Although it was technically in Budapest’s Keleti train station, it was thanks to Serbia’s Belgrade that I learned two crucial rules of backpacking. If you’re going to buy a ticket, which will save you money, be at the train station at least two hours early and don’t assume there will be space available. The luxury of a ticket is not a necessity, but if you do have to circumvent the normal procedure, keep plenty of hard currency on you. The markets may be bolting, but from the Czech Republic, where off-licenses offer currency exchanges to Montenegro, a non-Eurozone user of the Euro, the € is still good money.
Like everywhere, Belgrade operates according to certain rules. It just so happens that those rules are less apparent than elsewhere. Belgrade is a city of McDonalds and modern commercial blocks, but also buildings in an advanced state of collapse. Are they left as a reproach to Western visitors, reminding them that NATO bombed this City heavily? Discount supermarkets sit next to Burberry. Is the latter sustained by a rich segment of this formerly communist nation, or by a mafia? The largest Orthodox Cathedral in the world is still being constructed nearly eighty years after works commenced at one end of the main boulevard, just before one reaches Tito’s monument. Will it be used or is it merely a way of reflecting Serbia’s historical sense of its own importance.
Serbia, so like Russia in many ways, used to see itself at the head of a pan-Slavic movement. When Yugoslavia collapsed after the declarations of independence by Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (roughly in that order), the messianic zeal and lust for power of Slobodan Milosevic and his Rat Pack sought to monopolise the use of force not only to hold that historic state from disintegration, but to ethnically cleanse diverse populations.
How Serbia reached the conclusion that this was its historic mission, little about Belgrade can tell you. The City is a curious mix of grandiose and typically European architecture, particularly in its government buildings, and the flirtatiousness of youth. People flock here from all over the continent for EXIT or gypsy-music festivals and clubbing, while racket-sporting prankster Novak Djokovic is not untypical of the openness and friendliness one can easily find here. Unusually for this part of Europe, Belgrade has a Museum of Roma Culture, even if it had rather stereotypically moved from its advertised location.
For a few years, Serbia has appeared to be on a steady track leading away from the tragedy that was the 1990s and towards EU Candidate Status. The election of Tomislav Nikolić has led to a hardening of positions over Kosovo, putting this process in peril, although it is also clear that the EU is not currently the draw it once was due to events in Greece and Hungary. Why should Serbia not settle for a lower profile amongst a Europe of integrated states? The same question has been asked constantly of Britain and of Ukraine but we are still far from an answer.