Belgrade, the Balkan let-down

On paper, Belgrade looked as if it had it all.

The ‘White City’ had been subject to 115 wars, and completely destroyed 44 times in its history. It was a city shaped by its location, on the edge of the great Habsburg and Ottoman empires. It screamed importance, what with being the former capital of Yugoslavia and all. Its people apparently were party animals. And, after Sarajevo, it promised a return to a grand, European-type city full of stately squares, monuments of men on horses and pedestrian shopping strips.

I found Belgrade a big fat let-down.

Don’t get me wrong, there were parts of Belgrade that were quite nice. It’s a very green city, with parks dotting the historic centre and the sprawling Belgrade Fortress commanding brilliant views of the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. The bars are unique and were always full, even on Monday nights. The people were friendly and relaxed. What’s not to love?

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Street art, Belgrade.

I’ve pondered that very question for a while now. Others had raved about the city, yet I just couldn’t see it. I tried, I really did. But I just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for the place.

I think that for me, particularly after finding Sarajevo so foreign and different, Belgrade just looked like Central Europe. Walking around, you could be in any city that had its heydays in the nineteenth century; Budapest, Vienna and Zagreb all came to mind. But Budapest has its Parliament and Buda Castle, Vienna has the Hofburg and Zagreb has its village-like medieval Old Town.

What does Belgrade have? Postcards usually give you a hint, and in Belgrade’s case they usually show off the Belgrade Fortress and Kalemegdan Park. Every walking tour guide I had in the city (I had four different ones) would be bouncing with excitement when we were about to enter its grounds. We would end up spending an hour traipsing around a glorified green expanse.

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View of the Danube from the Belgrade Fortress. Novi Belgrade can be seen in the distance.

There were other must-see sites. The St Sava Cathedral, the largest Orthodox cathedral in the world, is eye-catching on the outside yet plain (and still under construction after 78 years) on the inside. The National Museum’s building, on Republic Square, was covered in scaffolding and apparently has been that way for years. The main shopping street looked like any other.

(I did want to see Tito’s Mausoleum and the famed Nikola Tesla Museum, but they were both closed on Mondays, the day I was always in the city.)

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St Sava Cathedral, Belgrade.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, this girl is from Melbourne, a city lacking a touristy icon, save for a stadium and a train station. Who is she to judge? That’s what made me try harder with Belgrade. I wanted to get under its skin, the way you have to do with Melbourne. But aside from a bit of kafana action (local pubs with traditional music) and everyone’s love for famous local Novak Djokovic, I was left wanting.

But there was something else, as well. I’m an historian, yet I find Serbian history a snooze-fest. Dusan the Mighty? The Battle of Kosovo? Karadjordje Petrovic? It’s just your general war-hero-invader-rebellion-repeat type national narrative. I wanted to hear about the interesting stuff. I wanted to hear about Tito and his partisans during World War II, the fall of the royal family and the rise and fall of Yugoslavia. I wanted to hear about the NATO bombing of the city in 1999. Most of all, I wanted to hear a Serbian’s take on it all.

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All sorts of goodies in the Belgrade Fortress.

But nobody wanted to talk about it. The best we got was one guide giving a fleeting reference to the demonstrations outside Serbia’s National Assembly in 2000, where half a million Serbian citizens turned up and ended up forcing the then-President Slobodan Milosevic from office and into the arms of the International Criminal Court. Nothing else. No mention of Kosovo, either (not that I expected it, really). Everyone ignored the elephant in the room.

serbian parliament Belgrade, the Balkan let down

Serbia’s National Assembly (and formerly Yugoslavia’s too).

I understood – kinda – why I was kept wanting. People don’t want to talk about it. It’s too recent and the country is essentially still trying to work out its place in the twenty-first century. Most people are still trying to piece together what went on (that is, if they want to); after all, their media was essentially still state-controlled just over a decade ago.

Picture this, as a resident of Belgrade. The wars in Yugoslavia haven’t been seen on the streets of your city; they’ve gone on in Bosnia and Croatia. Therefore, you’d be largely reliant on the (state-controlled) media and reports from the Yugoslav army. Then, all of a sudden your city is bombed by what constitutes pretty much the rest of your continent. I’d be confused too.

I’m not trying to justify Serbia’s past actions. I’m just trying to look at both sides of the story, and particularly the story of your regular Joes who were just trying to get on with their lives through the 1990s. That’s what I wanted to hear about.

Some countries put everything out in the open – like Germany – whereas others – like Japan – ignore it. Even closer to home, you have to dig incredibly deep to hear an Australian voluntarily talk about the Stolen Generation or a Dutchman freely mention Indonesia’s independence war. We collectively choose what we want to remember and forget, and that’s very much the case in Belgrade.

