FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Cross border steam

Posted in Bosnia, Serbia, Vardište by folkestonejack on October 22, 2011

The narrow gauge line between Mokra Gora and Višegrad holds the distinction of being the world’s only international preserved railway line, crossing the border from Serbia into Bosnia. At the time of our visit there had only been one passenger train to make this trip – the inaugural train in September 2011 – so there was still plenty of novelty to the appearance of a steam locomotive on the line.

Our non-stop run to the border with 83-173 departed from Mokra Gora at 12.30pm and we were all reminded to have our passports to hand for the border crossing. The road runs parallel to the railway line at the border so the plan seemed to be that the officials would walk out from their post to the line to check our passports as we left Serbia, but in the event we were waved through.

After this point the train ran through a tunnel (complete with a sculpture of a Serbian soldier atop the exit) and we emerged at the Vardište border point at around 1pm. A border patrol van and police car (a yugo!) had been parked up by the lineside and the Bosnian border officials were waiting to board our train. It was a slightly surreal experience to be on a narrow gauge steam train with border officials wandering through the carriage checking passports. If it was strange to us, it must have been even stranger for the officials used to dealing with border traffic with fewer wheels!

The border scene

Cross-border steam

The officials and drivers heading up the road to the border were also ever so slightly bemused by the sudden appeal of their vintage police car (parked up alongside the loco) but it was an irresistible photo opportunity for most of us.

Heritage appeal - Steam locomotive and Yugo

Once all the formalities were complete we resumed our journey towards Višegrad with the intention of making a few photostops along the way – in spite of the fairly miserable conditions.

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More Mokra

Posted in Mokra Gora, Serbia, Šargan by folkestonejack on October 22, 2011

Our second day at Mokra Gora saw no improvement in the weather. In fact, if anything it looked a whole heap wetter as we arrived at Šargan in our coach. It is no wonder that the english translation of Mokra Gora is wet mountain!

The plan for the morning was to run chimney first in the opposite direction to yesterday, starting out from Šargan at 9.25am and arriving at Mokra Gora around midday. Figuring that I wouldn’t be back this way again I continued to take photographs at every runpast but the numbers were dwindling with each stop. I suspect that the most sensible place to be was in the warmth of the carriage.

Our two days on the Šargan 8 provided plenty of scenic locations but after a while they blended into a familiar pattern of rocky outcrops, forest and the occasional young evergreen tree as foreground interest… luckily, the scenery on the afternoon run across the border would be quite different.

Steam on the Šargan Eight

Posted in Mokra Gora, Serbia, Šargan by folkestonejack on October 21, 2011

After a week of beautiful weather it was quite a shock to see the miserable mix of rain and grey skies that awaited us this morning, even though we knew it was coming.

A wet morning in Mokra Gora

Our charter train, hauled by 83-173, left Mokra Gora at 9am and made for the border. The idea was that the train would work back to Mokra Gora with numerous photostops along the way. The weather conditions were not at all promising – no light, low hanging mist, grey skies and persistant rain. As with any charter you have to work with what you are given so we still trooped out to take the shots, though Bernd was probably quite right when he described these as “Pictures the world doesn’t need!”

The first photo-stop of the morning on the line between the border and Mokra Gora

Morning mist on the line to Mokra Gora

At 11.30am we stopped for a leisurely lunch (a tasty and hot bowl of soup from the restaurant at Mokra Gora was the perfect prescription!) before resuming at 1.30pm. In the afternoon we took the line from Mokra Gora to Šargan, again making numerous photostops until reaching Šargan about 4pmish. It was quite a disorientating journey once you started on the figure of eight – I easily found myself losing all sense of direction, though to be fair my sense of direction is woeful under normal circumstances!

83-173 emerges from a short tunnel on the line to Mokra Gora

83-173 crosses a bridge en-route to Šargan

The journey along the line had impressed upon us the scale of construction around the line which presents a rather disneyfied version of the Serbian countryside, particularly around each of the stations. I’m sure that is a necessary evil for the future survival of the line as a tourist attraction. An authentic but dead railway isn’t much use to anyone…

Šargan

Šargan Station

Although the day was fairly dismal it had been surprisingly enjoyable, which was in no small part down to the company of Andy and Charles throughout the trip. Terrible jokes and a shared sense of the madness of photography in such conditions certainly have their part to play in staying sane on a trip like this!

83-173 and other locomotives on the Šargan 8

Posted in Mokra Gora, Serbia, Šargan by folkestonejack on October 21, 2011

Our locomotive for the few days we would spend on the 760mm narrow gauge lines around Mokra Gora was to be class 83 locomotive 83-173 which was built in the Đuro Đaković factory in 1949.

83 173 was built in 1949

83 173 had problems a short while before our tour started so the engineers from Lapovo had to come to Mokra Gora to fix this locomotive which in turn delayed the test run of the class 33 loco a little. I began to realise just how risky the entire trip had been – with no alternative locomotives available in any of the locations that we visited. In many ways, things could have turned out alot worse!

83 173 in steam on the Šargan 8

The other loco in service during our visit was a diesel, L45H-098, which was used to haul regular passenger services including a school run. The range of locomotives and rolling stock on the line is quite varied, which is in no small part down to the donations made by the Serbian narrow gauge museum. In our travels on and around the system we saw:

  • Diesel L45H-096 (Bucharest, 1987) in the workshop at Šargan
  • Diesel 745-097 under cover at Mokra Gora.
  • 0-8-2 Steam locomotive 83-052 (Jung, 1923) under cover at Šargan
  • 0-6-0T Steam locomotive 25-27 (ČKD, 1949) under cover at Šargan
  • 0-6-0WT Steam locomotive “Elza“(Budapest, 1913) which was a gift to the railway from Zrenjanin sugar factory, under cover at Mokra Gora
  • 0-8-0T Steam locomotive M.I.M.C. 764-427 (Reşiţa, 1956) plinthed near Mokra Gora
  • 0-6-0 Steam locomotive 19-126 (Henschel, 1923) plinthed at Dobrun
  • Snowplough 990-100 plinthed at Šargan

Apart from these, there were a few locomotives around the system that we didn’t catch sight of including one locomotive from the 600mm gauge forest railway.

Mokra Gora and the Šargan 8

Posted in Mokra Gora, Serbia, Šargan by folkestonejack on October 21, 2011

Our arrival at Mokra Gora late last night gave us little chance to get a good feel for the place, but in the morning light we could see the remarkable set up from the windows of the station hotel which sits at one end of the platform. The range of buildings in the station complex includes a ticket office, restaurant and hotel – with many more buildings under construction around the site. It is clearly a major tourist draw in the region, but it is also a quite remarkable achievement of re-construction.

