Belgrade: Travel Woes and Disco Chips!
NAVIGATION AND TRAVEL WOES
There are places that conjure up certain images before you get there. For Serbia I was getting winter/snow, wolves, and steely eyed people that wouldn’t be out of place as villains in a James Bond film but of course these stereotypical visions aren’t necessarily the case, the logo for starters presents a playful colourful country welcoming to its visitors.
Secondly I was expecting the train to roll into the brand new station I’d heard had opened in 2016 but nope it crawls cross river and into the most dilapidated station for a capital city I’ve yet chanced upon. Outside as it began to spit a Swiss IT whizz I’d met on the train helps locate the direction to my accommodation (as my iPhone can’t seem to pick up the free wifi signal his phone can).
No sign of a zebra or any other sort of crossing over the wide boulevard before me. It is not Belgrade’s only problem regarding transport and travel. I soon find that it isn’t the city (itself perched on the hill) or people that flounder so much as who the hell does Belgrade’s transport planning.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re going to Bulgaria, Bosnia, Macedonia or Montenegro (you can forget Kosovo – directly anyway) there is nothing going anywhere at the right (or reasonable) times of day or night.
I learn in advance that the line to Sofia which would have been my next destination has been closed but even a bus is difficult to come by with one leaving at 12:30 which arrives at 21:00 while the other departs at 00:45 reaching the Bulgarian capital at 09:30.
Neither are a fit for me on top of which I’ve heard you have to pay just to get through the turnstile onto the platform and then again for baggage! This also rules out Bosnia – also at the time of writing inaccessible by train. It is (almost) what Albania once was, and what North Korea still is; a hermit state of sorts.
Further still the bus station information personnel are not the most customer friendly people ‘I no speak English’ (they do) and shrugging their shoulders at any given question. So train would have to suffice, it was merely a question of to where!?
Front runner is Macedonian capital Skopje but even there timings aren’t much better; a sole night train bypassing Pristina arriving in Skopje at 04:20! What can one possibly do at that time? I was about to find out. **Note the women at the international train ticket office are a lot nicer than their bus station counterparts which is just as well.
I could have backtracked to Budapest, Zagreb or Ljubljana but I didn’t want to reprise them, not yet anyway. An early morning departure I’d read about for Skopje simply did not exist. Only one other possibility existed; to go on one of the most spectacular rail journeys in Europe to Montenegro’s capital Podgorica. However according to the travellers grapevine the journey was the highlight and the destination itself a bit dull (though I don’t know myself having not been).
Again the timings were way out and required a bus for part of the way. So now you know, surface travel in south eastern Europe even in 2017 is extremely tricky. It’s more like a ramshackle pariah state than what is considered first world.
NAVIGATION AND DISCO CHIPS!
Travel woes aside, once you find Belgrade it’s rather nice, difficult to navigate on foot at first, especially in the night. What I wasn’t prepared for perhaps in naivety was just how Russian it is, even more so than Moldova. One thing that shines bright is the Chips and Love shop – fries with classic disco – utterly brilliant!!
Grooving while I munched. Less so is the Bohemian street (Skadarska) which is nothing short of a commercialised set of boring eateries and pubs on a cobbled lane with street teams coercing you inside.
Belgrade has its charms, the university for one dressed in white with orange window trims makes it a near relation to one of Riga’s academic buildings (see comparison above) and a sea of red flowers lines one of the streets I come onto by way of improvisational navigation.
I’d say the Chinese are less beguiling than those in Brats and Budapest but I am now moving through cities more rapidly than some of the trains I’ve travelled on! Meaning I barely have time to see the city never mind meet its inhabitants which in some respects is unfortunate.
Between writing this humble blog, editing its photos and planning ahead (or trying to) I manage to fit in Kalemegdan Park, a couple of churches (or temples) and enjoy a Simit and Turkish tea at the recently opened Simit Sarayi one of the more pleasant memories from Istanbul back in the day.
There was more to come for lunch next door at the Monument cafe and bar which was bohemian but be warned, like many European countries smoking is allowed inside so if you’re a non smoker this may be a problem; I managed – just.
And so it was back to the train for the overnight slouch toward Skopje and what an adventure that was. A train so bad I’m amazed it was still in service! No sooner had it oozed out of the platform did it stop for half an hour at a station with platforms half made and the other half collapsing into earth where the tracks should be.
I should point out that the tracks were also a work in progress. Meanwhile, a local tram overtakes us with ease! Like the UK there was no announcement as to why and eventually (again literally) we were on our way. The carriage seats were stained, the toilets stank of the algae that had been left to gather on the surface water of the bowl.
The only positive is that when Skopje appeared it was a slightly more agreeable 6am, the dawn was breaking and I was grateful not to be arriving in total darkness and more so to be off that flea-ridden wreck. I believe it soldiers on to somewhere near the Greek border and/or Thessaloniki and that would be my destination after Skopje, albeit by bus.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
Thanks for reading here. Should anyone be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching, please contact me for a FREE Overview PDF. Meanwhile, stay tuned with Kulture Kiosk via The Atlas or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world. Playlist and credits follow…
I Don’t Speak the Language – Matthew Wilder
Friends – Shalamar
Last Night A DJ Saved My Life – Indeep
Disco Inferno – The Trammps
Upside Down – Diana Ross
We Are Family – Sister Sledge
Overnite – Scritti Politti