Today we went to Zemun, one of Belgrade’s most enchanting suburbs. Now incorporated into the Belgrade municipality, Zemun used to be a frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire looking across the Danube at Belgrade and the Ottoman Empire. With its narrow, winding cobblestone streets, Germanic churches, and many peaked roofs, the suburb feels much more western European than any other part of Serbia I have seen so far.
To get there we took a city bus. My first experience with public transportation here (I have walked everywhere), I learned a few important things. 1) Always buy your tickets from a street-side kiosk. There a ticket will cost you 42 dinar while buying a ticket from the driver will run you double: 84 dinar. 2) Tickets are really on an honors system. The driver will not check your tickets. Rather you must put your own ticket through a hole punch situated 2 meters behind the driver. 3) If you are a dishonest person, rule (1) does not apply. I opted for the honest way out and really, 42 dinar is less than 1 USD. You can afford it.
Our first stop off the bus was at a little cafe overlooking the Danube. We would not have found this spot if it were not for the hospitality of one Zemun resident across from whom we happened to be sitting on the bus. He took a good 5 minutes to lead us from the main street where we got off to the cafe. I will repeat: Serbian hospitality is legendary. After sipping some coffee, taking in the view, and snapping a few pictures, we hiked up the road to Gardoš Tower (pictured above). Built in 1896 to mark the 1000 anniversary of the Hungarian Empire, it is a pretty impressive structure although noticeably dilapidated. The guidebook warned that the base would be covered in graffiti, which it thankfully was not, but that it would offer a stunning view of the city. On the second count, it was right on. From that vantage point you can almost believe that Belgrade was appropriately named (Beo = white + Grad = city). You can also immediately notice the contrast between the Austrian architecture of Zemun, the communist era starkness of Novi Beograd, and the Byzantine/Ottoman character of Stari (Old) Beograd.
From here, we went down the hill on a steep pedestrian path that wound its way between residential backyards and intimate alleyways and side streets. While walking, we came across quite a few friendly locals who snapped some photos for us and lots and lots of fruit trees. Following my experience in Caglavica, it seems that everyone is growing fruit. First we found yellow plums, then red plums, then apples, then chestnuts, all ripe and tasty. No one seemed to mind us picking the low-hanging fruit.
After a few hours of wandering Zemun, we took the bus back to the city center. Getting off just past Branko’s Bridge, we found yet another outdoor market. Unlike the farmers’ markets you often visit in the United States, here the fruit is actually cheaper than the grocery store as well as more fresh. We purchased half a kilo of sour cherries (probably a bit too much) and some mulberries (which we mistook for blackberries) and I found a nice satchel bag to replace a badly tattered one I brought with me from the States. Next we planned to visit the synagogue, but stopped along the way at a “national restaurant” for a late lunch. Here we enjoyed outdoor seating, the local brews, and again had excellent fish dishes. Another black mark against Lonely Planet’s culinary advice. As we were finishing lunch, it started to rain. While the waiters ran around like crazy trying to put away the umbrellas, tables, and chairs, we were hustled to the street-side awning to watch the fantastic downpour. We must have stood there for a good hour; the water streaming down the street was at least 4 inches deep, we were without an umbrella, and did not feel like getting even more soaked.
When the rain finally stopped, we decided to can our plans to go to shul, and walked back to our hotel. After cleaning up and changing out of our wet things, I went to Trg Republike to meet one of the Glas Yuga journalists who was in town for the week for a beer. Demonstrating again the benefits of local knowledge, he took me to an unassuming cafana off one of the major streets where we enjoyed a locally brewed dark lager (Dad, you would have been so proud), caught up from the past week, and chatted politics. He was also able to suggest a few more contacts for me here in Belgrade, and if I make it so far, in Republika Srpska and Montenegro (that’s Crna Gora in Srpski).
I also had the pleasure of meeting one of his friends from Montenegro who proudly insisted he was more Serb than the Serbs from Serbia. As Montenegro has emerged as an independent republic, this problem of national identity has become a real issue. While Montenegrans used to declare that all Montenegrans were Serb but not all Serbs were Montenegran, now there is an effort to forge an identity entirely separate from their eastern cousins. Some in Montenegro believe there are real ethnic differences between the two (and the histories of Montenegro and Northern Serbia have been distinct although highly intertwined). But it is the belief of many Serbs that the split has more to do with the political ambitions of Montenegro’s ruling elite than a real ethic schism between the two countries.
Next I went back to Knez Mihailova to check my email at a free internet kiosk and then to meet Lina at Trg Republike for a light dinner. After a very full day, we were happy to eat and crash. Tomorrow we hope to take one more day to see the sights in Belgrade before taking a quick trip north to visit Novi Sad in Vojvodina. Stay tuned.