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New Europe

Day Sixty-six: Belgrade

Belgrade 
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Is it a car? Is it a boat? Belgrade's finest take time to make up their minds.
Michael Palin - New EuropeAnother piece of history is the magnificent Packard, registration number Yugoslavia 1, in which the Russian leader Khrushchev rode on his first visit to Belgrade in 1955. Interesting, points out Braca, that, despite the Cold War, the leader of the communist world always preferred American cars.

It's not often you get a city tour in an amphibious car, but, on our way to the river, Braca laid one on for me. No-one seemed to bat an eyelid as we chugged through Republic Square, past the National Theatre, the National Museum and a statue of Prince Michael Obrenovic III, who is seen as the great liberator of Serbia from the Turks in the nineteenth century. We rattled, at a steady 25 miles an hour, along by the impressive walls of the Kalemegdan Castle, started by the Romans and added to over the years by Turks, French and Hungarians, which guards the junction of the Sava and the Danube. Until 1918 the tree-fringed banks of the land called Vojvodina, on the far side of the Danube, were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In the great dismemberment of that empire that followed the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, Transylvania was given to Romania, and Vojvodina to the newly emerging Yugoslavia.

Because of its exposed position, on the edge of Europe's north-south, east-west divide, Belgrade has been constantly fought over. This Lazarus among cities has been destroyed some twenty times and always sprung back to life. In virtually my own lifetime, the Nazis devastated the city, it was fought over by Germans and Russians in 1944, and bombed by the Americans and British in 1999.

Braca, whilst no apologist for Milosevic, reveals a rare animation when I ask him about the Balkan wars of the 1990s, in which the Serbs are generally portrayed as the villains.

It was a political and religious war, he says, with all sides culpable, and surprises me by saying that despite the much headlined animosity of the Serbs towards the Muslims, there is a Muslim community of some many thousands in Belgrade. Thousands of Turkish words survive from the Ottoman occupation, some of them for basics like bread and soup.

Above the roar of passing traffic I ask him about life in the city during the Allied bombings in 1999. Was the city brought to a standstill?

'Oh yes,' he smiles, swerving to avoid a bus. 'We have no vehicles. Very pleasant.'

With less of a smile he tells me that our boys hit a television building only a hundred yards from his house.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-six: Belgrade
  • Country/sea: Serbia
  • Place: Belgrade
  • Book page no: 161

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