A class 83 0-8-2 locomotive on the 760 mm gauge line at Mokra Gora

The narrow gauge line was opened in 1925 and is remarkable for its track layout. In order to get from Mokra Gora to Šargan in a straight line would have involved a 70% ascent that would only have been possible for a rack railway or something similar. Instead the track was built in the shape of a figure of 8, rising at a steady gradient of 18% through the mountainous terrain. This much is evident to the eye at some viewpoints where you can see three levels of the line at once. This unique feature gives the line its name of “Šargan Eight” today.

The Sargan Eight

In its heyday you could have travelled from Belgrade to Sarajevo by narrow gauge train. It must have been one of the greatest rail journeys in the world at the time, particularly in the Serbian mountains and on the long stretches of line running alongside the Bosnian river valleys. Anywhere else and it would have been made a major tourist attraction but instead the line was closed in 1974.

Most services today are hauled by diesels: L45H-098 on a passenger service at Mokra Gora

The reconstruction of the line between Šargan and Mokra Gora began in 1999 and the first train ran out of Šargan in 2003. After this section of the line re-opened work continued on a further cross-border extension to Visegrad in Bosnia. The inaugural train on the line to Visegrad ran in September 2011. It is incredibly impressive to see the amount of work that has taken place – and is still going on.

Steam freight: Palilula to Svrljig

Posted in Palilula, Serbia, Svrljig by folkestonejack on October 20, 2011

After walking down the track a little way we came to the mouth of a relatively short tunnel (200m) presenting us with a small dilemma.

The first group had already walked through the tunnel with our tour guide but those of us who had followed behind were a little more cautious, mindful of the fact that that a service train was due (the only one expected in this direction all day). After waiting thirty minutes nothing had appeared so a few guys ventured in to the tunnel but the distant sound of a horn soon sent them scurrying back out. Finally, the late running DMU passed and we continued our walk through the tunnel.

Emerging from the tunnel

Once we had made it to the other end of the tunnel we found ourselves on a bridge across a gorge, between two tunnels. The first group had found spots on the hillside by the second tunnel mouth, looking a little like grazing mountain goats from a distance. I joined them and marvelled at the stunning landscape.

The problem with the spot was that the very dramatic rocky features that made it a stunning location also made it quite tricky to get in full sunlight. Around half of the bridge was reasonably well lit when we arrived, but with no loco in sight it became an excrutiating wait as we watched the shadows slowly creeping across the bridge. Our loco could not set off until the service train had cleared the block and when it eventually reached us the sun had all but disappeared from the bridge. The shot was gone.

Shadows across the line

Nevertheless, I still took a desperate shot of the kriegslok poking out of the tunnel mouth into the slither of sunlight that remained before we walked through the second tunnel for the next shot. It was a relief to see plenty of sunlight when we emerged!

After re-boarding we continued on to another spot on the line between Palilula and Nisevac around 2pm. An arch of rock over the railway line provided the centre point to a stunning vista which we photographed from the hillside with two runpasts – it looked great from almost any angle that you tried. It was certainly the highlight of the day.

33-087 passes under an arch on the line between Palilula and Nisevac

The next stop took us a little further down the line where the only route to the shot involved a bit of impromptu rock-climbing. I’m not the best at that sort of thing and was already contemplating abandoning the effort when one of the other guys got injured by a dislodged rock. I’m always tempted to take a few risks for that perfect photo but for once I reckoned that this would have to be one that I would let get away.

After retracing our route for a little while we made a further two runpasts across a bridge just outside Palilula (around 3pm). This location offered all sorts of photographic opportunities, including a trio of perfectly placed haystacks and a great view down from the hillside. Once this was in the bag we took water at Palilula, reboarding at 3.30pm.

33-087 passes some haystacks on a stretch of line near Palilula

33-087 crosses a bridge near Palilula

Our last planned photo stop of the day found us back in the fields just a quarter of an hour later. Although we had now left the gorges behind we still had the hills as an impressive backdrop. It seemed like a great place to end the day – although as it turned out, chance provided another quick photostop a little later. Our locomotive had certainly wrung the most out of the day – in the last stop the crew had seen that four stays in a row/group had broken and water was coming into the firebox. The problem was gradually getting worse.

Across the fields towards Svrljig

A little battered, but still going...

At 4.50pm we arrived at Svrljig where we said farewell to 33-087 and boarded our bus. Although we hadn’t quite made it as far as Niš we saw the city from the motorway as we headed away. A couple of the guys on the trip left us at this point – it had been arranged that a taxi would meet us on the motorway near Niš but when we reached the junction we saw that the taxi was on a major road crossing the motorway, rather than on the same road. No problem… the taxi just backed down the slip road in the opposite direction to the traffic!

Farewell to 33-087 at Svrljig

Our drive from Svrljig to Mokra Gora took just under six hours and gave us a fleeting view of the illuminated fortress at Stari Grad, Užice along the way. We arrived at Mokra Gora at 11pm, where the hotel staff had stayed up to serve us a rather late evening meal. Indeed, most of us were still finishing the meal as the next day arrived!

Steam freight: Zaječar to Palilula

Posted in Palilula, Serbia, Zaječar by folkestonejack on October 20, 2011

The plan for today’s run was to take 33-087 through the gorges and tunnels on the line from Zaječar to Nis (via Knjaževac). I don’t think anyone had particularly high hopes for the day but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that our train was fully prepared and waiting for departure when we arrived at Zaječar station.

Ready for departure - 33-087 at Zaječar

After setting off at 7.15am we made our first stop at Grljan (around 7.30am) where we photographed two runpasts with the stunning backdrop of a mine and loading facility (Rudnik uglja Grljan) against perfectly blue skies. It was hard not to smile at something going right.

33-087 steams past the loading facility at Grljan

The next stop (around 8am) came at a small station at Vratarnica which was hidden amongst the woods. After taking some shots of 33-087 passing through the station we walked up the line and crossed a girder bridge on foot before plunging down the embankment into the fields for two more runpasts.

Vratarnica Station

33-087 crosses the girder bridge at Vratarnica

Our journey towards Niš continued to make good progress with stops at Mali Izvor (little spring), Knjaževac and Podvis. It seemed like things were looking up, particularly as we were now entering the most scenic stretch of line through hills and gorges.

