Liveable, loveable Belgrade

I think the most appropriate description I can give of Belgrade is that it’s an incredibly liveable city.  Most – in fact all – of the cities we travelled through in the former Yugoslavia fit that description, if I’m honest.  But it’s especially apt for Belgrade.  And I don’t mean ‘liveable’ as a euphemistically polite ‘pleasant but boring,’ either:  it’s a fascinating, lively, energetic, and above all welcoming spot.

As a location that’s only recently made a reappearance on NATO’s Christmas card list, Belgrade still bears visible scars of recent turmoil in the region.  The former home of the Yugoslav Ministry of Defence (or the Serbo-Montenegrin one, if you prefer not to accept ‘Yugoslav’ to refer to that particular coupling post the exit of all the other SFRY states) was on the losing side of an argument with the US Air Force in 1999, but still stands today, minus an overpass and some exterior – and, for that matter, much interior – brickwork.  A monument to mistakes of the past, I suppose, patrolled by a lone soldier whose presence evokes either defiant preservation or embarrassed regret, depending on your interpretation of current Serbian attitudes toward recent history.

The old Yugoslav Ministry of Defence, bombed by NATO in 1999, still standing in ruins in central Belgrade

… the foliage is a nice touch, I think

Aside from that reminder, however, the city streets have a relaxed but quietly vibrant feel.  The pace of life is comfortable and unhurried – unquestionably the right attitude in the forty degree heat of Serbian summer.  But Belgrade is definitely an extrovert – a city that enjoys life, and wants you to as well.  Most of our days had a fairly gentle start:  we were pretty enthusiastic partakers of the local café culture, and I was most certainly not averse to a breakfast of cake and espresso on many a morning (or early afternoon).  Possibly followed by some coffee and confectionary for morning tea or brunch.  (The Serbs are particularly expert at combining pastry and minced meat, too.  So there might have been a few of those consumed also.  Especially given the ridiculously low prices, at which I could do little but laugh.)

As for actual stuff we did in this excellent city?  Belgrade Fortress, at the junction of the Rivers Danube and Sava, is an impressive edifice – especially lit up at night – and its past, about which I admit knowing very little, is an impressive reminder that Serbia’s history is not entirely defined by the last twenty years.  The Museum of Yugoslav History was a slightly odd but nonetheless worthwhile visit – basically a monument to Marshall Tito, focussing on his mausoleum.  The Aeronautical Museum was entertaining, mostly for the collections of “and here’s what’s left of some cool American stuff we shot down with our rusty old MiGs and leftover Soviet hand-me-downs.”  The botanical gardens were somewhat barren and joyless (and under reconstruction), but they fully redeemed themselves by having a beautifully decaying greenhouse (unfortunately closed at the time) and, even better, a half-constructed then fully-abandoned concrete amphitheatre which you can climb all over.  (The latter even had a faded Yugoslav flag in the basement, for that extra historical street-cred.)

The glasshouse in the Botanic Gardens of Belgrade

… and also in the Botanic Gardens, a Yugoslav flag in an abandoned concrete amphitheatre

By day, the island of Ada Cingalija, in the middle of the River Sava, is a brilliant spot to sit out the heat of the summer sun, with its riverside beaches and bars and forested greenery.  (And its floating shacks on the northern side, of whose owners I am not in any way insanely jealous.)  By night, the party moves back into town – and while we didn’t pull many all-nighters ourselves, it’s obvious that Belgrade fully deserves its reputation as a highlight of Europe’s social scene.  Its bars are the equal of its cafés, and being right smack bang in the middle of a region whose specialty food is greasy minced meat in whatever form you can shove it in your pie hole, how could it not have a big appetizing late-night party scene to precede those inevitable late-night big appetizing greasy foodstuffs?

Ćevapi: food of kings. Not so much of vegetarians.

But mostly, we weren’t too concerned about running around and seeing every last sight on the tourist map, or checking out all the trendiest night spots.  We took it easy and just enjoyed ourselves.  It’s an approach Belgrade seems to encourage, and that suited me just fine.  As I have no doubt it will next time I’m in town.  Which will be whenever I next have the chance.

