Day 4, Beograd/Belgrade

Sorry about the very short last post, only spent a short time in the internet cafe yesterday and was showing my new friend Gavin my blog, my other websites and telling him about my work.

Well the weather yesterday (Day 4) was appalling. Woken up in the night by a thunderstorm, we had to set off first thing for the short train trip to Belgrade (Beograd, meaning White City). It was pissing down all morning and we were lugging luggage (is that why it’s called luggage do you think?) to the train station. I got pretty soaked. I had not really planned for heavy rain, and the only protection I brought was a sun hat – which I wore to keep off the rain depsite the fact I looked ridiculous) and a poncho which I bought hastily the day before the trip. When I opened it out it was big enough to cover a house, so not really practical.

Helen our group leader noticed that when we got to Novi Sad station, and were standing in a group, all the other locals were standing around us, as if to watch and listen to us. Not in a bad way but it was interesting that they were so curious about us.

Getting on this packed intercity train was a nightmare with all our bags, but the locals were very helpful – it really is noticeable how welcoming and friendly the people here are to outsiders.

Two hours later we arrive in Belgrade – the weather is still miserable, and we get to our hotel which is just student halls of residence. A bit dingy compared to the nice hotel we had in Novi Sad, but then this trip is not about the luxury it’s about getting a real experience. Lots of beautiful student girls in the building, and yes. I have already seen one walking around in a dressing gown. Worth roughing it after all.

We headed into town to meet our local guide, an amazing woman called Borjana (need to double check that name with the guide), she has lived here all her life and she took us to the oldest kavana (coffee shop) in Serbia where we hada massive lunch and some drinks as she told us the history of Yugoslavia, Serbia and of Belgrade.

She popped out for a cigarette at one point and I seized the opportunity to go out with her, and try one of the mellow Serbian cigarettes she offered. But the main reason was I wanted to ask her lots about Yugoslavia. She didn’t say much about the most recent war, but she did say she was very sad that those 10 years have been lost, and that Serbia will probably need another 20 to recover. She told us “when you don’t clean your house for a year, you can’t then clean it in day” a phrase which I thought really summed up the long process of forgiveness and reconstruction (both physically and emotionally) that this part of the world still has ahead of it.

It was sad hearing about how little the average wage is in this part of the world (about 250EUR per month), but throughout our stay here we have seen Serbs working hard to keep things normal and you have to respect that.

She also showed us a 500 billion dinar note, from the war when inflation was ludicrous. Quite a sight and I was excited that today (Day 5) I saw a vendor selling banknotes from those times, so I got a set of silly money. I am now a dinar-billionaire ๐Ÿ™‚

She told us about the horrible personal conflicts during the war too, families and couples broken apart or killed because they were from opposing (but formally harmonious) sides. This was particularly tragic, but it’s humbling and beautiful to see this country looking so strong and full of energy again, and see the streets bouncing with happy people. People sometimes think I am morbid for being interested in war and all the suffering of this part of the world, but it is the overall story of hope, and rebuilding and the immortality of this culture that I just find awe-inspiring. And I’ve not even seen Bosnia yet!

After lunch she took us to Belgrade fortress and some other sites. The fortress is incredible. Gavin has a cable to connect the camera to the PCs here so I may be able to start posting photos. Some of the sites of the trip so far are just impossible to describe. The rain had let up a little by the time we got to the fortress but the sky was still horribly dark.

We went for some thick hot chocolate (yum), did the internet-looking-at that I described earlier, and then went for dinner in the famous Bohemian Quarter. Again, I was drinking bamboos! I said something during dinner which made Bea (Gavin’s wife) laugh louder than I’ve ever heard anyone laugh in my life, and she got shouted at by a woman at the next table. This is really the first rudeness we’ve seen so far, but this restaurant was quite posh. We talked later about how we don’t see the Serbs smile very often.

After dinner it was home and straight to bed after the previous night’s late bamboozing in Novi Sad. (*Alan spends 2 real minutes smiling that he has just invented the word bamboozing, meaning getting wasted on red wine and coke – the Serbs around wonder what I’m so pleased about).

For the first time on the trip I had a really good night’s sleep, and as my roommate Brian writes his diary for the night, I drift off to sleep after listening to some music on my iPod. It’s weird listening to my music here. It reminds me so much of London and home, and the trip to work and all those familiar comfortable things. But it doesn’t seem out of place, it’s just nice.

Day 3, Novi Sad (continued)

Well, after the hour was up everyone else in my group got kicked out of their machines. But mine is still going, and the girl who works here (who is hilarious in the way she just smiles and shrugs or points when anyone speaks English to herย  but who makes up for it with a spectacularly cute nose) doesnt seem to have noticed at all, even though we all paid together.

So, todays stories continue.

I have become known in the group for my history knowledge on this part of the world. I feel pressure to perform now esp when we get to Bosnia!! It has been nice though, at first I felt strange because everyone was so experienced at travelling and more worldly. So it has been good that Im good at something and can help out other people in the group with info ๐Ÿ™‚

Anyway, Novi Sad is so beautiful. NATO bombed quite a lot of this place at the end of the nineties, including the bridges over the Danube which have now been rebuilt.

We went up to Petrovaradin Fortress which is the main tourist attraction in Serbia. Best thing was, unlike the tourist attractions you would find in London or Paris, there was barely anyone else there at all. We probably saw about half a dozen people the whole time. It was really fascinating seeing this huge fortress totally unspoilt (apart from the graffiti left by some bored Serb kids). It was also completely spared any damage from the war.

