Belgrade for a day

Trip Start Feb 04, 2011
Trip End Nov 04, 2011

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Where I stayed
Belgrade hotel

Flag of Serbia  ,
Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Travelling through the Balkans can be a tricky procedure so it's important to do a bit of research beforehand. Bus and train travel is marred by bureaucracy, incompetence, bad infrastructure and endless border checks. I had enough time to walk to the railway station from the hotel and find my train which wasn't indicated on any platform so it required a lot of guesswork and asking people. Once I boarded the train with all my luggage there was only a few minutes left until departure and I realised I didn't have time to stock up on water and food. It's one of those things in places like these where you know the train won't leave on time but the fear of missing the train is too great. Just as well I didn't go and look for food and water. The train left on time. Maybe there's a restaurant car on this train. After all, it's a nine hour trip.

The journey from Sarajevo and through the Bosnian countryside was truly breathtaking. What a beautiful country. Too bad I couldn't say the same about the train. For nine hours I went without food and water. After a few hours I contemplated drinking water from the tap in the toilet but then decided that thirst is not such an inconvenience. However, I had the whole six seat compartment to myself all the way to Belgrade so I can hardly complain. Surprisingly the train stopped at stations only briefly and the two border checks were swift. So much so, the train arrived in Belgrade on time. I wasn't expecting that.

I made sure to book a hotel directly opposite the station in Belgrade so I wouldn't need to succumb to dodgy taxi drivers who hang around stations. There was also a really good restaurant right next to the hotel and after a whole day on a train without food and water, I was happy to eat and drink anything on the menu. The grilled meat and local beer (Jelen) went down a treat and I retired for the night. The next morning it was time to explore Belgrade. 

Belgrade is not a very attractive city and its people, I'm sorry to say, are not as attractive as in neighbouring Zagreb or Sarajevo.  Guys in tracks suits and shaved heads look like they're going to come up and ask for money for a heroin fix but they're just ordinary locals.  The weather wasn't helping either. Cold and miserable - about nine degrees. Had it have been a bit warmer, like it was in Dubrovnik, it might have raised the mood of the city a bit.  A nearby ancient fortress and a pedestrian mall with old architecture doesn't make it a stunning city by European standards. My train wasn't due to leave until nine o'clock that evening and I found myself walking around streets aimlessly, just passing time. Another overnight train which I wasn't looking forward to.

It wasn't possible to get a private compartment but I was told to perhaps pay the conductor for an upgrade - or a bribe if we're going to use the correct terminology. When I finally found the train at the platform (one day someone in the Balkans is going to come up with the brilliant idea of putting up signs to show where the trains are) I tried to persuade the conductor. As it turned out, I didn't need to bribe anyone and he showed me to my compartment. Only one problem. The woman at the ticket counter printed "Sofia" on my ticket instead of "Skopje". Wrong destination and wrong train. A minor mistake. So with only five minutes remaining until the train departed, I ran back to the ticket counter and asked her to change it. There were no apologies as she probably assumed I'd just changed my mind about where I wanted to go. 

All my concerns about having to share a compartment with five other snoring passengers were unnecessary and the conductor assured me I'd have the whole compartment all to myself - all the way to Skopje. Really? I found that hard to believe but he was right. I think what the woman at the ticket counter was trying to tell me (who shows no attention to detail when printing out tickets) was not to bother paying for a private compartment as the train is almost empty. She was right! I didn't see a single passenger and when I walked down the corridor I noticed none of the other compartments was being used. Still, it was hard to sleep because I was aware that I'd be woken up by more immigration officers along the way and i wasn't wrong.  I think I was woken up five times in total by guards on the train and I had to show my passport three times. When you're half asleep, it's annoying to be asked questions like "where are you going?". "The same direction as the train".

Belgrade is definitely a "one day city" and once you've seen the world's largest Orthodox church, the main shopping area and the old fortress, that's about it. This is the sort of place where you need to know people, go out for a few drinks and enjoy the nightlife. There's something to be said about cities that pride themselves as having "good nightlife" instead of brilliant scenery, beautiful architecture or interesting history. Spending a night in Belgrade might have been a better alternative than spending a day and who knows - maybe men with shaved heads in track suits don't come out at night. Or do they?  
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