By Karlie Marrazzo
One of my favourite things to do in Europe is take the train, no matter how long or short the journey. Book me onto an 8-hour flight and my mind fills with anxiety, but a train ride of the same length fills me with excitement; the satisfaction of slowly passing through countryside, crossing borders the old fashioned way, and staying firmly on the ground. The train from Budapest bound for Belgrade was nearly empty for the entire trip. We stopped at the Hungarian border, had our passports stamped, moved on for a few short minutes, and stopped again on the Serbian side of the border in Subotica. The border police seemed a little more tired, a little more weary, their faces a little more lined. Moments after we pulled into the station, the sky grew dark and exploded with rain. I grasped the deliciousness of the symbolism in that moment.
The train pulled into the station in the dark with a cold rain still falling. We flagged a taxi to take us to our apartment 2km away. As to be expected by this point in our travels, the taxi driver feigned being lost even though he had a GPS and we had a map, but we didn’t fall for it this time. It was a Saturday night, but we were too tired to get out and take advantage of Belgrade’s famous nightlife.
I still felt sick the next morning, but didn’t want to waste time laying around for too long. Dave and I walked around the centre of town and to the nearby Kalemegdan Park, an urban green space that contains Belgrade Fortress, the current structure dating from the year 535. We relaxed on benches, watching families and couples strolling by. We saw medieval gates and towers and old tanks and canons and dinosaurs, and got an excellent view of the confluence of the mighty Danube and Sava rivers.
Old town Belgrade looked exactly liked I expected it to, yet not at all. Belgrade has a reputation for being ugly and grey, downtrodden and worse for wear. While it was quite grey, with paint fading and facades crumbling, I found an elegant beauty in it. I could see the former grandeur patiently waiting, waiting for a better time so it could show itself once again. The architecture is no less interesting than any other European city, and in fact may be more so due to the mix of European, Art Deco, Communist and Turkish styles.
The following morning took us across the river to Zemun, a historically significant area that, until 1934, was a town of its own. It was another gloomy, grey day. Although Zemun is apparently quite the tourist draw, and we were there late in the morning, it was a ghost town; no tourists or locals save for a few road workers. The buildings were low and the cobblestone streets were crumbling. Stray cats on cars stopped to say hello and flower boxes brightened up windowsills. We hiked up to Gardoš Tower for a view back over both rivers while shooing away a big, hungry stray dog. He wasn’t the only one that was hungry. None of the cute little restaurants were open for some inexplicable reason, so we committed the traveler’s crime of eating fast food. We were almost out of toilet paper at our self-catering apartment, so I swiped some from the bathroom there. I would never ever steal, but something about stealing from one of the biggest corporations in the world while in the former capital of communist Yugoslavia made me feel like a lukewarm badass.
Next stop: Novi Beograd. We didn’t know exactly how to get there, but knew where it was on the map and which bus went in that general direction, so we blindly jumped on one and hoped for the best. It was standing room only and everybody else was a local. There is no tourist map or helpful website to guide people through Novi Beograd because it is not a tourist attraction. It is a remnant of decades of communist rule and a functioning home to hundreds of thousands of people. We walked along wide, busy roads, past concrete building after soulless, drab grey building.
We did have one destination in mind: the Western City Gate. After we turned off the main road we walked through a parking lot with trees on either side and surrounded by tall grey apartment blocks covered in graffiti – this was Block 33. I felt conflicting emotions as I took pictures of these ugly buildings – curiosity and an interest in a part of history and it’s resulting architecture that is unique in only a few parts of the world, and guilt. Guilt because, no matter how ugly those buildings may look to someone from the outside, thousands of people call them home, have called them home for a very long time, and may continue to call them home for the rest of their lives. I snapped a few pictures, craning my neck upwards and trying to get around all of the trees. I walked up the crumbling steps to the abandoned plaza at the foot of the building, taking in the worn sign for an Italian restaurant, a tiny salon with the door open a crack, and painted murals of smiling suns on the ceiling. Afterwards we didn’t really know where else to go, so we began an extremely long walk to find a bus stop that would get us back to the old town.
Through a friend of a friend back home, we were connected with Bojana, her cousin. We communicated back and forth and she had been incredibly helpful during our planning. We met at Republic Square and proceeded to have our own private tour of the old town, ducking down side streets and learning historical tidbits that we never would have had we been on our own. After more than an hour, we settled into oversized outdoor chairs at the Hotel Moscow for tea and time to really talk. Even though we only spent a few hours together on two occasions, I drew huge inspiration from Bojana. Only a couple of years younger than myself, with the biggest eyeballs I’ve seen and a smile to match, she has energy worth envying. Along with her regular job, she leads Glas Ne Žice, the first Serbian a capaella band, takes Aikido lessons, yoga, works out and still manages to spend time with her friends. I often find myself dragging and, while I still have an active life, I sometimes have to force myself to stick to my commitments and do things for myself. It was a great pleasure to meet her and really underlines one of the true pleasures of traveling; simply meeting new people and learning from them.
My husband Dave is a major car nut (check out his automotive blog TravelDriveRace), so anytime we travel we usually end up at a car museum, racetrack or supercar factory. While Serbia is not known for racing legends, but basic Yugos and Zastavas, Dave still managed to find a little auto museum in Belgrade. We started off our last full day by spending less than an hour at Automobile Museum Belgrade, a converted 1920s Russian-style garage, before spending the afternoon walking through Serbia’s Communist past.
Click here for Part 2: Walking through Belgrade’s Communist past.
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