After spending an entire day on a train the day before we woke ready to explore the city of Belgrade. Weather was in our favour and pulling the curtains we saw everything for the first time in daylight, Europe was truly behind us, we were now in a place that neither of us were familiar, with another currency and another language - one which we had no chance in deciphering!
Outside the window of the Mercure Excelisor we were presented with the House of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, a huge building which during WW2 is was used by the German High Command for Southern Europe - quite the building to pick! The view from the hotel was certainly better than the Ibis Budget, despite booking the cheapest room available. There were many cheaper hotels, but we thought we’d play it safe expected we’d need some proper rest.
We got ourselves ready and enjoyed the luxury of being able to leave our things in the hotel room, taking just what we needed for the day. That doesn’t sounds like a big deal, but after lugging a backpack around it really is liberating. With the confusion of the train station now behind us we thought it’d be worthwhile to walk to where we thought we were going to end up yesterday: The Main Railway Station. Turns out that is very closed and had been for the last year, the station building was in a much more central location, right on the banks of the Sava and easily accessible from most of Belgrade. The station was surrounded by plenty of traffic and of course, trams which clinked and screeched their way along the waterfront.
We headed North keeping the Sava to our left and absorbed the sights and smells. This part of the city is clearly under regeneration, there is a mix of construction and abandoned buildings, many seemed very historic but all were covered in graffiti and overgrown. We later learned that there is a significant government-led project to regenerate the waterfront, there will even be a St Regis hotel! Presumably this is the reason for closing the train station, perhaps why so many buildings were vacant too.
Continuing on we found ourselves at Kalemegdan Park, Belgrade’s most significant monument - the park is absolutely huge and takes up an enormous amount of land on the tip between the Danube and the Sava. Walking up to the park we were able to see the rivers and the two islands which split the Danube. The park itself was very well kept, with gardeners pruning trees and cutting grass, an interesting contrast to the derelict buildings we were walking past just a few minutes ago. There was history everywhere, from pieces of old wall to mounds it was a very interesting place.
Owen and I realised at this stage that 1. we had not done enough research for where to go, 2. we hadn’t brought enough water and 3. we should have brought some local currency. It was beginning to get pretty warm and the few places we passed that were selling water didn’t accept credit-cards. We soldiered on and found ourselves at a Military Museum which was located between the fortresses walls. This place was enormous! I’ve never seen so many tanks, howitzers, AA-guns, torpedos, boats and whatever the rocket thing is in the picture below. We wandered around all the exhibits and were able to identify several WW2 German and Soviet tanks. It was an absolutely fantastic display of military engineering, oddly most of it was just sitting in grass as if it had been dumped. Disappointingly though, we weren’t able to visit the inside of the museum as they didn’t take card. Whoops.
With it getting ever-hotter we thought it sensible to properly try and find something to drink. we continued to walk around the fortress walls and eventually came across the very impressive, mid 15th century Zindan Gate. While the gate was lovely, just around the corner was a pizzeria and what would be our oasis in the desert. It was hidden down a really rather spooky set of stairs but opened up to a beautiful terrace with views across the river and down into what looked to be a Zoo(!). There was nobody else in the restaurant but we sat down and soon enough we had a drink in our hands.
We enjoyed an impossibly large £5.70 pizza and plenty of delicious, fresh cold beer. It was absolutely perfect. We sat and enjoyed the view, soaked up the sun (well, I did - Owen had a fleece on) and for the first time on the trip laughed about how far we’d come on the train, all this way, to such a different place in about 36-hours. It felt very different having arrived over land (and under the channel), we felt like we had earned our right to be sitting where we were - we hadn’t cheated by jumping on a 3-hour flight.
Fed and watered we made a deal with the Pizzeria to let Owen leave his fleece behind the bar, promising that we’d return later in the afternoon for more beer. It was time for us to hit what we were now sure was a Zoo. Despite the blistering heat it wasn’t a long walk and luck was in our favour because the Zoo accepted credit-cards! I’ve been to many-a-zoo in my expectations were that this would be a rinky-dink operation with a couple of goats and a parrot, perhaps a monkey or two. I was wrong. We learned during our visit that I am an idiot and don’t know anything about zoos because this zoo had plenty crazy-critters to go around, almost 150 different types and what’s better is after our visit I learned that Belgrade Zoo is kind of a big deal and has very some cool history. My two favourite facts are: 1. It holds the worlds oldest alligator, Muja who was born in 1936. Regretfully we spent all of 20 seconds looking at him, because we just thought he was a regular old-ass alligator. 2. In 1989 after his visit to Belgrade for the 9th Non-Aligned Movement Summit, Muammar Gaddafi donated six Arabian Camels which he travelled with in order to ensure he had fresh camel milk. I can’t corroborate the later fact, but I thought it hilarious regardless.
The Zoo did have some very cool animals and we spent a lot longer than we expected walking around and enjoying our time. We were absolutely the only visitors who spoke English and it made it kind of fun because all of the signs were in Serbian Cyrillic and impossible for us to even attempt to understand. My favourite animals were the Balkan Lynx (which is critically endangered), the Black Leopard and African Ostrich (because I find them hilarious). Joking aside, the zoo was good, but it certainly doesn’t receive the best funding and in comparison to Western-European zoos the animals really do have tiny enclosures, which is kind of sad.
We headed back to the Pizzeria and had another quick beer and drew up our game-plan for getting back to the hotel and getting some food. The strategy was simple: Walk back to the hotel and have a rest. Walking back took us through the main part of Kalemegdan Park which had even better views of the river than where we were in the morning. There was a very cool vibe around the park with people doing archery, some chilling with a picnic, some people doing slackline and others exploring the ancient walls. We continued our walk and eventually made our way back to the city, we were both very exhausted but before long were back at the hotel, very sweaty.
The following day’s travel plan was the sketchy bit of the trip. We were to take a train from a station on the outskirts of the city to Sofia in Bulgaria, it was a full-day train ride and all of the blogs I had read suggested bringing plenty of food and drink. If the train wasn’t working or delayed, we would be pretty screwed for the rest of the trip so it was pretty important that we were ready. After a quick shower we headed to the store downstairs to stock up for tomorrow. We bought plenty of beer, water, Haribo and snacks. On the train to Belgrade we learnt that some cheese, bread and salami makes for quite the cost effective the meal so grabbed some essentials for this too.
The construction of the bread rolls was kind of difficult, the hotel room only had a spoon in which to slice open our rolls. We used some British ingenuity and dismantled a disposable razor and fashioned a knife which worked surprisingly well. In the below picture you can also see our improvised sock/underwear drying rack which also worked very well indeed. I assure you that is the genuine reason for it, we weren’t trying to flag down Belgradian talent from our fancy hotel.
Picnic prepared and continuing our theme of improvisation we emptied the hotel mini-bar of it’s treasures and carefully filled it with tomorrow’s food and drink, so that it is as cold as possible in the morning. We dressed ourselves up and headed out on the town for some farewell food and beers. The concierge recommended that we head to Skadarlija which is a trendy street of bars and restaurants. Once we found it, it was completely as advertised, a trendy, hip cobbled street, which was just about off of the tourist path, but only if you didn’t speak to the hotel concierge, but it was certainly no La Rambla and had a good vibe. We found a decent bar, checked the train times for tomorrow a couple more times and watched the world go by. Wanting to keep things simple (and to satisfy Owen’s desires) we grabbed a Serbian McDonalds for dinner and headed back to the hotel. A long, hot, but very fun day. Onwards east! …and back to the EU, briefly.