Belgrade has many legends, but there’s only one that managed to rally hundreds of people around the humble pljeskavica. Meet Belgrade Legend Sasa Mitrovic, the owner of the food stand Loki.
It all started over twenty years ago, when Mitrovic opened Loki in a public square near Kralja Petra. His food stand sustained Serbians with pljeskavica, cevap, and gurmanska 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A loyal following developed among hard-partying Beogrdjani emerging from bars at four in the morning. Loki became a quintessential Belgrade experience, like walking on Knez Mihailova or getting ripped off in a taxi from the airport.
But in 2010, the good times were coming to an end for the humble, green-roofed shack. Kralja Petra’s fortunes were rising–and so was the value of the land that Loki sat on. Based on rumor and my poor translation of news articles, it seems that Mitrovic didn’t own the land, but tried to claim that Loki had historic value that prevented a tear-down. Celebrities, models and sports starts called for Loki to remain on municipal land. Authorities were undeterred. A court ruled that Loki would be no more.
Beogradjani took to the streets to prevent Loki from being torn down. At least five police showdowns occurred. Workers, patrons, and Mitrovic himself formed human barriers to prevent the bulldozer from breaking down tradition. During the fifth stalemate, Mitrovic locked himself in his kiosk and threatened to light it on fire if the police dared to come any closer. He was subsequently arrested, along with 50 other people. Loki was later bulldozed to the ground.
The legend doesn’t end there. Several weeks later, Mitrovic opened a new Loki not far from his old location. The new Loki was in a proper storefront that some claim Mitrovic owned for many years. It still stands there today.
My question is, why didn’t Mitrovic use his storefront before things came to fisticuffs? Perhaps he wanted to thumb his nose at Belgrade authorities/prospecting real estate investors. Maybe he wanted to keep the storefront as a private bar for close friends. Possibly, he bought it in the months leading up to the court decision, knowing the Loki stand would one day be no more. Or maybe…he knew that a legend always needs a little mystery.
*For a proper rendition of facts, see the Serbian article about the arrest here. Information about the old Loki is scarce, so feel free to correct me/add your own impressions in the comments.
For my third Belgrade Animal Week post, I thought I’d write something more uplifting about the zoo: the Legend of Sami the Chimpanzee.
Sami arrived at the Belgrade zoo in 1988. There’s a rumor that he was a German family pet before his, um, amorous advances at home led him to the zoo. He quickly tired of life behind bars: the jeering tourists, the bad food, and his neighbor’s incessant discussions about bananas, poop, and how “it was all better in the circus, man.” He hatched a plan to escape and sample Belgrade’s famous nightlife.
It worked. In the third week of February, 1988, Sami ran away. He wandered around Dorcol until the zoo director collected him from a rooftop and took him back to his cage via taxi. I guess Sami liked to arrive in style-or the director didn’t want chimp teeth marks in his car. Radio stations and TV crews covered his escape and capture, but I can’t find footage of this online.
Two days later, Sami escaped again. Belgraded.com, citing an Ivan Kovacevic essay, highlights that “thousands of people gathered in the streets, shouting: Sami, we won’t let them catch you!, Watch out, Sami!, Sami, don’t come down!” and even carrying protest signs with “Sami, we’re with you!” and “Monkey to the people!” slogans.”
Sami didn’t go back without a fight. No one was injured, but he was sedated for his return home. According to this school newspaper article (great source, right?), Sami got over his harried escape with antibiotics and hot tea. Sounds like a hangover remedy. I’m not so sure Sami wasn’t at a local pub, downing a few Jelen and hitting on ribe.
The incidents brought attention to the zoo, and to its now-famous resident. Sami became known as “the Dorcol fugitive,” and “the Belgrade dissident.” These sound a bit rude in English, but trust me-Sami was a star. His antics captured the hearts of Beogradjani, who were, in their own way, striving for freedom.
Sami may have even inspired the awesome 80’s Serbian pop song, “Sami, let’s be alone.” Okay, maybe he didn’t, but it’s still a catchy tune.
