Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade is a much larger city than I anticipated, and for some reason that makes it feel so much more accessible to me than any of the destinations I’ve visited thus far in my two weeks in the Balkans. I woke up early and caught up on some tasks (checking in for my flight to Romania, etc.) before I headed out for the museums as they open around 10:00am. My umbrella turned out to have been well worth the cost, as it was pouring down. After tracking down an ATM, and then tracking down a kiosk to buy a tram pass, I was prepped and ready for the tram, which according to Google Maps should have been arriving any minute. Well, I waited. And waited. The rain kept coming down, seeming to get stronger, as a collection of people waited at the tram stop with me. An elderly woman approached me, gesturing if I could share my umbrella, which of course I did, getting both of us half-wet in the process as she muttered in Serbian (presumably about the rain). Her tram arrived about five minutes later; mine didn’t, leaving me feeling like a glorified umbrella stand. I gave up on the tram and headed instead for the bus stop, which thankfully worked out.

Minutes later I was slowly but surely making my way up to the Republic Square, one of Belgrade’s central squares in the “Old Town” area. Unlike most of the other cities I’ve been to in this area, Belgrade’s “Old Town” is less of a defined “town” within the city, and more just a neighborhood I’d compared to London’s Regent Street – picture broad streets with classical European architecture, dotted with cafes and plenty of shopping.

Partially to get out of the rain and partially because I was heading there eventually anyway, I ducked into the first museum I stumbled across – the National Museum of Serbia. Inside, the museum is world-class, with fantastic exhibits and beautiful curation. Unfortunately, the security is so strict that I couldn’t really enjoy myself. First, there was the ticket. Apparently you have to scan it, despite the security guard clearly watching you purchase the ticket. Then, as I was attempting to figure out where to start the exhibit, he came barreling over – “Is that a CAMERA BAG?” Obviously, yes it was, with the camera safely holstered, where I planned to keep it given the pouring rain. “You CANNOT take photos with the camera. NO camera.” Yes, ok. He gave me a very skeptical and reprimanding look, despite me having done literally nothing to even suggest I was using or going to be using my camera, and let me go. The next exhibit, I had a similar experience. “Your bag MUST be in front of you at all times, no exception” (it’s a cross-body bag that usually is… mostly in front of me). And so, there I was, carrying my bag in front of me, camera stowed, on guard for whoever would find fault with any other perceived threat I posed to the museum’s collection.

It wasn’t all bad, and in fact, the museum would have been incredible had the vibe been better. They had a fantastic collection of Bronze Age artifacts found in Serbia, Roman artifacts (including some amazing finds, like the metal components of a chariot, a silver ‘pipe organ’ and some amazing jewelry), medals from the Ottoman period (for each war won, celebrations of statehood, etc.), Yugoslavian currency, Yugoslavian artists’ work, and a collection of religious and secular work from Serbia / the greater Balkan region from the medieval period forward. Some of these pieces were fantastic – they included one of the oldest known portraits from this area, created in the ~1070s, as well as some amazing monastic work from the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries. They also had a painting showing all the shields of Illyria, some of which were fictional even at the time.

After the National Museum, I headed up to my next museum: the Ethnographic Museum. Comparatively, it was a relaxed treasure trove and I had all the time in the world to make my way through its incredible exhibits. Out front, they have an antique postbox, which was cool to see.

The first floor is completely dedicated to traditional dress from different areas of the Balkans (primarily Serbia, but also areas that are now in Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro) from the seventeenth to nineteenth and even into the twentieth centuries. It was by far the best exhibition on traditional regional dress I’ve ever seen. The second floor is almost entirely dedicated to shoes and the craftsmanship behind the clothing, which was equally impressive.

The shoes were amazing – everything from very simple slippers, to boots, to women’s dress shoes. They also had a big sock collection, a collection of cobbler’s tools, and antique furniture that would have been utilized in the shoe-making process.

On the third floor, they have an even more incredible exhibition, showcasing the interiors of rural homes from across Serbia by region. It was amazing to see some of the differences in the architecture, decor, and cultural practices that would have been in use. It was also interesting to validate my hypothesis that some of the homes we’d passed in rural Serbia yesterday were from yesteryear – based on a graphic showing how rural architecture in western Serbia had changed over time, it seems plausible that some of the properties we saw could have been from the mid-nineteenth century. They also had some interesting mock Ottoman decor, which was interesting to compare to the museums I’d visit later in the day.

Of course, they had other interesting exhibits as well, including one on the fishing culture near the River Drina (where I’d been yesterday) and a whole display on weddings and other cultural events. I especially loved the sledge they had on display.

After I peeled myself away from the ethnographic museum, I headed to the Vuk & Dositej Museum, which I’d heard was a great example of Ottoman architecture. It definitely used to be an Ottoman property, but the content was actually much more heavily focused (perhaps unsurprisingly) on Vuk and Dositej, who were famed Serbian authors. It did have two components of Ottoman architecture, but it was nowhere near as impressive as what I saw in Sarajevo.

Then, I was off to lunch, wandering through Belgrade’s brutalist architecture towards Iva New Balkan Cuisine, a Michelin-rated restaurant offering a Balkan take on fine dining.

Lunch was fabulous. I started with the recommended cheese and buckwheat rolls, with honey and fresh walnuts. I was expecting a bread-type roll, but they ended up being fried little pouches of decadence, with sweet honey and the salty cheese. The main was lamb, which was perfectly tender, accompanied with roasted potatoes, carrots, little cheese puffs, “Waldorf Salad” (which was basically coleslaw with raisins), and a delicious yogurt dipping sauce. I also tried the plum rakije, which was incredibly strong compared to the walnut one I tried a couple days ago.

After lunch, I hit two more of the remaining items on my Belgrade bucket list: the Serbian Orthodox church and Princess Ljubica’s Residence, which are adjacent to each other near the Old Town area. The church was incredible – as usual, photos don’t do it justice.

The Princess’s Residence was fascinating. Apparently when Emperor Milo was building it, he erected scaffolding in the front lawn with which to hang anyone whose work didn’t impress him – can’t imagine how that pressure worked! In addition to being a showcase of Ottoman- and general Balkan-style architecture, the residence itself is now a showcase for different eras of furniture.

Then, I wandered over to find the tram on the way home… which failed to come for about twenty minutes, then promptly arrived, kicked all of its passengers off, and then left us standing there for another ten minutes while we waited for a replacement. Finally, a replacement tram arrived and we were on our way! Interestingly, the trams are so old school here that to turn any corners the drivers have to physically exit the tram and use a large metal crowbar to change the rails so the tram will head in the desired direction. They also play an eerie, echo-ing recording in Serbian which is probably completely mundane (‘stand clear, closing doors’) but spooked me each time.

For dinner, I ventured away from the Old Town area, going to Lorenzo & Kakalamba, a very quirky and highly decorated restaurant specializing in Italian food. The decor is absolutely ridiculous, especially given it’s set back among a completely brutalist neighborhood. There’s maybe a metaphor in there – even when the exterior is brutalist, the interior is vibrant and bright!

I ordered a Serbian specialty for my appetizer (it turned out to be more fried cheese!) and the handmade gnocchi for my main. The food wasn’t super memorable, although it wasn’t bad (however, the salad under the fried cheese was one of the few things that’s been truly seasoned during my time in the Balkans – seems like salt is an afterthought here), but the decor was absolutely worth it!

Overall, a great first day in Serbia! Tomorrow I’m planning to venture to a couple of the more far-flung sites (if the tram cooperates!) after doing the requisite visit to the Belgrade fortress and the Tesla (inventor, not car brand) museum.

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