33-087 seen from the hillside at Podvis

A little after the next tunnel (between Podvis and Surtjeski Miljkovac) we set back to a position where everyone could either clamber down on to a ledge for a view across to the tunnel mouth and bridge or scramble up the hillside for a slightly different perspective. I took the option of the ledge and watched as 33-087 emerged from the tunnel and onto the bridge crossing the gorge. It was a beautiful sight and worth waiting for!

33-087 emerges from a tunnel and onto a bridge across a gorge on the line between Podvis and Surtjeski Miljkovac

The morning had really delivered on some great locations but the afternoon promised much more. As we were now running low on water we had an uninterrupted run to Palilula for a service break which we reached in late morning.

Service stop at Palilula

At Palilula we had a 1km walk up the track against the clock as our loco had to depart within 10 minutes to clear the line for a service train. After making it to a good viewpoint some of the others set about frantically clearing the lineside of clutter and overgrown vegetation to improve the shot.

Once our loco had passed by it carried on to the next station to leave the service train with a clear path. We now had a choice – stay on the hillside and wait for our train to return or walk up the line through a tunnel to the next spot. Initially I thought I would chill out on the hillside, but curiosity got the better of me and I started to walk…

One night in Zaječar

Posted in Serbia, Zaječar by folkestonejack on October 19, 2011

After arriving at Zaječar we checked in to the Hotel Srbija Tis which has a commanding position right in the centre of town. It is a somewhat strange place, probably reflecting it’s past life as a state owned enterprise. Although the entire place looks like it is stuck in the 1950s/60s the guidebooks say that some of the floors had been renovated to a western standard. Nevertheless, I was rather pleased to see that we were on an unrefurbished floor which still had the curious character of a communist era hotel! Mind you, a bit of light in the corridors at night would have been useful…

Once you step into the reception almost the first thing that you see is the rather startling log cabin entrance to the ‘ethno tavern’ which we later got to sample at dinner. The ethno-tavern was as twee on the inside as it was outside with a complete log cabin interior and a singer belting out some startingly loud Serbian folk tunes to create some atmosphere. Strangely, this was enough to induce someone to pull the plug out of the wall later that evening!

I couldn’t fault the food – it was a great opportunity to try some traditional Serbian dishes. I’d be lying if I said that I recognised anything, but with the help of a guidebook and google I least have some idea what I was eating – which included a slection of incredible starters such as burek filled with cheese, white cheese, ajvar relish, eggplant in batter, red peppers filled with a sour cream and proja corn bread. This feast was followed by a hearty meat, potato and vegetable dish – all washed down with draught Jelen beer in earthenware jugs.

Trails of fire

Posted in Serbia by folkestonejack on October 19, 2011

A short while after leaving Kucevo our train came to a sudden halt. After climbing out we could see that the tinder-dry vegetation at the lineside and even a few wooden sleepers had been set alight. The crew set about dowsing these with water but a distant trail of smoke suggested that the problem was not restricted to our immediate vicinity.

End of the line

Although the crew were able to fix the problem during a lengthy stop we were not allowed to continue as the guard on the train had been told that we had set light to a house (though this later seemed to have been revised to a corner of a field). The decision on whether we would be allowed to continue was now passed to Belgrade. Whatever the outcome, we could expect quite a wait as our bus was two hours away in Bor. It was doubly frustrating being stuck here, just before the beginnings of the more scenic stretches of line but you couldn’t dwell on that.

In the end the decision was made to send out a diesel from Pozarevac to push us on to Majdanpek. This turned out to be the Tito-lok that we had seen in the morning (666-03) which arrived at 16.50, far quicker than anyone expected. After a slight delay whilst the police took some details we set off again – finally reaching Majdanpek at 6.14pm.

Tito-lok to the rescue!

At Majdanpek re-joined our bus for the onward journey to Zajecar, but even this had its moments. At one point we came across a road blockage with a lorry that had slewed across both carriageways. It seemed for a moment as though this was destined to be a day that was not going to go our way – clearly the gods were not favouring us in our quest! However, we found a way through and reached Zajecar just before 9pm. Our long and fairly disastrous day was over.

Although I am an optimist by nature even I am struggling to imagine a good day tomorrow, although we are apparently now into the next administrative region where we still have permission to run. Third time lucky? It’s a slim hope that I am clinging onto.

Steam freight: Požarevac to Kučevo

Posted in Kučevo, Požarevac, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 19, 2011

The plan for today was to take our charter freight train headed by kriegslok 33-087 into the scenic countryside on the line from Požarevac to Zaječar via Bor.

Our departure from Požarevac had been much delayed and there were times when I wondered if we would ever set off, so it was a relief to be able to board and get under way just before 10am. The first stop along the line was Sirakovo which we reached around an hour later. Under the perfectly blue sky we photographed two runpasts through the station before re-boarding to the familiar cry of “Einsteigen bitte” from our Serbian guide.

33-087 makes a runpast through Sirakovo

After leaving Sirakovo behind we continued along the line until we reached a bridge across a river near Ljesnica around midday. I joined everyone else in clambering down the embankment into a nearby field which offered a good vista of the line away from the bridge.

The strange spectacle caught the attention of two local tractor drivers who stopped to find out what was going on – and soon found themselves becoming a part of the photographic composition. I thought that added the perfect dash of local colour!

Kriegslok 33-087 crosses a river near to Ljesnica

All along the route we were met by a mixture of astonished stares and people reaching for their mobiles to film the surprising sight. In places it seemed that the local population were already well aware of our tour – as we steamed through Turija at 12.30 we found an entire school had been lined up to get a good view of the train (with all the children waving enthusiastically).

Kriegslok 33-087 at a stand in front of a quarry at Zvižde

The next stop was Zvižde at 1pm where the river, road and railway line all run in parallel with a hillside industrial complex (a quarry) in the background. Initially we expected to have a runpast here but this was cancelled as the crew could not set back into the tunnel they had just emerged from. In spite of this, we made the best of some static shots as it was too interesting a location to abandon completely.

It wasn’t long before we reached Kučevo where a fire tender was waiting to fill the loco up with water. As this would take some time we walked up the overgrown track to a signal where we grabbed some shots of the locomotive getting underway again (at around 2.15pm) before re-boarding. The locomotive wasn’t in the greatest of shape with water leaking in both front corners of the foundation ring and the clack valve blowing through.

Water stop at Kučevo

So far we had mostly been passing through flat countryside, but we were slowly getting closer to the scenic stretch of line with hills, forests and impressive viaducts. As we re-boarded there was a degree of anxious consultation of watches knowing that time was tight to reach the most impressive viaduct, high above the valley floor. Sadly, we would never make it…

A slow start at Požarevac

Posted in Požarevac, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 19, 2011

Today’s planned early start at Požarevac fell apart fairly quickly. After arriving at the station things had initially looked better, after all the locomotive was actually here this time, but it seemed that the preparations for our long day hadn’t taken place and this left us with plenty of time to kill.

