When you visit a place as a so-called ‘foreigner’, a tourist, if you may, don’t you wish you could just stay there? Typical grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome. You come across a majestic monument, or a quaint street, and you think, how pretty, imagine if I lived here. If you lived here, would you appreciate the antiquity of the gargoyles that look luminously down upon you? Would you stop to listen to the tune of the dancing fountains? And there lies the challenge. Think about your home town. Your city. That’s a part of your ordinary life, each day. Visit your city – as a tourist. Sling a camera around your neck, place an obnoxiously large sun-hat on your head and visit the monuments that define your version of home. Now, reverse the process. What if you were actually a tourist, but you were following a loose framework of a routine, in a city you’d be spending 6 weeks in? You had to wake up at a certain time daily, but you weren’t going to be there forever. You took the same bus every day, but the people around you spoke a language you aren’t even faintly acquainted with. That best describes my experience as an exchange student in the capital city of Serbia, Belgrade.
My Serbian experience was an almost tangible entity, an almost materialised illusion. The big white stone monuments can be touched, not just marvelled at. The blue skies are a feeling, not just a filter. The cobbled roads do give way to regular concrete pavements. Like a movie that you can play a role in, like a painting where you can smell the roses. And you can go back to your favourite scene how ever many times you want. That’s exactly what I did with Knez Mihailova, the main street at the centre of the older part of Belgrade. And then I realised – the buskers on the street are almost never the same. It depends on who decides they’ve got the free time to practice their instrument out on the streets today. A smart way to make a quick buck, in my opinion. A pedestrian-only zone, huge glass-fronted shops line each side, integrated into ornate building faces. A blend of different languages floats out of the al fresco cafes that branch out from the main artery, where tourists and locals alike soak in the revelry. All leading up to one of the main attractions that Belgrade, as a city, has to offer. Kalemegdan. A fortress, built during the time of the Ottomans, blocks of brown stone that turn a shade of mauve in the setting sun. Inside the fortress walls lie multiple meadows of grass, wooden benches, playgrounds, restaurants, and an overall feeling of merriment. Pobednik, the iconic statue on a tall pedestal in the ramparts of the fortress, looks out over the River Sava, seemingly saying, how far can you see from down there? A little cast iron pavilion that looks like it belongs in ‘The Sound of Music’. A group of old men crowded around a chess table, all staring pensively into the inlaid stone board. And this park culture is delightfully spread out at frequent intervals across the city. Pigeons waddling around, that don’t seem to be afraid of anything, aimlessly pecking at the ground. Dogs, breeds of which I’ve only seen in movies, chasing each other across the paths, generally up to their own antics. Children and adults whizzing past on bicycles, or zooming past on motorised scooters. Sit on a bench, munch on a pizza, and watch the world go by. And just like that, you’re a part of the landscape.
As a city, Belgrade is strategically located at the confluence of the River Sava, and the River Danube, two of Europe’s major waterways. This makes way for plenty of leisurely walks down the riverside, the hub of summer activity that is Ada Ciganlija, and the skyline of the city looking even more impressive at night. However, the water also works as an informal boundary of sorts. As you rumble over the bridge in a tram or a bus, the atmosphere of the city transforms on itself. Now, you’re in New Belgrade, or Novi Beograd. The antiquated structures, domes of historical importance and looming statues are behind you. Gleaming with modernity and well-planned for domestic leisure, this side of town has everything you need to live comfortably in the twenty-first century.
Another attraction that Belgrade is synonymous with, is the Avala Tower. This structure, controversially known for its own destruction, is situated a little outside city limits, on top of a hill, which, if you’re young and have the energy to spare, you trek up, or if you’re smart, you figure out that there’s a bus to the top before you do so (read: You can count on the fact that I wasn’t smart). Irrespective of how you get there though, the bird’s eye view that you get from the viewing platform of the tower, of the Serbian countryside, of the LEGO-like houses and toy buses, of the city of Belgrade, makes you realise just how small we humans are for the impact we make on the world.
One thing that I cannot leave out of this account of the ‘White City’, is the food. Traditional Serbian food involves an enormous amount of meat, lamb, pork and beef usually clumped as one, chicken being demarcated as different. To the taste bud that wants to experience authentic food, they may find the meat in a stew, or as a gravy. But to the taste bud that speaks out of practicality (and an economic necessity), the meat is found sizzling away on a grill, and then crammed into a huge piece of bread, called lepinja (‘lay’-‘pin’-‘ya’), with a choice of sauce and vegetables. The most common form this takes is ‘Plejskavica’ (‘pley’-‘tska’-‘vee’-‘tsa’), the Serbian resemblance of a burger. Grills at stomach-convenient places across the city waft smoke across the pavement, enticing you to try the meat in a patty or a cevapi (a sausage, ‘chey’-‘va’-‘pee’). Another meal that made me a local in this city miles from home, is pizza. But not just pizza. Pizza with a salad with a thick mayonnaise base slathered on top of it. A topping on toppings. The typical bread-based build-up of Western cuisine shining through.
One thing I realised while staying in this city as a tourist, but for a longer period than a tourist, is that you will never run out of things to experience, monuments to see or cuisine to try. Belgrade still whispers to me, we’re not done yet. You still have to visit the St. Sava Temple, and the Garos Tower, and rent a bicycle yourself, and visit the Nikola Tesla Museum, and ride a random bus to the very last stop. But, hey, I still have some time to be a non-tourist in a foreign city. And I’m sure that as I go along, more layers of this dynamic city will peel back to reveal experiences and places that only ever show themselves to the local, even if they’re pretending to be one for a small period of time.
Written by Mahia Desylva for MTTN
Featured image: Yashovardhan Parekh