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Comparing Belgrade and Zagreb

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Belgrade and Zagreb, capital cities of Serbia and Croatia respectively, have much in common. The cities, as the countries, have a large portion of their history in parallel tracks. Both are Slavic lands and were, for the most part, engulfed in the same empires.

However, Belgrade and Serbia have a slightly less fortunate recent past. In 1999 NATO bombed the capital for two months in retaliation for strikes against Kosovo (now its own fledgling nation). It’s difficult to recover from that quickly. In 2000, citizens took to the streets to overthrow the Milosevic government in a nearly bloodless coup. But this meant temporary destabilization as power changed hands. And Croatia has a popular coastline on the Adriatic Sea to which tourists flock, providing tax revenue for the country.

Both peoples speak what amounts to slightly different dialects of the same language. Serbia prefers the Cyrillic script to Latin, but that seems to be changing. And Serbians seem to prefer affecting a deeper voice, both men and women.

Belgrade seems quite a dirty city in contrast to Zagreb. However, both feel very safe even at night. And both are cheap, though Belgrade moreso.

In both cities, young people congregate on the streets at night. They will either stand around in the pedestrian areas or fill up sidewalk cafes and bars as groups.

Belgrade also doesn’t seem quite as crowded with tourists in the off-season. That’s nice. But this will soon change, I’m sure, as Serbia prepares to enter the Schengen agreement nations. Ironically, Croatia, the better developed and more frequently touristed country, has not become a part of this pact.

Eastern European Rail Travel

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Traveling by train in Eastern Europe is unpleasant. At best. It’s slow. It’s inconvenient. It’s loud. It’s bumpy. Take the bus instead.

From Budapest to Zagreb I took the train. Meant to be a leisurely 5-6 hour affair, it was closer to eight. After the first hour we were 20 minutes late. I’m not sure how that’s possible.

And we spent about an hour on a bus, going between train stations. Apparently they were working on the track? So we boarded a pair of busses to go this distance. The one I rode on was a real throwback. I could imagine old Tito being proud of it, but since then it had definitely seen some hard times.

But the rail is still good for night trips when you want to nap. It’s cheaper and more comfortable than the bus for that. I was on a night train from Belgrade to Skopje and it was delayed approximately an hour. That gave me more time to sleep.

Again, it was a car that probably saw pretty heavy use under the Marshal’s mid to late term. It had a sink, but it was corroded, rusted and stained. The beds were uncomfortable and old. The sheets were so heavily starched they didn’t fold so much as stack like wood. But I got a night of sleep for less than the cost of a bus trip alone and less than the day train and a hostel.

I suppose the lesson here is that you should know when and whre to use the trains here. Only use them when you want a slow, leisurely stroll through the country. And a cabin that smells like smoke. And a thirty year old mattress.

Belgrade, Serbia

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Serbia and Croatia have many similarities. However, when I stepped off the bus from Zagreb to Belgrade, I walked into a stark contrast of what I’d left. The streets were dirty and the park directly across was dirtier. People lounged about outside with noplace to go and taxi drivers shouted out their services.

But don’t let this description turn you off. The railway and bus station are not entirely characteristic of the place as a whole. There are many nice places there and it’s very safe. Most of the parks have free Wifi, provided by Telenor. The main square and pedestrian shopping street is nice, as is the main street for restaurants.

As for getting around, it’s nearly impossible unless you know exactly where you’re going. Only about one-in-five streets is marked. Which is more than can be said for the numbering on the buildings. Some streets are just missing altogether, due to construction. And it doesn’t help that the signs are in Cyrillic but the maps are in Latin script.

But I can sound out the foreign type fairly well and still couldn’t find my way around. I looked for five hostels but only found two. And after meeting some guys we tried to find three different locations of the Black Turtle but were unsuccessful. One is tempted to give up because of the need to climb up and down hills to get everywhere. I’m guessing the town is under some kind of a curse from way back. I mean maybe not, but what other explanation could there be?

That being said, once you get to the main part of the city, it is very walkable and compact. The main street is completely pedestrianized and strolling around is easy. It begins at the Trg Republica and ends at the semi-restored Kalemegdan Fortress.

This ancient structure, some walls 15 meters thick, presides over the Sava and Danube Rivers. Surrounding the batlements is a nice park for strolling. Or you can have a seat and use the aforementioned free Wifi. There are several little stands selling inexpensive tourist merchandise as well. Just make sure to haggle a little. Sunset over the confluence is striking.

The hillside overlook afforded this area explains the importance of Belgrade to civilizations stretching back over a thousand years. Control of this point means controlling trade. And the strategic importance is only enhanced by the high vantage point overlooking the surrounding area. The view lets you see the incoming invaders and traders and strongly defend and attack, if need be.

The area around the old athletic complex on the southeast side of the city is a testament to the recent turbulent past. In 1999, NATO bombed the place for a couple of months. The scars are still visible in this area. The complex itself, carved out of the rock hill on one side, is now host to a couple of dreary cafes and clubs but not much else. And a building lies in ruins one one side. A memorial commemorates two who lost their lives in the campaign.

A day is all you’ll need to see most of the sights by foot. Stay longer if you want to visit any museums or enjoy the nightlife, said to be some of Eastern Europe’s nicest. There are plenty of sidewalk cafes which turn into bars after dark, as well as dance clubs. If you can find them.

One restaurant of note is the “?” restaurant, across from the cathedral. Service ranges from a step above hostility to mildly courteous. And you should be prepared to dispute extra charges (though not the 18% service fee). But it’s a landmark.

Built at the same time as the cathedral, of which it offers an up-close view, the church was unhappy about the proposed name so the ? was a temporary solution that has stuck. And the menu is similarly quixotic. Bowels. Entrails. Calf’s head in tripe. Hungry yet?

As Serbia prepares to enter the list of Schengen countries, travel here will become easier and the capital city will greatly benefit. In 5 years it will likely rival Zagreb in cost as well as cleanliness. Construction is going on in large sections of the city in anticipation of new visitors. See it now while it is still one of the best deals in Europe.