Why I love battered Belgrade
Sunday August 10, 2003
Most people grimace or laugh scornfully when I suggest that Serbia is great for a holiday. Surely it is still full of war criminals, a place of dark deeds, mafiosi and communist-style backwardness?
Sitting in the Dacha restaurant in Belgrade, surrounded by Serbian folklore icons and wall-hangings, eating and drinking some of the purest organically produced food and drink available on the planet, it is tempting to believe I am having the last laugh. Especially when the bill for a hungry gathering of 12 comes to less than £70, including tip. No GM or processed food here; economic necessity means that almost everything is home-grown - and it tastes that way. With a penchant for locally smoked ham, grilled meat, stuffed vegetables, specialist breads, salads, pickles and soft Kajmak cheese, most Serbs eat enormous amounts and yet stay enviably slender. This is probably also because they hardly ever eat butter or milk.
After dinner, we all troop off to sample a couple of the nightclubs and bars which make Belgrade nightlife some of the most exuberant in Europe. The Tram bar, with live rock and blues, the Radisa jazz club tucked behind the St Sava Orthodox cathedral and the Irish bar - where they don't yet have access to Guinness, but where the theme reflects a passionate liking for all things Celtic. One of the most famous Serbian bands are the Orthodox Celts, who perform an eerily accurate rendition of Dubliners' songs, complete with Irish accents in suitably tobacco-and-whiskey raddled voices.
Spectacularly beautiful young women who look as if they have stepped from the fashion pages of Cosmopolitan , students, young men in sports clothes, musicians and writers link arms in camaraderie as they wander the cobbled streets of the nineteenth-century Skadarlija Bohemian quarter, the pedestrianised Knez Mihailova Street teeming with luxury shops or Republic Square with its dozens of pavement cafes. Most Serbs go out for the evening after 10pm and most nightspots are open until at least 2am - yet there is rarely any sign of drunkenness or offensive behaviour. The atmosphere is usually of people having a benignly good time enjoying everything from Procol Harum to Electric Six, Sinatra ballads to Serbia's home-grown brand of high-energy pop music known as techno-folk.
Last winter I slipped on ice in an unlit back street in Belgrade at gone two in the morning. Most Serbs can spot a foreigner a mile off (and know we are Croesus-rich by comparison), so I was unnerved when several huge, crew-cut young men emerged from the shadows and rushed towards me. I needn't have worried - they were solicitude personified, lifting me to my feet and ensuring I was not hurt. Far from snatching my handbag, they carefully picked the bag and its scattered contents from the pavement and handed it back to me.
The only time you are likely to encounter rowdiness is after a big sports event, when patriotic feelings run high, especially when Serbia has won. At these times, young men lean precariously from car windows and open car boots, as they drive through the streets blaring horns and waving bedspread-sized Serbian flags.
Serbia is the ideal destination for anyone looking for an adventurous holiday, without any long-haul flights, and a love of meeting the locals. You get a real feeling of being in an exotic location, where the tectonic plates of Islam, Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism, alongside socialism and capitalism, have all collided in the past.
It is not the place for travellers seeking Western-standard slick city breaks. Many hotels are dowdy and run-down after a decade of sanctions and Slobodan Milosevic communism, with frayed wiring, missing light bulbs and cracked tiles. They are, however, scrupulously clean. It is a bit like going on a hen or stag party weekend to Dublin with an extra dash of zaniness thrown in.
While the post-Milosevic government and Western aid have done much to repair potholed streets and cracked pavements, there are still many burnt-out buildings in Belgrade which stand as a stark reminder of the Nato bombing in 1999. The bombardment may have spawned Serb hostility towards Nato governments, but it did nothing to diminish ordinary people's liking for American and British culture (they love Only Fools and Horses ) or Western visitors. Staff at state-owned hotels can be surly, but you must not take it personally - they are just as rude to the locals. The vast majority of Serbs delight in talking to the British and many people, especially the young of Belgrade, speak English.
The influx of overseas aid agencies and investors in the past two years has also brought the old cosmopolitan air back to the city after too many years of defensive introspection. The needs of these newcomers have brought practical benefits; for instance, the first cash dispensers are beginning to appear on the streets. However, these are new and sometimes do not work so it is still wise to take as much cash as you think you will need. The currency is the dinar (one dinar roughly equals 1p), although the euro is widely accepted. Taxis cost the equivalent of less than £2 for most city journeys.