How I spent most of my time in Belgrade. Lazily stuffing my face.

The blues and greens of Plitvice National Park

Plitvice National Park is one of Croatia’s greatest natural beauties — and Croatia has a few of those, so that claim genuinely means something.  (Catching buses from Split to Dubrovnik and then Dubrovnik back up to Zagreb was a quite spectacular way to see a lot of that natural beauty — especially along the coast.)

A lakeside waterfall in Plitvice National Park

There is some mythology behind the park’s natural wonders, but I’ll freely admit to not knowing it.  All I know is that it’s a collection of beautiful blue lakes, connected by a stunning array of streams and waterfalls, terraced over an area that makes for a good solid day’s hike, and all within a convenient couple of hours bus ride from Zagreb.  (And that combination of some great walking plus a couple of hours’ bus trip from the capital is even better when you consider that it’s enough to deter many of the tourist hordes that might otherwise ruin a perfectly pleasant meander in the woods!)

So instead of a story to tell, all I have is pictures to share.  Bear in mind that our trip to Plitvice happened just after I got my replacement camera, so this was a particularly welcome opportunity for me to put it to best use.  (Well, as best as my limited photographic ability can use it, anyway.)

Waterfalls and long exposures: a great way to play with a newly replaced camera

Suffice to say that it was a day of waterfalls, forest hiking (with possibly just a little bit of getting lost along the way), and happy snapping.  A fantastic day trip from Zagreb.

Lakeside by the beautifully clear water

Transport notes for any other aspiring visitors:

  • You can easily day trip via bus from Zagreb.  Get a nice early bus out from the main Zagreb bus station to Plitvička Jezera (timetable here), and you’ll find it easy enough to grab a bus on the road on the way back.  (Though it’s worth making sure you know when the return buses run – there’s a timetable posted by the ticket booth  to the National Park entrance which’ll tell you.  Probably worth a quick shot of that on your camera – you did bring a decent digital camera, right? – so that you can refer back to it when you’re coming towards the end of your day’s hiking and you’re trying to figure out roughly when you’re likely to be done for the day.)
  • If you get to the ticket desk of the bus station in Zagreb only to be told the bus is full, as we were, don’t sweat.  On a hunch, we wandered down to the actual platforms downstairs, found the bus, and asked the driver if he could take us.  Yes, it turned out, so long as we didn’t mind sitting in the aisle.  Done.
  • There are actually a couple of bus stops which you can jump off at for Plitvice – there are two main entrances to the park.  We jumped off at entrance one.  If you’re not sure where you are, ask your bus driver/attendant – chances are they’ll be very helpful.  Otherwise, get off at the stop where all the other English-speaking people get off!
  • We took WikiTravel’s advice and followed ‘route K’, anticlockwise (to avoid the teeming masses and maximise the “wow, I have this whole incredible place to myself!” feeling).  Worked well, albeit that the northwestern-most bit, up in the hills away from the lakes, is easy to get lost in.  Well, it was for us…

Shafts of rainbow light through trees and waterfalls

Old faithful Zagreb

I really want to write a post about Zagreb that properly captures how much I love the city, but I have absolutely no idea how.  We didn’t do anything spectacularly newsworthy there.  We got my camera replaced (thank you so, so much to the wonderful people at Photo Centar for being considerably more helpful than Canon themselves in sorting out the manufacturing defect with my S100).  We went to the zoo and admired the cuteness of the marmosets and red pandas.  We went to the botanical gardens (in which I spent most of my time playing with macro mode on said newly-replaced S100).  We went to the movies.  And we enjoyed some good food and the microbrews of a couple of good pubs.

We spent our time with a dear and entertaining friend of mine as she showed us around her home town – me for the second time (thanks again, Laura!).  So I can’t even spout many words about the typical tourist trip to Croatia’s capital.

We (more particularly, I) ate lots of pastry things, often (ideally) filled with meat.

