Shobhaa De | Why we chose to go to Belgrade over Paris

We landed in Belgrade from Budapest to face white heat and an unimpressive airport.

Okay… so here’s the dope on the decision to switch from Emmanuel Macron’s turf to Aleksander Vucic’s backyard. For one, the prices. Which is always the best reason to alter travel plans at the nth hour. We were there dealing with Europe’s “Summer of Hell”, and if we were to make the most of our vaccy, then why pay five times as much to go to stinky riots-ravaged Paris, when Belgrade beckoned? Feeling triumphant and smug about our sensible switch, we landed in Belgrade from Budapest to face white heat and an unimpressive airport. Not a promising start for sure. But then, with our smashing, super modern airports across India, nearly every other international airport resembles a poor cousin’s shed. But the local driver greeted us with a big grin and spoke functional English. High five!

And the city smelled of freshly mowed grass, not uncleared garbage. I noticed a large sign that read “Kosovo is Serbia’’ across the first bridge we saw. Before I could ask the driver about it, my husband sharply shut me up in shuddh Bengali and instructed me not to go there at all during our short stay. In 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia.

Since Novak Djokovic, Serbia’s biggest hero, had just lost the Wimbledon title, I wanted to know how the locals were reacting. The driver shrugged and pointed to a restaurant across the street… “That’s Djoko’s place… good food. You want to book? And that’s Djoko’s wine… you must drink it… very good.” How deftly he’d changed the subject. Smart Serb. I wasn’t about to give up: “Where is Djokovic’s statue?” The driver answered carefully: “He doesn’t have one… not yet…” Hmmmmm! Was he just a hotel chauffeur… Or???

“Serbia is a surveillance state”, our over-talkative guide announced. “Look up… see those cameras? They are everywhere! This government doesn’t trust its own people. Everyone is watched. Why? Serbia’s history is being altered to suit the current administration. In the name of redevelopment, squares and landmarks are uprooted… redesigned. The new design bears no dates, no names, no nothing… means nothing.”

Oooops! Was I in Belgrade or Delhi? The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is allegedly eroding political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on the independent media, the political Opposition and civil society organisations. Wait! I was certain I hadn’t left India. The man was in full flow… his junior spoke with fervor: “My family fled from Bosnia when I was ten years old… we were forced to sell our house… so we came here with money in our pockets, not as beggars, and started all over again. We are ALL Serbs… what is Bosnia? Herzegovina? Montenegro? This is a dirty game of politics.” By this time, we had visited the magnificent Temple of Saint Sava, witnessed an Orthodox Christian wedding conducted by a portly priest, and stopped off at a pretty “municipality” (Zemun), on the outskirts of Belgrade, on the banks of the beautiful Danube. I had not spotted a single mosque (the Muslim population is 1.1 per cent), but I was shown a couple of synagogues. Strange. I had not spotted a single “person of colour” either. We were the only freaks. Around us were remarkably good looking, well dressed white young couples, most of them with three or more kids. The climate and food of Belgrade (population: 6.7 million) clearly encourages procreation -- it is a city of twins and triplets -- plump, blond, pink babies, resembling cute piglets. The heat was getting to all of us and making the two guides semi-delirious. I asked about the old Communist leader Indians of a certain vintage remember vividly -- Marshal Tito, the long-time former President. Where’s his statue? Silence! The famous old Yugoslavia Hotel is run-down and derelict. The buildings lining the two main boulevards are built in the Stalinist school of architecture -- box-like, unimaginative and ugly. The guides sound a bit defensive when they explain: “Our Parliament building resembles the Pentagon. Some of the buildings in London also look like this.” Well, thank God for the centuries-old Baroque structures, which are still intact in this city of contradictions and contrasts. A city that has been destroyed 43 times, and heavily bombed by Nato forces in 1999. The guide smiles wryly… “The bombs were targeting police headquarters, military establishments … and oh yes, the Chinese embassy was hit too… it is now a cultural centre.” Encouraged to keep talking, one of the men adds: “Our President is a puppet of the Chinese… those people only want puppets they can control in this region… our people like fairytales… we are like children of different sizes, shapes and ages, that’s all, believing what we are told by a dictator….”

The complex history of what is now Serbia is indeed fascinating. Traces of all the conquerors are visible everywhere -- the Romans, Ottomans, the Germanic tribes, the Huns. Even Celts. The guide boasts: “18 Roman emperors were born here.” Belgrade, with its tumultuous history, is one of the oldest cities in Europe (going back 7,000 years). The food trail reveals ancient roots that run deep and continue to inspire generations. Our stunning hotel -- Moskva -- in the heart of the city, resembles a movie set. Built in 1906, it looks unreal in its gilded glory. It boasts of the impossibly glamourous Tchaikovsky Café -- one of the chicest cafes in Europe. On the elaborate menu card are the names and faces of some of its famous patrons, like Albert Einstein. And hold your breath -- Indira Gandhi. Nobel laureate Ivo Andric had his favourite table at the café. He was a daily visitor who arrived early, ordered a coffee and a slice of Schnitte and wrote till sunset. Brad Pitt has been spotted here, biting into the world-famous cake named Moskva Schnitte, with French buttercream, sour cherries, pineapple and peaches, covered with sliced almonds. After sampling a piece, I started enquiring seriously about property prices in Belgrade.

Just then, a small group of expensively clad people swept past us. “Russians!” our guides exclaimed. “Russians and Ukrainians are everywhere… Over 200,000 in Belgrade alone. They will never leave… not even after the war ends.’’ And why would they? The younger guide turns to us and suggests: “You should buy land in Belgrade… build a villa… lot of people are doing that. It’s a great place to retire…”

Yes, our Indian rupee is marginally stronger than the Serbian dinar. But hello… what’s wrong with Alibagh? Better neighbours by far, na???

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