Putting the B-Grade in Belgrade

Day: 122 & 123

Cities / Towns Visited: 62

Countries Visited: 18

Steps Taken Today: 28,576

Steps Taken Around the World: 2,175,904

If I could sum up day 122 in a word it would be arduous. Our morning began with a painful wake up at 4:30am, and a bunch of shuffling round in the dark of our shared dorm hostel room, before tumbling into the awaiting taxi that the receptionist at the hostel had kindly organised for us the night before. Why were we up at this ungodly hour? We had to catch one of only two buses which head to Belgrade in Serbia for the day, and the one in the afternoon would have gotten us there too late in the evening to seem functional. Thus the 6am bus it was. Already irritable from the lack of sleep and the fact we were awake before the sun, we were even less impressed when we were stuffed into the confines of our extra squishy bus seats. The window seat in a Serbian bus is not a game for the claustrophobic amongst us. This was going to be an eight hour trip, and one we had been dreading; its only redeeming feature being that it was significantly cheaper than a flight between the two capitals. The first couple of hours drifted past as we tried to fill the time with blog writing and brief stints of napping. After two hours we figured they would probably stop soon so that all of us unfortunate souls could use the restroom and stretch our legs, but another hour passed and we arrived at the Serbian border, no rest stop in sight. Serbia seemingly isn’t overly keen on people entering their country as the passport handover and check seemed to drag out for almost a full hour, with one check on the Bosnian side as we left, and an even longer check on the Serbian side as we entered. By the time we trundled off we were thoroughly in need of a bathroom break, and only once we had entered the country did the bus stop. Obviously this was a Serbian run bus, and they had no interest in stopping in Bosnia. With natures call finally answered we begrudgingly clambered back onboard and endured the remaining four hours of cramped bus fun.

By the time we reached the final stop we were thoroughly done with buses and rejoiced in the fact that we would not need to take another long haul bus ride for the remainder of the trip. A rather tedious, and largely uphill, walk saw us finally arrive at our hostel, and the remainder of the day involved nothing more than power-napping, buying a quick lunch of pizza, and grabbing groceries to make dinner in the hostel kitchen. My thoughts for anyone looking at extensive bus travel in Eastern Europe would of course be, good luck to you.

The next day saw us awaking at a somewhat less tortuous time, but still rather early, and off we headed on our way to fill our singular day in Serbia with a decent amount of sightseeing; via a bakery for breakfast borek of course. As we walked through the city, it was interesting to note the huge difference between here and the Bosnian capital. Belgrade looks just like any other city, and it is easy to see the architectural influence of its historical rule by the Austro-Hungarian empire on its older and grander buildings. Its a little sad to see that this country, from which came the soldiers who destroyed much of Bosnia, appears so little affected by the years of war; comparatively speaking of course. Trying not to let our rather brutal education on the Yugoslav war from our visit to Bosnia ruin our experience of Serbia and its individual history and culture, we pressed on, weaving our way through the streets until we reached our first destination; the Nikola Tesla Museum. As I’m sure the majority of the world is now aware, Nikola Tesla was one of the world’s most accomplished and important inventors of the last few centuries; best known for his design of modern alternating current, induction motor, and wireless electricity development, and lesser known for him creation of the wireless radio, which is usually attributed to Marconi.

Entering into the museum, we had a little spare time to have a look around before the free tour began. Now the museum itself isn’t particularly large, but we dove in either way. The first section is a selection of information panels about his family, childhood, and formative years. It was interesting to learn that although Serbia claims him as their own, he was, in fact, born in what is now modern day Croatia, as were his parents. At the time of his birth though, Serbia and Croatia were both under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his family were of Serbian descent, as well as being Orthodox Christians, the religion most popular in Serbia, as oppose to Islam in Bosnia, and Catholicism in Croatia, hence his adoption as a Serbian national treasure. The Austrian rule of his home was actually quite advantageous to his education however, as it allowed him to study and begin his rise up the ranks of electrical engineering in Vienna. The museum then goes on to explain how he worked for Thomas Edison’s company (a man who would later become his biggest rival, as Edison tried to defame Tesla’s alternating current by making it appear dangerous, in order to promote his ‘safer’ direct current system); although Tesla would get the last laugh in the end, as today we use alternating current to supply our homes with power, as it is, funnily enough, actually the safer option. After leaving Edison’s company he went on to set up his own laboratories in New York and developed many electrical and mechanical devices, including the alternating current induction motor, which was licensed and used by the company Westinghouse electric, and which earned him a large sum of money. He was so successful in his innovation in the field of electrics that when the Niagra Falls Power Company made its hydro electric plant, nine of the thirteen patented electrical parts used were Tesla’s own invention.

