I would have liked a good night’s sleep but unfortunately we’re in the centre of the old town. Which in this case doesn’t mean drunks, it means dawn prayer calls from the mosque right opposite our apartment. Oh well.
After a quick breakfast we take a look at Sarajevo for the first time by daylight. It’s pretty – houses built up against the hills that remind me quite a lot of home – albeit that they have some serious mountains behind some of them. We’d planned to wander around the old town for a bit, but it is raining harder than it has on this whole trip, so we go back to the room to relax.
Lunch is a delicious boreg (borek/bourek – a pastry dish with meat or spinach or potato inside). We get to see how they’re made (baked on a covered tray hanging in an oven and covered with hot coals).
Our next move is the Tunnel Tour – a guided tour of the airport tunnel that was vital to Sarajevo in the seige. Basically, they dug an 800m tunnel under the airport runway (which was UN territory and therefore protected from Serb attacks) in order to run supplies from Bosniak-held territory into Sarajevo, while avoiding snipers (who had killed 100s of people in the months before the tunnel as they ran across the runway). You can walk into the tunnel a little way, carry a pack with the equivelant weight that they were carrying, and there’s an exhibition of uniforms, tools, emergency food supplies, etc. The best part of the tour was that the guide had been an 18-year-old policeman during the seige, so he had himself run food and equipment through the tunnel. He gave a detailed account of what life was like and pointed out many sites on the way to the airport. Really sobering stuff, and good to hear his commitment to a multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina, while at the same time wanting to make sure that 1992-5 was not forgotten.
It was still raining when we finished the tour so we headed home, where I’m getting ready for a job interview via Skype.
We packed up and waited for the apartment owner to arrive – he ended up sending his father, who came half an hour late and didn’t speak English, but managed to be incredibly friendly towards us. I’d already bought bus tickets for later that day, so we left our bags at the train station (no left luggage facility at the bus station) and killed time for a few hours by going back to the fortress. On the way Vana took us to a statue in honour of “the father of Greek independence” who had been tortured and executed in Belgrade in the 18th century. We finished with lunch at the same self-service pizza/pasta place that we’d eaten in three times already on this trip. It’s OK but nothing special, I guess the speed of service is an advantage though.
We said our tearful farewells to Vana and Anthony and headed for the bus station. Everything went astonishingly easily; the only issue was that we were left with a few hundred dinars (about €5) after the bus driver said we didn’t have to pay to take our bags on board (we’d budgeted those dinar for that purpose).
Bus ride was fine: after clearing New Belgrade’s wide avenues and giant housing blocks we crossed the plains for a few hours, gradual darkness illuminated by fierce lightning strikes. We stopped at a few cities, and stopped for a half hour break after 90 minutes for some unknown reason. This did let me jump on the restaurant’s WiFi and see that Man Utd were winning so that’s something. We reached the border about 715 and got through it in 15 minutes without leaving the bus. We’d pull up at the border and a Serbian guard came on board, walked down the bus taking everyone’s ID (the locals seemed to be using driver’s licenses or identity cards maybe, not passports). A few minutes later the driver walked down and returned everyone’s ID. We drove through into the border area, which looked mysterious thanks to the darkness and mist but in daylight would seem mundane, and repeated the process with a Bosnian guard instead of a Serbian one. No questions, just a passport taken away and returned a few minutes later with a new stamp.
Almost immediately after the border the terrain changed – we were now driving through hills, on winding, narrow roads. New Zealanders would feel instantly at home – Americans might wonder what had happened to the rest of the road, as it was single-lane both ways. The countryside looked as though it might be interesting, as we passed a wide river and many hill towns, but I couldn’t see anything in the dark. Aside from us, the road was nearly empty. The turning road made it hard to read, so we watched the un-subtitled Serbian comedy that was showing on the bus.
We arrived in Sarajevo early and had some confusing moments at the bus station, as we had arranged a taxi to meet us. We had to shake off other drivers while trying to contact our hostel to get this guy to turn up. Luckily he did – unfortunately he didn’t speak English and even though the hostel said they’d told him where to go, he didn’t know the address. Some back and forth with the hostel solved it eventually, and we collapsed into bed.
This was one of the better days on the trip. We booked an Underground Tour of Belgrade with Get2Serbia, and it turned out really well. We were the only people on the trip (the guide said that sometimes he’s had 40 people, which would be ridiculous).
The trip was quite cleverly done and took in all different eras of Belgrade’s history – beginning with Roman ruins found in the basement of the city library – the library had to shelve some of its plans to expand into the basement level and instead leave the ruins (fortress walls and a water pipe) as a meeting room only. We then moved back to the fortress and got some history about the French friendship memorial and the Pasha’s tomb, before heading into a recently-discovered German observation post that was buried under a hill on the fortress. We got some quite fascinating stories about what life was like for the soldiers – 14-day shifts, tiny beds, poor ventilation and light provided by a bicycle-powered generator. We then headed to an old Ottoman gunpowder storage room, which had previously been used as a rave venue in the 1990s and was now used to display various stelas and other Roman sculpture from the area.
We finished up in an underground club built into the side of the hill, somewhere we had walked past but never noticed, drinking the local speciality of red wine mixed with Coca-Cola. Sounds horrible but it actually tasted quite good. We also schemed up our own plan to develop walking tours in Wellington, so look out for those…
Lunch at a Mexican restaurant on the waterfront was pretty good, it was more fusion food than authentically Mexican, as far as I could tell, but it was still good. We headed home for a while then finished up with dinner in the bohemian district, in an Italian restaurant that for some reason was serving pavlova. I had to try it – it came with cocoa dusting and with a layer of chocolate mixed into the base. It was great.
