I’m going to admit, much to my embarrassment, that I knew next to nothing about the history of Serbia (or any other country in the Balkan Peninsula for that matter) prior to my arrival in Belgrade. Back in grade school, the Yugoslav Wars were either glossed over or marginalized to a couple paragraphs in textbooks that teachers tended to skip regardless. This was partly because the conflict was still ongoing and the "history" had yet to be written, but I felt ashamed for my ignorance on the topic considering I was traveling through the region. Thankfully, my tour through Belgrade proved to be an excellent place to learn about the history of the former Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia… hum, that sounds familiar. It’s in Asia right?
You know, close to Czechoslovakia?
Growing up I only heard Serbia in the context of the terrible atrocities they committed on their neighboring countries - much like you hear about the Middle East these days. While the attacks carried out by Serbian nationals in the 90’s were reprehensible, who am I to judge an entire country (or a person) by their worst action – surely Serbia has many redeeming qualities. Though the war ended over a decade ago, I approached Belgrade with a bit of trepidation thanks to my own biases and unfounded preconceptions about the country. Just like in Ukraine, I was incredibly surprised by what I found; a lively, vibrant city that is full of wonderful people excited to meet tourists curious about their country.
I’m so happy I'm always wrong about these things.
When I arrived in Belgrade I was struck with a strange, almost surreal, feeling that I have never encountered before with a brand new city - I felt at home. Unlike my arrival into Ukraine, which was marked by a mild sense of terror, I felt remarkably comfortable in Belgrade from the moment I stepped off my train. I never thought I’d experience such a sensation, and of all the places in the world, why Belgrade? I immediately recognized that my nostalgia toward seeing Cyrillic script again was thanks to my time in Ukraine, but there was a sense of familiarity in Belgrade that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As I made my way to the hostel from the train station, I looked around for a while and, like a bolt of lighting, it dawned on me.
Belgrade reminds me of Milan, Italy.
It isn’t surprising when you think about how Serbia and Italy's communist histories would influence the architecture and feel of each city in a similar way, but on several occasions the deja vu was almost palpable. For starters, the frigid, dreary, overcast weather was something I'd come to associate with my semester abroad in Milan and the constant smell of cigarette smoke permeating the air only helped to reinforce the feeling of Italy.
It’s strange to think that cigarette smoke triggers pleasant memories in my mind.
Furthermore, the old governmental buildings lining the streets of Belgrade are heavy, imposing stone behemoths sprinkled with elaborate sculptures harking back to the country’s glory days. These massive edifices once shined brightly, but are now covered in pollution and match the dreary gray sky above.The buildings I remember seeing in Milan follow a very similar domineering architectural style (all the way down to the thick coating of dirt on the outsides) and both cities (more so in Belgrade) have their fair share of horribly unimaginative Soviet-era office buildings scattered around town.
Nothing against the Soviets, the US had a similar phase in the 1970’s that I detest.
There is a very stark contrast between the touristy areas, such as the main promenade, Knez Mihailova, and the rest of the town. While the walkways of this main pedestrian thoroughfare are well maintained and constructed of cobblestones or marble tiles, the regular sidewalks around town are made of asphalt and covered in divots, cracks, holes, and other worn out patches. Just like in Milan, I needed to pay close attention to where I was walking less I trip over something (which happened a fair number of times). Outside of the main touristic areas, the average streets are not particularly photogenic, thanks to the abundant (and not at all artistic) graffiti scrawled on the buildings. It’s funny to see that many of the important buildings here, such as the National Assembly, are immaculately well kept with flowers, paved walkways, and manicured lawns - but only in the front!
When I peaked around to the other side the grass is unkempt, the walkways in shambles, and not a single flower.
Do not let my initial description dissuade you from ever visiting Belgrade (or Milan for that matter). Serbia has a rough history, so much so that every single Serbian generation alive today has experienced some sort of armed conflict during their lifetime. Belgrade itself has been the center of numerous conflicts over the years, bombed more times than I can count, and on more than one occasion be completely leveled. The city's current form is the result of country's tumultuous history, but Belgrade still has a lot to offer. From the beautiful architecture of the National Theater, to the awe-inspiring St. Sava Church all the way to the bohemian neighborhood of Skadarlija where the rakija (fruit brandy) flows freely from the local kafanas, Belgrade is full of wonderful hidden treasures for travelers. While it's not particularly photogenic to see scaffolding and construction projects all around the city, it’s reassuring to see Belgrade is rebuilding itself once again.
During my stay in Belgrade I found Serbians to be very open and friendly, but I would advise my fellow travelers interested in learning more about the Yugoslav Wars to approach the topic with caution. Unlike the Germans, who are (more or less) okay discussing what happened under the Nazi regime, the topic strikes a tender nerve with many Serbians. Due to the recency of the wars and lingering political issues, do not be surprised if locals speak obtusely on the matter or even flat out change the subject. With that said, there are plenty of people I met willing to discuss their country’s history for the sake of sharing their perspective. Over the last few months I've realized regardless of where I am in the world, everyone loves complaining about his or her government and corrupt politicians. As long as you listen without judgment, I’ve found you can learn a tremendous amount of information about a country solely based on peoples’ impassioned rants.
The key here is that REGARDLESS of what they say, you sit there, smile, and listen.
This is where most people go wrong.
I did the usual touristy things around town, but my favorite part of my trip to Belgrade was simply learning about the history of the region from a Serbian perspective. There are a number of fantastic free walking tours throughout the city led by locals, and my guide Željko was a wealth of information. Granted it was more of a “crash course” on the region’s history rather than a full-on lecture and I know full well that what I learned had a Serbian bias, but Željko’s personal stories were eye-opening.
Back in Berlin I was continually amazed that the history I read about WWII transpired while my grandparents were alive, yet in Belgrade I spoke with a man my age who was directly impacted by the Yugoslav Wars. Between the two tours I took with Željko, I learned the story behind the formation/break up of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the development of the Cyrillic language, and interesting new historical - albeit controversial - characters such as Josip Broz Tito. Regardless of your opinion of Tito, the man played an integral role in Yugoslavia and somehow I never once learned about him in school or even heard of the man’s name before visiting Serbia!
And I bet for any reader under the age of 30 this is probably the first time you hear his name too.
Out of the many things I love about traveling, learning about the history of a country is easily my favorite aspect. During my history classes back in school I often forgot much of what I learned the moment my exams were over, because I felt there was absolutely no connection between my life and the issues (past or present) of people on the other side of the world. In my little suburban bubble back in Katy, it was of little relevance whether I concerned myself with the history or culture of a nation halfway around the world that I may never visit.
It's sad, and even a bit shameful, but true.
History now plays an incredibly important role in my life because I'm physically located in a country and surrounded by its culture. Every aspect of my life from buildings I see, to the locals I interact with, and meals I eat are in some way affected by the history of the region. By traveling, you internalize the history of a country because it becomes personally relevant to you; it is an experience, not just words in a textbook. Understanding even a fraction of a country's complex, multifaceted history is something everyone should strive for as it helps to cultivate an open mind and fosters empathy for the local population's struggle.
I have greatly enjoyed my time in Belgrade and while there is still so much to explore like Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo, the weather is becoming unbearably cold and I need to start heading south to Turkey. I can tell you right now my next trip to Europe will be through this region. I definitely didn't get to explore as much as I wanted, but for now...
I’m off to Sofia!