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New Europe

Day Sixty-six: Belgrade

The Danube 
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Motoring down the Danube. Braca Petrovic shows me that his amphibious Porsche can still cut the mustard.
Michael Palin - New EuropeI'm approaching the waters of the Danube in a car that's virtually the same age as me. Alongside me, driving, is Braca Petrovic, born in Belgrade in 1948, an intense, undemonstrative man with short greying hair. I look a little anxiously towards him because, though we're now a matter of feet from the grey-green waters of the river, he's not stopping. Nor is he going to stop. There's no time to say anything as Braca purses his lips, tightens his grip on the steering wheel and drives into the Danube. Water swirls higher and higher around the car. Braca looks wonderfully relieved, takes a right turn and strikes out for the far bank.

Fortunately the car we're in was meant to do this. It was designed to do it by no less a figure than Ferdinand Porsche, for the German invasion of Russia in 1941. Using a rear propeller worked by the driveshaft and capable of doing some 8 miles per hour through the water and 50 miles per hour on land, the Schwimmwagen, as they were known, were to be used in the crossing of the Volga, the only European river longer than the one we're in at the moment. They were vulnerable. Fifteen thousand were made, but they suffered heavy casualties, including 200 sunk at Stalingrad alone. This particular model, a four-seater, open-topped, bottle-green jeeplet, was raised from the Volga, painted with a red star and driven back to the Danube by the Russian army in 1944.

Braca acquired it, restored it and is very proud that it's the only one that can still be driven on land and in the water.

What's more, when we drive out of the Danube there is not a bead of moisture anywhere inside the vehicle.

Braca seems very Serbian in his curiosity and enthusiasm for all things mechanical. It's only as the day goes on that I find out that he's also Serbian in his industriousness, running the family café and catering business, a puppet theatre and dabbling in stage production as well.

I met up with him first thing this morning at an old garage opposite a police station in a backstreet of central Belgrade. Almost shyly, Braca took me round his eclectic collection of automobilia, ranging from a 1949 Ford Prefect to an 1897 Marot Gordon with a De Dion Bouton single-cylinder engine, and from a Fiat 'Jolly', a 500 converted by Ghia into a beach buggy with plastic seats, open sides and a tent-like canopy, to a magnificent 1929 tourer, made by Skoda.

He likes cars with a story attached and is especially proud of a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 called 'The Adenauer', after Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor synonymous with the reconstruction of Germany after the war.

'With this car,' says Braca, 'the Germans told the rest of the world, "we are back".'
In case I thought he might be taking himself too seriously, he points out the two dummies in the car. One is Tito, sitting in splendour in the back. The other, driving, is Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's one-time President who died in his cell at The Hague in March 2006, after his conviction for war crimes.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-six: Belgrade
  • Country/sea: Serbia
  • Place: Belgrade
  • Book page no: 160

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