Dives and bombs

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Serbia and Montenegro  ,
Thursday, October 19, 2006

As is becoming my habit, I arrived at dusk. I crossed the bridge from 'New Belgrade' (a scratty jumbled spill-over of the city) with just enough light to take in the city's first impression: a mess. The bridge fed out onto a heavily congested road between dirty concrete towers. The road wound up and out of sight into the deep shadow of the buildings. Belgrade is on a hill, so from the bridge it rises in layers, each one seeming older and more run down than the last. At the top is the ruined fortress from the olden days, which is probably Belgrade's best tourist attraction. While not as ugly as I feared from my first impression, Belgrade is a city more interesting than beautiful, and more political than cultural. The military museum in the fortress shed some light on why this is so.

While wandering around the museum I ran into Dan, an ozzie fella staying in the same hostel as me. He had had the foresight to mark the places of interest on his map, which got him immediately appointed my personal guide for the next day and a half. I often find it more enjoyable to tour a city in company and assume he felt the same. Though come to think of it, I don't remember asking...

The next day, tagging along with Dan again, I saw Tito's mauseleum. Thýs ýs the so-called 'House Of Flowers', which was, well, a mausoleum crossed with a greenhouse, but very tasteful and respectful. Surrounding the tomb, which is an enormous block of marble with his name on it, there are a few tropical plants, artistically spaced. In the rooms surrounding the tomb there were reconstructions of Tito's offices and an exhibition of all the 'youth batons' that he carried. You get the impression that the Serbians are proud of Tito but feel they shouldn't be, so the mauseleum is respectful but not extravagant or celebratory.

In the Museum formerly known as the 25th May Museum, formerly known as the Museum of Yugoslavia, and currently of unclear appelation, the first exhibit you come to is a pair of Tito's cars. As we later discovered, one of them was presented by our very own Queen Elizabeth 2. Apparantly she presented him with two cars, one bullet-proof, one not. It wasn't clear whether she told him that one wasn't bullet-proof...

Upstairs was an exhibition of contemporary art. Some surreal photographic compositions involving landscapes of the outback with disembodied heads floating above or lying by a billabong were quite interesting, and unnerving in a manner similar to an advertisement for the bbc that you've probably seen. There were two 'interactive' pieces of 'modern art' with which the curator invited us to interact. The first was like a giant chessboard, where each square was either an orange or a blue set of bathroom scales. The curator informed us that not one of the scales was correctly calibrated, but nonetheless he'd seen teenage girls spend quarter of an hour looking for the smallest result. The second exhibit was a wall of darts boards and boxes of little plastic green and red darts. We spent some time interacting with that one.

There was also a series of seven plain, documentary photographs of locations in Belgrade. They all seemed fairly ordinary- a bridge, a shop, a wreck of a building, with no apparent art either in technique or composition. The curator was an eager young man with very dark, shiny, side-parted hair, a pale face and an immaculate dark suit, so he looked a lot like an obsequious butler. He appeared beside us to explain:
-These are the locations of recent assassinations in Belgrade
-Ah. Well that explains it then.

We asked him a couple of polite questions about the photographs, inadvertantly prompting a long and wide-ranging soliloquy on the contents of the museum, Kosovo, Kurds, the NATO bombings, America and the unfair bad rap the Serbs get in the rest of Europe. There was something refreshing about shamelessly biased history from a museum curator. On the way back to the hostel we stopped to take some clandestine photos of some unrestored bomb damage and bullet wounds in a couple of military buildings.

I left Belgrade feeling I'd seen most of what it has to offer and set off on one of the longest inter-city legs of the trip so far, seven days and 700km to Bucharest.
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