Belgrade, Serbia

Last year, Rosamond received a grant from the NIH to run a program in research ethics for the Balkan and Black Sea countries. The structure of the program involves intensive course work (9 am to 4 pm) for two weeks, followed by a year of online courses, and then a final week of on-site course work. So we went to Belgrade.

The teaching faculty was Dan, Henry, Nada (a native Serbian), and Rosamond from Mt. Sinai Medical School, and then an assortment of doctors and professors from Balkan medical schools. Nada stayed with her mother, but the rest of us, including Henry’s wife, Jill, rented apartments in a building across the street from the St. Seva cathedral. It was only after a day or two that we realized that the façade of our building looked like it was slated for demolition, but the apartments had been recently renovated and even came with bottles of Scotch and gin and assorted liquors left by previous renters.

We flew from Paris to Belgrade on Saturday, and on Sunday we hired two drivers to take us to Zemun, an old and almost quaint district across the river from Belgrade. The Ottoman Empire’s incursion into Europe was stopped at Belgrade, so they didn’t make it across the Danube to Zemun. We walked up cobblestone streets to a tower on top of a hill that offered a panorama of the town and the Danube River and Belgrade in the distance. Most of the houses had red tile roofs, and in that regard it looked like rural Italy. But the houses themselves, simple structures with stucco siding, had little character. A variety of brightly colored walls provided the main interest. A week later, during a drive in the country, we noticed that the villages we went through also had none of the charm one finds in European villages. We concluded that it was because the houses were built of wood instead of stone or brick and therefore didn’t last very long. Most of the buildings in the villages and in Zemun itself seemed no more than fifty or sixty years old. Still, it was a pleasant day, and we had a good lunch of perch and white wine in an open air restaurant by the river.

On Monday morning Dan, Henry, and Rosamond walked to the medical school to begin teaching. They had eight students, seven of them women, and all of them doctors or people with advanced degrees. Prior to coming to Serbia, Rosamond had interviewed them via Skype to insure that they were competent in English. As it turned out, the courses were lively affairs with a lot of discussion on top of the lectures.

My foot still wasn’t very happy (see Paris post), so I spent most of the day in the apartment reading and writing. After Rosamond left, I did go out looking for breakfast. Breakfast in Belgrade cafes, I found, consisted of coffee. I managed to supplement this with something they called apple pie that was more like a cake with a layer of apples in it. I had envisioned making coffee in the apartment as I had in Paris, but the kitchen didn’t come with a coffee maker. I subsequently searched in the neighborhood for an inexpensive press pot or something similar and could only find an expensive Braun machine. So much for coffee to fuel my writing sessions.

In the evenings the five of us walked to one restaurant or another. There was quite a variety and most of them very good. The reasonable prices after Paris were also appreciated, given that we were in Belgrade for two weeks. One restaurant that we favored had a large outside area under a big plain tree, and the waiter was always happy to see us, both to practice his English and because there were usually not many customers. Actually, most of the restaurants we chose offered large umbrellas outside.

I hobbled out a few times. In my search for a coffee maker I went to a large open air market. In addition to the expected sellers of fruits and vegetables, their wares providing washes of color beneath the canopies, there were vendors of plumbing and electrical and kitchen supplies. Shops for cheese, bread, and meat could be found at the outer edges of the market. But no coffee makers. I bought food for lunches and went back to the apartment.

Before we went to Serbia I had noticed articles in the Times about the continuing problems carried over from the Milosovic era—corruption and ethnic animosities—and had some trepidation about going. Once there, the only indications of such difficulties were stories about unemployment or under employment. Downtown, a large building, I think one connected to the military and still uninhabited, showed the devastating damage from the 1999 bombing, and parts of the city looked like they needed more of a public works program. There were some Art Deco and Art Nouveau inspired buildings, but no exemplary examples. And the socialist building program of the Tito years was strictly functional—and ugly.  The St. Seva cathedral, which can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, is a case in point. Construction began in 1935 and was halted during WWII. Then Tito apparently wasn’t interested in investing in churches. With the breakup of Yugoslavia construction began again, and now the basic structure is finished although the interior is just a shell. The building itself is a large dome clad in slabs of white marble with no architectural distinction other than its size. But even though it is still being worked on, many flagstones in the surrounding plazas are broken or missing and seem unlikely to be replaced any time soon. We also heard of various museums in Belgrade, but they were closed, supposedly for renovation. The real reason was that there was no money to keep them open.

The economy is not strong, and, it would seem, never has been, so money hasn’t been spent on esthetics. By and large the buildings in the downtown area are basically functional and don’t speak of past wealth. Outside of the main shopping area the stores are small and shabby. One wonders how their owners make a living. On the positive side, we did find some nice residential areas. Someone has some money. And one day after visiting the Tito Museum we walked past the new American Embassy. It was a huge complex with expansive lawns. There had been a pre-4th of July lawn party, and many well-dressed people were walking up the street to their cars.

Dan flew home on Saturday, and on Sunday Henry and Jill and Rosamond and I hired a van with guide to take us on a tour to the south and east of Belgrade. Our tour guide was one of the under employed. She had a degree in art history, but then the museums were closed. She got her guide job through a family connection which is apparently how many people get jobs.

It didn’t take long to leave the city behind. Out in the country, rolling hills mostly, we noticed that most of the farms were small, hardly big enough to need a tractor. Corn was the main crop although sunflowers, a major source of oil, were also abundant.

Our first destination, about an hour south of Belgrade, was a Roman ruin, Viminacium. The site was a large city in the second century, but most of it now lies under farmland and remains to be excavated. Extensive public baths and a mausoleum have been unearthed and are covered by large canopies to protect them from the weather. When we were there, there were only a few other tourists.

Further along the Danube we came to the Golubac fortress that dates back to the 14th century and consists of eight towers, some on top of a steep hillside and the others guarding the river, all connected with stone walls.

Another hour’s drive east took us to Lepenski Vir, the highlight of the trip. The settlement dates from about 6500 BC, one of the earliest in Europe to make a break with the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. The key feature of the site is the uniform architectural floor plan of the dwellings. While they are generally small, they vary in size and all are trapezoids with the large side or base facing the Danube River. Just inside of the base is a fire pit lined with large, rectangular stone blocks. Toward the back, sandstone sculptures of heads were found in what is assumed to be a kind of shrine.

The site was used for over a thousand years, the inhabitants building on different levels over time but always with the same basic floor plan. Five years after its discovery in 1965, the site had to be moved to higher ground because a dam on the Danube inundated the original site. Now the building foundations are situated under a large glass canopy.

Along with the sculpted heads were fishhooks made of bone and other artifacts. The archeologists also found over 300 skeletons. The remains were unusually tall, and they had all of their teeth, only two missing among all of the skeletons. Also, there was no evidence of violent death. Apparently, for a very long period these were a well-nourished and peaceful people.

By now it was the middle of the afternoon, and we drove up a narrow switch-backed road to a house on top of a ridge overlooking the Danube. The owners laid out a buffet of Serbian dishes for us, and we ate at picnic tables—all very pleasant. Our guide said we were the first Americans to visit. As we were leaving, however, a busload of Greek tourists was coming in. Our little out of the way spot was apparently not so out of the way. Then it was back to Belgrade, a long drive, and we arrived well after dark.

The following week followed the pattern of teaching during the day and a stroll to a good restaurant for dinner. We then got up at an ungodly hour to be driven to the airport to fly to Paris to fly to New York. Next year I will be able to explore more of Belgrade. It isn’t a major European city, but I expect there will be some surprises.


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