So, Serbia. The bay boy of the Balkans. The country everyone wants to blame. Russia's little friend in the region. Nationalists, bullies, etc etc etc. Well, it hasn't quite worked out like that ( surprise, surprise).
Belgrade was full of young, trendy types living it up. People just being people and trying to get along with life.
What did surprise me was the lack of tourist sites to see in the capital. Belgrade has a long history but much of that history has been turbulent and not much of the past has survived. The main citadel has witnessed something like 115 battles in its time! So I went on a walking tour but there weren't really any iconic buildings to photograph. The National Museum was closed and covered in scaffolding. It has been that way for 12 years!
I did learn a lot though ( which was the main point after all)
Walking tour of Belgrade, in English.
People from France, Russia, Mexico, Spain, Australia and Italy.
1. Serbians drink a lot.
2. They have a dark sense of humour, which has probably served them well in recent times.
3. They like Russia.
4. The average monthly salary in Belgrade is €300.
5. There is now only one mosque left in Belgrade. ( Quite a contrast to Sarajevo)
6. The Serbian language uses both Latin (Roman) and Cyrillic alphabets. This was interesting. Even though Croats, Serb and Bosnians essentially share a language Serbia uses both alphabets. It's still taught that way in schools.
7. Because he offered stability, jobs for all and a stable economy Tito is still respected in Serbia.
8. My guide was quite knowledgable on Serbian history but skipped over the Bosnian war of the 90s.
9. She talked about the NATO air strike on Belgrade (1999) but didn't mention why it had happened. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at this but I was hoping for the 'Serbian side of the story' having been to Sarajevo. I didn't really get it.
Talking of not getting it, what has been come clear is that the whole 'Balkan question' makes the Middle East look simple.
Gavrilo Princip is very popular here!
Highlight of the day? I saw a bloke with t-shirt that read 'Go fuck your selfie'
Next day I headed for Nis ( pronounced Neesh) but stopped off first at a castle. No trip is complete without a castle visit and Smederevo didn't disappoint. Situated next to the Danube, 25 miles downstream from Belgrade, Smederevo was built in the 15th Century. The faded display board told me that this was the 'last bastion against Ottoman invasion'. Serbia never seems to miss a chance to tell me it's an Orthodox Christian country in the front line against those Muslim invaders.
Once the temporary capital of Serbia this huge fortress, supposedly. one of the largest city fortresses in Europe in fact, originally had 25 towers around it. As you can see from the photos, most are now crumbling, some alarmingly so!
The fortress survived hundreds of years of battles between the Ottomans and Christians but didn't do so well in the Second World War. The Nazis used it for ammunitions storage and in 1941 an accident caused a massive explosion. The explosion destroyed the railway station next door and, apparently, much of the city. Around 2,500 people died!
I think you often tell how wealthy a country is by how much money they have to spend on their national treasures. Smederevo is certainly important to Serbia and there was some construction work going on but the place also looked scruffy and neglected and was covered in graffiti. Shame.
Then on to Nis in southern Sebia, my last stop before Bulgaria.
Nis is the home town of Emperor Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor in the 4th Century, famous for adopting Christainity. He built a Palace which I went to see but unfortunately it was closed. This is as close as I got.
But I did see this.
Nis's most famous tourist site is the fortress. Originally built by the Romans the current one was constructed by the Ottomans in the 18th Century.
The main Stambuli gate, which leads out towards Istanbul.
I like the fact that inside it's just a huge park littered with archeological delights.
Nis was under Turkish rule from the 14th to 19th Century and my next stop was the 'Tower of Skulls'!
With Serbian defeat imminent in the 1809 Battle of Cegar, the Duke of Resava kamikazeed towards the Turkish defences firing at the gunpowder stores. He killed himself, 4,000 of his men and 10,000 Turks! The Turks triumphed regardless and took revenge. They beheaded, scalped and embedded the skulls of the dead Serbs in this tower. ( Their actual heads were stuffed with cotton and sent to Constantinople) only 58 of the original 952 skulls remain and it now stands as a proud monument to Sebian rebellion. The exact opposite of what had been intended.
Next stop, Bulgaria and Graham Field's house warming party!
Moving into the 20th Century things don't get any better for Nis. In 1941 Nazi Germany occupied Serbia and set up a Concentration Camp ( Mainly for Jews, Roma and resistance fighters) in Nis. It still stands.
Young, lively, friendly, forward thinking. Confused about it's recent past. Slightly miffed with its neighbours perhaps.
Cheap and cheerful. Summed up for me by this photo.
Serbia is set up for tourists, there just aren't many!