Balkans 2014 Diary, #1:The Time We Accidentally Gatecrashed A Fish Festival (Belgrade)

NB: Forgot to take any pictures on the Sunday so, er, some of these won’t correlate. At all.

8th September, 3:33pm
McDonalds, Slavija, Belgrade

You’re in another country, with a whole new culture and cuisine to explore. There are local restaurants and cafes all around. So why are you in McDonalds?!?

The symbol of Serbia on a lamppost outside the Parliament building. Severe and stern.

The symbol of Serbia on a lamppost outside the Parliament building. Severe and stern.

As much as it makes me a bad traveller to pay my custom to an evil, obesity-aiding multinational, I have a list of excuses fully prepared:

1. The most heinous tourist excuse; you know what you’re getting. You’re not accidentally going to order a salad instead of a steak. The staff understand English, the menu isn’t hard to translate, and you know what’s on it anyway.
2. It’s really warm outside and I wanted a cold drink.
3. Most importantly, something I learned from my last trip is that lots of smaller businesses get pissy with you if you outstay your welcome to write your journal and suchlike. McDonalds, being too big and rich for trivialities like that, don’t give a shit if you’re taking up a table and staying there for 4 hours writing. No-one bothers you. It’s perfect for being antisocial in. And I fancied chilling out in an impersonal place after an emotional afternoon anyway.

A nice park.

A nice park.

To be clear: I planned to do this journey as a lone wolf, and travelling alone gives you certain freedoms you lack when accompanied. But it’s hard to remember that when you’ve just spent several days hanging out with someone whose company you really enjoy, and not only have to bid farewell to that when you say goodbye to them, but in this instance say goodbye to seeing anyone you know for a whole month. (And also to having someone who can read Cyrillic, which all of the street signs are written in. Immeasurably useful.) It hit me pretty hard when I said goodbye to Conor earlier, and forced a detour to a small park near some government buildings so I could have a minor weepy existential crisis.

A not quite so nice park.

A not quite so nice park.

My miserable expression caught several curious glances, and eventually an oldish man started speaking to me in Serbian. I explained that I was English and knew no Serbian, he sat next to me and kept trying to start a conversation. Not having a clue what he was saying, I was mildly concerned,  I attempted to understand him and answer his questions, to no avail – when he listed some cities to try and explain his question, I responded by saying London, and he laughed. Presumably I had misunderstood.

Back to the nice park.

Back to the nice park.

After lots of awkward facial expressions pulled and squeaks of “I don’t understand Serbian!!”, I was at last able to understand him when he asked a question involving the word ‘sporta’. We half-managed a conversation here, if listing Serbian Chelsea players and the football teams in Belgrade constitutes a conversation, and buoyed by this I instigated a conversation about tennis with him simply by saying “Novak Djokovic” and miming a serve. This too ended up with us listing Serbian players.

This was in one of the parks. I don't know who these faces belong to or what they represent but presumably it's something important. #MostInformativeTravelBloggerOfTheYear2014

This was in one of the parks. I don’t know who these faces belong to or what they represent but presumably it’s something important. #MostInformativeTravelBloggerOfTheYear2014

Running out of sports in which I could confidently (or unconfidently) name Serbian players in, I was a little relieved when he stood up, shook my hand and said something in his native tongue once more. I said it was nice to meet him and, on seeing his confused expression, I tried to convey my meaning by doing a horrifically cheesy thumbs up and frightening grin at him, which only confused him further, and he left. It was a shame to leave him with the opinion that I’m a monolingual, manically-thumbs-upping buffoon.

There is a lottttt of graffiti in Belgrade.

There is a lottttt of graffiti in Belgrade.

That massively non-chronological preamble concluded, it’s time to summarise what happened on previous days.

FRIDAY: Luton Airport is fairly small, with a congested security check line and – to my immortal chagrin – no Wetherspoons. My chagrin heightened when on boarding the plane, my row was filled not with one of the cute and alluringly moody Serbian boys queueing, but an Irish hippy.

My suspicions aroused by his beard and book about spirituality, which the front cover informed me would change my life, they were soon soothed as he engaged me in friendly conversation. Yet any newfound goodwill towards him evaporated as soon as he removed his shoes and socks and, to my horror, massaged his feet with great vigour and satisfaction, pointing his left one in my direction. This disgusting spectacle carried on for an agonising twenty minutes.

