A Serbian Travelogue

By Srdja Trifkovic
Saturday, 14 Aug 2010

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An English romantic poet has said that we should not revisit the haunts of our youth, and that we should be especially careful in avoiding those that elicit sweet memories. Being on the wrong side of fifty, sipping my morning espresso in Belgrade's Knez Mihajlova street, I realize how wrong he was: as we near the end, we increasingly cherish the sights, smells, sounds, and memories of many decades ago.

Our passions are never more genuine than we are young, our taste buds never more responsive, our hearts never more tender. The minds grow presumably wiser, but the wise know that the mind is the least reliable part of who we are.

The setting of all that early turmoil marks us for life, and I was fortunate that mine was provided by an ancient city at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube that refuses to succumb to its rulers and defies its destroyers. Belgrade is ruled by a coterie of thieves and traitors today. Before they came it was ruled by Josip Broz Tito – an inveterate Comintern agent of uncertain Hapsburg parentage – and his successors for five long decades. It was bombed by the Turks in 1867, by Austria-Hungary in 1914, by the Luftwaffe in 1941, by the USAF and the RAF in 1944, and again in 1999. Its ability to remain itself is miraculous, and heartening to all upholders of real communities and sturdy traditions.

Its charm eludes depiction. It is not the architecture: Prague is more stunning, Budapest more Panonian, Istanbul more oriental. Some travel writers plunge into platitudes, describing Belgrade as being on the border between counterpoised worlds, Eastern and Western, Northern and Southern, Orthodox and Catholic, Christian and Muslim, Balkan and Central European, etc, etc… but they miss the point of the city’s focus on good life, rather than stones, bricks, or "self-definition." They seek to untangle the “meanings” and they miss the substance of just about the last metropolis in Europe that refuses to be multiculturalized and Americanized.

A few perceptive outsiders get it perfectly. They grasp that Belgrade is not about architecture, or imagined cultural contexts, but about some good people and about the way they live. Belgrade’s skyline is underwhelming but its cuisine is heavenly. Its facades are grimy but its girls are lovely. Rebecca West, writing almost seven decades ago, remembered “too large a lunch as is apt to be one’s habit in Belgrade, if one is man enough to stand up to peasant food made luxurious by urban lavishness of supply and a Turkish tradition of subtle and positive flavor.” Three generations later the soups, stews, and meats are just as good. My late friend Eve-Ann Prentice, the former Times of London Belgrade correspondent, wrote seven years ago that “most people grimace or laugh scornfully when I suggest that Serbia is great for a holiday”:

Surely it is still full of war criminals, a place of dark deeds, mafiosi and communist-style backwardness? Sitting in the Dacha restaurant in Belgrade, surrounded by Serbian folklore icons and wall-hangings, eating and drinking some of the purest organically produced food and drink available on the planet, it is tempting to believe I am having the last laugh… No GM or processed food here; economic necessity means that almost everything is home-grown – and it tastes that way. With a penchant for locally smoked ham, grilled meat, stuffed vegetables, specialist breads, salads, pickles and soft Kajmak cheese, most Serbs eat enormous amounts and yet stay enviably slender.

It is past midnight, and if you are weary of after-hours jazz, or in no mood for a dose of home-grown Chieftains sound-alikes known as “Orthodox Celts,” you are old – or you may be just jet-lagged and ready to take a tour of the Old City starting at 3 a.m. It is perfectly safe: there have been over a hundred unresolved murders here over the past two decades, but only a few victims have been innocent bystanders to the many mafia hits. Random muggings are unheard-of, which may change if and when Serbia joins the European Union and is forced to adopt its immigration and asylum laws, with all the attendant blessings of multiracial diversity. In the meantime you are safe to venture out at any time of day and night.

The early-dawn life consists of courteous, apparently sober young people drinking espressos and beer in street cafes near the Cathedral, or next to the Prince Michael Street. There’s the obligatory cigarette smoke and quiet conversation everywhere, people having a good time without having an attitude. These are the veterans of the night before, the insomniac remnant of the routine which – regardless of whether it’s weekend or not – entails going out and meeting friends, and having “a good time.” Here this simply means being alive, explains Ms. Prentice:

Spectacularly beautiful young women who look as if they have stepped from the fashion pages of Cosmopolitan, students, young men in sports clothes, musicians and writers link arms in camaraderie as they wander the cobbled streets of the nineteenth-century Skadarlija Bohemian quarter, the pedestrianised Knez Mihailova Street teeming with luxury shops or Republic Square with its dozens of pavement cafes. Most Serbs go out for the evening after 10 pm and most nightspots are open until at least 2 am - yet there is rarely any sign of drunkenness or offensive behaviour… Last winter I slipped on ice in an unlit back street in Belgrade at gone two in the morning. Most Serbs can spot a foreigner a mile off (and know we are Croesus-rich by comparison), so I was unnerved when several huge, crew-cut young men emerged from the shadows and rushed towards me. I needn’t have worried - they were solicitude personified, lifting me to my feet and ensuring I was not hurt. Far from snatching my handbag, they carefully picked the bag and its scattered contents from the pavement and handed it back to me.