Some of us wandered around the yard at Požarevac to see what was around, photographing an incoming passenger service hauled by an electric locomotive and one of four ŽS series 666 diesel-electric locomotives. Unlike the other locomotives I had seen in Serbia the ŽS series 666 diesel-electrics were painted blue to match Tito’s blue train and the German moniker of Tito-lok seemed quite a neat way to describe them. Our delayed departure finally took place at 9.57am and we said goodbye to Požarevac.

Steam freight: Despotovac to Resavica

Posted in Despotovac, Dvorište, Resavica, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 18, 2011

Mid-way through our unexpectedly leisurely (and delicious) lunch in Despotovac we received confirmation that our locomotive had set off on its return, having turned at Resavica.

Our Serbian guide, Dragan, had encouraged the crew not to go for more coal (they had plenty for our needs and time was running out if we were to get any shots in the remaining light of the day) but when Bernd asked if they had taken water, Dragan said no but ‘alles ist unter kontrolle!’ which prompted laughter across the dining room. It was a little hard to believe that anything might go to plan given our luck so far today…

Departure from Despotovac

Around 3pm 33-087 returned to Despotovac and after a shot of a false departure we re-joined the train, this time taking up residence in a freight car behind the loco with nothing much to hang onto, let alone any creature comforts. It was a strange way to travel, made even odder by the liberal sprinkling of salt across the floor of the car (maybe the previous occupants of the car were carcasses of meat or containers of fish!?). It was actually quite good fun and certainly more spacious than my usual commuting experience into London!

33-087 on the approach to Dvoriste

Soon we were well under way and made good progress up the line to the more scenic hilly stretches. We stopped just outside Dvorište and photographed two runpasts from the hillside before walking up the line to photograph a third runpast through the station.

Dvorište

33-087 departs from Dvorište

In theory the stop at Dvorište should have been our last opportunity to photograph 33-087 under steam today as the water was running low, but by chance our freight train was stopped just outside Resavica by a signal. This gave us the opportunity to walk up to the station yard and watch 33-087 haul the train the final yards into Resavica (luckily just before the light disappeared from the valley floor).

Arrival at Resavica

All in all it had been a very frustrating day. Instead of photographing runpasts from 7.30am to 2pm we had to make do with about an hour or so between 3 and 4pm. Hopefully tomorrow will be better – a full day of steam action would be just perfect.

A derailment (or maybe not?)

Posted in Lapovo, Markovac, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 18, 2011

The plan for today was to use 33 087 for a coal train on the line from Markovac to Resavica. However, when we turned up at Markovac at 7.30am there was no locomotive to be seen!

The plan had already hit a stumbling block – the locomotive was facing tender first and would need to be turned. In theory this shouldn’t have presented a problem as there was a triangle on which this could be done, but there seemed to be some reluctance to do this – possibly because the track was not in great condition and the locomotive might be de-railed. After a while conversations with officials elicited the news that not only was this a possibility – it had already happened! The story was that 33 087 had derailed at 7.30am whilst turning on the the triangle.

We re-boarded our coach and headed off to Lapovo, the site of the derailment, to get a first hand view of the situation. To our surprise we found 33 087 sitting outside the station seemingly re-railed (if it had ever been de-railed!?!!) and being readied to depart! I could see already the difficult job that our tour organisers and guides must have had in trying to sift out the facts from everything that they were being told. Still, the optimist in me was encouraged that the outlook for a day photographing a kriegslok had improved significantly.

Kriegslok 33-087 departs from Lapovo

To make the most of the situation we gathered to take a shot of 33 087 departing from Lapovo around 9am (albeit with steam leaking from all the wrong places) before returning to Markovac by coach.

A service train approaches Markovac

After retracing our steps to Markovac we spent some time watching the loco collect some more wagons before running around. After all the morning drama the loco hadn’t actually turned so we would still be heading out tender first. The new plan was to take the coal train as far as Despotovac and then head off for lunch. In the meantime, the loco would be turned at Resavica and we would then reboard the train for the final leg of the journey.

Our re-timed departure took us out of Markovac at 10.15am but made grindingly slow progress up the line. The early stretch of the line could hardly be described as scenic but there were some interesting points along the route that would have been worthy of a stop, had our engine been facing the right way. The most notable of these was a combined road/rail bridge between Markovac and Svilajnac. The road and the tracks take up the same space on the bridge so when our coal train arrived the traffic was stopped in both directions to allow us to cross – a rare enough occurence with any type of locomotive here, let alone a steam locomotive.

At midday we finally reached Despotovac and left the train, so that the locomotive and single passenger car could continue on to Resavica to turn. Time for lunch!

Kriegslok 33 087

Posted in Serbia by folkestonejack on October 18, 2011

The focus of our trip shifted to the Serbian steam locomotive JDŽ 33 087 today. The locomotive was built by Henschel at Kassel in 1944 and was one of around a thousand class 52 war locomotives (‘Kriegsloks’) constructed at this site alone. After the war the kriegsloks served in the railways of many Eastern European countries but the career of 33 087 lasted longer than most with a place in the Serbian Railways museum fleet.

Kriegslok 33 087 at Lapovo

The availability of the kriegslok to haul our train was no mean feat – the locomotive’s boiler certificates had expired and it was only under steam after negotiations secured a special permit to use it on the condition that a number of repairs were made.

33-087 was built in 1944

The repairs required included the replacement of half a square metre of boiler sheet metal as well as work on the pipes and the motion. The work on the boiler had to be completed twice as the first attempt was not sufficient. In the end the first successful test run took place just five days before our trip started. Now, that’s what I call a close shave…

33-087 in action

If that wasn’t enough, the plans to put together some suitable wagons for our freight train fell apart at the last minute. The wagons were due to be brought in from Bosnia (with the agreement of both Bosnian and Serbian Railways) but three days before our trip customs refused to allow the movement to take place. In the face of this blow our Serbian guide managed to scout out some suitable replacements in Serbia. It is at times like that you realise just how much effort went on behind the scenes to make our tour possible – and for that I am very grateful!

Steam lift

Posted in Resavica, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 17, 2011

In the early afternoon we drove across to Senjski Rudnik (Senjski Coal Mine) to see their steam lift. Although our focus was on this one piece of machinery it has to be said that the entire complex is a remarkable industrial survivor. Indeed, a recent EU report described it as the birthplace of the industrialisation of Serbia.

