We woke up in a country famous for being a stop on the Orient Express as well as for producing the abysmal Yugo car, renowned tennis players, raspberries, mining enterprises, and the first McDonalds in an x-communist country. Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, has endured 115 (not a typo) wars and been destroyed more than 40 times. Talk about resilience. It is nestled into the confluence of the Sava and Danube, a fact Dan sorely regretted not paying attention to. I’ll get to that.
The city’s number one attraction is Kalemegdan Fortress which dates back 2000 years to Roman times. As you can imagine, it has been damaged, repaired, enlarged, redesigned, enhanced, reimagined, blah, blah, blah a zillion times. Today it is a huge city park complex with a large dinosaur area for kids of all ages, an outdoor display of weapons from the two world wars, walking paths, lots of green spaces for families and dog walkers, memorials to the suffering of war, and picnic areas. It’s primo location at the top of a hill offers fantastic views of the river and surroundings.
Our other stop before lunch was at the Church of Saint Sava. With a capacity of an astonishing 10,000 it is the second-largest Orthodox Church in the world. There are 49 bells in the bell towers and 18 gold plated crosses on its domes. It’s size and beauty from the outside in no way prepared us for the dazzling inside. Gold, marble, detailed mosaics, a stunning floor, and a huge crown-shaped chandelier took us by total surprise and made us wonder why it was not the number one attraction in the city. There are no chairs (you have to stand for services), so the interior comes at you all at once.
Apparently the real #1 attraction here is the nightlife. Young people come from all over to partake. What we took for houseboats lining the shore are actually restaurants and clubs where a lot of this fun takes place. We had a great guide who talked us through the party scene, the abundance of graffiti, the basics of Serbian history, the loss of life in WWI (25% of the total population!), the history of corruption in the government (the current government is a light dictatorship in the cloak of a democratic republic, per our guide), average monthly income of 600 euros after 63% is removed for taxes, Tito’s worldwide renown that landed him the third largest funeral of his century (after Queen Victoria and Mahatma Gandhi), and much more. Our guide was a human font of knowledge.
With our brains overflowing with Serbian and Yugoslavian history we strolled back to the ship for lunch and then Dan went his way (shopping) and I joined a small group headed to an artist village. I definitely made the better decision.
My group, along with the font-of-knowledge guide, went a little way out of town to visit a charming 74 year old violin maker and restorer, Jan Nemcek. He welcomed our little group into his home workroom and talked us through the process of making a violin beginning with going into the forest to choose the right wood and ending with 10 layers of varnish on the finished product. He is a second generation craftsman with hopes that his son and granddaughter will carry on when he is gone. Just to be clear, he does not dabble in this, he has customers lined up from all over the world waiting for one of up to five violins he produces each year. He shared some of his valuable collection of violins, the oldest dating to the 1500s.
The National Museum of Naïve Art was our next stop. It is located in a restored village house and has a few hundred works in its collection. The curator is very proud of the number of pieces from the two most famous painters from this small town: Zuzana Chalupova and Martin Jonas. Zuzana specialized in children and Martin painted country folks with disproportionately huge hands and feet and disproportionally small heads. Neither had any formal training and are household names in the naïve art community worldwide. We ended our tour by visiting the home that Martin bought once he could afford to live off his paintings and move into town from the farm where he lived when he started painting.
The tour ended just passed 6:00, well after dark. I hurried onboard knowing Dan would be waiting for me to join him for a cocktail before dinner. I quickly dropped my stuff in the room, freshened up, and hurried to the lounge without noticing that Dan’s jacket was not on the hook. After a quick look around the lounge I knew for certain that a) it was dark, b) he was lost, c) he had no idea where the boat was docked, and d) he had until 10:00 to find his way back. Around 7:45 an exhausted Dan found me in the dining room with his tale of heading back from his shopping trip around 2:30, five exhausting hours prior. Apparently he headed in the wrong direction, asked for help from several non-English speakers, got sent to the industrial dock on the Danube (we are docked on the Sava), got a ride from a nice couple, caught a bus that he had no local currency to pay for, found a man who called him a cab, drove across a bridge going further out of his way……..and finally (read: miraculously) got back! Lesson learned: NEVER leave the vessel without one of the small cards available at the front desk at each dock. We now know they give the location of the dock along with phone numbers in case of emergencies or questions.
We ended our day with a lecture on Serbia past and present, its place in the former Yugoslavia, the leadership of Tito and Milošević, and the power of ethnicity in this geographic area. Not light topics, but it gave us a greater understanding of the area’s complicated history.
No surprise: bed was calling Dan’s name after the lecture.
Fairy tale Golubac Fortress and the beautiful dock were right out our window when we woke up. No chance of getting lost this morning. Phew! Low fog lent an appropriate air to the imposing sight of this 14th century, ten-towered fortress. A guide walked us around the grounds and the water-level palace explaining part of its tumultuous history. The wolf pit in front of the main gate was a creepy feature of the fortress. Enemies not deterred by the prospect of boiling water or oil being poured over theirs heads from above could be coaxed forward just a bit further only to fall into a pit that had spikes, sometimes with poisoned tips, waiting to impale them. (The name comes from the spikes being as deadly as the fangs of a wolf.)
We were surprised to learn that the only road in this area ran right through castle grounds until quite recently. Our guide recalled her school bus squeezing through the narrow gate.
Some folks opted to go from the fortress to a national park for a hike or to a Stone Age archeological site for a look around, but we opted to spend the morning cruising. It was quiet, peaceful, and beautiful to watch the world go by.
After lunch and an immigration stop in Donji Milanovac, where we picked up the folks who had elected to do optional tours, we got back on the water. We traveled through what is considered to be one of the most picturesque areas of the Lower Danube: the Iron Gate—a series of four narrow gorges with enormous white limestone cliffs that separates the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains. We enjoyed the program director’s commentary about the region and scenic points of interest as we sailed downstream with Romania on our left and Serbia on our right. My top two waterside surprises were a monastery that would fall into the river had it been built any closer to the water and a 180 foot tall carving of Decebalus Rex, the king who successfully fought against the Romans to preserve the independence of present-day Romania. We went through two locks along the way.
Our evening was high spirited and fun too. Our witty program director sang popular tunes and told jokes to a very receptive crowd.
… Oh Really …
Belgrade was the capital of the former Yugoslavia.
$1.00 = 119 Serbian dinar
Serbia is about the size of Scotland.