Looking for a gift for a certain special Serbian? Here are two options for anyone missing, or curious to see, a bit of Belgrade.
The first is from fellow Belgrade blogger Andy Townend, who published a book this year featuring his gorgeous shots of the White City.
Unfortunately, the book is currently only available in Serbian bookstores. There’s an option to order it through the Delfi website, but a bit of Serbian is needed to order, and I’m not sure that the book will ship internationally. Check out his blog, http://www.belgradestreets.com, for a free fix until your next visit to a knjižara.
For those without access to Belgrade bookstores, there’s another photography book that’s easily accessible for Americans. Streetartlove.rs/belgrade by Marko Todorovic features Belgrade street art from 2005-2010. It’s a different vibe from Belgrade streets, but just as beautiful. When used with a smart phone, the book also reveals interviews and videos. Best of all, it’s available on Amazon.com
These books should tide your special someone over until they receive the ultimate gift: a plane ticket back to Belgrade. (Save that ticket for springtime, though. Looks like the Balkans are in for another rough winter.)
Should I have set out on this long journey? I went almost unthinkingly, without any special desire or need, for the sake of another. And perhaps I’d gain from seeing this strange Frankish world. I say perhaps, because I didn’t believe it. Apart from merchants, traveling was only for those disturbed people unable to remain alone with themselves, who chased after the new sights that an unknown world offered to their eyes while their hearts remained empty.
-Meša Selimović, The Fortress.
I’ve always loved this quote, but I find it especially fitting today. I arrived in Belgrade one year ago. When we landed I was tired, confused, and practically ignorant about this part of the world. I moved here for the sake of another, but also because I hoped to gain a greater understanding about the world and even my own country. But let’s be honest, too–I also hoped to see new sights.
I’ve accomplished some of these goals, but the “must-see, must-do, must-read” list goes on and on. Maybe that’s the way it should be. Or maybe I’m one of the “disturbed” people Selimovic talks about. That’s ok. I’ve been called worse. Should I have set out on this long journey? Sigorno. With certainty.
Check out the works of Selimović and other Balkan (and Portugese) authors this year at the Belgrade Book Fair–it continues until Sunday.
Churches, turbes, and monasteries–I’m overpacking today’s post like a family of eight in a Budva-destined Lada. Yet I must. After 52 Sundays of writing about churches, I am officially retiring CoS posts. Next Sunday I will be flying back to the U.S. and it seems fitting to end my Sunday posts where they began: in Belgrade.
I wanted to write about Kalemedgan’s Sveta Petka and Ružica Churches, but could not get permission to photograph their interiors. These churches are jewels of Belgrade–precious, tiny, and historic–but you’ll have to take my word for it. Alternatively, you can check out this video highlighting Petka church, but beware of bad angles and the need for a tripod.
Instead, I’ll focus on the former Dervish Monastery in Belgrade. It’s part of the scant evidence of 500 years of Ottoman rule in Belgrade. After Serbian independence, people either destroyed the mosques and buildings of their Ottoman oppressors or left the structures to rot. However, two turbes (Islamic mausoleums) testify to the time of fezzes, carpets, and apple tea.
Just past Studenski Park lies the turbe of Sheik Mustafa. It was built in 1784 in the center of a Dervish Monastery. The monastery is long gone, but the turbe still stands. People still tie twine to the eye-shaped window; perhaps it’s a sign that what is gone is not forgotten.
The second turbe stands in the middle of Kalemegdan on the west side of the Military museum. It’s dedicated to Damad Ali Pasha, the “Great Vizier of Sultan Ahmed III.” (I just love titles from this era.) This turbe appears to have less dedicated visitors, but it’s an impressive sight in an already impressive fortress. I’ve read that turbes often stand near mosques or monasteries, but I don’t have evidence of a monastery here. However, Turks lived in the fortress during their reign, and it would make sense that there was a mosque there at one time.