Sign at the entrance to Senjski mine, Serbia

Senjski Rudnik is Serbia’s oldest coal mine, established in 1853. On the drive in we passed one of the most significant parts of the site, the tunnel entrance to Alexander’s Shaft (described as ‘the first shaft in the history of coal mining in Serbia’) before reaching the gates of the current complex.

The complex includes a number of shafts, workshops and administrative buildings – although around this you also see the world of the mining community with a row of workers’ cottages and the beautiful orthodox church of St. Prokopie (which we passed on the way down into the valley). It was a remarkably green place for all the industrial activity, heavily wooded with goats grazing on the hillside.

A view of the steam lift, tower and engine building during operation

After making our way in we were shown to the steam lift over the main shaft, which clanked into operation before our eyes, bringing some miners to the surface. This was, of course, the cue for a rather mad burst of camera clicking worthy of the paparazzi – winning a look of bemusement from the workers!

Two miners emerge from the steam lift at shift change

We were offered the chance to go down ourselves if we wanted, though no-one was brave enough to take up the challenge.

A path around the lift building took us to the small brick building housing the steam engine. The current elevator was constructed in 1922-24 but the steam engine that powers it is much older. It was originally installed at a mine at Vrdnik, Vojvodina Province and dates to 1878. I had been somewhat skeptical of the appeal of a stationary steam engine but have to admit that it was fascinating to watch it stir into action.

The steam engine, complete with wooden cogs, from 1878

The EU report from 2008 gives a vivid description of the significance of the engine and the lift that it powers:

This elevator is a little technical museum in itself. The steam engine, driven by steam transported in leaking pipes from the nearby electrical power plant, was produced by the firm J. Körösi in Graz, Austria in 1878. The wires of the twin elevator baskets are moved by giant cog-wheels. The wheels are from steel, but the cogs are made of oak, so as to be both silent and exchangeable. The communication between the elevator house and the machinery is maintained by a talking-tube. Both the engine and the elevators run smoothly, but lack modern safety measures.

As well as the stationary steam engine there are still some remaining structures from the narrow gauge railway that you can spot from the road out of the valley.

The railway to Senjski Rudnik was completed in 1890-92, connecting the coal mine with central Serbia. Apparently the remains of Senjski Rudnik Railway Station still stand, although the interior was destroyed by fire in the 1980s. The line carried on from the passenger station to the mine. The report optimistically expresses the possibility that the railway could be restored and I have to admit that it would make for an interesting stretch of line.

The station building has a symbolic value, as the reminder of a period when Senjski Rudnik was a lively, important spot with good communications. If the railway could be restored, wholly or in part, as a tourist attraction and communication link, the station would again become an important building. Even if this is not done, the station has significance as a witness of the town’s past.

It is hard to imagine that industrialisation once made this area the most prosperous in Serbia. There seems to be little sign of this today and the future seems uncertain, with the coal reserves only expected to last until 2013-2018. The EU report talks about steps towards making the site a heritage centre for tourists and I hope they manage to achieve that.

A quiet start… and an unfortunate end

Posted in Resavica, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 17, 2011

The first morning of the tour took us from Požarevac to the colliery at Resavica, which is home to two veteran steam locomotives built in Budapest – 126.014 (MAV class 325) and 120.019 (MAV class 370). Although the label ‘veteran’ is all too liberally used in descriptions of steam locomotives it really does apply here – 126.014 was built in 1899 and 120.019 in 1906.

Resavica

The original plan was to steam 126.014, using the locomotive to shunt around the station and then take a coal train onto a short stretch of the state railway line. However, on arrival in Resavica it soon became apparent that 126.014 was far from well. Some repairs had been carried out but it would be around two and a half hours before she would be ready for our cameras. Oh well, I could cut some slack for a centurion!

Under repair: 126.014

In the meantime, we had a wander round the quiet yard and photographed 120.019 on the turntable which, like everything else, had seen better days. The younger locomotive was out of use but could be moved around using a small diesel to allow us to create a few posed photographs.

After exhausting the photographic potential of the yard we took the opportunity to get some lunch (chicken soup, bread and the ever reliable Jelen beer!) and then made a visit to the nearby Senjski mine to see their steam lift.

120.019 on the turntable at Resavica

120.019 on the turntable at Resavica (with a small diesel behind)

Around 3pm we returned to Resavica and got to see 126.014 shunting in the yard and around the station. The crew certainly had their work cut out to coax the old girl into life and were using the reverser with a smidge of the regulator to control the braking.

126.014 in steam at Resavica

Veteran steam locomotives 120.019 and 126.014 side by side at Resavica

126.014 shunts in the yard at Resavica

The ill health of the locomotive was evident to everyone (even to a technically challenged soul like me) as she sat on the turntable towards the end of the day with water pouring out. Our tour leader, Bernd, told us that she had two broken stays. It was clear that we wouldn’t be seeing her in steam again on our trip – though I took the view that we were lucky to have seen her in steam at all.

126.014 on the turntable at Resavica

The light disappeared from the valley fairly early, but we waited around until darkness had fallen to get some night shots of 126.014 and 120.019. It was all good practice as I hadn’t tried any night photography with my new camera before. It’s an art I still have to master, but had good fun trying different settings.

126.014 in the twilight at Resavica

On these trips the photography comes first (and I wouldn’t want it any other way) but we certainly appreciated the price that we paid for that with dinner at 10pm!

Steam freight through Serbia

Posted in Serbia by folkestonejack on October 16, 2011

The sight of a steam locomotive hauling freight trains through Serbia ought to be history, but for a few days this week that experience will be re-created for a FarRail tour using charters.

The last real working steam ended in Serbia a few years ago and there are barely any locomotives in the country now in working condition. As I never got to see real steam in Serbia this tour seemed like a wonderful (and unexpected) opportunity to experience the next best thing. At the same time, with just so few locomotives in relatively poor conditions there is always the risk that it could be a last splutter of steam rather than a splendid ride into the sunset!

If all goes to plan, our route will take us through some spectacular countryside and across some stunning viaducts using a Kriegslok (class 33) whilst en route from Požarevac to Niš. Along the way we will also get to see some of the last steam locomotives at Resavica and visit the famous narrow gauge railway at Mokra Gora.

