Belgrade Part 1: Touristy To Dos

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You probably think I should do more travel writing because I do a lot of traveling and writing.  The problem is that I’m traveling for archaeological research and conferences—not for touristic foux du fafa.

It’s work, not pleasure.  Sure, there are pleasurable moments—like when you pee in a toilet with a seat and toilet paper, or when you think you hear a rocket siren, but it’s actually just an alarm clock.  They’re just not the kind of moments that fit the travel section of The Times.

However, recently I spent a week in Belgrade and this is a city that you should visit.  Go while it’s cheap.  Go while you’re young.  Go while your body will still tolerate coffee and cigarettes all day, drinking and dancing all night.

Here I provide my perspective on Belgrade.  And because I know that you don’t like to read more than 1200 words in one go, I will divide my guide into three parts: Touristy To Dos, Food & Drink, and The Cool Stuff.

Touristy To Dos

The center-city of Belgrade is on a hill.  The bus station is at the bottom of the hill in the seedy area.  Get off the bus, disregard the prostitutes, and walk up the hill.

Good start!

Eventually you will come to the Knez Mihailova, a pedestrian boulevard full of cosmopolitan shops and indistinguishable sidewalk cafés.  Lollygagging tourists cause congestion as they chomp on ice cream cones and flagrantly consult guidebooks.  The Knez is safe and clean, with stores you know (Zara, Lacoste) and coffee shops modeled after coffee shops you know (Coffee Dream = Serbian Starbucks).  It is mainstream, middle class glamorous, like the “nice mall” in your suburban hometown—the one with the California Pizza Kitchen.

Very specific, critical recommendation: about one block off the Knez is a posh, insanely delicious gelato shop, called Moritz Eis (on Vuka Karadžića 9).  Pretty women dressed in white serve homemade, all-natural gelato, including sublime flavors like spiced chocolate and sugarplum.  To reiterate: it is insanely delicious, rivaling the best gelato in Italy (although I’ve never been to Italy so I have no grounds for this claim).

The Knez leads you to Kalemegdan, Belgrade’s ancient fortress.  Perched above the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, it’s vantage was once strategic and is now aesthetic.  The 18th century fortification walls enclose a sleepy, stroll-able park, with knickknack vendors, carnival rides, and a military museum.  Rumpled old men play chess and I wish I could photograph them without being obnoxious.  They’re probably photographed twenty times a day.  The park is equal parts tourists, equal parts locals, and thoroughly nice.

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caption: View of the Sava and Danube rivers from Kalemegdan.

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caption: proof of carnival rides in Kalemegdan.

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caption: outside the military museum there are tanks and stuff

Kalemegdan also contains the beloved and infamous Belgrade zoo.  Founded in the 30s, it is one of the oldest zoos in Europe and feels like it.  The zoo is unsettlingly old fashioned—meaning the animal pens are small, stark, and of dubious durability.  The little animals with short life spans feverously try to escape, while the long-lived ones look surrendered, vegetative (with the exception of the meerkats, who are animated, cheery critters regardless of their conditions).  It’s sad and apparently why the zoo is not accredited by the important international zoo associations.

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See–small ones attempt escape,

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large ones resign,

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…and meerkats are just swell.  Hi guys!

However, I have to admit that Belgrade zoo is super cool because you can get so close to 2000-some animals—so close that it would immediately cause deaths and lawsuits in America.  But just how Serbs can smoke two packs of cigarettes a day without getting cancer, Serb children can stick their hands into the albino tiger cage without loosing a pinky.

Except for that time in 2007 when a naked corpse was found in the bear cage.  Here’s my favorite news brief about it:

“A 23-year old Serb was found dead and half-eaten in the bear cage of Belgrade Zoo at the weekend during the annual beer festival.  The man was found naked, with his clothes lying intact inside the cage. Two adult bears, Masha and Misha, had dragged the body to their feeding corner and reacted angrily when keepers tried to recover it.

‘There’s a good chance he was drunk or drugged. Only an idiot would jump into the bear cage,’ zoo director Vuk Bojovic told Reuters” (Nude Man Dead in Bear Cage).

The quoted zoo director Vuk Bojović is an enigmatic figure who has owned the zoo since time immemorial (or specifically, 1986).  His first name, Vuk, literally means wolf, and his house literally is in the zoo—on an escarpment between the giraffes and the mountain goats.  He has a legendary “way” with animals, but no credentials or formal training in zoology; by profession he is a sculptor.  Vuk’s children are celebrities from notoriety, like the Hiltons, but Serbian and nefarious.  His son Luka is a powerful crime boss, currently being held in Spain for alleged you name it—murder, kidnapping, arms dealing, drug trafficking, etc.  I would write a piece about Vuk and the zoo for The New Yorker if I had the time (and if they didn’t reject everything I submit when I’m tipsy and confident).

Returning to the Knez, at the opposite end you’ll find Trg Republike, or Republic Square.  There is a massive statue of some prince on a horse.  The prince on the horse is historically inconsequential, but the horse statue is important because it’s the most popular meeting spot in Belgrade.  You’ll see dozens of anxious people checking their texts, pouting, pacing, waiting for friends.  It’s good people watching—girls in all sorts of get ups!

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caption: Look at that get up!  That girl is wearing a white sports bra and cheetah print pants, as she waits for someone at the horse.

Follow the hill down slope and you’ll come to Skadarska Street.  It is crammed with Balkan-Bohemian shops and restaurants that spill tourist-friendly jubilee onto the street.  The ground is so cobbley and slicked from time that it feels more like a river bed than urban pavement.  Gas lanterns cast hazy light that softens and blurs the scene, while folk melodies from scattered musicians blend into lively cacophony.  The proprietors make every effort to revive an enchanted past on Skadarska Street, but it feels more like Disney’s Epcot than actual yesteryear.  You can have a dreamy time there; you just need to suppress cynicism and tourist aversion to join the fun.

Those are the major attractions in Belgrade, plus a few churches and monumental buildings.  The museums potentially worth seeing are indefinitely closed for renovation (see Art gathers dust as Serbian museums kept shut), and the others are underwhelming.   That’s fine because the real appeal of Belgrade lies in the cafes, bars, and clubs…

To be continued.  Word count 1139.

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