” for 35 euros which is the same price I have paid for practically every other single room on the entire trip (about a$50). Dorm beds have averaged about a quarter of this, say 10 euros. Which makes sense, because the room I had booked was actually a 4-bed dorm (all separate, on the floor, not bunks), en-suite toilet and shower.

Sorry to inflict on you that long and boring story, but there is a point to it. The point (I think) is this. If you are going to be an independent traveller, there will inevitably be some logistics hiccups. But they are always solvable if you stay cool, calm and flexible. That’s been my experience anyway.

Most places I have visited have contributed at least one memorable moment. In Yarumche in the Ukraine it was the sighting of my first stork’s nest and stork. In Subotica it was watching the World Cup final (Netherlands vs Spain) at an outdoor bar on the Korzo. I decided to join the local guy sitting next to me in supporting Spain. High fives all round and shouts of “Viva L’Espagna” when they scored the decisive goal deep into extra time. It was the first time Spain have won it (Netherlands have never won it either).

Some pics of Subotica:


Thought for the day:

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinions than our own…

Marcus Aurelius — Meditations, Book 12/4.

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