Once again, I offer apologies for the length of this post. Internet access has been sporadic and slow, so I have been building up a story as I go along, with the idea that as soon as I can, I will send the lot through in one go before access fails again.
By the end of Sunday, Waddy says we have reached a milestone. We have survived a day together. Only fifty-six more to go.
Jay has been here a month already, re-connecting with relatives in her home town of Sabac. Waddy arrived from Australia via Dubai Saturday lunchtime, and Bill and I managed to arrive from Italy as scheduled in the early evening of the same day. The changeover at Rome airport did give us a scare, when the luggage belt suddenly stopped without delivering our bags. I approached the Alitalia information desk to express my anxiety about missing our connecting flight to Belgrade, and the lady there fell about laughing.
“Those crazy uptight Australians,” she was probably thinking. “What is she worrying about. An hour is plenty of time!” Never mind that we still had not seen our bags and it was a decent walk to the next terminal.
The immigration officer at Belgrade airport examined our passports methodically, pausing over every page. They were mostly blank. Owning a passport is nowhere near as exciting as it used to be. My old passports are a story in themselves, full of exotic stamps and formal visas. These days the borders are so open it is all a little ho-hum. Nevertheless this chap harked back to former times, scrutinising our photos and comparing the faces in front of him. Bill has taken the opportunity of being away to grow a beard – that threw him for a moment. He grilled us on the purpose of our visit and the length of our stay. He questioned whether we had been here before. I found myself bumbling about being here thirty-five years ago and that the stamp was in another passport. He looked at me sternly, and I steeled myself to be asked for more detail. I wasn’t sure if I should tell him that after living in Yugoslavia for six months, I had skeddadled when Tito died. I kept my mouth shut and waited for what came next.
Then he threw us by breaking into a broad grin and wishing us a pleasant stay.
All’s well that ends well. Together with Jay’s Serbian cousin, we booked into the Astoria Hotel in Belgrade, an opulent, over the top acknowledgment to the Austro-Hungarian empire. All heavy brocade curtains and panelled walls with gilt edgings, lined with portraits of high bred men and women in the dress of the 1800’s. Then we wandered the streets of Belgrade. The main pedestrian mall was alive, hundreds of people strolling around watching the street entertainers, going to restaurants, eating ice-cream. I was surprised to see so many brand name stores and bright lights, juxtaposing with communist-era nondescript buildings.
Jay’s family have opened their home and their hearts to us, so we spend the next few days in Sabac. It is a major city with some fine buildings, outdoor cafes and a multitude of shops. I am still confused about who is buying all the goods, as wages are low and stories of factories closing abound. Like everywhere in the world, many products come from China, and there are entire stores dedicated to them – appropriately called Kineska Radnja – Chinese Shop.
The day after our arrival ( Sunday), Jay’s cousin drives us to Slobomir. We had intended to use our hire car, but Slobomir is across the border in Bosnia, and we have been advised against taking a hire car across borders. The weather has turned hot, reaching into the high thirties centigrade, but we have no choice but to use his well-used vehicle, the one with 4×60 air conditioning – winding down all four windows while tootling down the main road at 60klm/hour. The landscape is flat and dotted with maize fields.
We approach the border. The car pulls up at the first window, an immigration exit point from Serbia. A couple of metres along, and we report into the Serbian customs window. Then we proceed along a no-man’s land for a half kilometre or so, before being stopped at the Bosnian immigration window. All the officials are very formal, taking their time over our passports, and as we wait I look at a sculpture on the side of the road. Four people are outlined in dark granite, and their dates of birth all end in 1991. Jay’s cousin explains that the design is representative of people who lost their life in the war around that time.
At the fourth window -the Bosnian customs – the guard orders the boot to be opened. One box attracts his attention momentarily, but after it is pulled out and the contents displayed, he loses interest and sends us on our way.
A few short kilometres later, we enter the area of Slobomir. Sloboda means freedom in Serbian, but I think the connection is that the township was the vision of a man by the name of Slobomir. It is a new area that includes a university. We are headed for a folk park, a recreation of buildings and lifestyle from times gone by, which includes a small baptismal chapel and an Orthodox Church with impressive icons decorating the walls. We also have a traditional lunch. We choose a pork and tomato goulash. We sit in an outdoor timber pavilion built in traditional country style, and are served by waiters wearing embroidered shirts. Roses, lakes and greenery abound. It is a very pretty introduction to our stay in Serbia – although to be precise, we are in Bosnia.