Eventually he stopped, and borrowed my pen to write War and Peace in the inside cover of yet another life-changing book on spirituality. To my amazement he then presented this book to the air hostesses, complete with simpering speech of gratitude. I wondered what he was so grateful for – perhaps his long trips to the bathroom incorporated his admission to the Mile High Club?

Love this thing.

Love this thing.

Nikola Tesla Airport is rather run down in places, most notably the corridor entered after deplaning, but morphs after several minutes into a more first world interior that has obviously been recently renovated. Signifiers of a less modern age remain though, most notably the adorably outdated flight departure board, which makes a hideous flicking noise as it changes information.

Monopoly money.

Monopoly money.

Having got out some Monopoly – er, I mean Serbian – money out, I was whisked off to my hostel by the airline’s airport transfer service to that night’s hostel, Hostelche, chosen on account of its 24h check in service (my flight had landed at half 11 in the evening). Despite being dropped right outside the door, I still somehow managed to get lost. The door would not budge, and there was no advertisement for the hostel outside, so I wandered around the block looking for an alternate entrance while muttering “PLEASE DON’T KILL ME!” to myself whenever anyone walked past. Eventually I sought help from a waiter at the bar next door to the alleged hostel, who pointed at the building,  walked me to it and solved the mystery of the locked door – tucked inside the door frame was a buzzer pad with the hostel name listed by one of the buttons.

Building I passed on my walk on Saturday morning. The ugliest, most concretey mess of an abandoned building ever.

Building I passed on my walk on Saturday morning. The ugliest, most concretey mess of an abandoned building ever.

It was a decent hostel, and the receptionist was possibly the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, although the top bunk was rather rickety. Most people were out when I arrived so, having sent the requisite survival confirmation text to my family, I was able to sleep well with no partying eejits to keep me awake.

Cyrillic :(

Cyrillic 😦

SATURDAY: Trekking across the city the next morning to find the second hostel, Hostel Dali, was a character-building exercise; carrying the weight of a person on your back while navigating a city you don’t know, which has street signs written in an alphabet you don’t know (maybe I should just check my monoalphabetic privilege but I’m not a fan of Cyrillic), especially when your route is in no way scenic, is an absolute mission. Finally, after an hour’s walking and backtracking, I found the correct road. Delirious with joy, relief and smugness at my persistence, I was soon delirious from a lack of oxygen as the hostel was on the seventh floor.

World's shabbiest Costa.

World’s shabbiest Costa.

One well-deserved shower later and I was off again, this time sans rucksack. This time I found some scenic corners of the city – an unexplainable but sweet painting of a hot air balloon on a building wall, a garden stuffed with red and yellow flowers, the world’s shabbiest Costa. By and large it’s an ugly, run-down concrete jungle of a city, but it has its charms if you look closely.

Hot air balloon painting <3

Hot air balloon painting ❤

My intended destination was St Sava’s Temple, by far the most stunning building in the city. The largest Orthodox church in the world, it’s an imposing, utterly enormous building that resembles a Christian Taj Mahal, all marble exterior and mindboggling scale. However the inside, to my surprise, was mostly a building site as the church had been funded by donations and seemingly not enough have been made to finish it off.

St Sava's. This thing is enormous.

St Sava’s. This thing is enormous.

By now I was awaiting word from Conor, and headed in the direction of the bus and railway stations, pausing on the way to look at the shells of the Ministry of Defence buildings bombed by NATO in 1999. It was a sobering sight, but one word of graffiti on the boards around it was weirdly moving – it just said ‘hope’.

I think this statue of Jesus looks like he wants to party. Maybe that's just me though.

I think this statue of Jesus looks like he wants to party. Maybe that’s just me though.

No sooner had I propped myself against the station wall than I was accosted by some floppy haired genius who’s alright at Countdown I guess. Despite not having arranged a meeting point, we’d somehow managed to run into each other – good timing or what?

Blown up buildings #1.

Blown up buildings #1.

