To get to Serbia from Sarajevo by bus, you need to go to the bus terminal in the Serbian section of town. You know you're somewhere different right away, because suddenly all the signs are in Cyrillic. New alphabet! There are a few similarities between Greek and Cyrillic, so I was about a half-shuffle further along than if I didn't know anything at all, but it's different enough to cause significant slack-jawed staring. There was a a chill at the station that didn't have anything to do with the temperature. A slight edge to the people standing around around waiting for the night bus. The atmosphere has a slight zing. Chris and I sat off to the side quietly munching snack sandwiches and speaking in low tones. There were two Australian guys from the hostel with us, and one of them, not wanting to take any Bosnian convertible mark out of the country, annoyed the chain smoking ticket vendor by paying for half of his ticket in KM, and half in euro. He didn't even ask, just dumped down various notes and coins and expected it all to be sorted out and accepted with good cheer. Afterwards he realized his friend had enough KM to have purchased both their tickets without having to spend their precious euro, and was wondering if he could go back and exchange their last twenty KM note for the ten euro note he had handed over. Chris and I both wanted him to, just so we could watch him get yelled at in Serbian. Thankfully, reason prevailed, and he held onto his Bosnian money. I didn't want to be guilty by association.
The bus left at 22:00, and given the circumstances I actually managed a few good naps, my face snuggled up against the cool window and my feet resting on the roasting heater. Even though they turned down the lights, the drivers were playing music all night, pop vocals over insane asylum funhouse music. Maybe they were trying to stay awake. Every couple of hours there was a pit stop (announced over the loudspeaker), which sent half the bus scurrying outside into the cold air to suck down cigarettes. We got to the border around 2:30. Our passports were collected by a border agent, and were returned by one of the drivers. He walked down the aisle asking everyone a question. I don't know what he was asking, but based on replies, I gather he was asking for nationality, so he could more quickly extract the right passport from the stack. Chris and I were each sitting at a window on opposite sides of the aisle, and during the handout both of us were skipped. As soon as it happened the women sitting next to each of us got visibly concerned. The one next to me called something down the aisle to the driver, but didn't get a response. Since I hadn't been tossed off the bus, I wasn't ready to start worrying. Returning down the aisle, our passports were handed back last, and our seat partners both calmed down. Still can't figure out why he skipped us.
It was still dark when we got to Belgrade. I had directions to the hostel, but first needed to figure out what direction the fortress was in. There was a map by the bus arrivals terminal, but since it didn't have any sort of "You are here" indicator, wasn't any help at all. Chris' feet were slightly messed up from a new pair of shoes that didn't want to break in gently, so leaving him to guard our bags, I picked a direction, and walked for a few minutes until I found more helpful signage. Returning to the terminal, we gathered our things and started walking. Our Australian friends were still in tow, but kept stopping every couple of blocks to consult their Lonely Planet map. I couldn't quite figure those two out. I knew they had at least some travel experience under their rucksack waist straps, but lacked some basic smarts and street confidence. Their Lonely Planet guide was so old it still had Yugoslavia on the map. At some point they silently disappeared down another street to find their hostel.
Star Hostel does the right thing and will check you in anytime during the day or night. Chris and I crept through the slumbering dorm to find our beds, for at least a few hours of quality sleep. Turns out another group arrived not long after us, but I never heard them come in.
