May 30, 2005 GMT

It is HOT. Boring countryside. Flat. Hot. Homes are newer-looking -- as if built by someone who had some money to build a nice new home, not as if re-built by someone whose home had been trashed in some war. The road is long and straight and flat. It is, by the way, hot. This is an agricultural area, enhanced by some dried-up industrial looking stuff. It's like being back on parts of glorious Interstate 5 in California.

We've decided to check out Belgrade, the capital, but don't plan on spending more than a few days in Serbia. It seems fitting to see at least some small part of that infamous place, so intertwined with the painful recent history of the other ex-Yugoslavian countries we've visited. Not that you can make a fair assessment of a place after visiting for a few days. Not that you can make a fair assessment of a place after visiting for a week and a half. Not that you can judge individual people for the history of their country. It's all random impressions based on who you happen to meet, what road you happen to take. Next door you might have come across someone much friendlier or ruder; one road over might have led to some sparkling lake instead of the outskirts of some scruffy impoverished town. Our impression of Serbia will be culled of heat and plains and one big huge city.

So we roll onto the first toll road in many weeks, figuring the countryside is so dull that nothing will be missed by taking the highway. That speeds things along and next thing you know a grand vista spreads off to the left -- the city of Belgrade, standing proudly and imposingly on what looks like (but isn't) an island, ringed by a river, spanned by 3 bridges, crowned by an old fort, studded with modern towers sprouting to the end of the world all around.

View of Belgrade.jpg

As with many ex-communist cities we see, outskirts sprawl charmlessly with huge characterless apartment blocks, cubbyhole stores at their bases, laundry draping small featureless balconies, a stray tree or two, and people here and there waiting for a bus or going to the market or doing whatever it is people do.

apartment block with a little character.jpg

Closer in are the hyper-modern glass corporate buildings. Then suddenly it's the heart of Belgrade and it's still HOT, and there is of course traffic, and some really huge buildings have some really huge bomb craters in them from when NATO bombed the city in 1999 to finally stop the war in Kosovo.

NATO Bomb Damage.jpg

Then they're gone, and there's more big European-style government buildings, and trees, and people, and this is a REALLY BIG CITY. It's the first REALLY BIG CITY, hustle-bustle-semi-western-European-style, we've seen since, well, western Europe.

a little hustle bustle in central Belgrade.jpg

It's too hot and the city's too big to cruise around in on the bike to get our bearings. We pull into a travel agency where there is air conditioning and helpful young people who proceed to call every hotel in town, passing along blow-by-blow news that each place is either 1) way too expensive 2) way too far away, or 3) full. We are enjoying the air conditioning too much to stop them from continuing to call every possible place in Serbia. Eventually we thank them and head towards the train station to utilize The Dave McMillan Method of Room-Finding: Ask A Taxi Driver. Before resorting to that, Erika spots the cheapest hotel in the book, which we were previously told was full. It isn't, of course, full. We happily fall into our dark, not-quite-dank, somewhat-clean, almost-cool room with its stinky-yet...existing toilet across the hall.

Belgrade is kinda fun, with all its big-city bustle.

city bustle.jpg

There's a pedestrian walkway in the old part of town that's been capitalized into a treasure trove for teen shoppers with Puma and Benetton stores galore.

pedestrian walkway.jpg

People flock around a six-spigotted marble water fountain where you can drink potable water -- we'll pass by here, sweaty and dehydrated, a dozen times to fill up the water bottle.

water fountain.jpg

Big wide boulevards sport largely communist-style architecture, but smaller neighborhoods with chic little bar/cafes create a shady break from the concrete. A glass enclosure updates an old theater in style.

glass theater.jpg

One night we have a drink across from some classic statues at a small place that the waiter claims is one of the 3 oldest in Belgrade, having existed for 23 years. Not much of a history for bar-cafes, yet they seem to be flourishing now.

statues near cafe.jpg

Cafes are far easier to find than restaurants -- probably because with salaries so low ($250/mo in Belgrade, $50/mo in Serbia overall) and unemployment so high (conservative estimate 25%), who could afford to eat out? With a teeny tiny coffee costing $1.50, we wonder how anyone can even go out for coffee.

Danny, our waiter at one nice cafe, is also the manager. He says he makes about $500/mo, working way more than full time. He speaks English like any young twenty-something American dude and plans to leave Belgrade in September to work on a cruise ship in Florida. Danny became a Moslem a year ago after growing up in the Serbian Orthodox church.

A Serbian Orthodox church.jpg

He speaks of the harsh life for Moslems in Belgrade -- out of 200+ mosques, just one remains. He gets by OK, he says, since he was born and raised there and knows his way around. But he feels Serbians, though friendly to foreigners, are deeply racist even against Serbians from other countries.

Danny is smart, cool, and savvy and will doubtless make it overseas just fine. It seems he's managed to get himself set up in a way that would be unmanageable for most of his countrypeople. It would be great if our friend Mel in Montenegro had such an opportunity.

At Hotel Centar, our home base, there is a large, shabby yet apparently quite popular restaurant where 2 nights in a row big groups of elderly Serbians dance circle dances to live raucous overamplified folk music. We're hesitant to eat there after one breakfast (skipped after our initial dining experience, a game called "Fishing Fried Egg Pieces Out Of Grease Puddles"). However late one night we're somehow unable to find a place to eat in the vast vast world of Belgrade and must resort to our..."resort". The desk guy, a little mustachio'd 50ish fellow with a few words of English, takes pity on our lack of Cyrillic-reading and orders us a meal. It is wiener schnitzel and sausages and quite good, after all that.

There's the old fort that requires exploring near the old town. It contains some antique-looking tanks and artillery and some not-that-photogenic views over the river, but not too much else.

old fort artillery.jpg

The guidebook says there are barges stationed along the banks which are the hot spots for nightlife, so figuring they might be an appealing morning coffee spot, Erika drags Dave across the bridge in the sweltering heat. The barges, however, must be spending the day getting over their hangovers, and the walk alongside is pretty much weed-sotted and concrete-ridden. Still, there is a land cafe or two where we can have miniature coffee (rather, Erika can order 2 coffees and drink them both). Dave is ultimately more than compensated for his efforts by discovering that the roar of engines which sound like they're headed straight for our table are the sound of......YUGO RACES!

Racing Yugos.jpg

Yes, dozens of decal-emblazoned Yugos, the Ford-Pinto-like clunker of Yugoslavia which to the horror of many Americans was imported into the U.S. for a few years, are competing for doubtlessly esteemed yet uncertain prizes. Probably the highlight, for Dave, of this brief stay in Belgrade. The Yugo remains a very popular car in Serbia, with many still terrorizing the roads.

Aspiring motorcyclist watching races.jpg

Before leaving the next day, there must be one more search through the city for a lock to secure the tank bag to the bike and for that unobtainable holy grail, a tire iron. The motorcycle store says to go to the tool store; the tool store says to go to the bicycle stores; the bicycle store says to go to the motorcycle store--but at least they have a lock for the tank bag.

Heading across the river outside of Belgrade, there's a sort of interesting town with a few cobbled streets and riverside cafes just past the characterless apartment blocks; so when we figure out 45 minutes later that the road to Romania is across the OTHER river, it hasn't been a complete waste of time. Merely an hour or so back through heat and downtown traffic and we're back on track, on the RIGHT part of "Interstate 5"....

Posted by Erika Tunick at May 30, 2005 09:19 AM GMT

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