In the competition for most embattled cities, Belgrade may be the all-time champion. In its long history, it has been attacked or besieged well over a hundred times. It’s been razed to the ground, bombed to rubble, pillaged, and rebuilt scores of times. It has changed hands from one power to another every few decades for most of its existence—and its existence dates back to around 6000 BC. Until the modern age, this was primarily because of Belgrade’s strategic, but hard-to-defend, position at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers. Today, in the era of highways and airfreight, it may just be a bad habit.
For a short time during the Cold War, things were very good in Belgrade. The White City was the capitol of Yugoslavia, under the clever dictatorship of Tito. Tito managed to play both superpowers in a game of “Who Will Be My Best Friend?” With the inflow of “aid” generated by that strategy, Yugoslavia had full employment and Europe’s third most powerful military. The average citizen worked less than four hours per day, but could afford a car and a house and a good life.
Alas for Yugoslavia, Tito died, the USSR crumbled, and the US started asking, what am I getting out of this expensive friendship? Certain people started beating the drums of nationalism, and the Balkan states began breaking apart. And, hey, look guys! There’s this really big pile of weapons (third most powerful military and all that), just sitting here. Let’s see if we can put them to good use!
But I won’t go into that. Remember those few decades of incredible prosperity, when everyone could afford a house and a car? The modern city of Belgrade appears to be the love child of money and the Communist aesthetic. It sprawls over a huge area, a lot of it is really ugly, crappy concrete, and it’s throbbing with the roar of traffic.
I don’t mean to imply that you can’t get away from cars. There are pedestrian zones and huge, beautiful parks, and there are neighborhood streets that are as quiet and walkable as any residential district in a large city. There are spotty-but-beautiful remnants of medieval, renaissance, and empire architecture. And yet, these parks and pedestrian areas have the feeling of island game preserves desperately fending off the aggressive encroachment of an invasive species. Try to get from one of these zones to another, and you are faced with either a death march across a desert of concrete, or a series of daring dashes across wide, busy boulevards of speeding cars. Even when you can find crossings and traffic signals, drivers have little regard for rules or right-of-way.
Of course, if you were familiar with the city, you would just avoid those spots when walking, or more likely, you’d never walk anywhere. It’s only tourists, blundering around, who encounter these situations.
Karel and I planned to take another e-bike tour, but when we tried to get from one immense park down to the tour office on the river, we found ourselves on a narrow sidewalk along a busy conduit for trucks. On the other side of the sidewalk, a weedy jumble of overgrown shrubbery was pushing a chainlink fence down and blocking two-thirds of the path, leaving only a foot or two of walkway above the curb. Meanwhile, the trucks came speeding down in a constant stream, and they didn’t budge an inch to give hapless pedestrians a little breathing room. I couldn’t do it. I yelled to Karel at the top of my lungs to turn back, but he couldn’t hear me over the noise of the trucks.
In the end, we found another way to the river, only to discover that the instructions on the website were incorrect; the bike shop was there, but the tour began from somewhere else, and we couldn’t get there in time. We scaled down our plans and took a self-guided walking tour through some of the older, quieter parts of the city. We found our way to the Tesla Museum just in time for the last presentation, in English, of some of the inventor’s remarkable devices.