Based on the atmosphere at Sarajevo's Serbian bus station, I expected Belgrade to be a bit edgy, but it wasn't at all. It's big, busy, full of bookstores, shoestores, large trucks spewing exhaust, all sorts of overhead wires and cabling, and grandiose buildings that look like something bureaucratic may be happening inside. If I unfocused my eyes enough to not read the street and shop signs, I could have been standing on any street in downtown San Francisco. Except Belgrade has way more bakeries, and there's guys selling shoelaces on every street. Why shoelaces? The streets offer endless walking possibilities, each intersection presenting teasing tantilization in multiple directions. On my first day I headed down the main drag from Trg (Square) Republike to Sveti Sava, the world's biggest Orthodox church. Construction began in 1935, and interrupted by war and politics, is being finished today. The interior is a cavern of concrete, with tradesman working on sections here and there, and at least one guy carving marble over to one side. There weren't a whole lot of people inside, less than twenty, and as far as I could tell, I was the only non-observer. Despite the obvious construction, there were a number of icons placed around the interior, and all the other visitors were walking between and kissing each. And when they left, they crossed themselves and kissed the door. A little kiosk inside was selling candles, icons, rosaries, and postcards. I didn't feel right taking any pictures, nor at the Sveti Marko church the following day. A couple of people, both travelers and a local, advised me to attend a service, just to see the ceremony and hear the singing. I generally stay away from religious ceremonies; since I'm not a believer, they make me feel awkward and out of place. However, I was assured more than once that it wouldn't be the case. Unfortunately, I never managed to make it to one in Belgrade, but I'll try to make it to another elsewhere.
Later in the day I found the Nikola Tesla Museum. Loads of his inventions are on display, thankfully explained and demonstrated by a museum guide. At the end of the tour, we were all handed a fluorescent light bulb, what I think was a large Tesla coil was turned on, lots of sparks crackled, and the bulbs lit up.
Day two was more sightseeing - on the way to the Museum of Automobiles I bumped into Gaby, an American staying at the hostel. We bought our tickets in the tiny foyer from two guys watching American car shows and smoking, for what had clearly been several hours. Feeling our way through the haze to the showroom paid off with a display of classy classics and dazzling chrome grills.
After deciding what my next classic car purchase will be:
I took in some antique furniture at the Applied Arts Museum. Then I balanced out all the pretty things I'd seen by visiting the site of two buildings bombed during the 1999 NATO strike. Mangled ruins sitting right up against the sidewalk, they look dangerously on the verge of collapse, like a strong gust of wind could send chunks flying off and into traffic.
In search of traditional Serbian cuisine for dinner, George from the hostel pointed a small gang of us to the basement restaurant of a nearby hotel, telling us that the atmosphere and service would be crap, but the food would be authentic. The service wasn't all that bad, and our assorted plates included several representatives from the animal kingdom. I had smuđ orli, breaded perch. It was sort of fish and chips-ish, but more chewy than crispy. The atmosphere wasn't any crappier than your average business hotel, and only improved when the band hit the stage, or rather, the far end of the room. So engaged in our dishes, we didn't realize it was live music for a couple of numbers, merely assuming that, for some unknown reason, the management had suddenly decided to assault us with new age lounge music. Accordion plus synthesizer! And then a vocalist after the break. We were one of about three parties in the entire place, and were the only ones applauding. I'm not even sure why the band bothered, but I'm glad they did.
I had planned on doing an overnight trip to Niš as my non-capital city visit. There's a tower there that the Turks built and decorated with the skulls of massacred Serbs, back in 1809. I keep missing Europe's more interesting crypts, ossuaries, and skeletal displays, so I was looking forward to finally taking in some quality historic gore. Turns out I missed this one as well. Returning to the hostel in the afternoon, George chased me into the dorm to inform me that the hospitals in Niš were full after an outbreak of hepatitis A. Umm. I did get inoculated before I left home, but decided that willfully traveling to a place that had an infectious disease breakout wasn't the most responsible move. Instead, Gaby and I bussed ourselves out to Novi Sad, first stopping for a couple of hours in Sremski Karlovci. Sremski Karlovci is about ten kilometers before Novi Sad, a small town that features a higher than normal ratio of beautiful historical buildings. We didn't do much other than wander about, so...nothing special to report from either locale. The tourist office in Novi Sad was really happy that Americans were visiting. We got two thumbs up.