That night we back up for another traditional meal with Jay’s extended family. We go to a folk style farmhouse restaurant. It is only ten years old, but looks much older. Jay’s septuagenarian auntie jokes that she was brought up in one of these places, and now they are bringing her out here for a dining experience!
We started with entree platters. We ate several types of cheeses, hard and soft, and balls of a type of cream cheese laced with paprika. Even a green capsicum was stuffed with cream cheese – very spicy. There was also red capsicum – roasted and pulpy and very tasty. The most unusual dish on the plate looked like road kill. It was brown and hairy furry and chewy. It turned out to be smoked, shredded pork and surprisingly tasty. Waddy liked it, but Jay and I are not sure about the texture. We enjoyed the amount we ate. Let’s just leave it at that :-). We were glad of the bread to eat with it – donut textured fried round balls.
A consommé soup with veal pieces followed, and then the main course arrived. Platters of meats, cevapi (skinless sausages), spicy chorizo style sausages, rissoles, grilled chicken, chicken stuffed with cheese and ham, and others I can’t recall. Served with salads of tomato and cucumber, and shredded cabbage in vinegar.
I go to the wrong toilet but don’t recognise my mistake because the urinal is half way up the wall, close to the overhead cistern. Bill comes in after me and can’t work it out either. They must have very tall men in Serbia.
Monday is the first working day of the week and our priority is to register our presence in the town. But first we negotiate the breakfast that Jay’s uncle provides. He has brought us burek and yoghurt. Burek is layers of flaky pastry, stuffed in this case with cheese. I love it, but I do dread its calorie count, and it can be heavy. The yoghurt is sour and a milky consistency. I love it also, but Bill and Waddy are not so sure. Bill has already started his day with rakija (distilled spirit) – one each of a cherry and a walnut flavour. It is supposed to be a very healthy start to the day. I am not sorry to have missed that.
When we eventually get to the registration office, it is just on ten a.m. It is then that we remember that is just the moment the bureaucrat commences a one hour break. Nothing for it but to go kill some time at a street cafe. It is already very hot, and as the day wears on, the temperature tops forty degrees. More than ten degrees hotter than it was a week ago.
Later that afternoon, after a home cooked meal of sarma (cabbage rolls stuffed with pork mince and rice), and a rest, we walk back into town. I have some postcards to send, and I have decided to mail a book to a friend. I have brought it from Australia as a present, but I am already looking for ways to lighten my suitcase. At the post office, I pull it out and show Jay.
“You want to post a book?” She looks horrified.
“Yes. And I need something to pack it in.” I show her that the padded envelope has already been used and has old postage markings on it.
I look around the bare post office. There are no accessories on sale.
“We’d need to go to a newsagent first,” Jay explains, “and then come back here and queue again.”
She doesn’t look at all keen. She is still recovering from the drama of a week before when she tried to mail some books back to Australia. By mistake, they are now on the high seas, instead of airmail. And even that took two visits to accomplish.
Just then a woman pushes in front of us in the line. Jay is getting feisty after a month of sticking up for herself. She berates the woman in a polite but very firm manner.
The woman responds with complete assurance. “Yes, but I was already at the counter earlier.” Jay could claim the same thing. She has already seen more of this counter on her holiday than she cares to.
“I think I’ll settle for mailing the postcards,” I say. “The book does not weigh that much.”
Such a traumatic experience calls for an ice-cream. They certainly love their ice-cream here. There are stalls every thirty paces.
The book, by the way, is Nor The Years Condemn by Australian author Justin Sheedy. It is a novel based on the experiences of young Australian men who enlisted in the Empire Air Training scheme and flew for England in WWII. My English friend is keen on Spitfires, which feature strongly, as do Hurricanes, and other fighter aircraft. It’s a well researched good yarn, and I recommend it to both men and women.
For our last full day in Sabac (Tuesday), we strike out on our own for another relative of Jay’s who lives in Irig, in the Fruska Gora National Park. The scenery on the way is still flat, and still corn fields, with occasional fields of harvested wheat stalks. It becomes greener and hillier around the national park. We are greeted warmly by the relatives, who are happy to show us around. They own two good sized building blocks, which are so well cultivated you could imagine it is a commercial orchard. Then they ply us with their home produce, several types of salami, and three types of rakija: hazelnut, cherry and the original unflavoured, distilled from grapes. It is potent stuff, you can be sure of that. Theirs seems a healthy, active, outdoor lifestyle; and the summer house in which we sit and talk and eat is a delightful place to be.
