Telling people that you’re going to Serbia evokes the same reaction you got in the 1990s if you said you were going to Vietnam. People imagine a war-torn wasteland. Nothing could be further from the truth, although there are still buildings in Belgrade that display the scars of the NATO bombardment:
Belgrade is a city of two parts, which this photo shows. The whole town is like this: beautiful art nouveau and art deco buildings side by side with hideous concrete monstrosities built by the communists:
There were also some lovely areas of the city. The nicest was the cobbled street of Skadarlija. This sweet little street had dappled sunlight slipping through oak leaves, which provided a refreshing respite from the infernal heat (it was 35c almost every day when I was there).
Skadarlija is famous as the musical quarter of the city and all the restaurants have their own house bands. I didn’t know this when I arrived, so I couldn’t understand why a group of buskers had surrounded my table and were serenading me on my own for over half an hour (it was not a busy day). It was only later that I discovered that the waiters weren’t moving these musicians on because they were employees of the restaurant!
Apart from Skadarlija, the prettiest part of the city is the old castle which guards the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. It’s a peaceful grassy space where you can wander and enjoy the views of the steppe that surrounds Belgrade. Although today it’s a picturesque relic of times past, it is yet another reminder of the tragic history of the Balkans.
Belgrade had the feel of a city picking itself up and dusting itself off after the trials of recent years. There are all the usual international shops, and plenty of affordable restaurants (even if the emphasis is firmly on roasted meat). It’s also a surprisingly young city, which made a change from my neighbourhood in Barcelona where almost everyone is of pensionable age.
However, all is not as well as the sunshine might make you believe. Back in Britain, there is an ongoing debate as to whether we should leave the European Union or not, with at times rabid denunciations of the work of the EU. It’s salutary to see what life is like for a country which is truly independent of the European Union. Life is not as rosy as the Eurosceptics claim.
First of all, Serbia has a protected currency. You cannot get the Serbian dinar outside of the country, and it does not float on international money markets. I could not obtain any dinars before I arrived (here is one note showing inventor Nicola Tesla):
Secondly, without access to foreign markets, Serbian trade is almost at a standstill. The average wage is something like €300 a month, and many people have been forced onto the streets. There is little competition for prices, meaning that food is expensive. Thse import/export restrictions throw up weird anomalies, such as the fact that a kilo of bananas costs more than a kilo of apples. Now, I’m no expert on agriculture, but I know that Serbia can harvest apples. However, I doubt that they are going to be starting banana plantations any time soon.
Whatever the economic troubles, I had a very enjoyable stay in the ‘White City’. People were universally friendly and spoke excellent English. Once the country finds a way to compromise over their deep-seated national and historical problems, there is no reason why Serbia could not join Croatia and Slovenia in the European Union. After all, the European Common Market was created to repair the ethnic hatred and turmoil left by World War II. This is one case at least where we can hope that history will repeat itself.