We then moved past a room which holds a rather bizarre looking gold orb on a stand. This seems weird until you realise that it holds the ashes of the man himself. To be honest, it is the coolest looking funerary urn I’ve ever seen, and I kind of really want one when my time comes. For anyone who has been unfortunate enough to have watched the old and craptastic horror movie Phantasm, it kind of has that vibe going on.

The next room holds a selection of what seems like, to a non-engineer, to be just a collection of random contraptions, but they are, in fact, replicas of some of Tesla’s most important inventions, from the induction motor, to his ‘Egg of Columbus’; a machine which uses an induction motor and rotating magnetic fields to make a copper egg spin until it stands on its end like a spinning top. This machine, which he showed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was used to show the principles of his inventions in an amusing way to the 27 million people who attended the fair that year. The device is based on the story of when, after ‘discovering’ America, Christopher Columbus was told that his feat was no great accomplishment as it was inevitable that one day someone else would have found it. He then challenged his critics to make an egg stand on its end. After many attempts they gave up, and Columbus then picked up the egg, tapped it lightly on the table until the end cracked but it stood up. He then pointed out to them that any of them could have done that, but they didn’t. A rather snide way of proving your naysayers wrong, and I kind of love it.

At this point we sat down and our guide played us a short video explaining more about Tesla’s life, and his important place in history; not only in this country, but the world. After the film finished she then demonstrated how the contraptions before us functioned, something that was both education and just plan cool to watch.

Next we were led over to the massive Tesla Coil replica that they have. This massive machine is an electrical resonant transformer circuit which produces high voltage, low current energy which makes its way up the coil to the top, before jumping out in visible arcs of ‘lightning’ from the machine to the nearest conductive object, that being a metal ball hanging above it. As amazing as that is by itself, a few of us, myself included, were handed fluorescent light tubes to hold. You see, the machine ionises the air around it when it’s running, and as humans are just basically walking conductors, the electrical ions in the air travel across our skin and into the bulb, causing it to glow. Now I know people like to metaphorically say that certain people are the light of their life, but there’s something truly magical about being living part of a circuit that makes actual light.

The last demonstration was of Tesla’s remote controlled boat, which he made to show his invention of harnessing wireless radio waves. However when he showed it in Madison Square Gardens in 1898 practically no one believed that it was possible, and countless rumours spread about how he was actually getting the boat to move. My personal favourite being that there was actually a small monkey inside the boat being mind controlled by Tesla. Yes, that’s right, apparently interspecies telepathy was more believable than radio controlled motors.

With the fun of the museum done and dusted we moved on to our next attraction; Sveti Sava Orthodox Church. As we neared this impressively domed building, we saw that there was quite a bit of scaffolding around, just for something different, and we were soon to discover that they are currently doing extensive restorations and renovations of the inside and outside of the building. Fortunately it is still possible to go inside a small section of the currently non functioning church, and thus we did. As we walked in we were greeted by the spectacle that is the interior of the aforementioned dome. This huge semisphere, although appearing to be painted and gilded, is in fact a massive mosaic. The images depict the ascension of Christ, surrounded by apostles and angels, all surrounded by glimmering gold tiles; a truly impressive piece of art, even for the non-religious.

The visit did not end there though, as we discovered that the crypt was still open to visitors. Now don’t imagine some dark cellar filled with centuries old tombs; for one thing, the church was only built in 1935. No, when you reach the bottom of the stairs you are met with a bright space with marble floors, and arched vaulted ceilings and walls gilded to the teeth and painted with countless colourful biblical scenes. The light and shine is not simply from the gilding though, but also the huge crystal chandeliers which hang in the space. If the interior of the church upstairs is going to look anything like this in the end, then it might end up being the most ornate and over the top house of prayer I can imagine. It might just be me, but surely God doesn’t need you to use that much gold leaf to know that you believe in him, right?

From here we wandered back through the city, deliberately passing a few ruined buildings marked on the map we had. It seemed strangely fair that Serbia’s capital should also have some scars considering the damage they inflicted on their neighbours during the Yugoslav and Bosnian wars. They seemed almost out of place here though, like a novelty, as they were flanked on all sides with perfectly undamaged specimens. We carried on from here towards our last sight for the day; Kalemegdan Citadel, however on our journey the skies decided to open and douse us with rain, and given that we were dressed for the mornings sun, and not this sudden deluge we ducked inside a nearby restaurant; reasoning that we would grab some lunch and hope that the weather had tired itself out by the time we were done. A surprisingly good steak and cheap cocktail later and we were stepping back outside, not to rain, but still a rather gloomy looking sky.