Belgrade is the ideal destination for those who are at home among the real locals who refuse to be multiculturalized, rather than the gaudy paid performers; but it will cease to be so if it becomes too "cool."

To stop the squeamish, here are the negatives. There are few fast-food joints as Americans know them. Their local real-meat, real-taste competitors are flourishing. Imported wine, Scotch whisky, bourbon and cognac are expensive. You have to settle for the Serbian, Macedonian and Montenegrin reds and whites, poor you. As for the spirits, five bucks will buy you a bottle of superb plum brandy, sliwowitz, or one of the related rakijas (quince, pear, apricot). They provide the obligatory Serbian eye-opener with your morning Turkish coffee. Rakija gives you a bad hangover if you are careless. It is curable with a shot first thing in the morning, if you are not. And forget the cholesterol count...

Belgrade is not for a Yuppie seeking a Western-standard “city break.” “It is a bit like going on a hen or stag party weekend to Dublin with an extra dash of zaniness thrown in,” says Ms. Prentice, and she knew both cities.

Life is good in Belgrade, unless you belong to one of its many inhabitants eking out a living on a pension or salary of four hundred dollars a month or less, and with many prices not much below those at your local WalMart. Even poverty is tolerable in good company, however. On a steamy summer night you may decide to stay at home but you are likely to end up hosting an impromptu party for unannounced friends and family. Such nocturnal happenings, with dzezva-fulls of strong coffee, bluish tobacco smoke, and a bottle or two of domaća, are commonplace at all social levels.

Saturday afternoon, Aug. 14 - Drove down to Guča (Goocha), a small, neat market town of three thousand in central Serbia, situated amidst the rolling hills, pastures and orchards. The landscape is reminiscent of central Pennsylvania or the Carinthian foothills. It has a main street with cafes, shops, a few banks and a municipal office. It has a neo-Baroque church with two marble plaques bearing the names of hundreds of local boys and men killed in the Great War. It also has a farmers’ market – and the central square dominated by the larger-than-life bronze figure of a man in traditional Serbian peasant attire blowing a trumpet.

The trumpet makes Guča different from every other place in Serbia, or anywhere in the world.

Once a year, starting today this year, this sedate place undergoes a massive transformation. Its church yard and playing fields are invaded by huge catering tents, its sidewalks are taken over by beer and barbequed meat vendors, and every remaining square foot of its space is taken over by up to three hundred thousand celebrants of Serbia’s traditional brass band music. As a New York Times reporter put it a decade ago, “If you thought ‘wild celebration’ and ‘brass band music’ sounded like a contradiction in terms, think again. Brass band music, Serbian style, is often a trumpet-driven high-energy explosion, prompting frenzied dancing on tables.” The standard routine is to go from one tent to another and listen to different bands, to eat the famed Wedding Feast Cabbage (sauerkraut, smoked pork and lamb slow-cooked on charcoals in massive earthen pots), and to have a few steiners of fresh, unpasteurized beer along the way. Unlike the best performances at normal music festivals, here they take place offstage, as bands work the crowd. Several dozen-men brass orchestras play different tunes simultaneously, within twenty yards from each other, competing for attention and tips. Banknotes are stuffed into their instruments, and some ostentatious revelers will part with a few coveted hundred-euro bills to be musically accompanied to their cars or hotel rooms.

The feast of eating, drinking and dancing is crowned each night with a massive kolo of youngsters in the central square, around the statue. The trumpets have understated patriotic credentials: they were introduced to Serbia in 1804, during Black George (Karadjordje) Petrović’s uprising against the Turks, and have taken root as a defiantly domestic instrument in time of adversity and joy alike. “Where else can you see sex bombs, punk-rockers, shepherds and politicians dancing hand in hand as if they had known each other for ages?” asked a Frenchman who made the three-hour drive from Belgrade for the weekend.Go and download Emir Kusturica’s “Underground,” or “Time of the Gypsies.” Listen to that haunting, frantic, sublime sound of horns and trumpets, and you’ll understand. Listen and imagine two-dozen such bands competing for the coveted “Golden Trumpet” award, or playing simultaneously in adjoining impromptu restaurants. It is insane, intoxicating, defiant, and wonderful.