Belgrade, Serbia: A gray and gritty city that I found ever so interesting

It has been two weeks since the conclusion of our river trip and I am now home in Michigan, catching up on these very important last diary posts. Our final three cities – Belgrade, Bucharest and Istanbul – certainly deserve their due…and Bulgaria must be discussed, too.…

Friday, July 6, 2012:

Belgrade is a gray and gritty city.

You would be too if you had been completely destroyed 44 times, witnessed 115 major battles, had 40 different names and served as the capital of five different states.

Celts, Romans, Huns and the Eastern Roman Empire all had a hand at occupying or razing the city to the ground. And that’s before the recent Balkan Wars took their toll.

Belgrade was called Singidunam in Roman times

I admit it. Belgrade hasn’t been at the top of my must-see list…or at the bottom of it, for that matter. I am not even sure I knew where Belgrade was, although I had certainly heard of it. It wasn’t even on my list and that is a shame. For I am so, so glad that I visited Belgrade.

Our trip through Eastern Europe was an eye-opener, or maybe, more accurately, a mind-opener. I had given little thought to what has happened to the many countries that were behind the Iron Curtain for so many years. (One thing I did learn on this trip is that Yugoslavia, while under the control of Tito, was actually open to the West. Its citizens had passports and were free to travel.)

Belgrade is the capital of Serbia (no, not SYRIA!) It was also the place where, during World War II, almost its entire Jewish population was annihilated by the Nazis. Where after that war, dictator Josef “Tito” Broz ruled his confederation of communist states known as Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. Later, after Yugoslavia broke up, it was the where Slobodan Milosevic grabbed power and rampaged through the Balkans – all in the name of “ethnic cleansing.” (In 2001, he was arrested and put on trial the Hague for war crimes, but died before he was ever convicted.)

Josip “Tito” Broz controlled Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1980

We had a speaker this morning and, for good reason, he was a bit defensive. Slobodan Stetic spoke on “Modern Serbia” and it was enlightening. One of his main points was that history still has not determined the true record of Tito…he is a hero to many and a demon to others and even now history has not determined the truth. He has written his own book called “The Yugoslavia Puzzle” but he also gave us a reading list on the topic, which I appreciated.

Making the wars even more difficult to grasp is the fact that there were no “good guys” and no “bad guys” in these wars — just a lot of ugliness on all sides…from “Understanding Yugoslavia.”

So, this city has had it trials. It has been the oppressor and the oppressed. Its citizens have shed their blood and the blood of others. Serbia has been reviled by many, but how much of that is fair? Enough of that. More important, how is it today?

That is what I tried to absorb during our half-day tour. The tour was actually quite basic – a brief tour of the old fort which is built on a reef overlooking the confluence of two rivers (parts of which have been converted to other uses, such as basketball courts), a visit to Tito’s grave and a stop in the main square. It probably captures the city’s main points. The fort goes all the way back to Roman times when the city was called Singidunam. Tito’s grave is set in a large garden with some pretty statues and a small museum. (The fact that they charge admission reveals the need for hard currency.) The main part of downtown is rather fun, quite vibrant and filled with young people – something I was glad to see. Serbia, like much of Eastern Europe, is seeing its young people leave in search of better opportunities. There is 23 percent unemployment.

I saw many signs of young life. There is a zoo, and it is well regarded. We saw many women pushing strollers, with toddlers tagging along. There were smiles and giggles, despite the stifling temperatures. All were excited about the tennis prospects of 25-year-old Novak Kjokovic who was playing in for the men’s singles semi-finals at Wimbledon, only to be defeated by Roger Federer this very day. (This country does not have much to be happy about, so Kjokovic is a national hero.)

Tito’s grave is still a major attraction

Personally, I think Tito’s grave is one of those “tourist” attractions that is going to become passé. He died in 1980 and while still revered by many for the quality of life he brought to the country, he is despised by others. Such a hero cannot stand. People will not be visiting here after this older generation dies. They will move on. There is a reason that Americans still venerate George Washington and Abraham Lincoln…and Tito is not that. ’Nuf said.

The Cathedral of St. Sava

We drove by one other place that will bring glory to this city, the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava which is the largest orthodox church in the Balkans and one of the 10 largest church buildings in the world. It dominates Belgrade’s cityscape and its construction is being entirely financed by donations. It can receive 10,000 faithful at any time. It is not finished yet, but most of the exterior is done and is a magnificent building and a testament to Serbia’s hopes for the future.

For some inexplicable reason, I liked this place. It has grit.

This is one of the surprises of river cruising. It takes you to places you might never go on your own. A very good thing.


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