One of Belgrade's great treasures is the Danube and its tributary, the Sava. The Serbian capital sits astride the confluence of the rivers, with the old city on one side and the self-explanatory New Belgrade on the other. River cruises give a wonderful eye-level view of rich Serbs at play in their speedboats, as well as of Kalemegdan Castle which dominates the sweep of the Danube as it meets the Sava. The fortress, which dates back to early medieval times, mirrors the city's chequered history under early Serb, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule. Well worth a visit are the cafe-bar in a turret deep in the walls of the castle and the zoo which abuts the castle walls.
Restaurant boats along the riverbank all look inviting, but the food served varies enormously from over-priced mediocrity in some to spectacularly good in others; one of the best is Dialog, once frequented by Milosevic, now on trial in the Hague, and his wife.
Shopaholics should beware; Belgrade is over-endowed with clothes and shoe shops, some selling Italian designer wear at about a third of the price in the West. The Serbs are also masters of piracy and CD shops and street vendors sell Western pop music and computer software within hours of their publication in the West - at phenomenally low prices, sometimes under £1. Quirkier souvenirs are to be found at the large flea market on the outskirts of the city.
Serbia's tourism industry all but ground to a halt during the Milosevic era. In the heyday of Yugoslav tourism, in the 1970s and 1980s, five million foreigners visited every year. Now Yugoslavia no longer exists (the rump state is now renamed Serbia and Montenegro) and the government is trying to lure visitors back with a Tourist Organisation of Serbia slogan 'Fall in Love Again'. The regime hopes that between 25,000 and 30,000 foreigners will visit this year - although only a tiny number are expected to be British. As part of its drive, however, the government has scrapped the requirement for visas for nationals of 40 countries, including the UK.
Outside Belgrade, the tourism industry hopes to tempt visitors with Danube cruises now the bombed bridges have been cleared to leave a pathway for shipping at Novi Sad in Serbia's flat, breadbasket province of Vojvodina, bordering Hungary. Hunting trips and tours of monasteries are also planned. However, one idea of luring British tourists to health spas is unlikely to catch on in the foreseeable future. Far from being the preserves of pampered guests taking facials and saunas, these still tend to be grim, cavernous halls with standpipes of vile-tasting sulphurous waters frequented by Serbia's elderly and infirm in an atmosphere more of a sad geriatric ward than a health centre promoting beauty and vigour.
One of Serbia's best-kept secrets is Mount Kopaonik in the south - a ski resort in winter and retreat from the heat of towns and cities in summer. Towering 6,000 feet above Kosovo and Bosnia, the resort has hundreds of rooms in several alpine-style hotels and self- catering apartments. The area is strictly protected as a national park and the bird and plant life are spectacular, with edelweiss and other mountain flora carpeting the slopes when I was there in late May. The lodges and hotels are prettily built, but while the air outside is crystal clear and reviving, the room I stayed in was dismayingly musty. Again, realisations of the economic problems still besetting Serbia are needed to get the most from a holiday here.
Eve-Ann Prentice visited Serbia with the National Tourist Organisation of Serbia. The organisation can arrange packages, flights and hotels.
Travel agencies in Belgrade which organise visits for British tourists include Putnik (00 381 11 3241 578) and Yugotours (00 381 11 638 155).
Flights to Belgrade are available from Heathrow with the national Serbia and Montenegro carrier, Jat (020 7629 2007) with prices from £109 return, excluding taxes; and with British Airways (0870 850 9850) from £138 return including taxes.
The Foreign Office travel advice for Serbia and Montenegro mentions a 'general threat from terrorism' and advises a high level of vigilance in public places though it does not advise against travel there. For more detail see www.fco.gov.uk/travel or call 0870 606 0290.
Further reading: For an evocative summary of the social and political situation in Serbia and Montenegro see Lonely Planet's After Yugoslavia (Journeys) by Zoe Bran, or Dervla Murphy's Through the Embers of Chaos: Balkan Journeys.