Serbian Surprises

Wednesday, April 25, 2018 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Balkans & Beyond, Days 29-31:  Sofia, Bulgaria to Belgrade, Serbia.  After an uneventful flight from Sofia with Air Serbia, we arrived at the Belgrade airport with plans to take a taxi to our hotel in the city.  Having done a bit of research, we followed the recommended procedure by going to the Taxi Info desk, obtaining a voucher stating our destination and the proscribed fare.  Only after inquiring what we should do next did one of the idle and disinterested agents staffing the desk refer us to the designated place outside and instruct us to get into the first taxi in line.  That was the beginning of our Serbian surprises, the good, the bad and the neutral.

The Maniac Taxi Driver
Our first impression of the taxi we won in the who's-next lottery was that it had not been cleaned since the day it was manufactured in 2004.  The exterior was not too bad, but the car's grimy interior looked as if someone had mistakenly blasted the full load of a of a well-used vacuum cleaner's dust bag onto every surface.  The heat was stifling with the sun beating down relentlessly, and, of course, the vehicle had no air conditioning.  Reluctantly, we got into the taxi and began the ride that we later thought might be our last.

Like a 13-year-old who had sneaked the keys and gone for a joy ride in his parents' car, the maniac taxi driver we lucked into barreled into rush hour traffic as if the highway were empty.  With cars ahead at a standstill, he floored the accelerator, screeching to a halt mere inches from the car in front of him, jerking us around like a game of bumper cars.  Then he began blowing his horn, as if the hundreds of cars in front of him were stopped for no reason.

When we asked him to slow down, he feigned a lack of comprehension and stepped up his game like a recalcitrant toddler determined to do the opposite of what you ask.  Forced to idle on the clogged freeway, he shot into the emergency lane (the only vehicle there) and left the highway, only to encounter more congestion on the surface streets.  When more blaring of his horn didn't magically make the traffic disappear, he recklessly darted into lanes designated for trolleys or buses (again the only vehicle to do so), narrowly missing unwitting pedestrians on numerous occasions.  Our request to drop us off midway through the trip fell on deaf ears.

By the time we reached our hotel some 40 hellacious minutes after leaving the airport, we again told him that we did not appreciate him endangering our lives with his irrational driving.  He laughed.  He most certainly knew exactly what we were saying and what we had asked repeatedly along the way.  When I raised my phone to take a photo of him and his car so we could complain to the airport taxi stand, he posed with a big smile.
Only later did we finally catch on that he couldn't wait to get back to his like-minded maniac taxi driver pals and brag about scaring the pants off some American tourists he had taken for a ride.  Sadly, when we mentioned this experience to various people, beginning with the hotel desk clerk, they expressed sympathy but not surprise.

The Unfinished Churches of Belgrade
Sitting on a plateau at the highest point  in the city, the imposing Temple of Saint Sava, named for the first archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox church, looks like the city's crowning jewel with its white marble facade and patinated copper domes topped with a forty-foot golden cross.
Belgrade cityscape dominated by St. Sava (photo from tourism site)
Temple of Saint Sava
Enter its doors, however, and you're in for a surprise.  Inside the largest church in Serbia and the most massive Orthodox place of worship in the Balkans—called lovingly 'the Orthodox heart of Belgrade' and 'the pillar of Serbian faith'—the interior is largely unfinished.
Interior of St. Sava
Following a tour group into the temple, we were astounded by what we found there.  Having read that the church was "finished" in 1989, we first thought we were seeing a bizarrely thorough renovation where everything had been stripped from the walls and ceilings and floors.  We were wrong.  

Planned in 1893, construction on the gargantuan church began in 1935, but politics and war and more politics and more war stalled work on the temple for decades.  Though the exterior was mostly finished in the late 1980s, the enormous nave is still little more than a concrete shell.  Only the dome's stunningly beautiful interior is complete, installation having just wound up in March of this year.
St Sava dome
Down a pristine set of gleaming marble stairs from the dust and scaffolding, the temple's underground crypt was another unexpected sight.  Thinking we'd see more construction materials piled up waiting for installation, we almost skipped the opportunity to visit the crypt.  We were glad we did not.
St Sava crypt
Bathed in a golden light from the copious use of gold-colored glass mosaics and ornate chandeliers, the room is accented with archways that highlight its meticulously painted colorful frescoes. It was a stunning contrast to the scene upstairs.

But St. Sava is not alone in awaiting completion of the house of worship in his honor.  Near the Serbian National Assembly building, St. Mark's Church was "finished" in 1940.  Except it wasn't.
St. Mark's Church 
St. Mark's interior
Though the interior's construction is considerably more advanced than St. Sava's, its blank walls attest to the church's incompleteness.  Nearly eighty years after the exterior was finished, the inside of the church still lacks its planned fresco paintings, lighting, acoustics, heating and ventilation.  Information on when or even whether these churches will be completed was not available.