Belgrade’s long and colorful history is reflected everywhere: buildings, streets, and even first names testify to a history of Slavic/Roman/Austrian/Ottoman/Serbian rule. Balkan churches are no different; they offer as much history as any museum. Many thanks to the priests, imams, rabbis, readers and others who have recommended and explained places of worship over the past year. I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much about this region without you.
Belgrade fall comes in with a bang. Last Friday I wore a skirt and t-shirt; the next day I grumpily wore a wool coat. I’ve always resented fall weather. Spring is a time of hope. Summer is a time of ease. After long days of outdoor dining and tiny sandals, autumn arrives as an unwelcome guest. It shows up at the front door with a garbage bag of shorter, colder days. It brings the ghosts of back-to-school dismay and laughs when last year’s favorite sweater reveals a moth hole. It sleeps on the couch for a couple of weeks and leaves behind slushy streets and sore throats. It’s almost as bad as my freshman year roommate.
I truly resent fall now, since it also signifies the end of my time in Belgrade. Yet even a curmudgeon like me can’t deny that it’s a special time here. The leaves are changing in Kalemegdan, but everything still looks green and leafy. Cafes keep their outdoor tables but now offer blankets. Gangly school children show off their new sneakers. Mothers ignore the midday warmth and insist on down coats and thick scarves. There’s also a most unexpected delight: the smell of fall in Belgrade.
Some days I wake up to the smell of burning wood from a chimney or rakija still. I walk through the sweet, charcoal aroma of roga peppers roasting for ajvar. I savor Knez Mihailova’s bouquet of grilled corn, charred chestnuts, and fresh popcorn. When the rain stops, I catch a whiff of clean grass and barely rotting leaves. Fall may be an unwanted visitor, but at least he doesn’t stink.
Fall is better than the next guest, Old Man Winter. His bouquet will be sour. Before the municipal heat turns on, some people will burn refuse for warmth. The odor of melted wood varnish and tires will trudge into the city, float on air particulates, and tickle noses in the middle of the night. Fall might be a nuisance, but winter is simply rude. So I’ll enjoy the fall smells—and sights, and sounds—of Belgrade for as long as I can. I’ll miss this city more than all my strappy sandals combined.
Last week I crossed yet another item off the Belgrade Bucket List: follow the advice of commenter Bojan to try raspberry pastry at Trpkovic bakery. Going to Trpkovic felt like destiny. In addition to Bojan, two other people had told me to try Trpkovic last week. They suggested (really, demanded) that I try the burek. Burek is a phyllo pastry “snack” in the Balkans, which means it would be a meal anywhere else. Meat, cheese or spinach is mixed with egg and cream, layered between phyllo dough and brushed with oil. Repeat this process a zillion times, bake it in the oven, and voila! Burek.
Trpkovic bakery isn’t exactly a Belgrade secret. As I approached the door, there were two lines of people waiting. The line out the door was for burek, and the shorter one was for pastries.
As I waited in the burek line for ten minutes, I was reminded of the “Soup Nazi” Seinfeld episode. There was clearly a method to Trpkovic, and I wasn’t sure what it was. I knew about the two lines in advance, but as I got closer, the process seemed specific and confusing. Usually there’s only one size of burek, but people seemed to be receiving burek of different sizes. Were they asking for it by the gram? I had no idea how many grams were in a small burek. I couldn’t hear orders because the bakery was loud and people were ordering in rapid Serbian. I didn’t want to seem like a Trpkovic twit or worse, be told, “No burek for you!”
I told the woman behind the counter that I wanted a small cheese burek to go. This was obviously wrong because she paused. (She had been dishing out burek like a machine.) Then she nodded and disappeared behind a mass of other women taking orders. A second woman asked what I wanted, and I told her I wanted 100 grams of rasperry strudlica (per Bojan’s suggestion). I wasn’t sure if I could order pastry from the burek line, but this seemed okay. She muttered something and handed me a white bag 10 seconds later–just as my burek appeared. It was like magic. Stressful, Serbian magic.
I was running late to meet a friend so I brought the bag with me. I felt triumphant and hungry. I almost forgot to take a photo before I tore into it.
