I am often perceived by others as being braver than I really am. Yes, people know that I travel and explore new places. What they don’t know is that I am always afraid I’ve left something out, something behind, something undone, unconfirmed, un-arranged. And often I have. It’s often easily sorted out, or sorted with some difficulty, but it gets fixed in the end. Sometimes a better alternative comes forth that would not have emerged if things were perfectly arranged.
So, I look good on paper, even when my nerves are shot and I am quietly having a panic attack.
Such was the case when I landed in Belgrade with a 7-hour layover before the flight to Zagreb, Croatia. I wouldn’t call it panic, really, but the prospect of a little jaunt into town to explore made me nervous. In past years I would have stuck stalwartly to the airport, finding lunch, a magazine, perhaps even an internet connection to wile the time away. But in pursuit of an additional stamp in my passport and a tiny taste of a city I would not otherwise have experienced, I stepped tentatively out of my comfort zone.
I was told by a gate agent that I could take Bus 72 into City Center. I cashed 20 euro into dinar and set off. At the taxi stand, a well-meaning and fare-hungry man tried to talk me into taking a cab, but I was not in a hurry; rather, I was trying to kill some time, so I declined. A Danish woman stopped to chat; she was going into city center as well, so we found the bus together and along the ride I made a new friend (with an offer to stay with her if I come to Copenhagen.)
Belgrade is the capital city of Serbia and has seen some rough times in the past, involved in wars and whatnot (so I don’t know much about history, sue me!) But today it seems peaceful. And very hot!
I walked along in the baking heat of midday, clutching my map and a pen to write little breadcrumbs of clues to lead me back to the bus stop. I made my way through a fruit and vegetable market, buying a large cup of raspberries for 100 dinar, less than a dollar. “Fruit Market” I wrote in the margin of the map. Consulting the map for a direction of intent, I decided I might be able to find the city’s ancient fortress walls and make it back in time to take the bus back. I turned down a street where people had various wares – clothing, household items, a few stray machine parts – spread on blankets. It reminded me of the East Village of New York in the 80’s when I lived there. I wrote “Garage Sale Street” on the map. I passed a bakery adjacent to a large park (writing “Bakery”) which I walked through. I noticed that many young men were out, lounging in the dried-up grass under meager shade trees, buying ice cream at the ubiquitous blue carts. There was an absence of females, but still I felt safe.
I popped into a large hotel and the receptionist gave me another map and showed me the way to the fortress.
“I’m afraid I’ll get lost, is it far?” I explained that I needed to find my bus in a few hours.
“You won’t get lost” she assured me, marking the street. “But it will take maybe half an hour to get there and then you must walk back, so hurry.”
I walked along the road that flanked the river, (two rivers meet in Belgrade and form a delta – the Danube and the Sava.)I was sweating under my backpack. The temperature was in the high nineties. I noticed graffiti on many buildings. I passed several small hostels, some cafes and wine bars that were either dark or closed up. Perhaps they would wake up in the evening, but all was quiet in the heat of the afternoon. Along the way, I took photos, more breadcrumbs for my memory.
I climbed the winding stone steps that led up to the fortress (which I read was originally built in the 3rd century BC and the original city was within its walls.) I was treated to a gorgeous view of the river, with boats and dockside restaurants. I huffed and puffed, hiking up the steps with my heavy backpack in the midday sun, and took refuge when a wall curved to allow some shade for me to pause in for a few minutes. The fortress walls stretched out in many directions, and I examined the signboard that exclaimed “You are here”. Instead of exploring the fortress any more, I opted to walk back toward the town area, where I could slowly get back to my bus stop. In the park beyond the fortress, vendors sold dolls, magnets, and pepper mills. Further on I found a lady selling wooden pipes and soap. I bought one of each (soap for my mother and the pipe for my favorite writer friend.) The next street was a pedestrian mall lined with coffee bars. I checked the time and decided I had time to indulge in an iced coffee.
As I sipped my coffee, I reflected on my small time in Belgrade. What I had seen was wonderful, and it seemed that this would be an inexpensive city to spend some time in (the wooden pipe had been less than a dollar, and this coffee, sweet and rich, would have been easily three times the cost in any Starbucks.) As I paid, I remarked that the coffee had tasted of ice cream, and my smiling waiter confirmed that they indeed put in three scoops – two at the bottom and one on top. This was a normal iced coffee! Wow!
I stopped at a tiny storefront and picked out two pastry rolls with cheese, spinach, and mushroom, and these were less than a dollar for both. I could like it here, I thought as I licked the crumbs from my fingers.
I wandered back toward what I thought was the right part of town. I stumbled on a bridal couple being photographed walking out of a narrow cobblestone street. I took the stairs down toward the river and remembered an artistic graffiti wall I had passed on the way to the fortress. Then I wove my way back – hotel, park, bakery, garage sales, and fruit market, to find Bus 72 waiting. I ran and hopped on.
I made it back to the airport with time and dinar to spare! Maybe someday I’ll return to see more. Thanks, Belgrade!