In the first week of September 2018 we flew to Belgrade.
The Serbian capital was to be the first stop on a three-country trip around the Balkans. The plan would involve travelling on the famously scenic Belgrade-Bar railway line, staying a few days on the Montenegrin coast and then heading over to Bosnia. In Bosnia we would make another scenic railway journey from Mostar to Sarajevo before finally flying back to London.
This was my third trip to Serbia; in early 2007 I had driven over the Hungarian border to visit Novi Sad and then later the same year I had flown to Belgrade itself. However, both of those trips had been for business and, apart from hotels, restaurants and the inside of exhibition halls, I hadn’t really seen much.
We arrived in Belgrade early on a Saturday afternoon. As we came out of the arrivals hall the heat immediately hit us. It was around 30 degrees and, apart from a little bit of drizzle in Sarajevo, the weather would remain very hot and sunny for the whole trip. The weather was the first topic of conversation with our taxi driver, but we quickly moved on to my favourite subject with taxi drivers everywhere; the state of the local economy.
Our driver was relatively optimistic for the future and he told us that Serbia hadn’t been doing too bad recently. He mentioned that a lot of Chinese and Arab money had been flowing into the country recently and, along with Russian money, these foreign investments were definitely helping. It seems that they are getting a much higher profile than (the substantially much larger) investments from EU countries. If our taxi driver’s opinion was anything to go by, it may be that the Serbian desire to join the EU itself could be on the wane too as they turn to these other countries to help out.
We would be spending two nights in Belgrade before heading out on the Monday morning by train. I had chosen the Hotel Moscow for our stay. It was opened in 1908 and has an obvious Art Nouveau / Vienna Secessionist style to the exterior.
Inside, its many tiled murals and decorations look a little faded but recall the time when the hotel was the premier place to stay in the city. Former guests include Trotsky, Hitchcock, Edison and Einstein.
The hotel features an excellent café with a pavement section overlooking Terajize; one of the city’s main streets. We spent a while at an outside table drinking coffee and sampling the signature Moscow Slice Cake.
This confectionery was invented not, as I had supposed, in the early period of the hotel’s history, but during the communist era of the 1970s. Communist in origin or not, it was certainly quite delicious.
After the coffee and cake we got stuck into the city. We headed up the pedestrian-only Knez Milhailova. The city centre was full of Saturday shoppers and it looked every bit as prosperous as our taxi driver had claimed. Although Serbia uses virtually the same language as Croatia, it uses the Cyrillic writing system and so the signs and the general streetscapes look slightly different than Zagreb and inevitably more like Moscow.
Eventually we came to the Kelemagdan Citadel and we climbed up through a park and past a variety of museums to the strategic vantage point overlooking the Sava and Danube Rivers.
Looking at the meeting point of these two rivers, it was easy to see the reason why the citadel and the city had been built in the first place.
We made a loop and returned towards the hotel along the shoreline of the river. Eventually we came to the main Belgrade railway station. We were two months too late! The station, opened in 1884, had finally closed to all traffic in July 2018. Trains, including the one we had come to the city to catch, had now been diverted elsewhere.
This had all been done in aid of the new Belgrade Waterfront development. The plan involves using the land occupied by the railway tracks for a massive complex of new skyscrapers. The project, which uses some of the UAE money mentioned by our taxi driver, is very controversial and there have been several demonstrations against it.
The station building, thankfully, will be retained and turned into a museum of Serbian history. Nothing much was happening yet and, although it looked empty, the station was essentially still intact. The old café was still operating and even the booking office still had a window selling tickets for journeys starting at other stations.
It was all very sad and one only hopes that the new waterfront project really is a success and it benefits all the citizens of Belgrade in a way that many of them don’t yet think it will. As we were leaving the area, I noticed there was a steam locomotive on display outside. It looked splendid in a beautiful blue livery.
Food and Drink
In the evening we went to the touristy Skadarska bohemian quarter and found a restaurant for a Serbian grilled meat feast. The meat came with Kajmak, a kind of clotted cream, and was plentiful and delicious.
