FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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.

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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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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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