A lengthy walk, and we finally arrived. Now Kalemegdan is essentially a large fortress; so large that is has a park within its walls. There has been some level of fortified construction on this site since the Romans occupied it in 279BC, but it has been fought over, destroyed, and rebuilt multiple times until it came to be the massive citadel it is today. It is no longer militarised now though, and is simply used as a green space and historical tourist attraction. Walking around the base of the towering brick and stone wall, we eventually found an opening and made our way up the staircase until we reached the main central area. We took a moment to drink in the view of the country’s capital, and the convergence of the Danube and Sava rivers. From here we made our way into the heart of the park, deciding that we would visit some of the historic attractions within which you can pay to enter. We had planned to buy a pass which would have allowed access to all of them, but we soon found out that the clock tower closes at 3pm from some inexplicable reason, so we decided to save the money and just pick a couple, and otherwise just wander and admire the area.

We decided firstly to go into the Roman well; one of the oldest sights in the citadel. Entering the small room, we briefly read over the information on the construction of the well, which to be honest was pretty impressive, as its not simply a tiny hole with a bucket, but rather a wide well, which has duel staircases spiralling around it to about halfway down, with windows into the well hole itself. I can only imagine how eerie it must have looked with the dim candlelight in the arched windows barely making a dint in the inky blackness of the seemingly bottomless well. Unfortunately you can only descend a small section of these stairs, but it was certainly a view of a well which I had never seen before.

With the weather turning, we decided to visit just one more, thus we selected one of the towers standing on one of the corners of this somewhat non-sensically shaped fortress. Apparently it used to be used as an astronomy tower, but aside from a few star posters on the walls of the spiral staircase, and your standard coin operated tourist binoculars on the roof, there was little evidence of this. It was quite disappointing to be honest, and its only redeeming feature was the fact that it commanded a rather good view of the small section left of the original roman fortress. Had we not climbed the tower, we would have been unlikely to have spotted this millenia old site, and thus we scurried down to take a closer look. Although it is now a co-mingled mix of the old roman stone and more modern bricks to fill in the spaces, it was still amazing to imagine what this country must have been like back then, when there was no such thing as Serbia.

With the rain falling lightly again, we made out way out of the citadel, but not without first heading through the central areas, taking a moment to take a few snaps of the more interesting features, from the clock tower, to a rather large display of military tanks, cannons, and rocket launchers. It had been an interesting visit, and I’m sure it is much more appealing in better weather, and when all of the areas are open, but I couldn’t help but be a little bit surprised by the fact that this is the city’s most visited tourist attraction. I personally didn’t even find it the most enjoyable out the few things we had chosen to see in our brief visit. Each to their own though I guess.

The long walk back, via the shops for dinner provisions, saw us arrive exhausted and rather damp. A quick dinner and we were off to bed, as we had a flight to catch the next day. As I thought about our whirlwind visit to Serbia’s heart, it was hard to decipher if I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as other places we had visited because it lacked the charm of other cities, or because we had come here having just spent so much time learning the negative recent history of the country in Bosnia. This negative feeling is exacerbated by the fact that they are still, to this day, fighting over the area which is Kosovo. This small section in the south of the country is trying to become independent of Serbia, but this has caused much tension and conflict, and it is actually impossible to pass legally from Kosovo into Serbia over the contentious border; it is even suggested to avoid the border area completely unless absolutely necessary on most travel safety websites. Something we will have to remember when visiting Kosovo in the future. We also had to change our original plans for the following day’s travel as we had originally planned to cross the border into Romania and head to Timisoara, however during our research we found that there was no way to do this by train anymore (seemingly due to disagreements between the two governments), and it was only possible by questionable private transfer which apparently involves possibly having to get out of the bus and walk across the border (I’m pretty sure illegally), and then get back on the bus once its passed border control passengerless. As we had absolutely no intention of doing anything which could potentially affect our ability to complete both this trip or any future ones, we opted for the more expensive flight to Bucharest. So what is my point? To me, from what I have learnt, it seems like Serbia lacks the ability to get along very well with any of its neighbours, nor has it been good at it for quite some length of time. Its like the grumpy old man that lives next door that no one on the street talks to because he seems itching for a fight for any reason. That’s not to say that the people we met here weren’t friendly and hospitable, nothing of the sort, but I think the government’s actions and seeming insistence on provoking conflict rather than using a measure of diplomacy and seeking a peaceful and united relationship with its surrounding countries, gives the place a bad name. I have tried my best to be impartial and set aside the feelings of the Bosnian’s we met when assessing Serbia as a travel destination, but even if I simply take into account the attractions and transport experiences we encountered, if I had to grade Belgrade, it would unfortunately be a B. Would I come back? Perhaps, but maybe to venture out of the capital and explore the treasures nature bestowed on this part of the planet instead of visiting the creations and destructions of man.

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On my dream trip to travel the world, taste its foods, see its wonders, and meet all the strange and beautiful people who reside here.

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