During our stay in Belgrade we also enjoyed delicious burek pastries, fresh salads topped with white cheese and more wonderful cevapcici sausages served with bread and raw onion, just the way we had enjoyed them the year before in Zagreb.
After dinner we wandered through the busy streets of the capital. It was Saturday night and the place was certainly alive with people enjoying themselves. Belgrade has a young energetic vibe and you can easily feel it walking around the streets.
There is a gritty feel to the city too. Many of the older concrete buildings look a little sinister covered in graffiti and there is also a contrast between the grey communist-style buildings and the colourful western advertisements that now cover many of them. Belgrade is not the prettiest capital in Europe, but I think it has its own beauty. I must admit I do like the place a lot.
On Sunday we went in search of culture. We visited a couple of the larger Orthodox churches including the second largest one in Europe: Saint Sava.
Saint Sava is certainly impressive from the outside, but it is not really finished on the inside. Only the crypt was open for a visit.
Saint Sava was only started in 1935 and construction continues to this day. A lot of Russian companies are contributing to the cost of the building’s eventual completion and there was a big list of them in the entrance hall.
We also visited the Tesla museum. It is housed in the former residence of the famous inventor and is open by guided tour.
The tour started with a film on the life of the man who emigrated from Serbia to the USA and then pioneered developments in alternating current and radio technology.
The story continued with live demonstrations of several of his inventions including a Tesla coil, a radio controlled boat and his most famous achievement: an AC electric motor.
Museum of Yugoslavia
By far the most impressive museum in Belgrade was the Museum of Yugoslavia. It was located just outside the city centre in a pleasant wooded setting. There was a statue of President Tito at the entrance and people were lining up to take their photographs in front of it.
The visit began with the “Hall of Flowers”; a bright airy glass building which contains the grave of Tito and houses a number of artifacts commemorating the man himself.
A large part of the building is actually given over to displaying the batons that were carried in relays around Yugoslavia and then presented to the leader, often on his birthdays. A collection of hundreds of batons fills one of the rooms together with maps showing exactly where they were carried.
Another part of the building commemorates Tito’s famous personal train: the Blue Train. There are models of the train and photographs of Tito and his wife on board.
Pride of place was given to a photograph of Queen Elizabeth visiting Yugoslavia in 1972 and travelling on the train.
The train is still kept for special runs and it is still housed near the exclusive station in the Belgrade suburbs where Tito used to board it: Topcider. I recalled that we had already seen one of the blue steam locomotives that used to haul it on display outside Belgrade station.
The museum then continued in a different building. The focus was on the story of how Yugoslavia, first as a kingdom after the First World War and then as a republic after the Second World War, was formed. It was all told using a fascinating series of models, posters and objects.
The story culminated with Tito’s Yugoslavia and the display cabinets were full of consumer products and posters showing the industrial achievements of the 1960s and 1970s.
There was also a special mention of the Belgrade-Bar railway line on which we were due to travel the next day. The line was conceived as a political project by Tito himself and only finally opened in 1976 just a few years before his death.
The museum ended, inevitably, with displays on the break-up of the country after Tito’s death.
On the way back from the museum we walked past the new central station that has now replaced the old terminus. It is far from the city centre, it is anything but central, and it is not actually even finished. The platforms have been completed but the station is still devoid of any facilities and the roof is still a mass of unfinished concrete posts.
Back at the hotel we had a drink on the terrace, sampling the local Jelen beer, before I went off for a meeting with Mr Petrovic. I had organised, via a website, for a Mr Petrovic to buy my train ticket for me. He had e-mailed me to tell me he had done so and had agreed to meet me at 8pm in the lobby of the Moscow Hotel to swap money for tickets.
After exchanging a few very strange looks with a young man dressed in a suit, I finally spied an older man dressed in shorts who then quickly introduced himself as Petrovic He checked my ID documents, took my cash and then handed over the tickets.
He stressed that our journey to the Montenegrin coast would obviously not be starting at the old central station but he told me it would not be leaving from the new one either. Instead, we would be boarding one of just two trains a day that, since July, now originated from Tito’s old personal station that we had seen in the Yugoslavian museum display on the Blue Train.
Just like Tito himself used to do, we would be setting off from Topcider.