We ate at a restaurant near the station, where chips were priced not by a small/medium/large criteria, but by grams. How many grams of chips do you order on the spot? 200 grams, apparently. They quirkily served them not with a knife and fork, but with toothpicks. So I toothpicked my way through the chips while we chatted at length about deeply cool topics and definitely not Countdown. DEFINITELY. (Well, maybe a bit. Or more than a bit. Whatever.) In any case, all the talking and laughing was an effective antidote for my aching feet, and after several hours of this DEFINITELY not nerdy repartee we were ready to face the streets once more, this time in search of the intriguingly named Black Turtle pub.

Blown up buildings #2.

Blown up buildings #2.

A Tolkeinesque quest later and we had made it to the pub, to find the promise of cider had been false. We beered up instead and spent god knows how long in there, drinking beer after beer (turns out the flavoured stuff is quite tolerable) and discussing yet more deeply cool things while 80s hits played on a loop, before I drunkenly yet successfully guided us back to the hostel and was able to bounce up the 7 floors barely noticing the effort because, well, that’s what alcohol does.

Blown up building #3.

Blown up building #3.

SUNDAY: Sunday passed in a blaze of getting massively lost, eating pizza, and maybe just a tiny bit of geeky conversation. Maybe. Eventually we headed to the river for the first time, walking along it for at least a few miles alongside numerous grumpy cyclists (who, we agreed, were the self-righteous scum of the earth), until the other side of the river was no longer a mass of lights and noisy party boats booming out poor karaoke across the river to torment our eardrums, but pitch darkness instead. By this point the noise was coming from our direction, and we discovered its source was a stage amongst some beer tents and an audience on the grass ahead of us.

You've got the idea about blown up buildings now. Have some pictures of the half-finished interior of St Sava's.

You’ve got the idea about blown up buildings now. Have some pictures of the half-finished interior of St Sava’s.

We had, by complete accident, ended up at the Belgrade Fish Festival. The enormous inflatable bottle of Lav beer by the side of the stage made it look more like a beer festival,  while only one stall in the tents sold fish where there were multiple others selling sweets and hot dogs. The one that did sell fish smelt disgusting though, so it was a mercy that there weren’t more.

A little service taking place.

A little service taking place.

On we walked, past Djokovic’s tennis centre and an oddly designed gym building for the city’s Metropolitan University students, until finally we reached the end of the path and had no option but to return to the festival where – happily – they were selling cider! It was a synthetic apple flavour, but was palatable even to a cider connoisseur like me.

And a close-up of the exterior. Still massive.

And a close-up of the exterior. Still massive.

While I was cheerful as a result of this, Conor was by now on the brink of starvation, our pizza having been consumed hours ago. Although apparently ready to keel over (I was glad I wasn’t the only one prone to exaggeration…), he heroically found the will to carry on, and completed our pilgrimage to McDonalds. Here he inadvertently destroyed a straw dispenser to the annoyance of the staff, before we watched highlights of the day’s Euro 2016 qualifiers and rued the Faroe Islands’ capitulation to Finland but celebrated Albania’s giant killing of Portugal.

Nikola Pasic square.

Nikola Pasic square.

MONDAY: With vague plans to check out of the hostel, a receptionist I hadn’t previously met came to our room, enthusiastically booming “Hello girls!” – to my confusion, as despite his girly hair, I’m pretty sure Conor is a boy. “You must be Jennifer!” the receptionist said to me, before turning to Conor and asking “And you are Jessica?”. The look on his face when Conor turned round and it became apparent that he was not Jessica was only rivalled for unbridled hilarity by the look on Conor’s face produced by the whole confusing incident.

Pretty building as an antidote to all the concrete.

Pretty building as an antidote to all the concrete.

It transpired that he had misread my booking, where I had booked a private room for two nights but also a dorm for the night after Conor left, and had thought one was booked by Jennifer and the other by Jessica – the shared surname making him believe that the room was being shared by sisters. In any case, I will of course from now on be referring to Conor as Jessica.

Parliament building.

Parliament building.

And that was it. The accompanied leg of my journey came to an end, and you know the rest. FYI, if proof were needed that McDonalds couldn’t care less about you outstaying your welcome: I’ve just spent 3 hours in here writing and haven’t even seen a staff member. Regardless – it’s time to hit the road.

Signing off,
A hand-crippled Jen

STAY TUNED FOR PART 2: THE BIT WHERE I GO TO SARAJEVO!

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