Second Impressions – The Old Versus the New Belgrade: A Stranger Kind Of Trust (Travels In Eastern Europe #33)

It was on the outskirts of Belgrade that I was suddenly struck by a bout of inescapable fear. This sudden fright coincided with the appearance of those looming communist monsters, the concrete apartment blocks that signaled Novi Belgrade (New Belgrade). These architectural atrocities were my first impression of the Serbian capital. Yugoslavia, under the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, had supposedly suffered under a much milder and more sensible form of communism than the Soviet Union. That may have been true, but the soulless, mass architecture of that system was the same as what I had already witnessed to a greater or lesser extent ringing the cityscapes of Sofia, Bucharest and Budapest. These high rises were the physical embodiment of a movement from fields to factories, as rural peasants were transformed into an urban proletariat.

Novi Belgarde - Tito's towers

Novi Belgarde – Tito’s towers

Central Planning & No Planning – On The Outskirts
The soul of this soullessness had been forged in the fires of heavy industry. Where the high rises stood was little more than a marshy backwater up until the mid-20th century. Then in 1947 the banks above the Sava River were transformed into a massive construction site, giving rise to what might be termed Tito’s towers. In 1949 the writer Lawrence Durrell, who was posted to Belgrade on a diplomatic assignment, had this to say: “As for Communism…a short visit here is enough to make one decide that Capitalism is worth fighting for. Black as it may be, with all its bloodstains, it is less gloomy and arid and hopeless than this inert and ghastly police state.” Hopeless was an appropriate term for what I felt upon sighting the towering beasts of Brutalism.

The population of Novi Belgrade soared along with the concrete towers, to the point where over 200,000 Serbs now call Novi Belgrade home, many rather would not. I found the sight of the apartment blocks frightening in the extreme, looking like some macabre Lego configuration shrouded in a shadowy grey. From first impressions, Belgrade looked like Bucharest on Stalinist steroids. Adding to my horror was the sight of a large Roma shanty town, that looked as flimsy as the looming towers were solid. Detritus was scattered everywhere, smoke rose from above several of the corrugated concoctions. Trash was strewn in all directions. A third world had sprung up in the shadows of a supposedly brave new world. Central planning and no planning side by side, the contrast could not have been greater. It was a hysterical expression of apocalyptic utopianism.  Belgrade was unlike any place I had ever seen and I was only on its outskirts. A feeling of intense foreboding came over me.

An air of ambition - Belgrade Main railway station

An air of ambition – Belgrade Main railway station (Credit: Dekanski)

An Air Of Ambition – Entering Old Belgrade
Fortunately the Belgrade Main railway station was a fiesta of optimism in comparison to what I had just experienced. The building was one of those late 19th century architectural confections that evoked ambition and an air of royalty. It was built at the same time that Serbia was trying to find its way as an independent nation.  The first passengers to embark on a train from the station were quite appropriately the King and Queen of Serbia. The station had also been a stop on the Orient Express. I felt something magical still lived in this station. I was now entering the older, more traditional Belgrade that had aspired to be accepted as a European capital rather than a Balkan outpost of the Ottomans. There was still a hint of the exotic in the Cyrillic lettering that covered signage. There was no mistaking that I was in the East, but still in Europe, if only the forgotten fringes.  All aesthetics aside the goal was to find my accommodation. The plan was to go there by foot.

From the looks of the taxi drivers loitering outside the station my decision was sound. They were a motley crew of men who looked like they smoked for a living. I ignored their offers of a ride which would have surely turned rapacious in a matter of minutes. I began to walk away from the station, towards the Old Town (Stari Grad). It was not long before I was questioning my self-made directions. The signage in Cyrillic sent me into further confusion. Darkness was slowly beginning to fall upon the city. It was time to ask for help. The only people nearby were a group of high school aged guys smoking and laughing. As a foreigner setting foot in Belgrade for the first time, my choice for help was not exactly a wise one, but I was tired. Plus I felt that strange, magnetic allure of a potential threat.

