Tag Archives: Belgrade

Belgrade: Frontier Town


Built by the Ottomans, who were fond of hangong people from it.
The Stamboul Gate at Kalemegdan
There’s something a touch wild about Belgrade. The mighty Kalemegdan Fortress perches on a rock overlooking the place where the Danube meets the Sava River. Much occupied and much conquered, it has seen Celts, Thracians, Illyrians, Romans, Avars, Byzantines, Slavs and Ottmans come and go over the years. In all of Europe there may be places more fought-over, but none so recent: the Ministry of Defence building still stands ruined, destroyed by NATO bombs in the 1990s.

Kalemegdan is just the most visible sign of this frontier mentality. For Romans, the Danube was the dividing line between the civilised world and the barbarian sphere, from whence strange tribes would occasionally emerge to threaten and then perhaps join with Rome. With nomadism as a way of life now mostly disappeared, that doesn’t seem to happen as much any more, but there are still forces that will lead people to travel vast distances: I saw more refugees in Belgrade than I did in Budapest, clustered around the train and bus stations.

One of the towers that isnt leaning like a drunk.
The Danube as seen from Smederevo’s Corner Tower
When the Danube was both frontier and highway, controlling it was vital. Kalemegdan played a part in that, but the even larger (if less well preserved) Smederevo Fortress a few miles down the road served the same purpose. It’s unusual among the fortifications that I’ve seen in this part of the world in that it’s not built on a hill but instead on the banks of the Danube itself. This lack of a solid rock foundation may explain why some of its walls and towers tilt alarmingly far from the vertical – the forces of time and tide tear down everything that is built sooner or later.

Back in Kalemegdan though, the Museum of Military History offers a fine collection of tanks and artillery outside (packed into the fort’s defensive ditches alongside tennis and basketball courts) and a potted history of Serbia’s story told through war. Very little of what is told is set out in English, but the multiple maps of the area with arrows heading this way and that make it quite clear: armies have been marching hither and thither across Serbia for as long as records have been kept.

Looks like a gathering of steampunk jedi.
Not every frontier in Serbia is war-related. Fun and games at the Tesla Museum.
Upstairs in the museum, things get more interesting, as the story turns to World War II, Yugoslavia and Tito. Serbia, of course, was once at the heart of Yugoslavia, back when the map of Eastern Europe looked a lot simpler than it does now. As with the rest of Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia fell under the Soviet Sphere of influence, but it forged a path of its own under the guidance of Josep Broz Tito.

I don’t know enough about the man to judge him, but he’s obviously still revered in these parts, and what I do know is fascinating. Famously, after he’d fallen out with Stalin, he endured several assassination attempts before sending a tetchy message: “Stop sending assassins. I’ve already caught three. If you don’t stop, I’ll send one myself and I won’t have to send another.” True or not, it’s become part of the national folklore, and the museum, especially in the latter half, builds to the reveal of a shrine to Tito.

There’s an addendum, of course. Those NATO airstrikes still rankle, and the museum makes clear whom it thinks the aggressors were, mapping the countries to blame right beside the fragments of an F-117 stealth fighter-bomber shot down over Serbia. Wars become history just as quickly here as they do anywhere else.

Eastern European Odyssey

I do like the idea that on reaching Bucharest, I'll be able to divide into three...
Follow the Lime Green Railroad to the Wonderful Wizard of Uncertain Destinations…

So, I’m doing it again. One year after Greece, four years after the Trans-Siberian and six years after Norway, I’m once more taking an August-September travelling holiday, hitting a bunch of new (to me) locations. Once again, rail is the medium for my peregrinations, and this time the locale is as much of the former Soviet Bloc as I can fit into three weeks. (No, I’m not visiting Belarus as part of this trip, and as much as I’d like to drop in on Ukraine, it might be better to leave that for later too.)

That map above gives the general outline of the trip: Krakow, Poznan (briefly), Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava (briefly), Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo, Bucharest, and then … options. This is one of those trips where the early stages have been nailed down and booked, whereas the latter ones are more reliant on train availability and everything that goes before. Which, even though it might rub my obsessive compulsive tendencies the wrong way, is still appealing. Not knowing exactly where I’m going to wind up probably won’t do my mother’s blood pressure any favours, but I’m happy enough to keep a loose leash on the days ahead.

