Belgrade, December 1st 2012.
A half-metre long purple spark leaps to the grounding plate with a loud bang. In my hands a fluorescent tube flickers and begins to glow unevenly, bright and dark patches of light pulsate inside. The tube isn’t connected to anything. I’m holding it gingerly in my hands and around me others are doing the same with more tubes. We form a semi-circle around a humming three metre high Tesla coil, all looking at the sparking polished dome, tentativly holding our glowing tubes like some strange electrical religious rite, nervous that an angry god is going to lash out and shock us if we hold the tube incorrectly. I look over to Ste who grins nervously back, copying what I imagine my face is doing. We know it’s safe, but the irregular bang of the giant spark doesn’t let us believe that.
The tubes flicker and go out, returning to reassuring lifelessness, as the smiling guide turns off the Tesla coil and the humming sound winds down. We return the fluorescent tubes with relief and a growing macho sense of survival. Gathering the tubes in the guide smiles happily to herself; clearly having enjoyed scaring a group of adults, unable to hide the joy of having seen very young children do the same without showing any fear.
Ste and I are being guided through the small but excellent Nikolai Tesla Museum, which is filled with various bits of apparatus that demonstrate the many scientific principles Tesla discovered or applied in his life. After the giant tesla coil comes a demonstration of the world’s first remote control boat. When shown for the first time in Central Park, onlookers refused to believe it was being controlled by invisible wireless electric signals and instead preferred the more obvious explanation that Tesla was steering it remotely with the power of his thoughts.
Tesla was an eccentric genius whose life plays to the stereotypes of a mad genius, which makes him easy to love. My favourite fact is presented during a slightly corny video about his life at the end of the tour by a narrator with a big ernest American voice: that when Tesla arrived in New York he had nothing but the clothes he wore, two dollars and the plans for a flying machine.
Ste and I leave the museum with big grins on our faces, but also a massive sense of underachievement, having not invented or discovered any great contributions to science in our almost thirty years of being on the planet.
Next we wander briefly up and down Kneza Miloša, a long straight road that has many old and grand government buildings along it as well as the majority of the embassies in Belgrade. