Old World Romanticism

Trip Start Aug 20, 2012
Trip End Sep 18, 2012

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Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday, September 14 - Sunday, September 16


My penultimate stop on the month of discovery, Belgrade seemed to be a natural top to the sundae of experiences I had built around the Balkans, and with particular focus on former Yugoslavia.

Beograd, the former capital of (the multiple versions of) Yugoslavia made sense to include in my travels in order to "complete the puzzle".  I had taken an uneventful (and dare I say? pleasant) overnight train from Sofia to Belgrade.  The highlight of the train ride was sitting with 23 year old Evan from Holland who had just graduated from university and had done his economic thesis on the possible ramifications of Greece leaving the European Union.  We had great conversation and solved the world's economy in that 7 hour train ride.  

My train arrived at 6:30 am and I was not scheduled to check-in to my apartment before 2 pm. That gave me plenty of time to pay the obligatory 100 Serbian dinars ($1) to check my bag in the luggage depot at the train station and begin a full day of touring before most were awake.

It had stormed the night before and the cobblestone streets were slick from a fresh rain.  There was an early morning mist that rose from the stones while rogue cafes began to bring sidewalk chairs and tables out from their nocturnal hibernations. Belgrade's Stari Grad (Old City) was not the collection of old historical buildings as its neighboring ex-Yu cities exhibited. 

Belgrade was founded as the Roman municipality of Singidunum in the 2nd Century.  Its value as a fortified city made sense as it stands at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers. Both Constantine (of Byzantium fame and They Might Be Giants influence: http://youtu.be/dsRuurcTTSk) and Flavius Iovianus (Jovian the "Restorer of Christianity") were born in Singidunum confirming Belgrade's longstanding history and relationship with Eastern Orthodoxy.   

Visiting Belgrade completed my European capitals tour along the Danube (also including Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava and Belgrade).  The Danube is a beautiful and large river bending through valleys and mountains and dividing the Balkans into the North and South as it flows to the Black Sea.  As much trade and commerce that today flows the Danube, it is easy to imagine the hundreds of ships that once traversed through Germany en route to the four
capitals on a daily basis.  

After discovering Belgrade's Knez Mihailova (Belgrade's Old Town's pedestrian zone) and a few cups of coffee, I was ready to discover the rest of Belgrade. Good timing and good fortune found me Republic Square and joining a Free Walking Tour of Belgrade.  This was a phenomenal tour - the guide was great and very knowledgeable about everything Belgrade.  It was a 3 hour tour and was a great overview of the sites of Belgrade.

Like Sofia, there were not many tour sites in Belgrade - this was a city that had dozens of moments affect its survivability, including both Balkan Wars, Austro-Ottoman Wars, both WWI and WWII (WWII Belgrade was bombed by both Allied Forces and German Forces), and the devastation of the Yugoslavian Civil Wars of the 1990's.  One of the most notable sites that Belgrade hosts is the Belgrade Fortress.  The fortifications date back to the Roman period and the grounds are dotted with ruins from sequential governing dynasties.  Most of today's castle was from the Austro-Hungarian period.

Another highlight was the quiet neighborhood of Skadarska Street, Belgrade's Bohemian quarter.  Although a short street, it had a lot of preserved appearance and character imagining the poets and musicians strolling its cobblestones from the 19th Century.  The street and the quarter was originally intended for Belgrade's Gypsy population.  That "wandering spirit" is still present on modern-day Skadarska.  Later in the weekend, I found myself walking Skadarska on Saturday night and I joined the crowds that were being entertained by Gypsy musicians walking the streets and singing of lost loves.

