Following the intense train ride from Thessaloniki, we arrived in the first of the Balkan countries we would be visiting, in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Our first perceptions of the city with bleary eyes peering into the sunny morning, was that is was quite antiquated, with the older ex-German/Austrian railcars and locomotives and many older looking buildings, some quite dilapidated.
Once we had spilled out of the station and oriented ourselves and began walking in the direction of our accommodation, we observed a strong contrast between parts of the city that were clearly of political, religious or historical significance and those that were simply accommodation or small commercial buildings. The former were ornate, beautiful structures harking back to their relatively short Austrian heritage; whilst the latter indicate the the effort of rebuilding city so many times – Beograd has been razed to the ground some 44 times in its history!
We see clearly the effects of more recent warring in Belgrade is quite obvious too, with several zones where the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade has destroyed buildings and their hollow shells remain there as reminder of war. I felt that there was a sense of grim pride in the nations history in the way that these buildings have been maintained as monuments.
Once we have unpacked we begin to explore on foot to find food. Most of the city is quite grungy, with many derelict buildings also a sign of the recent history of the city. We are hungry after our overnight journey and make our way towards a recommend eatery, Gnezdo Organic. Inside we find modern international food, surely an indication of imminent gentrification? We order coffees and chicken kebabs atop cous cous, with a side of apple and goats cheese carpaccio. The goats cheese is the saltiest cheese I have ever tried and we cannot finish it.
In contrast with the modern offerings at Gnezdo Organic, on the second day we eat at To Je To, a homely local restaurant that serves the local offering of Cevapcici. This is an adaption of the Bosnian Cevapi, and is small pieces of mince meat that have been grilled. Served in Turkish bread with onion and cabbage, it is delicious. It is a local/street food and tastes better at these sorts of locations, rather than in upmarket restaurants where I also tried it (incidentally the same thing happened in Greece with gyros – the local fast food should be eaten as such and not treated as something for fine dining!).
As we spend some time exploring, the city feels full of youth, students and political and artistic energy. They are crammed in cafes smoking and drinking and talking. We find a large warehouse space where students and artists are selling their wares. We see street art murals everywhere, and graffiti tags in every nook and cranny.
While it seems that these artistic expressions are welcomed, Western behaviour, such as running, which I try on our final morning, are looked at with surprise. The whole city feels partially stuck in a time warp; cars from the 70s are mingled amongst modern cars; every cafe and restaurant has people smoking away inside and Western pop from the 90s playing, with some serving modern international food and others Balkan staples; there are cobbled alleys indicating some long length of history, and it is difficult to put a finger on the pulse of this city.