"Welcome," I heard this woman call out as I paused to look at what she had for sale in Belgrade's Zeleni Venac market. I left with this photo and a bag of half-dollar sized waffle cookies flavored with lemon and honey. The market is a slice of traditional life in the Serbian capital, but frankly, the scenes bielow are more typical. Belgrade is an art-filled city, full of young people, many English-speaking, studying at the university by day and filling up the cafes and bars on every street corner in the evening.
The pedestrianized main shopping street, Kenz Mihailova, is the center of a vibrant street life and a model for how many American cities could create a sense of community in their downtowns. The usual chain stores are here -Zara, The Gap etc.- along with dozens of outdoor cafes and plazas for impromptu exhibitions such as this yoga demonstration.
Tom tries some of the exhibits put up to celebrate "Math' Week,'' sponsored by a local bank. Notice the bicycle has square wheels and he's riding on a rounded surface. They say a square wheel won't roll, but it will if the ground is curved.
We like Belgrade so much that we decided to stay an extra day. All of which lends some perspective to what it took to get here by train from Kotor in Montenegro.
Belgrade is another destination worth whatever journey, but hopefully never again via the Bar-Podgorica-Belgrade railway, at least not on an Easter Monday, the end of a six-day holiday in the region. In all fairness, we should have known better, but we didn't, so bottom-line, we, along with hundreds of others on their way
home after the holidays, spent 10 hours squeezed into this train car - no AC, one toilet, people standing two and three deep, with luggage, in corridor which also doubled as the smoking section. We were the lucky ones. A clerk at the hostel in Kotor called ahead and made seat reservations for us, so unlike these people, we had a place to sit. It's possible to make his journey by bus, but the train ride is an epic one, provided you can see out the windows.
Tracks laid over a period of 25 years traverse tunnels dug through the mountains. When we could see out, we looked down on rushing rivers, ski chalets, postcard villages, even snow-capped mountains. Sadly, the carriages don't live up to the type of ride the scenery deserves. The bench seats felt like upholstery laid on top of boards. Because the train was so crowded, we ended up with seven adults and a child in a cabin intended for six. The best I can say is that it was an opportunity to exchange smiles and a few words with the other passengers, a few of whom spoke a little English. They all passed the time working crossword puzzles and talking non-stop, mainly about politics from what I could gather from overhearing a few words such as "Obama'' and "America.'' All were very helpful in making gestures to explain when the border-crossing guards were coming on the train to check passports and when we crossed the border into Serbia.
All the discomfort melted away when we arrived at the B&B Art Home, owned by charming Mira Vukelic, a potter and recently retired actress for a local theater company and her husband, Milosh, a painter and former journalist.
If there is such a thing as a five-star B&B, this is it. The house is 130 years old, the former home of Serbian writer Jovan Skerlic. From the parquet floors, huge bed, desk, TV, new bathroom, mini-fridge stocked with free drinks to Mira's ample breakfasts, it lives up to all the good reviews it's earned on TripAdvisor. We're paying the equivalent of $100 a night in Serbian dinars, which meant a switch in currencies since Serbia is not on the euro.
Each dinar is worth about 12 cents, so we had to gather quite a stack of money to pay our hotel bill- 35,000 dinars or 35 1000 dinar bills! The ATMs seem well-stocked, so no real problems.
Our B&B is in a residential area in Old Belgrade filled with 19th century architecture, and mostly unaffected by NATO bombing in 1999. Most of the affected buildings were in New Belgrade, a modern area on the other side of the Danube and Sava rivers.
Lining the surrounding streets are dozens of little restaurants and cafes with quirky names such as "Mama's Biscuit House'' and "Insomnia.'' Most double as places to stop for coffee and set up a laptop during the day, changing into bars with music at night. Belgrade has a reputation as the party captal of Europe. Our neighborhood definitely has a late-night scene, but a relatively quiet one compared to the floating night clubs on the rivers.
We've especially enjoyed our breakfast chats with Mira who was born in another town in Serbia and moved to Belgrade to study theater. She lived here when the country was part of Communist Yugoslavia and Belgrade was the capital, and also during the Balkan wars, when Croatia, Slovenia and Kosovo battled for independence, opposing Slobodan Milosevic's efforts to win control, and form a kind of Greater Serbia. Milosh, a Serb working as a journalist in Croatia at the time, fled to Belgrade.
This is a gas station called the Dayton petrol station after the Dayton Peace Accord, the agreement that ended the war in the early 1990s, and gasoline supplies once again flowed into Serbia. The peace accord was brokered by President Clinton and signed in Dayton, Ohio. The NATO bombing came later in 1999 after the peace talks failed to stop a Serbian military campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Given Serbia's history, I was a little unsure of the people we would meet here. Even though Milosevic is gone, Serbia is still viewed by many as the "bad boy" of Eastern Europe, not yet part of the European Union, and still struggling to come to terms with an independent Kosovo.
"People need to understand us," Mira told us one morning at breakfast, "Yes, things were bad in the past, but now we are changed."
As a young guide at the Nikola Tesla museum put it: "People don't hate each other; politicians do."
Next: Art, music, food and more in Belgrade