Sanja stayed in the car while Dejan and I headed up to the Avala Tower on Belgrade’s periphery. Rebuilt soon after NATO bombs brought it down to earth, Avala sits on a mountain and, well, towers over the surrounding area. Sanja doesn’t do heights so her husband and I headed up this enormous structure to catch a truly extraordinary areal view of the city. Extraordinary because the Serb capital doesn’t have skyscrapers as we know them in the States. Dejan in fact joked about how the Avala tower wouldn’t be that big a deal in New York.
But once up at the observation tower, I had to disagree with him. The view confirmed what I would later learn through many (many) bus rides throughout the Balkans. Even though the cities were growing quickly, the Balkans are still predominantly rural and small town. We were still technically in Belgrade even though we were a good fifteen to twenty kilometers from the city center. Despite it’s sprawl, from my vantage point Belgrade was in a sort of green chokehold. Farmland in that quilted pattern you see from an airplane window surrounded us on all sides and was only broken up by terra-cotta clusters. You just don’t get a view like that in New York.
Prior to Avala, Sanja and Dejan took me out for the obligatory meat-heavy meal at a more traditional Serbian restaurant also away from the center. However, before the flesh parade began they brought out some wonderful cold salads along with some some sauteed red peppers and local farmer’s cheese. The cousin of a Serbian friend of mine, Misa, Sanja had a pretty great command of English so the conversation was lively. Dejan’s English wasn’t quite up to par but when I later learned he used to be a professional DJ, we bonded over our favorite AC/DC songs.
After Avala, they took me to a beach. Sort of. Lining the banks of one of the main rivers which has sustained Belgrade for centuries, there is an adult playground made up of cafes and bars and eventually us. The night was comfortably cool and the sun was just about to bow out for the day. We sat outside under shade and enjoyed cold Coca Cola out of a glass bottle, as tribute to a previous conversation in which we all agreed that it was the best vehicle for oversugared water.
Sanja and Dejan dropped me off at my hotel back in the center of town and we hugged goodbye as if we had been friends forever. The next day, our new Facebook connections confirmed to the rest of the world that we have.
Three hours south in Belgrade’s third largest city, Niš (Nee-sh), I also experienced magnanimous hospitality in the lovely forms of the Djordjevic sisters, Marijia and Milica. Childhood friends of my friend Misa, these girls took me all over the relaxed, compact college town where they call home. Milica took me to her favorite cevapcici (shay-vop-chee-chee) sandwich place, found me a reasonable hotel and gave me the two dinar tour of her town by car. Centered around an always humming pedestrianized area, Niš was a needed contrast to Belgrade’s clamor.
But I was anxious. I needed to see that tower. Niš was the site of one of the bloodiest Serbian uprisings — in a recurring series of them — against their perennial Turkish masters. During the battle, thousands of Serbian rebels, after realizing they were about to be routed, fired on Turkish ammo stockpiles and kamikaze-d themselves along with a whole bunch of Turks. Understandably pissed, the Turkish commander decided to try and deter future folly by creating a tower made with over 950 skulls of the dead Serb fighters. On the contrary, an absurdity like a so-called “Skull Tower” ended up serving as a rallying cry for later successful uprisings.
Such a monument just could not exist in the States and not only for the reason that maybe our wars were historically more “humane”. It’s just that a monument of actual skulls is just too gruesome and morbid for second grade class field trips. It would either have to have an ‘R’ rating or be sanitized in some way. But in Niš, the tower and the fifty or so skulls that remain are mostly behind glass and presented au naturale. Nobody does gruesome like the Balkans.
Later on, I was handed off to Milica’s sis, Marija and she led me through Niš’s cafe and bar culture of which she is a frequent attendee. As she slowly burned down the slim cigarettes that always sat in the box in front of her (like pretty much everyone in the Balkans does), she told me how sitting at a cafe for hours and whiling away the time with friends is really how going out is done there. Posing, going out to be seen, is really the point. A rump shaker at heart, Marija hated the fact that it was hard to find a place for some good rug-cutting without getting stared at as if she was high.
Sunday night in downtown Niš was certainly not a time to run off to bed in fear of Monday morning’s assorted bullshit. Everyone was out. Every age well represented. Older couples holding hands while middle-aged couples sat and talked. The town’s youth were walking, skateboarding or trying to make headway with the opposite sex. The cafes were alive and the ice cream joints and grill kiosks were running up their electric bills. Not sure if it’s the pedestrian-only areas that bring about such unabashed community or the cool spring weather but I couldn’t help but be transfixed by the whole damn scene.
Marijia took me to an outsatnding meal at a grubby little dive and filled my belly with a rolled funnel of ground pork, stuffed with melted cheese and bacon-wrapped chicken kebabs. The ubiquitous cucumber and tomato salad accompanied as well as pillow-soft Turkish bread loaves. The next morning, she met up with me at another cafe and saw me off at the bus station.
As usual, I’m sitting on some transport mode, a city behind me, and the fact furrows its way to the top. If you’re going to go somewhere with a backpack, a guidebook and a little wanderlust you can see and experience a lot. But with the priceless benefit of local eyes, I had done that and infinitely more.
WHAT: the view from Avala Tower
WHEN: June 2, 2012
WHERE: Belgrade, Serbia