It was a gray, rainy, awful September day in 2015 when I visited Belgrade for the first time. A friend and I did an Interrail trip to explore the Balkans and had planned two days in the Serbian capital, a break between a 10-hour train ride from Budapest and a 10-hour train ride to Skopje. In hindsight, we would have planned this leg of the trip differently, given that it was the peak of the so-called refugee crisis and the situation between Hungary and Serbia didn’t feel like vacation at all. Moreover, trains are not the most convenient way in Serbia to travel and as I learned today, they don’t even run anymore between Budapest, Belgrade, and Skopje.
A third reason is that Belgrade was quite dull the first time I visited. My friend was slightly sick, it was pouring rain, and the post-Yugoslavian metropole was gray and sad that day. I remember walking down the Danube from our hostel, which we (in our naive early 20s) had booked, though cheap, far away from the city center or any public transit connection. For some reason I don’t remember, most things were closed. We ended up in the Serbian War and Weapon Museum to find shelter and walked through endless corridors of medieval swords and helmets and Yugoslavian medical aid packages. In short, we shortened our stay in Belgrade to one day and headed for sunnier Skopje.
This time, our arrival was quite different. We spontaneously decided to extend the leg going to Belgrade to save a day, which would give us some more sightseeing opportunities. The 140km with 36’C were rough, however, we met some nice fellow cyclists, beautiful villages in a hillier region between Novi Sad and Belgrade. Getting into Belgrade was exhausting; there are many busses and trucks and little space on the roads. Being in Belgrade turned out to be much better than the first time.
We found a hotel in the city center and had a great dinner close-by. The AC in our hotel room actually managed the temperature, so we had a wonderful night of deep, cool, refreshing sleep (only interrupted by one calf cramp). After a relaxed breakfast, we started exploring the city and joined another of these free walking tours. The stories about Yugoslavia, the wars, Serbia’s role in it, and the how they call it “Nato bombing” or “Nato aggression” were certainly biased towards the Serbs. Nevertheless, we enjoyed hearing “their”/the tour guide’s view on history, what Serbian culture was about to him, and how he understood Serbian identity.
One of the most impressive sites was certainly the Church of Saint Sava, for which construction was started in 1935. It was then interrupted by World War 2 after 6 years, continued when the war ended, again interrupted during Communism and the Yugoslavian war, again continued, slightly interrupted by Covid. While we’ve seen churches under restoration, this was the first church for us that was still under construction. They are currently finalizing mosaics and the elevator (the latter probably not being planned in 1935!) on the right hand side. The rest is finished. While I sometimes complain about the long process it takes to finish a paper, this construction site showed that it’s actually not that long. And these processes seem to be worth it, the mosaic decoration is the biggest worldwide!