We made a last minute decision to try to get into a gig by Efterklang, a Danish band who play at End of the Road sometimes and who I thought might be worth a shot, but tickets had sold out so we had a quiet night.
Another slowish day in Belgrade. We visited the Tesla Museum, which was interesting but really only worth a short visit. They have a couple of interactive exhibits where they generate high-voltage electricity using Tesla’s own devices, and you can see the electricity jump between different parts of the device, and hear the buzz and crackle of the electricity. One of the exhibits demonstrates how neon tubes can be lit up just by being close to the electricity source, and another shows the use of high-voltage electricity in wireless remote control. There was a short film and a brief exhibit on Tesla’s funeral, and that was it (most of the museum is in archive storage in climate and humidity-controlled conditions).
We did some more wandering after that, and ended up visiting the Ethnological Museum, which had some nice exhibits of folk culture – lots of 19th century traditional costumes from around the Balkans, as well as replica houses, both village and city houses. We were pretty much the only people in the museum. All other museums were closed either permanently or temporarily.
We ate at a traditional Serb place which was a bit disappointing – the food really isn’t anything special (lots of grilled meat and breaded chicken) and they messed up the order slightly. Place was apparently quite popular/legendary, but it didn’t seem great to us. They did have musicians wandering between the tables playing guitar, fiddle and (somehow) double bass, and that made it interesting, especially when musicians across the road started up with some Irish style tunes.
We again take it slowly today, splitting up to do some tourist browsing of various spots. I take some photos of the fortress (we’d left our camera at home yesterday) including the tanks and artillary of the military museum.
We wander around idly looking at buildings – one of the highlights is the giant Orthodox church St Sava, apparently the biggest in the world. It’s a beautiful building on the outside, but is undergoing repairs inside. You can still step inside and be awed by the size of the cupola, and there are various shrines around the edges of the church – various worshippers file in and out to pray or light candles.
We return to the “bohemian” quarter (as signposted around the city) for dinner. It’s Vana’s birthday so we go somewhere nice, an opera-themed restaurant named Little Bay. We sit in an opera box, curtained off from the rest of the room and with a bell to ring to call the waiter. At one point in dinner a woman starts singing opera. Fortunately the food matches the presentation, and we have a very pleasant meal. Afterwards we wander the area, which has the same feel as Barcelona or Montmarte, loads of cool little neighbourhood-style bars. We end up in what we are told (by the barman, admittedly) is the best blues/jazz bar in Belgrade. It’s pretty good, small and arty – green wallpaper with black and white photos for decoration. There’s a guy playing live, and once he’s finished the crowd starts dancing enthusiastically and dramatically to recorded music. A good vibe.
We take it easy today: a late start, some food at the apartment and then wander up to explore the Belgrade fortress. It’s an impressive place – it takes up a lot of space and has various monuments (of victory, of gratitude to the French), museums (of military history), churches, basketball courts and old guys playing chess. It also has fantastic views of the river and the other side (the tower blocks of New Belgrade). So a worthwhile afternoon.
We lunch at what turns out to be another branch of the self-service pizza place we went to in Budapest. It’s perfectly adequate. We relax at home for a bit then go out to a music bar/cafe/restaurant. It seems to have two locations either side of some steps – our side is completely empty apart from us (which is great – no smoking!). The poor waitress has to bring everything from either downstairs or accross at the other venue. We finish by having a drink at the other venue, hoping for some live music. It doesn’t happen – instead we get the same old soft jazz standards album that plays everywhere in this country – awful versions of songs from ‘Hot Stuff’ to ‘Black Betty’ to ‘Paradise City’ to ‘Guns of Brixton’ to ‘Blister in the Sun’….just terrible unemotional stuff.
The walk back to the bus station seems easier than the walk from the station, and after a little confusion we’re onboard the bus (I ended up only buying one ticket, after some confusion with the seller, but sorted it in the end). The ride is an easy 70 minutes over flat country before we arrive on the outskirts of Belgrade – fairly grim-looking tower blocks. We cross the river to the old town which is still fairly industrial but OK.
We fight our way past taxi drivers and walk to the apartment. Of course, it takes far longer than we’d expect because we get lost (street signs here are not good) but luckily we can text the owner and he gives us better directions. The building isn’t promising – bit rundown and rough looking, but the apartment itself is great, really spacious and modern.
We go for a walk to see a bit of the town. It’s not a pretty city, as the guides say, and our impressions aren’t helped by taking a few wrong turns that put us in an industrial/motorway type part of town, rather than the centre as we’d hoped. We refuel at McDonalds (the radio, brilliantly, is playing the Smiths’ ‘Panic’, probably the least appropriate possible song (OK yeah, they could have played ‘Meat is Murder’ instead). We gradually work out where we are meant to be and find some more interesting buildings, though there’s a lot of dodgy-looking subways as well. Kinda a Bladerunner vibe, but without the rain. All that said, I think I like the place.
We go for a beer in Serbia’s “first Irish bar” hoping that they’ll be showing football (usually a safe bet in Irish bars) but they’ve got the sound off so we head home and stream the game instead. I keep myself awake until past midnight as I have to go out and meet Vana and Anthony from their bus. Of course, it doesn’t stop at the bus station so I once again get lost but manage to track them down eventually on the side of the road.