Sometimes the guide books (and fellow former Yugoslavians) get it wrong.
So we wheeled our suitcases through traffic and across tram tracks into the station, a dreary structure somewhat neglected after the end of “Happy Times” (Socialism, as we would learn later) in need of a little love. I had read to be mindful of “taxi sharks” outside the station who relentlessly pester you for their business, and as if on cue, a scruffy man in faded khakis and a tank top appeared as we were carrying our suitcases up the stairs and into the station. (Thank goodness we’ve been able to drink the tap water throughout this trip; a sip from a local fountain is refreshing after navigating luggage through stations and hotels without lifts.) He was not a shark at all, more like a friendly dolphin; he helped us find a working Bankomat before driving us to our hotel for a mere 1.000 Dinars (~10USD).
The Hotel Balkan was once the hotel for guests traveling on the Orient Express; looking past the updates and modernization one could still imagine the romance of travel throughout the hotel. Ours was a pleasant room with a true balcony overlooking the street.
Both our bicycle tour guide in Zagreb and our host in Sarajevo informed us that Belgrade was more like Russia than the US, and in particular, eschewed all things Western (especially all things American). With that preface, our curiosities were piqued about the city and we were eager to begin myth-busting.
Our check-in was easy peasy, and before long we rounded the corner onto the pedestrian shopping area and into a small restaurant serving a varied menu, settling in for a good lunch of Italian pasta carbonara and Bulgarian Shopska salad. Shopska salad is one of a half dozen recipes remaining from Bulgarian Happy Times; it was a recipe developed in the 1950s as a way to impress and encourage foreign visitors to the country. Over time it developed slight regional differences, but the basic character cast of cucumbers, tomatoes, onion and sirene cheese must be included. I enjoyed it on my first visit to Sofia last fall and was excited to see it on the menus in both Sarajevo and Belgrade.
Belgrade was the capital of the former Yugoslavia and Serbia seems to be working hard to bring life to the faded glamour. The older architecture forced us to walk and look up at the same time; this particular Happy Times structure is one of the few not damaged by the war and looked regal against the afternoon sky, as well.
The pedestrian area was alive with people enjoying some sort of children’s festival well into Saturday evening, and again on Sunday. (Note to Vienna: Imagine! A pedestrian area buzzing with people, and shops and restaurants open for business on Saturday night as well as Sunday!) Anna Grace and I commented on how nice it would be if the former Imperial city we call home would loosen its stuffy collar once in a while and allow stores and restaurants to open on Sundays.
About that dislike for all things Western? We spied KFC, McDonalds (we had been told there were no McDonalds in Serbia), Sephora, Zara, Benetton, and Gap. Good grief, Vienna does not even have a Sephora.
We took in a new exhibit on the “Happy Times: Yugoslavia from 1950-1990.” These are the shoes worn by the “typical working woman” of Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 1960s. Another clothing exhibit featured Chanel suits as “evening attire.” Something tells me that the typical working woman of Yugoslavia was not wearing Chanel suits in the evening.
Yugoslavia’s answer to Converse All-Stars during the Happy Times.
“The Father of All Passports.” Yugoslavia was proud that its citizens could travel everywhere except Greece and Albania without a Visa, unlike Americans and Russians. (This passport was also very popular on the black market.)
A Yugoslavian Airlines travel poster for Vienna. (There were no travel posters shown for America and Russia).
Supposedly Yugoslavia eschewed Western products, but its children loved Mickey Mouse ViewMaster slides. I leave that for you to parse.
In Republic Square some smelly hippie-types were calling for an end to cultural racism. Although there was a good deal of English spoken, we never did quite understand their concerns, or perhaps I am culturally racist for referring to them as “smelly hippie-types.”
Enough English was spoken throughout our trip that we could at least muddle through if needed, but we had the most fun with the Cyrillic language in Belgrade! Anna Grace thought of the alphabet as a code to be deconstructed.
The Euro is strong against the Serbian Dinar; that, combined with inexpensive costs overall inspired us order room service dinner (although I did have to calculate the exchange rate a couple of times because it just didn’t seem like I was spending enough for room service!) Anna Grace ordered a Margherita pizza, and, like the ones we had seen at the street vendors, the pizza is supposed to be topped with cheese, ketchup, and olives. Quite a taste combination, but we went with “only cheese.” When the kitchen staff brought our order to our room they asked if we were Russian because, apparently, only the Russians order cheese pizza without ketchup and olives. Who would have thought? We ate our Russian pizza while lightning danced across the Sava outside our window; and with that, our exciting arrival day in the “White City” came to an end.
Belgrade, Part II, wherein Anna Grace is schooled in urban “Apple Picking” is coming up…