One of the nicest of things about this trip is that I’ve never been to most of the countries I’ll be visiting—the only ones I’ll be returning to are Germany and Austria, and even there, Berlin or Vienna will be entirely new. In fact, once this trip is over, the only European nations remaining unchecked will be fall into three groups: the Russian fringe (Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and maybe Moldova), the Balkans (Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia), and a scattering of others (Switzerland, Portugal and most of the microstates—Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, San Marino, and Monaco). Which brings me close enough to a complete collection to prompt a few more holiday ideas at least.

For now though, an Eastern European Odyssey is the order of the day. Preparations have been made, maps have been consulted, and tickets have been booked where possible. And as many considerations as I can consider have been considered.

Rail Travel: As mentioned, rail is the way to go here, and the resource worth relying on is The Man in Seat 61. It’s served me well in the past and it did here too, though booking tickets beyond Vienna has proved less useful than just showing up at the station in person. Sleeper services will be taken of wherever possible, and there might be a brief river trip between Vienna and Bratislava if the Danube isn’t too drought-stricken. When I get to Bulgaria and Romania though, my timetable will be at its most flexible. It’s just a pleasant coincidence that my options will be opening up as Europe reaches its most alluring.

Accommodation: The open nature of the latter end of my travels means that I can’t book too far ahead, but even if I could, I’m going to be taking a leaf out of my Greek odyssey: stick to booking a day or two ahead of time, using the Booking.com and AirB&B apps on my phone. Sleeper services are to be preferred, but hostels and B&Bs are just as valuable, mostly for their showers and laundry facilities. If I’m travelling light, cleaning my clothes will be a necessity at some stage.

Flights: Normally, the two things I’d book first would be my flights there and back. Well, I’m flying into Kraków to kick things off, but where I’ll be flying back from? That’s still undecided. I’d like to visit Moldova (because why not, when you have the chance?) but flights back from there are at least twice as expensive as from neighbouring Romania. So we’ll see. I have a ticket tracker running using the Kayak app, and the sudden availability of a cheap option may well determine how and where my journey ends.

Technology: Technology-light is the rule of the day. As in Greece, nothing more than my phone is to be brought. Even my new Pebble Time is getting dropped in favour of a Timex Weekender with a battery that lasts five years instead of five days. This will make it a little tricky to update the Travel section of this site as I go, but I’ll do my best. Those long train journeys will definitely give me time, at the very least. Still, my poor old iPhone 5S is suffering from geriatric battery syndrome these days, so one more piece of tech is needed. I’ve bought myself an Anker Astro E7 external battery, and having tested it for the past week, I’ve deemed it good. At the cost of a little extra weight to my backpack, I should be able to keep my loyal iPhone, and more importantly its camera and booking capabilities, running for as long as I need them.

Reading Material: This is an issue. Travelling light rules out carrying more than two books, and with one of those slots taken up by a Lonely Planet guidebook, that leaves little wiggle room. A friend has loaned me an ageing Sony eReader, but that runs up against both the low-tech rule and my personal preferences. I might rely on second-hand bookstores instead, or just read on my iPhone. (The latter option might seem a poor one, but I’ve read the Bible and War and Peace on my phone before, so it is an option. Maybe Moby Dick this time…)

Writing Material: Of course, without reading to take up my travelling time, and assuming that staring out the window can only occupy one for so long, writing will have the field to itself. So pens, some ink refills, and a notepad or two will be packed. How much I’ll get to write (beyond the requisite journal of my travels) remains uncertain, but the idea of letting my brain wander on the Danube plain is a huge draw. Even when I’m not strolling the city streets, there’s be imaginative highways and byways to explore.

Missing: What will I be missing while I’m gone? Well, not a huge amount. As the next category shows, the timing of this trip has worked out rather well. The start of the Pro12 rugby season and a few pre-World Cup friendlies is about the height of my sporting interests. Missing the Irish Craft Beer Festival stings a bit though. As for work, it’s been packed away for the next few weeks, and when it comes to keeping an eye on the state of the Internet, that’s something I could do with less of.

Returning: On the other hand, within a week of my return, I’ll have the return of Doctor Who, the start of the Rugby World Cup, a new niece to be a godfather to, and one of those birthdays with a “0” at the end of it. So I’d better be well rested when I take off from somewhere near the Black Sea (presumably). Because I’ll be hitting the ground running.