I’m willing to give Belgrade another go, perhaps a decade or so down the track. It offers way too much for me to dismiss it after a few quick visits. But at this stage, I want to be wowed. Sarajevo did that beforehand, as did Sofia afterwards. Belgrade’s got the right ingredients – culture, people and nightlife – and now’s the time to get the recipe right.

15 Responses to Belgrade, the Balkan let-down

  1. Adelina November 13, 2013 at 4:12 PM #

    I felt the same way about Belgrade. I just wasn’t all that impressed. It looked like a typical Eastern European country and there wasn’t anything compelling to me. I’m glad I’m not the only one!

    Have you been to Novi Sad? I liked that Serbian city a lot more than Belgrade. It was smaller and prettier.
    Adelina recently posted..The Best Thing I Ate in New York aka I’ll Have What She’s HavingMy Profile

    • Caitlyn November 14, 2013 at 11:31 AM #

      I’m glad I’m not the only one, Adelina! I haven’t been to Novi Sad, but I have seen some photos and it looks lovely, as does the scenery around the Danube throughout the countryside.

  2. Henry | @fotoeins November 13, 2013 at 7:57 PM #

    I wonder if your sense of ambivalence about their history wandered its way into your own impressions. If your first take is for a better understanding of their (recent) history and many are unwilling to talk, that leaves a big hole. Perhaps, the people of Belgrade will need some (more) time before they understand their place in history and their place within the larger European framework. By the way, I love Australia, and I love Melbourne, precisely because it’s not Sydney. (And I love Sydney, because it’s not Melbourne.)
    Henry | @fotoeins recently posted..Kristallnacht: heinous omen of the HolocaustMy Profile

    • Caitlyn November 14, 2013 at 11:35 AM #

      I’m not sure it’s ambivalence, as I’ve been to a number of other places where I’ve had mixed feelings about the country’s history which hasn’t impacted on my experiences. I think it’s simply what you say – give the place a bit more time to get a better understanding of it themselves. It really was like there was a giant elephant in the room that everyone was ignoring. And I’m very glad you’re a fan of Melbourne! :)

  3. Edu November 14, 2013 at 1:54 PM #

    The most exciting Belgrade´s experience is probably go to a Partizan´s basketball match at Pionir Hall! What an atmosphere! :)

    • Caitlyn November 15, 2013 at 12:19 PM #

      I saw the scenes of the recent derby between the two Belgrade football teams, looks nuts!

  4. Tiffany November 29, 2013 at 8:02 AM #

    My plan was originally to travel through Belgrade and Sofia, but then just happened to find a cheap flight from Sarajevo to Istanbul. Now I’m not too sad that I missed Belgrade. But I do regret Sofia. But it is very interesting to hear how different countries handle their history.
    Tiffany recently posted..Is InterRail worth it?My Profile

    • Caitlyn December 1, 2013 at 10:20 AM #

      There’s always next time, hey? Enjoy Istanbul, very jealous!

  5. Daniel December 11, 2013 at 2:05 PM #

    Belgrade is my favourite city in SE Europe.
    You mention the historic sites of cities like Zagreb, Sofia, Budapest and Vienna; these were NAZI allies and were not bombed by the Germans like Belgrade was; much of historic Belgrade has been destroyed.

    As for Kosovo and the Yugoslav wars, most Serbians are aware of the propagandised, main-stream-media (western) version of events as well as the propaganda that the Serbian state controlled media put forth. There are two sides to every story and, I found, that most Serbs were too polite to deliberately engage in a conversation that might run counter to your world view. If the guides you had dealt with had truly spoken their minds about these events you would have verbally bashed them on here anyway.

    Also, you can’t really judge a city based on one Monday spent there. I also live in Melbourne and I am seriously considering moving to Belgrade.

    • Caitlyn December 11, 2013 at 6:46 PM #

      Thanks Daniel. The thing about travel is that it’s completely subjective. You may have liked Belgrade, but I didn’t as much. I wax lyrical about cities like Berlin and Barcelona but some people can’t stand them. And please don’t put words in my mouth – I don’t verbally bash anyone, and I didn’t spend only one Monday there.

      • Daniel December 11, 2013 at 10:51 PM #

        Sorry, I must have misunderstood (regarding the amount of time spent there). And sorry again for insinuating that you had/would verbally bash someone; it was intended to be a generalisation which is unfair. I read some of your other posts and you are not like that at all. All the best.

        • Caitlyn December 11, 2013 at 10:56 PM #

          No worries Daniel. Sounds like you’ve got a real passion for the city :)

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