Farewell to Belgrade

Posted in Beograd, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 16, 2011

After a few days of sightseeing it was good to wake on a Sunday morning without a definite plan for the day. I headed out of the hotel for a morning walk that partly retraced my steps from earlier days but took me on to new locations, such as the Nikola Tesla Museum (which you really need to visit on a tour to see all the models switched on) and the Museum of Paja Jovanović.

I hadn’t planned to visit either of these places before I set off on my travels, but the more you get to see a place the more curious you get. My curiosity about Nikola Tesla was aroused by the sheer number of references to the man as you explore the city and then, once I started down that road, by the incredible label given to him of ‘the man who invented the 20th century’ which seems ridiculous at first. The more you learn about Tesla’s inventions the less astonishing that claim sounds: electric light, laser beams, radio, remote control, and so on…

My visit to the Museum of Paja Jovanović came about from a leaflet I picked up somewhere. It was a slightly strange affair as the museum is located in an apartment on the fourth floor of an apartment block. I almost felt like an intruder in an everyday apartment block – and perhaps more so when I reached the closed museum doors. I pressed a buzzer, the door opened a slither and a man poked his head out. I honestly thought I had come to the wrong place and it was only when I said the magic password of the day (“Museum?”) that the door opened wider and I was allowed in!

The museum includes a recreation of Paja Jovanović’s salon and displays a small number of his works, which I found quite fascinating. It didn’t take very long to wander round the three or four rooms but it was quite an enjoyable diversion nonetheless.

In my four days in Belgrade I have been pleasantly surprised by the city and all it has to offer, the friendly welcome I have received and the irresistible cake shops in the city centre! I can’t imagine I will be back, but I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for somewhere a little bit different.

New Belgrade

Posted in Beograd, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 15, 2011

I caught an 84 back from Zemun intending to head straight back into central Belgrade, but something about the view of the eternal flame in New Belgrade captured my eye and I found myself ringing the bell to stop the bus. I made my way across the parkland, past the monument, and then on to the riverside where I got some rather stunning views of Kalemegdan in the last light of the day.

The New Belgrade riverside was pretty quiet apart from the occasional stray dog and guests heading to a wedding reception on one of the large boats moored on the banks of the Sava. I wandered along, taking photographs all the way, then crossed back to central Belgrade on the first bridge I came to. All the while the light was fading, finally disappearing completely as I made it back to my hotel.

The eternal flame with Belgrade Fortress in the distance

Belgrade Fortress and "The Victor" monument

A sunken ship in the Sava

"The Victor" in late afternoon sun

View from the bridge

After relaxing in my hotel for a while I headed back out to the local supermarket, looking for some chocolates to take in to my colleagues at work. Usually, when selecting a box of chocolates I try to figure out what looks halfway decent but on this occasion I was all too aware that whatever I picked had to survive a week of travelling through Serbia. Out went any question of taste – instead I tested each box for springiness until I found a box of indestructible chocolates! I hope my colleagues forgive me…

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Zemun

Posted in Serbia, Zemun by folkestonejack on October 15, 2011

A few hours of daylight remained so I jumped on a number 84 bus and headed out of central Belgrade to Zemun.

Zemun was once a town in its own right, sitting on the banks of the Danube, but the growth of Belgrade has swallowed this place up and today it is a municipality of Belgrade (with a reputation as a mafia centre according to the guidebooks). Nevertheless, as you wander the oldest parts of Zemun you could be forgiven for thinking you were wandering around the cobbled streets of a traditional and somewhat sleepy town many miles from the bustle of Belgrade.

My first stop in Zemun was the Air Force Headquarters, which sits on Aviators’ Square. The headquarters was designed in the modernist style by Dragiša Brašovan in 1935 and was intended to emulate the form of a jet. I couldn’t quite see it from my perspective, but the form of the building is certainly striking. The building remains wrecked since the NATO bombing of 1999.

Air Force Command, Zemun

On one side of the building, a monumental statue of Icarus perched on a ledge, looks out across the crowds at the nearby bus stop. I saw it the moment I stepped off the bus and it is hard to ignore his gaze!

Statue of Icarus at the Air Force HQ, Zemun

After leaving Icarus behind I headed towards the oldest part of the town, on Gardoš Hill, to visit the Millennium Tower. It is a remarkable structure built on the ruins of a fourteenth century castle and a great viewpoint across the area. I had read that the tower was open between 4pm to 7pm so timed my trip to fit between these hours and it was well worth the expedition.

The tower was constructed in 1896 to celebrate one thousand years of Hungarian settlement in the Pannonian Basin and was originally one of four that marked out the extent of the empire. The tower in Zemun marked out the southernmost point of Hungary. Today it is the only one that remains, with the others having long since vanished along with the empire they represented. It certainly has the feel of a last outpost of empire.

View from the Millennium Tower, Zemun

For many years the tower was neglected and closed but relatively recently the structure has been given a fresh lease of life by its latest owner. The building has been restored and now houses the Cubrilo gallery at ground level. You can pay a relatively small fee (150 dinars) to climb up to the terrace which presents you with a great view across Zemun and on to Belgrade – including a distance view of Kalemegdan. The more surprising revelation of the terrace was that many of the bricks are etched with grafitti that is in itself now historic.

Historic graffiti on the Millennium Tower, Zemun

At the time of my visit the main exhibition space at the base of the tower was being used for an exhibition about the connections between Nikola Tesla and photography – including the incredible photographs of his experiments. It seems that everywhere you go in Belgrade you pick up a little bit more information about this incredible man and his work. Inevitably, this has made me more and more curious – so I have pencilled in a visit to the Nikola Tesla museum tomorrow.

For more about the tower, see Tower of Sibinjanin Janko and the Kula Gardoš website.

Military honours

Posted in Beograd, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 15, 2011

A visit to the cemetery may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Belgrade New Cemetery and the Cemetery of the Liberators of Belgrade deserve their place on any wander through the city. Although the name might lead you to think otherwise, Belgrade New Cemetery is the one of the oldest cemeteries in the city (it was established in 1886) and still remains in use today. It is a vast site and takes some time to explore fully.

My reason for visiting was to see some of the military cemeteries and monuments constructed within the grounds. Once again Yugoslavia’s place at the centre of conflict is made pretty clear with cemeteries and charnel houses for soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Britain, France, Italy, Russia and Serbia.

Apart from the military monuments there are some impressive memorials and a remarkable replica of the Iverskaya Chapel which stood in Red Square until Stalin had it cleared in 1931. The crypt of the chapel holds the remains of exiled dignitaries from the Russian church. At the time of my visit the chapel was covered in scaffolding and netting, although there was no particular signs of restoration underway.