We visited the Museum of Broken Relationships, which I suppose is blogworthy.  It’s a collection of momentos with accompanying pithy explanatory remarks, each exemplifying a contributor’s failed (or otherwise terminated) relationship.  It’s a small but thought-provoking set of exhibits, ranging from the funny, through the sad, and occasionally to the frankly bizarre and slightly disturbing.  Such as the axe which a contributor used to hack to pieces all the furniture of her jilted girlfriend, because it apparently wasn’t collected sufficiently quickly after the relationship went sour.  Definitely different, and worth a visit.  And it sells ‘bad memory erasers’ in its gift shop.  So how could you go wrong?

Axe of a crazy woman

Zagreb does have a few icons which we happily snapped – its cathedral, and the mosaic-tile roof of St Mark’s Church, for example.  And it has a to-scale model of the solar system spread around its city streets – an entertaining diversion to track down, at least until you get past Mars and realise that Jupiter is a couple of kilometres away.  (Now I know how Voyager felt.  “Seriously?  Whose idea was this asteroid belt shit anyway?!”)  And its Technical Museum is surprisingly cool – including its (at the time) current temporary display of historical fire-fighting equipment, and its more permanent displays of various other random pitstops on the path to technical advancement.  In particular, it’s hard not to enjoy one of their regular demonstrations of Nikola Tesla’s more interesting playthings.  (The Croats do love their Nikola Tesla.  The Serbs love theirs, too.  I’m waiting with bated breath to get to the US next year and hear just how great their Nikola Tesla was.)

Croatia’s own Nikola Tesla (not to be confused with Serbia’s own Nikola Tesla), in bust form in the Technical Museum in Zagreb

But compared to many of the other places I’m visiting, I suppose Zagreb does fall short in the tourist attraction department.

But maybe that’s part of what I like about it.  There’s a relaxed and comfortable feel to Zagreb.  It’s an easy place to sit around and enjoy life.  It’s not in a hurry, it’s open and friendly, and it’s easy to get around.  (The tram system is convenient and extensive – a combination of modern and old, boxy, vaguely Soviet-looking trams roaming all the major streets around town.  And if you ask the locals, half of them will tell you it’s free, too:  fare evasion is the accepted norm, in protest at high prices and corrupt management, I’m told.)  It’s not a big city, though, and there’s not many places you need go.  Find yourself a good spot on Ulica Tkalčića (Tkalčića St) – the main pub and café strip – and watch the evening go by, and I hope you’ll see what I like about it.

Ulica Tkalčića, your one-stop while-the-afternoon-away shop off Zagreb’s main square

Zagreb is not the most exciting city, but it’s definitely one of my favourites.  A city to live in, not to visit – even if you’re only there for a couple of days.

Up, in and around the walls of Dubrovnik

By the time we got to Dubrovnik, we were a little more energetic than we’d been in Split.  Our days were still filled with cafés, cakes and minced meat, but we also added ice cream.  Quite a lot of ice cream.  And the Olympics were just starting (yes, I’m still well behind on posting these damn blog posts, we’ve already covered that), so we picked a typically Croatian Irish pub and enjoyed a typically Croatian Guinness while watching the typically Croatian London 2012 opening ceremony – in Arabic on al-Jazeera, because the owner seemed not to have realised aforehand that his Sky Sports package didn’t include the BBC.  (Also featured:  a typically Croatian British tourist throwing up into her beer at the table next to us, as her boyfriend fell typically – but, in fairness, not entirely Croatianly – asleep across the table and her friend explained loudly and drunkenly how much she hated Sebastian Coe, and – this shouted apparently without irony – would he please get off the TV because no one wanted to listen to what he had to say.  A lovely counterpoint – or perhaps just honest addition – to LOCOG’s depiction of British culture.)

Once done admiring our apparent metamorphosis into exactly the eating + drinking + sitting + nothing type of American / Aussie / Brit tourist we generally mercilessly mock (you know, the one that somehow manages to trudge around the world while doing exactly the same thing everywhere else as they do at home), we got to exploring Dubrovnik:  the old town, the walls that surround it, and the sea around that.