Sami died in 1992, but he is far from forgotten. His statue stands in the Belgrade zoo to this day, and his exploits may have inspired primates across the world. In 2007, Oliver the monkey made his second escape from an American zoo in Mississippi. And in 2009, not one, but thirty chimps broke out of their enclosure in a UK zoo to raid the kitchen. Sami would have been proud.
Many thanks to http://www.Belgraded.com for their prior research on this subject.
Last week, I wrote about the Belgrade Phantom. I couldn’t tell you if that story is true or not, but there’s another Serbian whose incredible tale is utterly true, and even more amazing: Vesna Vulović.
RHOB, how can someone top the daring drives of the Belgrade Phantom? Dear reader, it was simple: she survived an airplane explosion at 33,000 feet.
The event happened almost exactly 39 years ago, when Vulović was a newly-minted stewardess for JAT Airlines. She was delivering meals on a Copenhagen-Belrade flight when an Ustache bomb exploded in the luggage compartment, ripping the plane apart. The plane-and Vulović-fell more than 6 miles, crashing in Czechoslovakia. There were no other survivors. She was 22 years old.
She was found by a former medic with Hitler’s troops, who assisted in keeping her alive. She woke up a month later in a Prague hospital. Upon regaining consciousness, her first words were, “Can I have a cigarette?” I could not make up this story if I tried.
Vulović went on to make a full recovery and continue working at JAT. She later became a vocal critic of the Milosevic regime and is alive to this day. When asked about her ability to survive, she said, “it was not my day for dying.” A bit of an understatement, don’t you think?
Of course, no legend is without a little intrigue. In 2009, two journalists alleged that the plane was accidentally shot down by Czech officials, not a terrorist incident. There is also a question of whether Vulović was in the back of the plane, as she claimed, or in the middle of the plane, where witnesses saw her body after the crash. But let’s focus on the basics: the woman survived a plane explosion 10,000 meters in the air.
I know Serbs are tougher than man-eating sharks (sort of), but this is just ridiculous. Hats off to Vesna Vulović, the Serbian who fell from the sky-and survived.
Sounds like a Harry Potter book, doesn’t it? But this story is about a white Porsche, not wizardry. A stolen Porsche that was driven through Slavija Square at breakneck speeds in the middle of the night, taunting police and captivating Belgrade for seven days. You can’t make this up.
Actually, I did think it was made up. I first read about “the Phantom” in Momo Kapor’s A guide to the Serbian Mentality. Kapor has a breezy style, and I wasn’t sure how much of the story was true. Information is hazy in English, but in 1979 there was a man who drove a stolen Porsche through the square in the wee hours of the morning. He taunted police by alerting them that he was coming and evading capture with superior driving skills. People started coming to Slavija Square at midnight just to catch a glimpse of this madman speeding through the square, thumbing his nose at the law. The guy was a combination of NASCAR, Evel Kineval, and Houdini. Beogradjani were enthralled. The police were apoplectic.
Tito was out of the country at the time, prompting speculation that the drive was politically motivated. Some thought he was a romantic. Others believed he was a bored car thief. In any case, he had a great advantage: one Porsche vs. a couple of police-issued Yugos.
Not much of a contest.
After a week, the police constructed a barricade using a bus. The Phantom crashed into the bus but escaped in the crowd. He was caught several days later and went to jail.
The Phantom was Vlada Vasiljevic, a common car thief. Some doubted he was truly the Phantom; but there is a rumor that he escaped jail to complete another night drive, and returned the next day. Vasiljevic died in a car accident several years after his release. The car, a Lada, was stolen.
The Phantom lives on in a Serbian movie that was released last year, and I’m eager to find a subtitled copy. I’ve posted the trailer below. As I hunt for a copy, I’ll think of the Phantom every time I drive through Slavija Square. I imagine many Beogradjani do the same-which explains some of the driving I see there.
Thanks to Belgraded.com for providing details about the Phantom.