Monday, 20 February 2012

Belgrade - a bit like home

Belgrade was strangely familiar. People shuffled down the pedestrianised high street on a cold grey day; drizzle gently falling. There were few shops of any interest. The Serbians were pale faced, gaunt and not particularly stylish. It could have been any northern British city.

We arrived in the morning on the train from Istanbul and 12 hours late. We had been given a tip off of a good hostel from a fellow traveller in Yerevan so, with Helen and Jamie (our backpacker stalkers since Armenia), we went to find it. After a bit of a hike we disturb two sleepy hostel staff who grudgingly got up to find us rooms. We moved into a room so tiny that only two people could use the floor space at any one time. The morning got worse when the only place which was open for breakfast at 8 am was a McDonald's - we were beyond caring.

After that things got better. We found that one thing Belgrade does well is coffee and cake. There are charming little bars selling coffee during the day and beer at night. Bakeries were on every corner selling exquisite pastries. That evening we joined Helen and Jamie for dinner and bumped into Australian Rob (we last met in Yerevan) who was on a couchsurfing date with a Serbian, Alma. At dinner James tried to impress everyone by ordering sheep's white kidneys (testicles) but unfortunately they didn't have any. After dinner we joined Rob and Alma for a beer before going to a fantastic Jazz Club, a tiny place with some old guys strumming away and a golden retriever and it's owners propping up the bar.

The following day we said goodbye to Helen and Jamie as well as to the overrated hostel. James and I walked back to the train station to a hostel Rob recommended. It was much better and we got a free beer on arrival!!

Exploring the city we noticed that Belgrade has the most obedient pedistrains in the world. No one dared cross the road unless there was a green man. In the middle of the city stand two bombed out high rise buildings. The path of the bomb through the floors can clearly be seen. The building is the Serbian Military of Defence building bombed by NATO in 1999. It has been left, quite deliberately, as a reminder to the Serbian people.

The former Ministry of Defence left in central Belgrade so no one forgets. 

Tito the communist leader of Yugoslavia rose to power after Second World War after leading the Partisans  to victor against Nazi Germany. During the ensuing Cold War Tito went on to established the Non-Alignment movement. He is also the link between Winston Churchill and Fitzroy Maclean - the inspiration for James's Winston Churchill Fellowship Research. After travelling throughout Central Asia as a diplomat, Maclean  joined David Sterling of SAS fame on daring raids in North Africa, but before long he was recalled to London by Churchill who retasked him with the job of parachuting into Yugoslavia to hunt down a man called Tito and act as liason between the Partisans and the British war effort (Maclean's incredible life is documented in the excellent Eastern Approaches).  At the time no one even knew whether Tito existed, some even thought that this personality could be a woman. Maclean found Tito and spent the rest of the war as Churchill's personal envoy between the two leaders. Needless to say Tito's mausoleum was a must see for us. Unfortunately the museum was closed but the House of Flowers, Tito's Mausoleum, was open.

James and Tito

Tito's grave

James had emailed a local Serbian, Viktor Lazic, who he had been given contact details for when in Georgia. Viktor had made international headlines in September when he had been detained in South Ossetia - for a week. We were intrigued to meet him and he enthusiasticly replied to our email, inviting us to his library(?). Meeting him and his girlfriend, Alex, that evening he showed us around a room in his house which he had converted into a travel library. His family had a long history of collecting books, including his grandmother, who despite not being able to read herself, smuggled partisan literature behind German lines in the Second World War, whilst delivering German newspapers to the occupiers. Viktor still had some of the partisan newsletters that she smuggled through. 

Viktor's story was equally incredible. An experienced overlander, he had driven around most of the former Soviet States in a Lada Niva with only a sex doll for company (he insists the sex doll is purely for security, her silhouette makes it look like there is someone else in the car). In September he was driving in Georgia and wanted to visit South Ossetia. The South Ossentians let he across the Administrative Boundary Line, and then promptly arrested him for spying. He was held in solitary confinement for two days, in horrific conditions, but then was moved to a slightly better cell for another 5 days. The guards were often drunk and high, and always unpredictable. After frantic diplomatic efforts he was released and escorted back into Georgia. Our evening with Viktor and Alex was a fascinating end to our stay in Belgrade.

Viktor, Alex, James and me in Viktor's travel library

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