Balkan Waters – Meeting Point: The Danube & Sava Rivers At Belgrade (Travels In Eastern Europe #35)

My main reason for traveling to Belgrade was to check it off on a list of Eastern European capitals that I wanted to visit. By going to the city I would be able to call myself a traveler rather than a tourist. Allow me to explain. Very few people visiting Eastern Europe go south of Budapest along the Danube. Conversely tens of thousands of tourists ply the river’s waters on exorbitantly expensive cruises through Germany, Austria, southern Slovakia and northern Hungary, but they go no further than Budapest. I have met an overwhelming majority of older Americans who arrive or depart on such cruises from Budapest. I have yet to meet a single American who was following the Danube into Serbia.

I will often ask these people if they have plans to travel further down the river into the Balkans by boat. The answer is always no. I suspect that they believe the Yugoslav Wars have continued unabated since the Cold War ended. I assume that for most of these tourists a boat ride to Belgrade is a risk not worth taking. The Danube might as well end at Budapest rather than the Black Sea. The reality is that the river continues onward, following a course that stimulates little interest among holidaying westerners. Budapest or even Bratislava sounds more appealing than Belgrade. These people have little idea what they are missing out on. For that matter so do I. I have never taken a boat ride on the Danube, but I have stood upon its banks in Belgrade, pondering its place in the city.

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk (Credit: Wikipedia)

Two Great Rivers Converge – The View From Kalmegdan
All this comes to mind as I recall looking down upon the waterfront of the Serbian capital from the Belgrade Fortress at Kalmegdan Park. The river was deserted, its surface a glassy smoothness. A few boats were moored along the riverbank, but it was early spring, long before any tourist voyages would embark upon the Danube’s murky waters. The river was wide and full. And how could it not be? The Danube swallows its largest tributary by volume within sight from the heights of Kalmegdan. The Sava River is not considered one of the great rivers of Europe, but it should be. The Sava is a Balkan river through and through. It flows through the capitals of the three primary nations that the former Yugoslavia.

The Sava winds its way through Ljubljana in Slovenia, Zagreb in Croatia and finally debouches into the Danube at Belgrade. The city’s location at the confluence of the Sava with the Danube has ensured Belgrade’s importance in the region’s history. The saying that “geography is destiny” certainly seems apropos in this case, but what looks obvious to the historically minded is often obscured in the present. Only a handful of people come and go along either of these rivers today. I would guess that 99% of people traveling to Belgrade arrive by plane, car or as I did train. The Danube and Sava Rivers in Belgrade today have rendered lonely forces of nature by modern technology. They are crossed by bridge and hardly given a second thought.

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed (Credit: Duja)

Wedding Of The Waters – Two Rivers Become One
Walking down by the rivers just below Kalmegdan Park was a strange experience. It was incredibly quiet. I felt like I was on the edge of a nature preserve rather than two forces of nature, the Danube and Sava, which wash the banks of this bustling city. Perhaps I had come to the wrong part of the river in Belgrade. My visit was certainly in the wrong season. Early spring was obviously a slow season for river traffic since there was none. It felt as though I had the both rivers all to myself. Only a few scattered stragglers walked close to the banks. I have read that tens of thousands flock to the waterfront during the summer, as opposed to the handful that I saw on my visit. On the opposite side of the Danube, trees lined the banks. No sign of development or humanity was within sight, though behind me stood a city of over a million people. The Danube’s width and breadth was intimidating. There was little doubt that it was swift and powerful. The river might be silent at the moment, but it had the ability to carry away anyone or anything that did not respect a deceptively forceful current. It was hard to imagine the Danube this way judged by its current state, a thick ribbon of dark water slowly surging under a leaden sky. The river seemed totally remote from its surroundings.

Soon I found myself standing opposite of where the Sava and Danube mingled. For both waterways to converge at this point was an incredible act of hydrological travel. By the time it arrives at Belgrade the Danube has traveled over 1,500 kilometers and the Sava nearly a thousand. The waters wed within sight of the aptly named Great War Island. For it was on this piece of land, that one attack after another had been launched against the city. Depending on what source you care to reference, Belgrade has been conquered anywhere from twenty to forty times. Each time it was destroyed and rebuilt in a style that favored its conqueror. Belgrade’s reconstruction was done by the hands of man, while Great War Island had been restored by nature. It looked less like a place to mount an attack on the city and more like somewhere to watch birds. Time and technology had made martial usage of the island obsolete. A staging ground for centuries worth of war, was now peaceful and serene. Contrast and paradox define the stretches of riverfront that can be seen from Kalmegdan Park

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods (Credit: Wikipedia)

Rivers Run Wild – Back To Nature
A couple of years after I walked that sleepy waterfront, the Danube and Sava once again became their true selves. In May 2014 deluges further upstream led to massive flooding. One Serbian minister called the inundation of cities, towns and farmland the greatest natural disaster in the nation’s history. The flooding caused an estimated one and a half billion Euros worth of damage in Serbia. Belgrade escaped the worst of the flooding, but the rising waters came frighteningly close to causing a cataclysm. It was a reminder that the rivers were still wild and always will be. They could never really be tamed. I did not see such wildness in the rivers when I visited. The Danube and Sava in Belgrade were a study in serenity the day I walked along their banks, but I sensed that eventually these rivers have to run wild and return to a state of nature.

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.”