And now for another part of the Balkans and its very complicated history. First time in Serbia and using Belgrade as my base. This is a much larger city than the last two capitals I have been in and it is also a large construction site in many places. It is not the most beautiful place I have seen but it is interesting in its way.
When I planned this trip I thought I would fly from place to place but turns out there are few direct flights from capital city to capital city so I found the website mydaytrip.com which effectively drives you door to door in comfort and with stops along the way if you want to do that. So enroute from Skopje to Belgrade I opted to make a 90 minute stop in the town of Nis for a quck walk around its fortress and park – great way to stretch my legs and see some Byzantine architecture – yes those Ottomans were here too.
On Day one I walked through the excellent pedestrianized shopping street (Knez Mihailova) to get to the place where everyone goes to here which is Kalemegdan Fortress – occupied by the romans and possibly before then and also the Ottomans and the Christians and so on. The large statue is known locally as Victor (he is meant to represent victory over the Ottomans and he has a commanding view towards new Belgrade at the point at which the Rivers Sava and Danube meet with their two distinct colours). He is also stark naked which shocked the locals at the time and this is why he is here rather than in town as they thought people wouldn’t notice that – but of course they do and they all come to see. I did try to get a shot from the front too but the sun was in my eyes…..
I also went to some of the underground sites in this area. The Well – which was never actually a well but the Romans dug it very deep hoping to find water. They tried hard but they didn’t find any natural water (the water you see is only surface water from rain coming through the cracks in the rocks above) and there are lots of gory tales of people being lowered down there and left to starve to death and then to eat each other. Also more recently in this century a young girl was thrown down there by her boyfriend. All a bit creepy. The corridor is Tito’s bunker also built under a hill in the park that has a tiny entrance so would have been easy to disguise – no-one is sure he ever went there but his soldiers lived there for a long time keeping it going just in case. They only discovered it in the last 20 years.
While I am on the topic of Tito I might mention more about him. Both in Macedonia and here people who are older – say over 60 look back very fondly on his time as President of the Yugoslavian federation which included what is now 6 countries (Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo (although not recognised as a country by the Serbians); Macedonia and Slovenia). The name Yugoslavia means “Southern Slavic” so didn’t refer to any one country over another. Why did they like him? They will say everyone had a job; they had a passport that gave them access to more countries in the world without a visa than any other; although notionally communist he was not aligned to Stalin and managed to keep one foot in the East and the West; mixed marriage across the states was encouraged to unite the federation; there was no religion and no wars (possibly due to no religion?). He was made lifelong president and when he died in 1980 everything fell apart – the effects of which are still being felt today, with bombing of Serbia by the UN as recently as 1999.
Tito was also a larger than life character. He had at least “three loves of his life” – two of whom bore him children and many female “acquaintances”- ; he watched John Wayne movies every day; he loved to wear fur coats and walk his German shepherd dogs. Got Richard Burton to make a film about his life so that he would be in the area often – and the reason he did that is that he wanted to spend time with Elizabeth Taylor because she was the most beautiful woman in the world. They remained friends for many years and many husbands. He was also friendly with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He loved Western culture and my guide remembered seeing Ray Charles in concert -brought over by Tito. Equally she remembered as a young child being in one of those thousand of 9 year old kids dancing for 90 minutes dressed all in blue and waving a ribbon (a la North Korea style) for his birthday. I think he liked the best of all worlds.
I liked this apocryphal story about him. At a T junction one day, his driver asked whether he should turn left or right. Tito is said to have replied “indicate left but turn right”. Says it all really.
After all this I visited the very contemporary Zepter Museum in a lovely old 1920s building. Mostly I liked the building better than the art but these caught my attention – especially the cheeky menorah (you have to zoom to see what I mean).