Saturday 2 August 2014

Fears fade away

I've travelled a lot around Europe.  But up until now everywhere has been into the known.

If it’s not been an EU state it’s been Norway, Iceland or Switzerland, which are highly likely to be top answers in a quiz “name three countries you’d describe as safe”.

The only other exit from EU/EFTA has been to Dubrovnik in Croatia, and that’s always been such a holiday resort that I didn't bat an eyelid with that.

But Serbia, the mystic point where Central Europe becomes Eastern Europe.  Through so much of my late teens held up as the modern day bad guy of Europe – so bad we went to war with them, well a massively one-sided war where we dropped bombs on their key cities.  This is the point in Europe where even the alphabet changes - where Z becomes 3 and N becomes H.

So it was with some trepidation last September that I booked three nights in a hotel in Belgrade.  How would I cope with a completely different alphabet and more importantly, how do Brits go down in a country that we helped to damage so badly just 15 years ago.

Then there was also the delicate situation that I’d managed, through my own fault, to put myself in – I was aiming to come to Serbia direct from Croatia, two countries that it’s fair to say have a slightly fractious relationship.

In the end, the weather helped to solve the issue of entry into the country.  With such bad flooding during the spring in Serbia, which at one point looked like it might overwhelm Belgrade itself, I decided that the direct train route was a bit of a risk as services kept getting cancelled as lines were damaged.  Yes, everything would probably have been fine by late July, but I didn't want to risk that.

So instead I opted to fly, at which point it becomes clear how good the relationship between Zagreb and Belgrade is – there are no direct flights, not even from low cost or other countries carriers – so instead I was forced to go on a massive diversion and go via Dubrovnik.  However, this did mean that whilst I would still be arriving into Belgrade from Croatia, I would be doing it from almost on the Montenegrin border and, more importantly, I’d be doing it on Air Serbia.

Arriving into Belgrade it was pretty obvious that this was a major international airport as everything was in English, but more importantly everything was in two versions of Serbian – the Cyrillic and the Latin.  Suddenly things started to make sense, that jumble of characters Београд did actually spell Beograd, maybe it wasn't going to be so difficult to get around.

However, the clearest sign that I’d need never have worried was in every interaction I had with a Serbian – from the border guard to waiters to random strangers – a few faltering attempts at Serbian always led to near perfect “Can I just practice my English, as I don’t think it’s particularly good at the moment” and the rest of the conversation in perfect English.

On the first evening I was having a wander around the Belgrade Fortress, close to sunset and on a couple of occasions got talking to local people.  Hesitantly I would say I was from London, expecting a negative response back about what we did to them – but every time people's reaction was happiness that another Brit had made it to Serbia, that the country was slowly winning back tourists from the west and that the bad days were behind us all – after all, hadn't we both fought together as comrades during the worst years of the 20th Century.

It probably helps that it is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War (and if asked the question by a Serbian I've found “The Kaiser and the Hapsburg's were spoiling for a fight and any excuse would have been used” is the best answer to who’s responsible for starting the war) had brought back into focus the alliances that were forged across Europe in those dark days, alliances that on the whole remained the same 21 years later when it all erupted again and are probably easier to look to than the darker days of the recent past.

Yes, the scars that NATO members inflicted on Belgrade and other Serbian cities are still there to see – entire blocks in the centre of Belgrade still left in the state they were after the bombs fell – But, and it’s a big but, Serbia has moved on.

The centre of Belgrade is, in places, still a bit shabby – but then the same can be said for any city that had to be rebuilt in the 1950’s.  But there is still clearly grandeur there – from the Fortress on its hill overlooking the Danube and Sava rivers merging, to the Parliament and the newly restored turn of the 20th century buildings across the city.

I left Zagreb apprehensive about where I was heading.  I left Belgrade wanting to stay longer and visit more of this amazing country.

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