We take our leave and continue on to Novi Sad, another half an hour or so down the road. We are looking for the Petrovaradin Fortress. We can see it clearly on the hill overlooking the Danube River, but we manage to overshoot the turnoff and cross a bridge heading towards the centre of town. So we leave the main road and try to weave our way back to the bridge, and within moments we find ourselves in an old part of town with twisted narrow roads, and that is when the fun begins………..
Waddy is on the wrong side of the road, turning out of what he thought was a one-way street (wrong!). We have arrived at a T-intersection leading on to a main road. We are not sure whether to turn left or right. A car swings around us and turns left across our bow, another behind us turns right. Waddy moves forward into a line of traffic, still on the wrong side of the road and unsure of where he is going. A car bears down on us at speed, doing around 80klm and not looking as if it intends to stop. Waddy doesn’t like it when everyone screams. I was lucky I couldn’t see too clearly from the back seat. Jay was in the front. She has ruined her new undies :-). The red car on the left screeched to a stop before he hit us. Welcome to Novi Sad!
The fortress was interesting. There was a museum in the fortress which had a chronological display of the NATO bombings in 1999, and this helped us understand the impact when all three bridges were destroyed, cutting off their access to the outside world.
The museum included an exhibition on “Urban Life in Novi Sad from the 18th to the 20th century”. The guide who unlocked the entrance and gave us a personal tour, had worked for the museum for thirty-five years. He took the time to show us the hidden functions of the various furniture pieces. Back outside, the views of the city, the Danube, and Fruska Gora were beautiful. Fruit salad and ice cream was refreshing, and the restaurant gave us an outdoor table looking out over the Danube River and the city.
But I am guessing that whenever we talk about Novi Sad in the future, what we will remember most, and what we will tell other people most often, is the story of how we nearly got cleaned up by a red car when Waddy tried to block its path and how lucky we all were to survive the day intact.
We have worked out how wars start. I was trying to say “that is strange.” Strano is Italian for strange. What I said sounded like “to je sranje.” Sranje is shit in Serbian.
We motor back to Belgrade for our last day in Serbia. Waddy is behind the wheel again. He manages quite well until the moment he is about to return the hire car and nearly gets collected by a tram. Just as well our next leg is by public transport. We are bound for Sarajevo. We learnt months ago that the train is no longer running, although we are none the wiser as to why. So we have booked tickets for the eight hour bus ride. Jay and I have just come back from a scouting expedition of the bus terminal. It is directly across the road from our hotel, but we can only take that route if we want our holiday to end now. With our suitcases in tow it would be suicide. We plan on walking around in a square, with something like six or seven sets of traffic lights to wait for. We hope our menfolk don’t decide to go macho on us and take the short-cut.
We have booked into the Mr President Design Hotel. It is ultra modern, with innovative artworks and sculptures in the foyer. The name of the hotel should have given us a hint. Jay and Waddie have President Havel at their bed head. I have googled him, and he seems an all round nice guy. Last president of Czechoslovakia, first president of the Czech Republic. Bill and I are sleeping under Stalin. Waddy probably arranged that to make sure I get up early in the morning 🙂
We have given ourselves a spoil and booked a private taxi tour of Belgrade for later this afternoon, with the intention that we finish with dinner at the Kalemegdan Fortress. Our delightfully pleasant receptionist has assured us we will have a marvellous view. If we had more time and energy there are a couple of museums that I would have visited here – the Nicola Tesla museum (scientist, electric light), Tito’s resting place, and Ivo Andric – a famous author. I have brought with me a copy of his book ‘Bridge over the River Drina’, although sadly have not yet had time to read it. I did get a little thrill when we passed over the river on our way to Slobomir, even though it was not the bridge mentioned in the novel. It was an unexpected surprise. These experiences bring the reading to life.
Signing off from Serbia, Wednesday 19th June, Garrulous Gwendoline
postscript: could not get in to the restaurant at Kalimegden. However highly recommend the Saskalija area of Belgrade. An artistic and bohemian area full of outdoor restaurants, gypsy music, flowers, narrow cobblestoned roadway. Most picturesque part of Belgrade we have seen. They claim it is their equivalent of Montmatre in Paris.