Chapel of Vojvoda Radomir Putnik with the church of St Nicholas in the background

Although the military monuments are the real draws here, it is the graves of many ordinary individuals and their visual representations in portraits, busts and statues that are the saddest sight. The statues show their subjects fully engaged in life (for example, one showed a teenager at study) graphically illustrating the lives that they were cut adrift from.

Across the road from Belgrade New Cemetery is the equally impressive Cemetery of the Liberators of Belgrade which holds the remains of the Yugoslav soldiers and members of the Soviet Red Army who fought side-by-side in October 1944.

Cemetery of the Liberators of Belgrade

At the entrance you are met by the figure of a partizan standing guard, whilst on either side of the entrance gates are two remarkable friezes. One of the most surprising aspects of the cemetery is the unregimented arrangement of the graves inside the cemetery which resembles a park rather than a formal cemetery. After wandering for a while you are met by the figure of a Red Army soldier at the far end of the cemetery. It is a surprisingly peaceful space in spite of its location so close to a busy road into the city centre.

Section from the lefthand frieze at the entrance to the cemetery

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Gallery: Belgrade Cemeteries

Posted in Beograd, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 15, 2011

A small selection of photographs from Belgrade New Cemetery (Novo groblje) and the Cemetery of the Liberators of Belgrade.

Tito’s relay races

Posted in Beograd, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 15, 2011

A left turn from the central courtyard of Tito’s mausoleum takes you into an absolutely fascinating exhibition about the annual relay of youth, which took place from 1945 until 1987. I’d never heard of the relay races before but soon found myself utterly engrossed in the story of how these came about and the enthusiasm with which the event was taken up.

Exhibition about Tito's relay races at the House of Flowers

The mass relay races were organized in honour of Tito’s birthday and for the first event 12,500 runners covered a distance of 9000km before the batons were handed over to Tito. As the event became more established the number of batons, kilometres and carriers increased with some estimates suggesting that there over one million participants by 1950. The handover of the final baton with its birthday message became an event in itself, taking place in the JNA stadium (now Stadion FK Partizan) from 1955.

The museum holds a collection of over 22,000 relay batons ranging from the home made efforts of ordinary folk through to the intricately designed batons intended for the handover to Tito. A selection of these are on display and I spent ages wandering up and down the display cases looking at these. At the end of the room an entire wall has been given over to the batons and it is wonderful to run your eye up, down and across examining the ingenuity of their creators. They are reason enough to visit the mausoleum in their own right.

Wall display of relay race batons

Relay race batons on display at the House of Flowers

Relay race batons on display at the House of Flowers

The museum has published a book ‘Relay races 1945-1987’ (Museum of Yugoslav History, 2008) which can be purchased for 450 dinars at the small souvenir shop at the entrance. You can also purchase other memorabilia such as Tito lapel pins, drinks mats, t-shirts and key rings!

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House of Flowers

Posted in Beograd, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 15, 2011

After managing to master just enough Serbian to buy some tickets from a kiosk, I boarded trolleybus 41 for the relatively short journey to the May 25th complex which takes its name from the birth date of its longtime resident – Tito.

At one time the complex included a number of museums, the mausoleum and access to Tito’s presidential home. However, today there are only three buildings that you can visit and the complex itself seems to be undergoing something of an evolution. The three remaining buildings in the complex are the Museum of Yugoslavian History, the House of Flowers (Tito’s mausoleum) and the Old museum.

The Museum of Yugoslavian History seemed to be closed for renovation when I visited with workmen hanging out of the windows and busy painting interior walls. The guidebooks say that some of the few pieces of Tito memorabilia to have survived – his state cars – could still be seen in the foyer here, but today all that you could see were stacks of cement bags!

A little to the left of this building lies the gateway to the mausoleum (cost of entry: 200 dinars) which is a short walk beyond this point along a route designed for crowd control (a problem they no longer have if my visit was anything to go by).

The mausoleum doesn’t have the dramatic effect of entering Lenin’s tomb in Moscow but is nevertheless fascinating in its relative simplicity. Tito lies under a plain marble slab in the centre of a conservatory. The guidebooks say that the building’s title, the House of Flowers, was taken from the flowers that used to be displayed all around the slab but today this space has largely been filled in with white gravel stones and tropical plants.

There are two exhibitions in the wings to either side of the central courtyard at the moment – one displays some of the gifts to the Yugoslav nation as founders of the movement of unaligned countries whilst the other focuses on the annual youth relay races.

It has to be said that a visit to Tito’s mausoleum doesn’t have much street cred! I got a look of bemusement when I mentioned that I had been there whilst talking to Belgraders later in the day and some admitted that they had never seen the place themselves (one explanation proferred was that Tito was a Croat).

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Military Museum (Belgrade)

Posted in Beograd, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 14, 2011

In the late afternoon I visited the Military Museum, located inside Belgrade Fortress, which I expected to be a relatively quick walkthrough. Instead, it took almost two hours – even though many of the early display cases had no english translation.

Military Museum, Belgrade

One thing I took away from the museum was just how bloody the history of the region has been – as was evident from fairly early on in the walkthrough with some quite horrifying exhibits, such as a reconstruction of the skull tower from Nis (a tower constructed after the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire using the skulls of 952 Serb rebels).

As you move into 20th century history the display cases start to provide english translations for all exhibits, which inevitably slows your pace down. However, the history is so unfamiliar that it demands your full attention.

Fragment of burned books salvaged from the National Library, after the bombing on April 6th 1941

The displays include much information about the Salonika Front in the First World War, the assasination of King Aleksandar Karadordevic in Marseille (one of the exhibits is the bloodied uniform that he was wearing that fateful day) and the Partisan campaigns in the Second World War (from month to month, year to year).

Star on the wall of the Military Museum, Belgrade

Finally, the recent Balkan conflicts are covered in the last room – including an alarming glass display case with radioactive symbols which turned out to be depleted uranium ammunition used by NATO in 1999.

Kalemegdan

Posted in Beograd, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 14, 2011

After returning from the outskirts of town I headed to Kalemegdan Park and the Belgrade Fortress. The fortress is arguably the most popular attraction in the city, drawing people at all times of day and especially at sunset. It takes quite some time to explore fully, especially when you stop every five minutes to take another photograph!

The history of the fortress is inextricably linked to the history of Belgrade itself, with the city population living within the walls for centuries. A wander around the upper town quickly demonstrates the threads of history that have converged on this spot as you stumble across a roman well and the tomb of the Ottoman Grand Vizier Silahdar Damat Ali Pasha (who was killed at the battle of Petrovardin in 1716).

