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.
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 – 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.
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.”