For me, Belgrade's greatest tourist attraction was a visit to a museum dedicated to one of my heroes - the Nikolai Tesla Museum. He may be one of the most impressive scientists of modern history.  Seeing several Tesla Coils and early versions of radio controlled boats was really an exciting highlight for me.  Hearing stories of Tesla and Edison's "current wars" was exciting and read very much like a New York Times Bestseller.  Among the exciting stories was the puzzle, despite all of his inventions, why Tesla had never won the Nobel Prize.  Allegedly, he was "up" to win it on two separate occasions - the first when Tesla was working for Edison Labs and was tasked with designing the direct current lightbulb (later named the "Edison Bulb"). Tesla rose to the task and designed the lightbulb, but was more personally interested in the merits of alternating current.  Edison used Tesla's design modifications and claimed them as his own patents which ultimately led to Edison submitting candidacy for Nobel under the guise of Tesla's original work.  Tesla's own inventions at the time (i.e. alternating currents) were also worthy of Nobel consideration.  Edison and Tesla both very publicly declared (and with respect to their Nobel candidacies) that neither would 1) accept the prize if the other was awarded the Nobel first, and 2) share the prize if named as dual recipients (i.e. Tesla's designs for the direct current lightbulb while in Edison's lab).  A similar second story was a role reversal - in 1909 Guglielmo Marconi was awarded the Nobel for his invention of the radio, despite having formerly worked in Tesla's labs.  Tesla was awarded the original patent for the radio in the late 1800's, a decision that was overturned by the U.S. Patent Office in favor of Marconi in 1904. Marconi was awarded the prize in 1909, only for the U.S. Patent Office to reverse its decision, in favor of Tesla in 1942.  Marconi had died in 1937 and the Nobel could not posthumously be reversed to Tesla after Marconi's death.  The inventions and ideas that Tesla was involved were over a hundred years ahead of his time.  Many of his inventions are things that we still have not incorporated in today's technology world (i.e. free open source air wave electricity).  Truly, he was an amazing scientist and I was happy to be a nerd for my hour's visit to the museum.

Belgrade has gained the reputation as having an amazing social & nightlife.  From a friend of a friend of a friend (three removes), I was connected to Ivan who has his own VIP Concierge service in Belgrade.  Friday night, I was excited to join Ivan at a traditional Serbian/Yugoslavian restaurant, and several destinations of great drinks outside the standard tourist areas.  Everywhere we went, someone knew Ivan.  He was a maven among the Belgrade social life - it was great to have conversation and company with someone so immeshed in Beograd's nocturnal life.

The next night (Saturday) was one of my social highlights from the entire month.  The evening started with my excitement to be able to watch The Ohio State University fighting, scratching, screaming, clawing Buckeyes while in Serbia!!!  The game was awful to watch as the Bucks barely won.  The game kept me from enjoying the Belgrade nightlife until 10:00 pm or so, but it (watching the Buckeyes) is exactly how I would prefer spending any Saturday in the fall.  It was great to have a piece of "home" while in Belgrade.  Following the game, I first ventured to Skadarska (see the Gypsy Bands above), and then to a Starogradska Kafana (Old Town Music Cafe Bar) near my apartment.  The revelry found with Starogradska is AMAZING!!! The group I saw was a trio of a guitarist, accordionist, and a standing bass player.  They played for hours dozens of traditional Serbian songs while the patrons of the bar enthusiastically sang along, and yelled and cheered at the songs of lost loves (a common yet timeless theme) while sharing countless shots of rakija among the crowds.  The musicians retained a good sense of humor, trying to stay on beat and sing louder among the drunken off-beat, off-tune, wrong lyrics of the crowds at the bar.  As the musicians played, the patrons gave tips by putting the bills in the folds of the accordion, in the soundhole of the guitar, and even upon the sweat-laden foreheads of the musicians!  It was really a fun night that was filled with many Serbian traditional elements.

There is no question as to why numerous publications and/or travelers have described Belgrade as being a top nightlife / party destination in Europe.  The festive people of Belgrade were celebrating old world charm while embracing European modernity.

My experience in Belgrade was mindful that it was formerly the capital of Yugoslavia, and once (still?) a great capital of Central / Eastern Europe. The rain, traditional music, and Bohemian quarter all felt as if I had spent several days in the 18th or 19th Century.  This was a modern city that had held on to old-time elements of its past.  It had a sense of classic romanticism that you would otherwise only expect or experience in the movies.  What Belgrade lacked in historical sites, it made up with a fun and unique nightlife.

Next and final stop... Back to Zagreb by train for my last 2 nights

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