Once through the Iron Gate and back onto the placid waters of the Danube, we soon found ourselves in the former Yugoslavia, the site of Europe’s most recent and bloody war zone. Like most Americans (and probably most people of other nationalities, as well), we were baffled by what had actually happened here in the latter part of the last century. We didn’t understand the difference between Serbian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs and Croatian Serbs or why these formerly united countries were fighting each other so bitterly. Although we can’t say we’re clear on everything yet, we’re beginning to understand.
This part of the world has been in more or less constant turmoil for centuries, but the 20th century brought its own unique brand of horror to these beleaguered people. Upon the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, an unwieldy federation emerged consisting of Serbia (a formerly powerful independent kingdom), the former Habsburg territories of Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia, plus Montenegro and Macedonia. This new nation was first called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, with Belgrade as its capital and the Serb monarch the first head of state. This arrangement already seemed certain to make the other members of the federal state pretty unhappy with the balance of power. In 1929, the country was renamed Yugoslavia — the “Land of the South Slavs” — but nothing was changed to redress the imbalance.
World War II served to unite the country in opposition to the Nazis, although Yugoslavia was initially allied with Germany until protests and a political coup in Belgrade made Hitler nervous about where the Yugoslavs’ loyalties actually lay. The Nazis invaded the country in 1941, and for the next three years a bloody war went on between the Nazi occupiers and partisan fighters led by the communist agitator Josip Broz Tito. The Red Army liberated Yugoslavia in 1944; but Tito, who had learned his politics at Stalin’s feet and was the Russian leader’s prize pupil, refused to allow his country to join its neighbors to the east and become a Soviet satellite state. While Yugoslavia remained a communist country, it was independent of the USSR and the other eastern bloc nations, and its people enjoyed a certain measure of freedom of thought, if not of action. Tito was unbelievably popular, despite being a benevolent dictator, and he received enormous numbers of gifts from heads of state all over the world — so many, in fact, that there is a nine-room museum housing them (those that haven’t been stolen) on the grounds of the House of Flowers. When he traveled throughout the country, he used his personal train, pulled by an easily recognizable blue engine, one of which is now a museum. Even all these years after Tito’s death in 1980, delegations from the former Yugoslavia still visit his tomb, observe his birthday, and speak of him fondly.
After Tito died, the presidency rotated among the constituent states, an arrangement which pleased nobody. When communism began to unravel all over Europe in the late 1980’s, various Yugoslavian states started to agitate for independence. This is where Slobodan Milosevic enters the picture: as the Communist Party chairman in Serbia, he decided to campaign for the rights of the Serb minorities in the breakaway republics, first Croatia, then Kosovo. The Serb-dominated People’s Army waged a full-scale war against a number of Croatian cities, in particular Vukovar on the Danube, which was 90 percent destroyed during the conflict that lasted from 1991 to 1995.
When we visited the town, it had been largely rebuilt, although one brick house near the town center still had pockmarks and bullet holes in its facade from the eight weeks of artillery shelling, siege, and house-to-house fighting that ended with the defeat of the Croat forces by the Serbs. Later, UN peacekeepers controlled Vukovar until 1998, when it was returned to Croat hands.
But to be in Belgrade today is to experience a vibrant, exciting city that bears no apparent scars from the wars of the past centuries — except for the bombed-out ruins of the military headquarters in the city center, the result of NATO’s attempt to force Serbia to end the war in Kosovo.
Belgrade is not a pretty city; it has neither the eclectic charm of Bucharest nor the elegance and grace of Budapest. But it has a thriving club and restaurant scene and is very hospitable to visitors. And dominating the skyline is the massive white marble Cathedral of St. Sava, still unfinished but very imposing. Contributions from all over the world are still pouring in to pay for the construction.
The first thing you see when you arrive in Belgrade by water is the massive Kalemegdan fortress, high on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Sava and the Danube Rivers. This was the site of the Roman settlement of Singidunum during the days of the emperor Trajan, and it has served as a fortress for nearly two thousand years. In the eighth century AD, the first Slav settlers named the place “White Town,” or “Beograd,” after the white limestone walls of the fort.
Now a historical monument, the ruins of the fort consist of Roman, medieval, 18th and 19th century structures, including a dry moat that now houses tennis courts and even a basketball court. Our very informative and clever guide, Lily, told us that a young girl once took tennis lessons there until her coach finally told her to give up the sport because she had no talent. Her name is Monica Seles.
The day we visited the fortress, a movie company was making a historical film set in the early 19th century, and we had to dodge cables and walk around huge trailers, while actors in costume waited for their call.
Belgrade is conducting an anti-graffiti campaign, although you wouldn’t know it from the state of every flat surface in the city, but the 17th century Turkish graffiti carved into the stone walls leading to the gates of the fortress are apparently considered to be art rather than desecration and are allowed to remain. Incidentally, the problem of graffiti is so widespread everywhere we’ve been, even in small villages you would think might be spared, that we think there’s a fortune to be made if someone could invent a wall coating that repels paint so it can be washed off with plain water.
Belgrade, as the capital not only of Serbia but of Yugoslavia during its existence, is the site of the tomb of Tito. The place is called the House of Flowers, because Tito was apparently an enthusiatic gardener and even developed a special rose. Although he was born Roman Catholic, he shunned religion when he became a communist, so he ordered that his own tomb would bear no symbols, neither cross nor red star. Instead, it is set in the center of a garden inside a sort of cultural museum, with only his name and the dates of his birth and death in gold letters on the top. So it’s impossible to get a decent photo of the inscription unless you stand on a ladder, or are seven feet tall.
The last king of Serbia, who was sent into exile before World War II, never abdicated. So when his son, Aleksander, was born in London (as our guide emphasized more than once, in Suite 212 of Claridge’s Hotel) in 1940, the infant officially became the crown prince. During the communist period, the prince was not permitted to enter the country, but after the end of the conflict in the 1990’s, Prince Aleksander was invited to return to Serbia. He and his family rent the first (read “second”) floor of the royal palace and live there when they are in the country. The rest of the time, they are in the US or London; his three sons all married American wives, so it’s unlikely that there will be a Serbian royal family in residence in the foreseeable future. But the palace is open to the public — at least, its most interesting rooms — and we enjoyed our tour of what feels like a real home instead of a showplace.
The entire basement level is what is called the “fairy tale kitchen,” painted with scenes from the Arabian Nights, because when the palace was built in 1922 by the Crown Prince’s grandfather, also named Aleksander, his son Nikolas was only eleven years old and loved stories and make believe. So the basement with its arched ceilings and ornately painted rooms is a child’s playhouse, illustrated with wonderful pictures.
One thing we’ve found in every eastern European country is that the people have a wonderful sense of humor, which they use to deflect the unpleasant aspects of their lives. For example, when talking about the period of full employment under the communist regime, they say, “We would pretend to work, and they would pretend to pay us.” And as for the Yugo, the laughable automobile manufactured by Yugoslavia, they say, “It was an extremely economical car that cost almost nothing in gas — it was always in the repair shop.”
For more photos of Serbia, click here.
For more photos of Croatia, click here.