Country names & the prominent players were all buried in the back of our minds. What did we remember learning of Belgrade & the former Yugoslavia? “Yugoslavia” was so quick to roll off even my tongue, I caught myself once or twice & luckily made the correction. Looking to catch a ride from Romania to the capital, you didn't search for Belgrade, Serbia but in fact Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
Here, in this part of the world, the ink was not yet dry on the pages of our history books to tell all the stories, all the sides, that were here to be told. But these are places we knew, not because we were quizzed on their importance as in the World Wars, but because we were just old enough to watch the bombardments on our TVs & the fall of Yugoslavia unfold. Our knowledge is lacking, if not all together limitedly taught. The reliance on believing only what we see & hear from our media will not, now or ever, tell us the full story.
The city of Belgrade was a complete contradiction; at one moment it was a dirty, ugly city you wouldn't look at twice & the next you’d find yourself along the river bank enjoying a cool breeze & marveling at its beauty. It is still a city in a country coming to grips with its past wars, its current state of affairs, & one aching to move forward. Belgrade itself has found relics as old as 1000 B.C., making it easily one of the oldest city areas with its famous fort standing for nearly the past 1,500 years.
However, with time & conflict not much survives. The city is mismatched with old Habsburg & Ottoman Empire architecture, later the oh-so-lovely Soviet style buildings & now, few but still very present, ruin buildings of the NATO bombings.
Everyone we met was exceedingly friendly; we stayed at one of our best places yet to date, right where the Danube & Sava Rivers intersect - it may have been our favorite part! Desperate to escape the oppressive heat as the “Lucifer” heatwave began to roll into Europe, we found our floating patio to be a sanctuary in the heat of the day. If the city doesn't have much, it has shown it certainly knows how to use its waterfront. Though I'm sure this will insult some, we dare to say it was better utilized than in the beautiful city of Stockholm.
Twice we had dinner along the river. One restaurant Ben found was rated a top 10 of the city, but as we walked along the decaying walkway out to a thatch roof hut in the water, I was questioning how old that ranking was. To my surprise, it lived up to the hoopla & was the best fish we’d had in weeks; we barely even minded the spiders who came to join us along the dock as the sun sank low on the river.
The other section of the river - the new, hip swanky area - did not have spiders (though a dog did join us for a bit & napped under the table). As the saying goes, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl (or something like that) & without realizing it we seated ourselves at “Ambar” Belgrade, sister restaurant to the “Ambar” in D.C. Typically we try to avoid anything from the states, but apparently something just called to us.
As much as the city wants to move on, it also feels like its stuck trying to relive the glory days of “Tito”, their much-beloved Yugoslavian President for Life. Whether it is true, many in Belgrade feel the days of Yugoslavia were fine before outsiders’ influence; before, in their eyes, they were forced to open their economic borders after the fall of the Iron Curtain, which lead to years of warfare. Who is to say which way is right when other more influential powers come to play?
Easily the best thing we did during out stay was to take the “Once Upon a Time in Yugoslavia” tour. It is a doozie, estimated at 3 hours, we spent nearly 4 getting a reader’s digest version of the creation & later collapse of the country. It is heavy. Their love (if I dare say obsession) is alive & well. We were treated to a short movie of the life of their benevolent dictator, which showcased how loved he was all around the world. After the death of Tito, the later pressure to bend to free markets is the reason, as they see it, for the war. A desperate power grab by corrupt politicians led to a breakdown of relations, secret alliances & need for distraction. What began as an internal conflict (perhaps backed by outside powers) became an international sensation & rallying cry for action. It was a wake-up call listening to our (amazing) guide, who's barely 10 years our elder, describe sitting on friends’ balconies having a beer & watching bombs fall on his city.
At the end of our tour, we asked how people felt now; is there animosity between the neighboring countries? The former republics? What are the feelings of everyday people? But no, people themselves can get along. They speak the same languages, have the same histories, families’ cross borders. Governments make war, not the people. Only during elections are the flames of hatred & bitter memories flamed by politicians. Rather than feel hopeful, our friend is worried, sensing the tide is turning again. After all, the last real prime minister who pushed for real change was assassinated, outside a government building, in 2013.
War is hell & every side believes in their own justification & right to act as they will. While there is a side to every story, Serbia’s perspective was just the tip of the iceberg as we would learn. Not everyone in the former Federation feels this way & we do not presume to decide what is right. But their story comes with a warning & those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. You can come to Belgrade for the beautiful river, the famous fort or its well-known party scene, but our recommendation is to come & get to know the people, their stories & for your own understanding - the only way to find truth is to see it for yourself.