Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bucolic Belgrade

As you travel north through Serbia the mountains gradually become smaller until you reach the Danube and the gently rolling hills of the Pannonian Plain. The characteristic sharp Ottoman minarets also become more scarce giving way to curvy orthodox churches. The forested countryside is dotted with small towns and villages merging unobtrusively into the landscape, each house possessing a sizeable garden with carefully tended vegetable plots and fruit trees. Like other Communist countries in which political expression and entrepreneurship were stifled (though in Yugoslavia less than in other places) the main outlet for peoples' energies were their homes and gardens which, despite modest means, were continually refurbished, extended, weeded, painted, and generally spruced up. So despite tatty old cars in the driveways and crumbling public buildings peoples' houses are generally very neat and tidy as is the country in general (this is the first country in a very long time where I've noticed special bins for dog poo). The Communist era also fostered a climate where people were left to do as they pleased in their personal affairs and so there are fewer hang-ups about what's seemly and what's not: people blithely cut the grass in boxer shorts and untied bathrobes, socks and sandals aren't social suicide and it's not uncommon to see men with their tops off in town. This is also the time for making hay and so throughout the countryside people are out with scythes cutting the long grass, or already collecting, drying and piling the hay onto large, conical haystacks. The place is also strewn with some beautiful, old monasteries, which are not only worth visiting in their own right, but are a great place to stay the night as you can almost always pitch your tent (if you're not offered a comfy bed that is) and the friendly monks will often feed you as well. Bonus!

Upon reaching Belgrade, the city of two rivers, sitting as it does at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube, one is finally out of the Balkans and into central Europe. Although no-one would call Belgrade a beautiful city in places it reminds me of Prague in places with some pretty art-nouveau buildings dotted around the centre (although it has a long history going all the way back to the Romans, the oldest building in Belgrade is less than 200 years old due to the continuous wars and sackings that have periodically ravaged the city). Although there are no obvious touristy things to see Belgrade has a vibrant and welcoming atmosphere as well as few strange attractions such as Tito's grave and the empty hulk of the ex-Chinese embassy that was bombed by the Americans in 1999 (what's particularly interesting about the embassy is that there isn't a single building within 100m of it, so it must definitely have been intentionally targeted). Personally I also love the fact that the opposite, northern side of the Danube is completely uninhabited, and so within a few hundred metres of the city centre there's an extensive wilderness that stretches out to the horizon towards Hungary. The low, Danube plain is also horribly hot and humid at this time of the year and it has got me yearning for some good-old British drizzle and grey, sunless skies!

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