Pionirski Park Perks
A verdant oasis of parkland adorns a large plot in Belgrade's city center between the National Assembly (Parliament) building and the Old and New Palaces housing city government and the Serbian President.  Developed from what had been the royal garden, Pionirski Park is graced with numerous specimen trees that date back to the 18th century.
Pionirski Park
Likely its position out the window of high government officials contributes to the exceptional maintenance of this jewel of a park.  Benches are sparkling clean; grass is thick and lush and meticulously trimmed.
Wifi outpost in Pionirski Park
Though its garden is rooted in the 1700s, the park offers cutting-edge amenities.  Wifi outposts offer technology connectivity, while a self-cleaning toilet serves other needs of park goers.  Most surprisingly, the toilet is free.  After each use, it automatically disinfects and dries its bowl and floor.  But wait, it even had a pleasant smell.  And did I mention that there's no charge to use the toilet?
In addition to these modern surprises, the park has a curiosity of history as well.  Displayed prominently just across from the parliament building is a little piece of a Greek mountaintop.  To commemorate a World War I victory of the Serbian army over Bulgaria in a battle that took place in Greece, Serbian forces brought an observation post from the top of the mountain back home with them. Today the reconstructed observation post sits in Pionirski Park as a memorial to the forces who fought there.
Plaques honor those who died at the lookout post.
Smoke Signals
We are well aware that cigarette smoking is more practiced today in Europe than in the U.S.  In particular, we've noticed considerably more people lighting up in Bulgaria and Serbia than other places on this trip.
Until we arrived in Belgrade, however, all the smoking we have observed was outdoors.  In every previous country, outdoor tables at restaurants or sidewalk cafes were uniformly equipped with ashtrays, but customers who wanted to avoid the smoke could reliably seek a smoke-free refuge inside.  Not so in Belgrade.  Every restaurant we visited permitted smoking inside as well as outside, designating about 20% of interior tables for nonsmoking.

Quiet as a House
After the hotel room we booked turned out to be exceedingly tiny, we booked an Airbnb for our next couple of nights in Belgrade.  We were mildly concerned about its location in the middle of a very active pedestrian zone with cafes and shops and clubs nearby.  But reviewers insisted the place was a calm oasis amidst all the frenzy, so we took a chance.
And this was probably the biggest Serbian surprise of all.  Off a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare, we walked through a gate and into a courtyard.  At the back of the courtyard was a small duplex.  Even before we entered the apartment, the noise of the street had vanished, as if the house were located in the middle of a forest.  We're not sure how that works, but we certainly are glad.

Glad to Meat You
Having read so much about Serbia's love affair with meat, which is king in Serbian national dishes, I wasn't sure how difficult it might be to eat a vegetarian diet, especially since we're still avoiding salads and other uncooked fresh produce.
Meant to take a photo of this delectable eggplant dish but forgot until it was mostly consumed.
My concerns were completely unfounded.  In restaurants such as Lorenzo & Kakalamba, Restoran Plato, and even Pizza Bar, we found flavorful vegetarian dishes with locally sourced ingredients in creative combinations.

Cheap Shot
As in some of the other countries we've visited (and will still visit) on this Balkans trip, prices in Serbia are quite reasonable by U.S. standards.  Lending more emphasis to this, the current exchange rate puts the value of the Serbian dinar at about $.01 US.  This is not as extreme as the exchange rate for the Hungarian forint ($.004), and it has the significant advantage of easy mathematical conversions with the dollar.
Had to be great service for a tip like this!  (Full disclosure:  equivalent to $1.60 US)
We enjoyed great restaurant meals for $5 to $7 each, bought a two-liter bottle of Coke Zero for less than $1, and paid only $3 for museum admissions and for a twenty-minute taxi ride with Taxify, which we later discovered is now operating in Belgrade.

Unlike our first taxi driver, the vast majority of the Serbian people we have encountered have been kind, friendly and helpful.  We have enjoyed our visit to Belgrade, but, as usual on this trip, just as we are getting to know our way around well, it's time to move on.

Tomorrow we'll fly to Sarajevo, where we'll pick up a rental car and begin a new set of adventures on our three and a half week road trip.


3-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Sofia, Bulgaria
    •  Ended in:  Belgrade, Serbia
    •  Miles flown:  215
    •  Miles walked:  21.5
    •  Weather:  52° to 83°, sunny and hot
Temple of St. Sava by the Numbers
    •  Years since planning began:  125
    •  Years since construction began:  83
    •  Years until completion:  many
    •  Weight of central dome:  4,000 tons
    •  Cranes used to raise dome:  16
    •  Height dome was lifted:  130 ft
    •  Time to raise dome to height:  20 days
    •  Weight of interior dome mosaic:  40 tons
    •  Time to create dome mosaic:  2 years (created in Russia)
    •  Time to install dome mosaic:  10 months
    •  Mosaic work to be done:  17,000 square meters
    •  Expected timeline for mosaic completion:  8 years with a team of 90 artists
    •  But what about the frescoes:  another untold number of years

Loved:  After our initial supremely negative experience with the taxi driver from hell, we were grateful that the many kind and friendly Serbian people we met thereafter completely turned around what could have been a sour impression of the country.

Lacking:  Uber.  Though there are those who fight to prohibit the ride-share option (primarily the taxi industry), we would choose Uber over a conventional taxi at every opportunity.  Their drivers are more predictable and accountable.  The fare is set before you accept the ride, so there's no motivation for the driver to meander aimlessly to bump up the meter.  Drivers know their passengers will rate their performance, so they're not likely to engage in reckless driving.  And on and on.  We have had more negative taxi experiences than we can count and none with Uber.

Learned:  Just because a church is praised as a national symbol and the pillar of its religious faith and a highlight on the tourist rounds doesn't mean it's a functional place of worship.

More Photos from Belgrade
The "good taxi" sent by our Airbnb host to pick us up from the hotel after hearing about our bad experience.
Prince Michael Street, part of an extensive pedestrian-only section of central Belgrade. 
Many buses and trams offer public transportation options in Belgrade.
Poignant graffiti on a fenced in abandoned building
Belgrade's New Cemetery is home to thousands of amazing sculptures and grave markers.
In a fresco in the small St. Sava Church next to the temple, Jesus and St. Sava (R) admire the completed temple.  
Clearly decorations in the St. Sava Church are complete.
Orb holding the remains of Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla at the Belgrade museum devoted to his life and work.