I had some bacon/eggs for lunchย ; the portions here are so enormous!! I will return a fat bastard for sure. Again I reiterated my Novi Sad / bacon claim to much derision ๐Ÿ™‚ The bacon is lovely, so if its not really world famous for it, it should be.

Ive been adventurous with my drinks too. No tequila yet. Had some local wines and beers instead. And today I introduced my group to Bamboos! My friend Dragana told me about this and when I saw it on the menu I had to share it with my group. Its red wine and coke. *Sounds* disgusting but actually very nice. Now I am known in the group as the man to talk to about bacon, Yugoslav history, and alcohol.

Only one other person in the group here really smokes so I have so far only had one cigarette. I had been smoking more in the last month at home and wanted to just stop before I started, but it made no sense to stop before coming to smoky Yugoslavia. Not as smoky here as we thought though, but maybe that’s just Novi Sad.

After the Fortress we came down and wandered around. We saw this amazing contraption on the pavement on a side street. The back half was a bike but the front had been taken off and replaced with a trailer. And the bike steering had been wired up to steer this trailer. It was amazing it looked like something from the early 1900s when you see those wacky flying machines. The owner saw us and came out and invited us (he spoke no English) to have our picture taken riding it. He was so sweet. We did just that and we saw he was a fruit merchant so we all bought nice fruit for our trip back cos he was so nice.

The people here really are so lovely. Hard to imagine that things were so horrible just 10 to 15 years ago.

We had another lunch when we got back to the main cafe/restaurant area and just sat and watched the locals go by for a bit. There was a small child begging which became the topic of conversation for a while. Then it was overtaken by speculation over whether the beautiful blonde wearing very revealing clothes on the table near us was actually a prostitute. We never found out.

Then we went to tour some of the amazing churches here. Orthodox and Catholic churches are almost next to one another here just by where we are staying and theyre both beautiful.

I have got my group all excited about visiting Sarajevo, mainly because I won’t stop talking about it. That is going to be the highlight for me, although even what I’ve seen so far in Serbia has been really cool.

Tonight were going to see a folk dance group rehearse. That might not sound like much but apparently it is spectacular, and very rare to be allowed to watch them rehearse. We depart tomorrow at 9 for the Serbian capital Belgrade.

Day 3, Novi Sad

Just a quick update as my time is nearly up ๐Ÿ™‚

Today was our full day exploring Novi Sad, and its just incredible. It doesnt look like a city that was bombed to bits 10 years ago. Its so chic and cosmopolitan in places, very continental. Great food and drink everywhere.

We went to see Petrovaradin Fortress, high above the Danube, and I really need to wait till I have my photos online before I can describe it. Its just something else. The views were unlike anything Ive ever seen before. But I guess I have more sights like that ahead of me this coming fortnight.

Day 2, Novi Sad

Just after noon on Sunday we departed on a nice Austrian train (with compartments, ooh!) for Novi Sad.

I read somewhere that Novi Sad was the bacon capital of Yugoslavia and proceeded to tell everyone about this. Since then noone in the group, or the group leader, have heard anything about this. So Ive been the butt (or buttie) of many bacon jokes for the past couple of days.

The train ride was quite bearable (except for the fact we were convinced the air conditioner in our compartment was actually a radiator (Brian on the trip tells me that radiators were invented by Maria Curie).ย  I asked the cute Hungarian border guard to stamp my passport (the first ever one!!) She was very thorough, she was looking through everyones passport so closely it looked like she might just have been longsighted. We spent quite a while at border control between Hungary and Serbia.

About 7 oclock (or 19 oclock as the American girl at Gatwick airport put it) we arrived in Novi Sad, just after sunset. It looked pretty amazing even at night, and just by our hotel there seemed to be a makeshift bandstand with some live rock music playing. Novi Sad is famous for the EXIT Festival which has become one of the biggest in Eastern Europe, so I think this has raised the appeal of live music throughout the area.

We only really had time again to go out for dinner on Sunday night, but I thought as I was finally in Yugoslavia, I would make an effort, so my appropriately coloured red clothes made their first appearance of the trip and I got all the questions about “why the matching shoes and wristbands” out of the way early in the evening.

It was a strange feeling just being here, having spent the last 10 or 12 years wanting to go to Yugoslavia, and reading so much about the country and its people. Its hard to describe just how surreal it all was, but I was definitely walking around like a proper tourist, eyes wide and looking at everything like it was so new and so cool.

The people here are just so nice, everywhere, even the layabouts at the train station who smiled at us and welcomed us as we arrived. People really seem to appreciate tourists here, I think they are genuinely grateful that of all the tourist destinations in the world we have chosen to come here and learn about them and meet them, and spend our money with them.

The restaurant we went to Sunday night was amazing actually, they had a live band and a couple who had gotten married that day who shared their huge cake with our whole group. I had more food than I have ever had in a single day. It was a mixed grill which basically had some of every kind of meat dish they had on the menu. It was incredible and I actually managed to finish it! I spent a lot of time Sunday night learning about my fellow travellers which was cool.

I ended the night stuffed and tipsy after half a bottle of wine, a beer, and the halfbottle of vodka I got for the train earlier ๐Ÿ™‚