Into Old Belgrade

Into Old Belgrade (Credit: Wikipedia)

Beyond All Expectation – Everything Is Illuminated
Rather than being repulsed by danger, I was attracted to it. My irrational fear of Serbia was about to be tested. I approached these young Serbs with an exaggerated confidence, trying to project a strong image. I said “excuse me, do you speak English?” I then pointed at my hand drawn directions. These young men instantly stopped their chatter, at first they looked shocked. Then one of them composed himself and said, “Yes.” The rest of the guys looked more at their friend than me. They seemed to revere his confidence in talking to a foreigner. He soon had me pointed in the right direction. I thanked him and smiled at the group. They returned the pleasantry. As I was walking off, I could not help but notice how the guy who helped me was now being lauded by his friends. My first conversation with a Serb in Serbia had gone rather well and why should it not have? My fear of Serbia now seemed rather ridiculous. All it took to banish fear and prejudice was a single experience. Here was one of those priceless gifts of travel, suddenly Belgrade felt inviting.

It was not long before I arrived at the check in for my accommodation. The host, a Serbian man in his 20’s who spoke excellent English, informed me that my room was at an apartment a short walk from where we initially met. I wondered just exactly what the place would look like. There were not many reviews on the Hostel World website for this host when I booked the accommodation, but the few ratings given were top notch. I was nervous though, what if the place was a dive or I was being led into some clever ruse. Trust is essential when traveling in foreign lands, but suspicion is natural. I was always taught not to trust strangers, but this trip had forced me to do just that. There was no other choice but to hope for the best.

We entered a multi-story building through a darkened doorway, this led to a staircase. In a few moments we were at another door. The host turned a key and proceeded to open the door. In a matter of seconds I walked into an immaculate room. There was new furniture, shiny floors and a large flat screen television. My bedroom was spacious, while the bathroom looked fit for a Hilton not a hostel. This was beyond all my expectations. The Serb asked me if I needed anything else, I just smiled and said “this will do.”

Disorienting Express – The Belgrade To Sofia Sleeper: What Nightmares May Come (Part One)

It seemed like a great idea at the time. The idea was to take the first overnight train trip of my life deep in the Balkans. I was to travel by rail from Belgrade, Serbia to Sofia, Bulgaria, two ancient and prestigious capitals of Eastern European nations. The former, a city my homeland had dropped bombs on only twelve years before, the latter sporting a beautiful female name, which as I would discover was one of the few elegant things about Sofia. The trip was historic and not just for me. This route had once been part of the Simplon-Orient Express, which had started in Paris and ended in Istanbul. Along the way it had traversed Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia. The line had managed to run from 1919 through 1977, with a suspension of service during World War II.  This was an alternate, more southerly route than the original Orient Express. Though it would begin service thirty-six years later than the original Orient Express, it soon became the most popular route. Agatha Christie’s famous novel, Murder on the Orient Express took place along this route with the murder committed in eastern Croatia. I had read the novel a few years prior to my journey. Like so many others I was fascinated with the exotic characters and mysterious intrigue of rail travel as depicted in the novel. To ride even a sliver of the old Orient Express route would be an exercise in nostalgic travel or so I imagined.

Belgrade Main Railway Station

Belgrade Main Railway Station (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Beginning of the End – Sobering Sofia, Belligerent Belgrade
Despite these romantic imaginings I was a bit apprehensive. My trip had actually started in the same city it would finish, Sofia. I had first stumbled on the Central Station as I went to catch a ride at the adjacent bus terminal. One look at the monstrosity of the Brutalist-style station had stripped away any illusions of romantic train travel that I had. It was the kind of place only a Communist Central Committee would inflict on its citizenry, a ghastly creation of concrete rigidity, positively Brezhnevian in its stolidity. It looked to be built less for rail transport and more as a loitering point for suspicious individuals who inhabit the very fringes of society. It would have made a great set for the next Fight Club film. I had visions of glue sniffers galore lurking in its bowels. And this was just from a cursory glance. I shuttered to think that I would arrive back here on a Sunday morning from Belgrade at the end of my trip. Since childhood I have equated Sunday mornings with the Gospel Singing Jubilee television show that penetrated the airwaves of the American South. I now imagined out of work secret police, low level Bulgarian mafia wannabes and seedy currency exchange con artists all descending on me at once. My trip really would come to an end here, but hopefully not my life. For the next two weeks I tried to put these thoughts out of my mind.