As I suspected, the confusion was totally worth it. The burek wasn’t too crunchy or greasy. The amount of cheese filling was perfect. I made my Serbian pal try a bite for an “expert” second opinion. She said it was the best burek she’s tasted.
After that, we were on a roll—or specifically, rolica. I’d asked for strudlica, but either the waitress didn’t hear me, or rolica was the closest she could get. Either way, these were amazing. They were light, flaky, and burst open with raspberry filling. I took a photo of them in the bag because we were eating them too quickly to guarantee a photo later.
People, the Belgrade Bucket List is going to give me a Belgrade bulge. But it was worth the wait–and the new waistline. Many thanks for all the Belgrade Bucket List suggestions—keep ‘em coming!
Trpkovic Bakery has three locations: Nemanjina 32, Dimitrija Tucovića 60, and Milorada Budžalića 6. I went to the Nemanija location, about 200 meters south of Slavija Circle.
In America, coca-cola is sometimes served with a slice of lemon. In Mexico and Central America, it’s served with a slice of lime. In Serbia, a slice of orange is added. It tastes quite nice, though I’m not sure why it’s done. Oranges aren’t exactly native to Serbia.
People might wonder why I was ordering a soda at a cafe. I could have easily bought a bottle from a kiosk and walked around with it. Yet I rarely see someone (who’s not a tourist) walking around with a drink in hand. Take-away coffee is advertised as something special. If you want a drink, Belgrade seems to say, sit down and enjoy it. Watch people walking by. Read the paper–waitresses will bring one to you if you ask. And as a bonus surprise, here’s a slice of orange.
Before I moved to Serbia, it would have taken me five minutes to drink this bottle. I would have bought it on the street and chugged it while I was running errands. Now it’s a social event that takes thirty or forty minutes. I don’t think I’ve done anything to change Belgrade, but Belgrade has certainly changed me.
This post title is from one of the worst American jokes ever told.
I just returned from a short trip to London, and it was clearly a taste of what to expect when I return to America. I’m not talking about Vietnamese restaurants, high prices and subway lines. I’m talking about explaining life in Serbia.
“What’s Belgrade like?” is an innocent question. It didn’t surprise me; even in (somewhat) nearby London, few people have traveled to Serbia. What surprised me was the wide-eyed stare. The “wow, you must be really brave” intonation. Or worse, the smirk. The “I’m going to get some really snarky stories about another culture” smirk. Sigh.
“It’s Paris meets Brooklyn” has become my catchphrase. It’s more like Paris meets Queens, but let’s face it, few people have an idea of what Queens is like, either. “It’s grit and great bakeries; it’s beautiful women and brutalist architecture; it has fresh, simple food and complicated people.” Most people seem incredulous.
The misconceptions aren’t one-sided. Strangers expected Serbia to be an ugly, difficult place to live, and Serbians expected strangers to think they were ugly and difficult. On my cab ride back from the airport, the driver and I talked about English people. “What do they think of us?” he asked. “Do they still think we’re savages? Cannibals?” “I never heard that,” I said. “They just think that Serbia is a war-torn country.” It’s true. Americans and Englishmen ask about the war, but they don’t imply that everyone here is a war criminal. They’re simply amazed to hear that Belgrade isn’t a third world city or a Moscow suburb.
I started this blog partly to explain life in Belgrade, but I’m no Momo Kapur. Something else is needed. More accurately, someone else: Serbians. I can’t tell you how many Serbians are shocked to find that I like living here. Or how often I hear, “Oh, I know a Serbian person (living abroad). They say that Serbia is terrible.” I hear that and I cringe.
I compare that attitude to the tour guide in Istanbul who asked, “who wouldn’t want to be Turkish?” and the hotel clerk in Sarajevo who said, “maybe you could live here someday,” as if he was offering candy. I’m reminded of a friend who returned from her first visit to New York complaining about public urination and noise and rudeness, and my reply was “yes, but didn’t you LOVE it?”
There are plenty of places that are imperfect and crazy and worth visiting. I know. I’m lucky to live in one of them. If you disagree, then please tell me: “What’s Belgrade like?”