The thought of going to Serbia both scared and excited me. On the 5 hour shuttle bus arranged by the hostel to take us from Sarajevo to Belgrade and driven by a Serbian Maniac who didn’t speak a word of English we were a little wary. We had heard a lot about Serbia as we we in the beginning stages of this journey though the Balkans. Our route probably didn’t help the situation much either with Bosnia and Herzegovina being the stop just previous. We had had such an amazing and intense time in both Sarajevo and Mostar. Not only absolutely falling in love with this multicultural and historic nation but also by seeing it’s scars and speaking in depth and honestly with locals.
We learnt of the horrors of the Balkan war here and for the most part the aggressors and the enemy were the Serbs. They were the ones who subjected the Bosnians to a campaign of bombardment, killing and genocide over land they aimed to steal off a Bosnia struggling to claim independence. They were the ones that still now control large parts of the country is what is often a no go zone for many of the Bosniaks who live in places like Sarajevo. We learnt that tensions still exist between ethnic groups and the law of the land is not recognised in the Republic Of Srpska, whose territory starts just outside of the capital and which we passed through. Often football games between these two regions ends up in bloody and bitter battles. A guy in the hostel telling us that sometimes they bring acid, baseball bats and knives. There is no love lost here. The Bosnia war might be over but the battles still exist everyday in smaller and less publicised events.
With pure hatred of the Serbs being the main impression we had been given, we were a little wary of what we might find. We were also still accurately aware of the Kosovo situation and now having been it seems even more puzzling why they would want to or still feel the need to lay claim to an area that shares absolutely no cultural or ethnical similarities to it. I can only imagine the reason is sheer bloody mindedness, greed and pride. It feels to me like they are that guy who lost an argument and instead of having some grace and admitting defeat and moving on they keep on going past the point to which they have any valid point and just make themselves look silly. I mean, everyone else but pretty much them has accepted Kosovo as an independent nation!
Going to Serbia was a bit strange for us, a little like stepping over into enemy lines as we already felt such an allegiance to Bosnia and Kosovo. I almost felt like a traitor giving them my time and money but we are all about discovering places for ourselves rather than through preconceptions and rumours. It also didn’t help that we fell so much in love with Sarajevo and had to be swept away in the night to big, bad Belgrade!
So what was Serbia really like.
Serbia in many ways lived up to its reputation. We found the people in general to be a lot harsher and less approachable than the easy going and friendly nature we have found all over the Balkans. That’s not to say there weren’t friendly people because we defiantly met some nice and interesting Serbians for sure. But on the whole we didn’t get the same warm atmosphere.
Maybe a big part of that was the impression the guide on our free waking tour of Belgrade left on us. We’ve been on a few of these walking tours here and there before and enjoy them as a way to get your bearings and some background in a new city. Our guide was a girl fresh out of university in her early 20’s, unassuming and welcoming at first but as the tour went on her political agenda came creeping out. On many occasions she mentioned Kosovo and made a point of repeatedly saying “the southern Serbian state of…” As well as making a point of mentioning all the different Serbian artefacts and buildings down there as if to prove it was theirs. I imagine if you never go on to visit this wonderful little country and only get your information about it from Serbia then you might be inclined to be swayed by what she was implying.
Another thing she repeatedly did was to have digs at the neighbouring countries, at one point saying that Bosnia is pretending to have its own language and really they just speak Serbian. Now I understand that many of these Slavic languages are related, we’ve spent 2 months in the area and the similarities between each country haven’t gone unnoticed. But to outright belittle part of the identity of a country that was a victim of her countries aggression really didn’t do much to make me fall in love with this country.
Serbia is pretty much the last outpost of the mighty Yugoslavia, when others left it stayed in place and kept the name until as late as 2003. In this sense it is a very different beast to the others who sought independence, Serbia instead fought to keep everyone together, but together under their rule, name, language, culture and religion. This makes it quite unique amongst the other former Yugoslavian nations who all both declared independence from Yugoslavia and also suffered at the hands of an aggressive Serbia. You can still feel some of that here today. There is an air of arrogance and entitlement that I got from speaking to some people. Belgrade was also the former nations capital and still hosts the often visited mausoleum of Tito. When most other ex-communist countries such as Bulgaria with Dimitrov’s tomb, destroyed these archaic monuments, Serbia, much like Russia with Lenin’s Mausoleum, keeps this one as a memorial to not only Tito, but Yugoslavia and Communism itself.
What we did like!
This isn’t to say that there weren’t things that we really enjoyed about Serbia. The city of Belgrade is what we would describe are really liveable. It is modern, bustling and alive! It has everything you could ever need from a modern city and living here would be really quite easy and convenient. It also has some really nice buildings too, even if you get told otherwise!
We also felt that Belgrade was much more beautiful in parts than it had been sold to us. We had heard rumours it was just a post communist grey block with no style or flair. This was a little unfair because as much as this could be true for sections of the city, it also has its fair share of grand Austro-Hungarian architecture. One of the most wonderful areas of Belgrade is the Bohemian Quarter, known as Skadarlija, this is one of the only remaining original streets left in the city after it was almost flattened during the second world war. This cobbled throughway is a centre for culture, nightlife and age old traditions. It is comparable to Montmarte of Paris and originally started life as we know it as the place in which the artists, poets and writers gathered to work, drink and find inspiration.
Also, as much as I mentioned the remnants of Yugoslavia above I also have to mention the fact that this is something that really fascinates me. I have an interest in the history of Communism, mostly because of the fascinating link it has to Manchester. So seeing such a piece of history such as Tito’s grave and seeing the Museum of Yugoslavia was actually pretty cool for me. In the same way I didn’t really mind the blocky architecture that dominates the city, it kind of gives it that interesting post communist feel that combined with several other eras of styles makes it so unique.
Belgrade also had a great energy at times, there were parties in the streets, wedding carnivals and colourful and creative graffiti adorning many of the grey blocky buildings. When it comes alive it does it with a bang, and you are sure to know about it!
Serbia was a strange country for us, I had originally intended to write a piece about misconceptions of the country but I just couldn’t justify it. It was a place that we have mixed feelings about and possibly should have tried to see more in order to form a wider impression.
But what we did see didn’t grab us or take us on a wild journey like many other places. It was interesting and worthwhile, but it wasn’t amazing and in all honestly we wanted to move on to the next country after Belgrade. The city is ultimately a party city, if you love to go out and drink all night then I have no doubts you will be like the many others who rave about Belgrade and Serbia, but for us, it just fell a little short and out of every country on this exploration of the Balkans it has been our least favourite. But maybe that is our allegiance to both Bosnia and Kosovo speaking!
Have you been to Serbia, what were your impressions?
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