Sofia Central Railway Station

A frightening prospect – the Sofia Central Railway Station (Credit: Edal Anton Lefterov)

Exactly thirteen days later I stood on a platform at Belgrade Main railway station waiting to board a sleeper car for Sofia. Surrounding me were a host of other travelers on their way to Sofia as well. Belgrade’s main station was much better than Sofia’s, than again how could it not be. A neo-classical pile that was constructed in the late 19th century, it retained a bit of faded charm. The station’s condition also reflected the fact that communism in Yugoslavia under the dictator Josip Tito had been more prosperous than the hardline variety that had bent Bulgaria into backwardness. Nonetheless, this whiff of prosperity was of little solace as I waited to board the sleeper. The delay was ostensibly due to a cleaning of the sleeper car. One could spend a lifetime cleaning Serbian railway cars with little to show for the effort. They were old, rickety and lacking in comfort. At best they were serviceable. The delay was prolonged by an extremely drunk, prospective Serbian passenger who managed to make his way into the car. Despite protestations to the contrary by railway staff he flitted up and down the corridor causing a degree of chaos usually reserved for melees. When he was finally led off by a conductor, he tried in vain several times to reenter.

There were murmurs and nervous glances among my fellow passengers. Like me, they were wondering who would be unlucky enough to have this inebriated man disrupting slumber in their compartment. A couple who had stayed at the same accommodation in Belgrade as me, a Norwegian man and an ethnic Hungarian woman who hailed from Slovakia were chattering away about this unfortunate occurrence. The Hungarian, who spoke impeccable, yet heavily accented English with an exotic lisp said, “In Slovakia that man would never be allowed on the train. The railway authorities would call the police and have him arrested.” Her Norwegian partner, who had heretofore worn a perpetual smile, now looked strained and apprehensive. Since Slovakia was not exactly known as a bastion of law and order I began worry as well. From her comment I divined that this trip might end up memorable for the wrong reasons. The sleeper car, with its faded paint job and battered complexion, looked outdated. The railway platform was shrouded in darkness. The elegant blue and gold cars of the Orient Express seemed more distance than the dinosaurs. Instead of mystery I began to feel menace. I braced myself for war when we were finally allowed to enter the sleeper.

Serbian sleeper car at the Belgrade Railway Station

The nightmare awaits – Serbian sleeper car at the Belgrade Railway Station (Credit: Wikipedia)

What Nightmares May Come
When it comes to overnight rail travel there are few more stressful moments than the initial meeting with ones fellow compartment mates. Will they be sober and kind-hearted or slovenly and mean spirited? Will they be generous with space or fight for every inch? Can they be trusted or will sleeping with one eye open be required? Entering the compartment I was heartened by the sight of a couple of friendly, youthful Bulgarians. I assumed they were a couple, but the male who spoke good English said they were just friends. I got the distinct feeling that the friendship brought him many benefits. The female, who went by the name of Bibi was stunningly attractive. She had the dark exotic looks of what was likely a co-Bulgarian/Turkish ancestry. She could not speak a word of English, but smiled profusely. They were returning from a budget excursion to Venice. We were soon joined by a silent stranger. The Bulgarians occupied the top bunks while the stranger and I took the bottom ones. As we settled in for the evening my nostrils were suddenly assaulted by an extremely foul odor. A toxic, noxious smell suddenly pervaded the cabin. I glanced up at the young Bulgarian man in the top bunk across the way. I noticed that he had just removed his shoes. He grinned sheepishly. The odor was impossible to ignore. It was so strong that I could almost feel it. There was no escape. This was a harbinger of the journey to come.