Days: 484-488 (22 October 2015 – 26 October 2015)
Total distance travelled: 128,603.3 kilometres (79,877.8 miles)
As a child, the vision I’d created of the world on the other side of the ‘Iron Curtain’ (the Soviet Union, it’s satellite states and Tito’s Yugoslavia) was a grim place.
All grey shades and cold concrete.
This imagination of mine, it finally took a solid form, and that form appeared on a dull, overcast afternoon, as quite late in the day we arrived in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
We were deposited at the bus station, which happened to be extremely close to the railway station, yet despite these seemingly notable landmarks, we didn’t really have a clue where we were in relation to where we wanted to be (we’d booked a hostel in advance).
Eventually our bearings were gained, and we were soon cursing the limitations of Google maps, as our short, few kilometre walk, was for the most part a difficult uphill affair.
Our hostel was eventually found, located within an old, somewhat crumbly apartment block that belonged firmly within those childhood visions I alluded to earlier and the staff, whilst welcoming obviously did nothing to enforce the non smoking rules (there were signs all over the walls), but rather openly flaunted them themselves… well, more correctly himself, as there was only one.
Still, he gave us tip for where we could find a bite and that’s where we were soon wandering once the sun set, eager as we were for a spot of dinner.
Supposedly one of the more bohemian areas of the city, the area did appear to be a little nicer than anywhere else we’d already seen with an old cobbled street and plenty of dining options.
Perhaps it was the early hour, or perhaps the time of year, but they were almost all empty of patrons.
In the end, we chose instead a small bakery, where we opted for what seemed a good bet in the form of a cob loaf, hollowed and filled with a steaming stew.
Topped with cheese, it was ultimately better in theory than it was in practice…
We’d come to Belgrade with a purpose, so the following morning I allowed Sarah the chance to sleep in (no easy task given the hard wooden slats that had passed as our beds), whilst I took an early morning walk to attend to business.
A new day brought with it no change to the gloomy impression the city had made, a heavy blanket of cloud and morning fog in fact increasing such feelings.
I was headed back past the bus station and across the Sava River, my destination: The Australian consulate.
We’d realised a short while back that I had a problem.
My passport was getting rather full, meaning for us to continue our travels I would need a new one.
Initially we’d thought England would be the best opportunity, but with a wait list of over three weeks to just get an appointment, we’d abandoned that and considered other options.
First was Zagreb, but having been there already, we were more interested in newer destinations, and that’s how we’d settled on Belgrade, having never before visited Serbia.
I’d emailed on ahead but had no response, so figured I’d try and simply walk up and hopefully get lucky.
The first problem was I had to find the place.
Again I’d relied on Google maps, and again it wasn’t proving all that useful.
I arrived at where it should be, only it wasn’t…
Fortunately the concierge at a nearby office spoke very good English, and after some quick directions and a couple of extra kilometres, I was back on track.
Not housed in a stately mansion as in other countries (our embassy in Buenos Aires had in fact been in an old home once frequented by Einstein), this was an uninspiring office, a place we also shared with a delegation from the EU.
A brief inquiry at the reception revealed I wasn’t getting in without an appointment, and after a series of broken phone-calls upstairs on a horrible telephone line, and I had an appointment booked for the coming Tuesday (today was Friday).
Suddenly it looked like we’d be having a bit more time here than we’d originally planned!
The coming of the afternoon saw a break in the gloom, and we figured it the perfect time to actually explore a little more of the city.
With the haze lifted, suddenly the city didn’t look so horrible, and it seemed the perfect time to take a wander to the park, and really, Kalemegdan really is ‘the’ park in Belgrade.
Boasting views towards not one, but two rivers (most famous of these being the Danube), it also hosts Belgrade Fortress, itself not the grandest sight, but it is home to a fairly impressive military museum.
Whilst I enjoyed the experience of seeing some Second World War and Cold War relics, Sarah was kind enough to tag along and allow me this indulgence before we eventually decided I’d seen enough, and we made our way back into town.
It really was incredible the difference a little sunshine and blue had made to our impressions of the place.
Even the old Communist era bronze effigies looked wonderful in this golden light!
Unfortunately all of this quirkiness could do nothing to improve the quality of the wooden slats we were calling bed each night…
We did very little for most of our Saturday, a great opportunity to relax for much of the day as for the late afternoon/evening, we actually had a plan.
Having been priced out of the chance to see any football in England, why not take the opportunity here?
After all, we were in Belgrade, home to one of the most famous clubs in Eastern Europe… Red Star Belgrade!
It was another stunning afternoon to boot, a great chance to grab a nice shot of the Serbian parliament looking rather regal indeed.
We checked out the rather empty interior with a grand facade that was the Saint Sava Church, before making our way to the the home of Crvena Rezda (Red Star), the Stadion Rajko Mitic… interestingly enough, only a block or so away from the home of fierce local rivals, Partizan Belgrade!
First impressions of the home to Serbia’s and the former Yugoslavia’s powerhouse club?
Really, the place was a bit of a dump and hadn’t seen a lick of fresh paint in a couple of decades at least.
Still, we followed the crowds eventually finding our way to a ticket window where we were presented with five different price brackets.
With no idea what each represented (none of them were crazy expensive), we opted for the middle one, paid our money and got pointed to the correct entrance by the seller who had some very basic English.
Inside, if we said the crowd was building and brimming with excitement for this top of the table clash, we’d be flat out lying…
We took our seats, a little disappointed that we couldn’t see anywhere we could buy a beer, but secretly relieved we wouldn’t be seated behind the goals with the home fans ultras.
Like everywhere in the Balkans, smoking is almost mandatory, however I think they let us, the obvious tourists off on the back of our foreign faces.
When the game finally got underway, the sun had set and the Autumn air was decidedly fresh, but on the pitch things got heated pretty quickly on the back of two quick goals to the second placed visitors.
Just a shame there was nobody to cheer them on…
Still, the home fans added enough colour of their own!
Perhaps this got the home side fired up, who knows, but they did run over the top of the visitors, running out winners 4-2 and letting us feel a little more comfortable as we left the stadium that things were not likely to get too crazy!
The walk home was at a brusque pace, the cold motivating us to get home (back to our hostel) quickly and out of what was fast becoming a very cold night.
It did at least allow us to see the stunning night time facade of the parliament building, resplendent with a very tasteful lighting budget.
With a couple more days to kill before my appointment with the Australian Consulate, we didn’t in fact do all that much over the next couple of days, although one excursion was rather interesting.
From the grandeur of the National Assembly of Serbia, I convinced Sarah that it was fine for us to cross the railway tracks and explore some seemingly shabby buildings we’d spied from our bus when we’d first arrived in the city.
It was in fact an old railway yard, complete with old engines, rusting carriages and dilapidated buildings.
The turntable (from where engines would be sent in the various different directions) was more a scum filled pond, and we also quickly discovered that it wasn’t completely abandoned either.
Turns out that some of the buildings we’d thought ruins were serving as housing, but whether it be for homeless Serbians or refugees from farther afield we knew not.
We took a few more snaps of this pretty cool area, before heading on our way.
A couple of days later, with my application made and monies submitted, we too were on our way after this extended stay in the Serbian capital.
* Our bus from Zagreb to Belgrade took roughly 5 and a half hours and cost us 230 Kuna (although the ticket only said 220 Kuna) per person.
* We were required to pay an additional 8 Kuna per bag (so 16 Kuna total), to stow our luggage beneath the bus.
* Our tickets to the Red Star Belgrade football match cost us 500 Kuna each (this was in the middle of five different price options).