The fortress is the location of one of Belgrade’s most recognisable landmarks – a monument known as ‘The Victor’ which commemorates Serbian victory in the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and the First World War. It was originally intended for Terazije square but was banished to this spot in 1928 in reaction to it’s shocking nudity. I have to say the spot it now stands on is the perfect location in my eyes.

The fortress contains a number of museums and historical buildings that you can visit, although some were closed during my visit. The clock gate tower, roman well and the tomb of Silahdar Damat Ali Pasha were closed, possibly because my visit fell out of the main tourist season. The Belgrade Fortress Museum which tells the story of the fortress also appeared to be closed for renovation with scaffolding all over the place and signs warning about the danger of loose rocks. However, the art pavillion, military museum, observation tower and churches of St. Petka and Ružica churches were open as usual. I would particularly recommend a visit to the churches of St. Petka and Ružica as their interiors are quite breathtaking (the exterior roof of the Ružica church was being re-tiled when I visited but this did not affect access).

The fortress is surrounded by Kalemegdan Park which features a number of interesting sculptures and monuments, including a dramatic monument that recognises the sacrifice of French soldiers in Yugoslavia during the First World War. It is also in the park that I first came across the stray dogs that are mentioned in so many of the travel guides. As I walked through the park my eyes were drawn to a pack of dogs in the park watching the ebb and flow of tourists. The Serbian government has estimated that there are about 15,000 strays in Belgrade alone – a massive amount for a city of just two million people. The situation is apparently a sad legacy of the early 1990s when many owners could no longer afford to feed their dogs. I am always a little nervous around dogs (having been attacked by an alsatian ten years ago) but in this case the dogs are more frightened than humans, living in terrible conditions.

Aviation museum (Belgrade)

Posted in Beograd, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 14, 2011

The aviation museum in Belgrade is located five minutes walk away from Nikola Tesla airport in a rather striking glass building, surrounded by planes. At the time of my visit the cost of admission was 500 dinars and it turned out to be well worth the price. I spent a good hour or so in the museum, only leaving when the place was about to be overrun by three coach loads of kids!

The collection covers the early days of aviation in the Balkans, the development of commercial aviation in the region, the second world war and the conflict in 1999. There are explanations in english for many of the planes but some of the other displays are only in Serbian (for example, the display cases about one of the early pioneers of aviation in the region). Nevertheless, it is fascinating to wander round.

As ever with these trips, you end up filling in all sorts of gaps that you never knew you had in your understanding of European history. For example, I had no idea that the Yugoslav air forces in 1941 included such a mixture of planes – including Messerschmitt BE 109s and Hawker Hurricanes. The conflict of the 1990s is featured in a number of display cases and includes French, German and US UAVs, missiles and pieces from downed jets such as the US F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter.

The centre of the museum is given over to a preserved Soko J-22 Orao (Eagle), a strike fighter developed by Yugoslavia and Romania in the 1970s. The first J-22 flew in 1976 and some are still in service with the Serbian air forces. The display board in front of the jet has a rather wonderful photograph showing how this example reached the museum – towed up the motorway by a tractor, with a heavy traffic jam building up behind!

A stark reminder of recent history

Posted in Beograd, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 14, 2011

A fresh morning in Belgrade and the first proper day of sightseeing led me to Trg. Slavija on a hopeless mission to find the bus stop I needed to make the trip out to the air museum. After wandering around for a while I gave up and headed to the next stop, at the railway station, which was where the bus had deposited me yesterday.

The walk took me past the crossroads of Nemanjina and Kneza Milosa which presented the sight of damaged buildings on either side of the road. Unusually, the damage was located half way up each building and it slowly dawned on me that I was looking at the effects of cruise missiles from 1999. It was horrifying to see at close quarters. Although I have no right as an outsider to comment on this, nor would I wish to get into the politics of the situation, it is nevertheless an uncomfortable thought that any conflict should come to this in the modern era.

War damaged buildings

Each side of the street has a sheltered walkway (illustrated in the photograph above) consisting of scaffolding and wooden planks to walk under, though I’m sure that they wouldn’t provide much protection from anything more than a loose brick or two.

As I wandered under the walkway and on towards the station it struck me that the city that I was seeing was not so far removed from the place I come from. It seems incredible and sad that, up till now, my only awareness of the city had been a rather distant and detached view filtered through the news during the troubles of the last few decades. I am glad to have the chance to correct that this week.

First impressions of Belgrade

Posted in Beograd, Serbia by folkestonejack on October 13, 2011

A morning flight from London City to Frankfurt followed by an onward connection to Belgrade delivered me to Nikola Tesla airport in the early afternoon. Once I fought my way through the inevitable crowd of taxi drivers touting for business I headed to the A1 minibus stop and soon found myself heading into the heart of one of the most fascinating cities that I’ve been to in a long while.

The first recognisable landmark that I caught sight of was the Western City Gate, a rather striking (if brutal) skyscraper built in the 1970s which comprises two tower blocks connected by a bridge at the top, along with a revolving restaurant.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Belgrade, but once I got myself checked in to my hotel and wandered out I soon found an incredibly diverse mix of old and new buildings jumbled together. My base for the next few days is the Hotel Prag which is a short walk away from the main sights and shopping streets. It isn’t the quietest of places but for me that is part of the attraction. It is not a sterile tourist zone – down the street there is a residential block, a technical school running lessons well into the night and a mixture of small stores. It feels really alive.

As I didn’t have much daylight to check out the city I headed south to the Vračar district to see the unfinished cathedral of St Sava. The cathedral stands on the site where the Ottoman ruler Sinan Pasha burned the holy relics of St Sava in 1594. In 1894, on the three hundredth anniversary of the burning, a decision was taken to erase this act by constructing a huge church. The work is still going on.

Interior of St Sava (under construction)

I hadn’t really been aware of the story until I visited – in many ways it is a Serbian equivalent of the Sagrada Familia. The interior is still a work in progress but enough artistry is on display that you can see how splendid the finished cathedral will be. Once finished St Sava will be able to hold 10,000 worshipers.

I stepped outside to a late burst of sun that illuminated the cathedral wonderfully, which was reflected back in the puddles on the pathway. I tried to capture the effect but only half succeeded in getting the shot I wanted.

St Sava, Belgrade

The old church of St Sava stands to one side of the new church but is rather delightful in its own right. Although it has to be said that it isn’t really that old – it was completed in 1935. The interior is entirely decorated with frescoes including a depiction of the relics being burned.

The old and new churches of St Sava

Frescoes in the old church of St Sava

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