The Gritty and the Graceful: Belgrade and Novi Sad

Well, our entry into Serbia was accompanied by pouring rain, which might not have been a promising start.  On top of that, we got really lost…REALLY lost trying to find our hostel in a city where roads change their names after intersections.  Nevertheless, there was something gritty about Belgrade that captured my attention, in a good way.  One of the first sights we saw as we hunted for our place was the NATO bombed buildings that have stood like that since 1999, when Serbia finally decided to stop bullying all the other countries.  But a few steps past that was a dog park with dog-related graffiti and a herd of hounds and owners, despite the weather.  Upon finding our hostel, we fell asleep for 11 hours, after which, we were ready for proper exploring under the now-blue skies.

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Our first order of business, once we had hunted down some food, was to find the Kalemegdan Fortress, the massive fortress of Belgrade that has withstood more than 100 battles in the course of its history.  It helped that I had been reading a book based on the city in the 1800s and the fortress plays a key role.  In front of the fortress, there is a large military museum that includes free looks at many tanks parked out in the former moat…there is also a dinosaur.  Once we stepped through the main gate, we were surprised at the sheer number of locals hanging out here, reading and chatting and having a romantic Friday afternoon stroll within the fortress walls…it seems to be a favorite city park, as well as a historic landmark.

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From the ramparts, you can stand and look over the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, the brownish waters and bluish waters of the two mixing together in a bunch of eddies far below.  The walls are both thick and very long…on one side is the much-photographed Despot’s Gate that was erected in the 1400s and has become a symbol of the Serbian identity and strength…and on the other side is a broad promenade that is now populated by a cafe and several outdoor photo exhibits.  One of the photo exhibits was “Highlights of China,” and we were excited to recognize several spots from the beginning of our trip…Hongcun, Huangshan, and Yuanyang Rice Terraces (and a bonus–not pictured–of Lijiang, where I went in September, 2013).

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We also spotted the “Roman Well,” which was a cistern that was actually created by the Austrians when they controlled the fortress…it also played an important role in the book I was reading.  Having traipsed the width of the fortress and back again, we headed off through the main shopping district to find ourselves a much-needed lunch.  From there, we just indulged in our curiosity, following any interesting looking street, rather than worry about hitting all the places on the sightseeing maps.  We found a lot of lovely buildings with fantastic embellishments from the times before World War I.  We also found several churches with soaring spires and elaborate decor within (usually not allowed to photograph that, though).

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The following day, Saturday, we spent an hour looking for the Dom omladine box office in the city, as I had reserved tickets for the evening gala performance for the 30th Belgrade Jazz Festival.  Each night, there were bands from all over the world, but I had specifically been interested in the night that featured the best in the Serbian jazz scene.  A bit of an early birthday present to me.  The first band was the Max Kothcetov Quartet, who integrated a lot of multimedia into their performance in ways that I had never really seen with jazz music before.  But it was the second group, Vasil Hadžimanov trio/band that was phenomenal.  The whole audience was inside the music and they were entertaining and full of feeling…absolute bliss being there in that moment.

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Just a few short minutes later, it was my birthday!  Never imagined I would be spending it in Belgrade, but there you go (I think that makes the tenth location, actually…Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England, South Korea, Serbia!).  Of course, we danced it in…found a teeny salsa bar that was WAY too crowded to dance inside…so we danced in front of the open windows out on the sidewalk!  Back in our neighborhood, we randomly noticed a 1950s style American diner with an outer space theme…open at 1am AND they served a vegan “burger” type thing.  The next morning, we celebrated by going to the Hummus Bar (again) and the Nikola Tesla Museum…zap!  Although he spent most of his life living other places, Serbs are very proud of their native son…even his ashes have a special spot in the back corner of his museum.  We went back to Kalemegdan for a walk, ate some ice cream, and then went home to make dinner…our hostel host gave us a LITER bottle of wine!

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The next morning, we woke bright an early and headed to the bus station for our day trip to Novi Sad.  Having heard that it was full of lovely Art Nouveau buildings, a style I adore, I knew we just simply had to go.  Even as we stepped off the bus, we felt a very different vibe than gritty big brother Belgrade…Novi Sad is definitely the little princess of Serbia.  Not that any princess is without her claws…the first thing we went to check out was Petrovaradin Fortress, another stronghold of the Hapsburgs when they controlled this part of the world.  Now it is a bastion of art…galleries and performance spaces abound…and every summer it hosts THE music festival in Europe, EXIT.

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From there, we crossed back over the bridge an into the compact Old Town of Novi Sad itself.  Everywhere you look, there is a textbook example of the best of 1920s architecture and decoration (seeing as the entire town had to be rebuilt after WWI, when it was decimate, being practically on the Serbia-Hungary border).  Each church spire, whether Catholic or Orthodox, was unique and whimsical swirls and symmetry was everywhere.  In the back alleys, we found the church where Einstein’s kids were baptized (he was Jewish, but his wife was not) and a lot of very inspired street art.  It is a university town, after all, and a hotbed for Serbian dissidents and artists.

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All too soon, it was time for us to catch the bus back to Belgrade…just as the street lamps were coming on.  On the way to the station, we passed a church packed with people and a line out the door.  Candles blazed out front in front of the fervently praying crowd.  We didn’t take a photo, but we wondered about the gravity of that gathering.  A lot of Serbia was like that…heavy atavistic emotion going on under the normal surface of things.  But I found the people wickedly funny and delightfully deep…always willing to serve up more wine/hummus/rakija/conversation.  Despite the bits of trepidation I might have felt, I was delighted by Serbia.

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