David and I were both curious about Belgrade and I had my nose pressed to the window as we landed at Nikola Tesla Airport. We flew in over a sprawling metroplex constrained by the Danube River to the north and bisected by its tributary, the Sava River. More familiar looking structures gave way to massive, uniform blocks of high-rise housing as we neared touchdown.
Nikola Tesla Airport felt enormous after little Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport. It was modern and bustling…with working free wi-fi! While we waited for our luggage, I texted with our AirBnB hostess, Vesna, via WhatsApp (invaluable for travel, expecially since nearly every AirBnB host I’ve dealt with has an account) and she promised her husband would be waiting when our cab dropped us off.
The day outside was sunny and unseasonably warm. Our taxi drove past many big modern buildings housing international tech companies before we passed a huge 6-story white building with two wings embracing a lovely modern fountain centered in a wide paved plaza. Although the place was enormous, it seemed deserted. When I asked our cab driver, he explained it was the “former congress of Yugoslavia.” I later learned the building is known as the “Palata Srbija” or “Serbian Palace.” We were to see several more abandoned and underutilized former Yugoslavian buildings in Belgrade and Montenegro and hear that same sense of regret for the loss of former glory or perceived glory. Despite what we were taught in the U.S., Tito and his era remain popular with many people in the former Yugoslavia. No doubt many others there feel differently, but that positive sentiment and nostalgia is an undeniable fact and something I’d been surprised by when my sons and I were in Croatia and Bosnia in 2003.
The modern part of Belgrade yielded to the old as we crossed over the Sava River. We turned north, coming to Kalmegdan park on our left. I made a mental note to return to check out the vending stalls visible from the road along the main path. Past the stone wall of the Belgrade Zoo sporting tiles representing the animals within, our cab turned into a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood. The buildings were unremarkable, many marked with graffiti, and a few downright dilapidated. I’d deliberately chosen an AirBnB apartment in the old part of the city, and was reassured by Vesna’s assurance that it was a family area and she and her family had lived there before moving to a bigger apartment to accommodate their growing family. Still, I felt a twinge of concern. David is such a sport about going along with nearly everything I suggest on our travels that I didn’t want him to be disappointed in my choice of lodging.
As promised, Vesna’s husband, Zoran, was waiting for us. Zoran led us to the apartment, gave us a brief run down of the area, handed over the keys, took our passports to register with the government–promising to return them within the hour, and we were on our own.
After a quick trip to a nearby grocery store/deli, we decided to enjoy the beautiful weather by lunching the balcony. Prices at the store were wonderfully cheap and about $5 fed both of us well. With two schools nearby, children on the playgrounds made a happy background noise.
After lunch, it was time to explore. We walked up the street shown above towards the Danube. We crossed a pedestrian bridge over a wide span of old railroad tracks that ended in the common area of an uninspiring apartment complex. Not exactly picturesque. Beyond the apartments we finally arrived at the wide expanse of the Danube. Two wide, paved walkways ran parallel to each other and the river separated by a wall to keep back rising waters. A lone fisherman stood on the bank while swans swam nearby. We passed a few others out for a stroll, including a family of 3, the father of which wore a t-shirt depicting the US flag being pissed upon by that impish little boy often seen on pickup trucks at home. Hmm. If this guy was any indication, we might not be too popular in these parts.
With no shade in sight, it was getting uncomfortably warm. I’d guessed we could get to Kalmegdan Park via the riverside, but it was becoming obvious I’d underestimated the hike and the heat. When we reached a sports complex, we gratefully bought ice cold bottled water from a vendor and gulped it down before continuing on to the park and the welcome refuge of scattered shade trees.
Many people were enjoying the park this sunny Monday afternoon. We wandered over to the vendors I’d spied from the taxi and found much of the things on sale to be Russia-themed: Soviet-era trinkets, t-shirts depicting Putin and the like. From the park, we continued our ramble to Kneza Mihaila, the main pedestrian shopping street of Belgrade.
Starting to droop after our early morning, flight, miles-long walk and the heat, we made our way home via a quick stop at the National Theater to see if last-minute tickets might be available (often a great deal in Eastern Europe), but no luck. We opted for deli dinner at home, a big advantage of apartment over hotel. Sometimes even dinner out is more than we we’re up for.