Inside the old town was pleasant, but almost oppressively over-touristed and kitsch.  The walls were definitely a good walk – strolling around the top, circling the whole of the old town, peering into the back yards and through the washing lines of the locals whose apartments back onto the expertly masoned ancient stone defences.  For a better view, though, we climbed the hill to overlook the old town as the sun set.  (There’s a cable car up to the observation point too, but where’s the fun in that?)  The dying sun beautifully painted the city, the landscape, the seascape, and the scene of me on a hill muttering curses at Canon for the manufacturing defect that had rendered my camera useless a week earlier (or more, rather, for Canon’s inability so far to usefully answer any question about what they might be able to do about it).  [Post script:  don’t worry, the wonderfully helpful guys and girls at Photo Centar – a third-party Canon-authorised service centre in Zagreb – were able to replace my camera a few days later (despite continued utter uselessness from Canon’s own customer service), so the period of cursing was soon to end, and I’ll soon be back to posting my own pretty pictures in amongst the boring text I inflict upon you all here.  Meantime, thanks again to Chris for allowing me to steal his pretty pictures instead:  all credit for the photos in this post is his.  Although obviously I provided significant editorial guidance and stuff.]

Dubrovnik at sunset, as viewed from the observation point on the hill

… and after sunset, as the old town lights up and the moon shines over Lokrum Island

And having seen the walls from above, we also made sure to see them from below (albeit it not at sunset), jumping in the water on one side of the old town and swimming along outside the seaside wall right over to the other.  And then back again, for good measure (and since we were enjoying ourselves).  It was such a pleasant experience out in the water that the next day we rented kayaks and spent a couple of hours paddling not only around the seaside wall, but also out and around the nearest island, and along the coast to the east and west of the old town.  (In what I hope is not developing into a theme, this circumnavigation of Lokrum Island took us right past a nude beach.  Thankfully we were this time far enough out in the water not to be overly confronted with quite such a detailed appraisal of the efficacy of the beach-dwellers’ valiant struggles against tan-lines.)

The walls of Dubrovnik, seen from the vantage point of an approaching kayak

And that was pretty much it for our time in Dubrovnik.  Which, I gather, marks us out as a little different from the majority of Australian passers-through.  At least according to Anna, the lady running the hotel we inhabited.  See the people on the rocks outside the wall in the photo just above?  Yeah, apparently that spot proves a problem for a number of Australian tourists.  It’s a bar/café, and a great place to enjoy the seaside.  But in Anna’s words:  “You go drink, no problem.  You go jump in the water, no problem.  You go drink and then jump in the water?  Problem…  I get phone call in early morning to come pick you up from nightclub, that’s fine.  I get phone call in early morning to come pick you up from hospital?  Not fine.”

But hey, I’m OK with being a little different.  Especially if the difference is that my arms and legs all still point in the directions I tell them to.  Coz I’d appreciate being able to continue to swim and kayak around the world’s more beautiful cities when I want to.  If it’s all the same to the rest of you…


* Bells ringing *

“Intermission is now over, please retake your seats”

I’m back from the Himalayas.  (Safe and sound — thankfully, we were nowhere near the avalanche that claimed a dozen or so lives in northern Nepal, and we were nearly a week into our hike by the time we heard about the plane crash on the route we’d flown to get up to the mountains.)

And in actual fact, I’m one country further on from there already, having spent a whirlwind two days in Singapore en route to Hanoi, whose food I’ve been hungrily devouring over the last couple of days.  (Not that I didn’t hungrily devour Singapore’s, too.)

So, as promised, we’ll shortly be resuming our irregularly programmed regular programming, starting with Dubrovnik, before working our way through the Balkans, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Hong Kong before you even see another word written about Nepal.

In the meantime, here’s one of my favourites of the thousand-plus photos I happily snapped while wandering around the mountains.  (All of which I have yet to organise, caption, etc.)  That would be Mt Everest in the middle (with the sun poking out behind it), looking for all the world not as tall as Lhotse, to its right.  Enjoy!

The sun rising behind Mt Everest (centre) and Lhotse (right), as seen from Kala Patthar