If you've got 100 dinars in your pocket, there's a number of things you can pick up in Belgrade. A pair of knee socks or a tin of shoe wax from a street vendor. A museum ticket. Two postcards. A toasted vegetarian sandwich. Or an opera ticket. My interest perked by a theater schedule that Gaby picked up, I thought that catching Verdi's Nabucco would be a peachy way to spent a Friday night in Belgrade. Chris was interested as well, having never been to an opera. When I went to buy our tickets, the guy at the box office was reluctant to sell them to me. Shaking his head, he said, "Very bad seats." I asked him to show me where they were on a seating chart, and he shook his head again. Gesturing with his hands, he showed me. "First tier. Second tier. Third tier. Student seats." Reassuring him that bad seats were acceptable, and that I was only in town for a couple more days, he relented. Turns out our bad seats were approximately as close to the stage as one of the boxes at SF Opera. Yeah, we were in the third tier, but rather than sloping up and away from the orchestra, the tiers rise straight up. The side section of each (except the third) are boxes, and only the seats at the back are comprised of standard rows. All is deep red velvet and gold highlights. We were in a kind of well along the side of the top tier, and could rest our arms and foreheads on the padded rails. So we couldn't see part of the stage. Our seats were so close we could hear the orchestra turning the pages of their scores.
To balance out the opera, Chris and I took in a Partizan Belgrade soccer game the next day. I was hoping for a hooligan scuffle and a bloody nose, but our seats ended up being in a fairly sleepy section off to the side, away from the hooligans. In fact, other than a few rolls of toilet tissue streaming onto the pitch, it was all rather civilized, although had I been paying attention, I probably could have picked up a few Serbian swear words. The brigade of riot police that we saw in the parking lot before the game had no one to tear gas that day. The force included a few riot horses, kitted out with nifty equine goggles. I like how the Serbian riot police clearly don't mind clunking the heads of soccer hooligans, but make sure the horses won't have their eyes injured. I wanted to take a picture, but didn't fancy having the last picture taken by my camera being the business end of a baton.
One the whole, there weren't a whole lot of people attending the game, maybe because it was freezing cold, but the hooligan section was well packed, decorated with hand-painted club flags, and singing the entire way through. They even hummed the triumphal march from Aida, so we got a Verdi booster shot. It wasn't a terribly exciting game until the final ten minutes, but I still had a grand time just being there. I go to sporting events so infrequently that I can't even remember the last time I went to one, but I liked how the Belgrade stadium was completely devoid of the glitz, commercialism, and big money that infects American sport. Our tickets for decent seats cost only 200 dinars each, and the inside of the stadium didn't look a whole lot different from what I imagine the inside a prison looks like. Bare concrete with barred gates. Uncomfortable plastic seats. The toilet was perhaps the dreariest toilet I've encountered so far, including in Turkey, and the only refreshments in sight was tea sold in plastic cups by a woman walking around the stands. The only thing that mattered here was the game.
Other guests at the hostel included Harry, a British graduate student who was in town conducting interviews with political party members (or was it diplomats?) for his dissertation, and Laure and Alexandra, two French girls who had both visited Belgrade previously. They advised Harry to go talk to guy who runs a little gift shop in the Kalemegdan, Belgrade's old fortress. He sounded sort of interesting, so I wandered over to pick up a couple of postcards and see if I could spark any conversation. Warned that he was a little hard to get away from once he got talking, I was prepared to extricate myself with the excuse of meeting friends. I picked out a couple of cards, which seemed vintage but may have been prematurely aged by the amount of smoke in the tiny shop. He took a look at one of them and in perfect, raspy English, proceeded to give me a history lesson on the person depicted — Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, a linguist who helped reform and standardize the Serbian language. He offered advice on what to see in town, along with some city history, and gave me his card, asking me to send him a postcard when I got home. I noticed he's a licensed tour guide. So if you go to Belgrade, don't bother with a guidebook and instead seek out the smoky souvenir shop in the fortress.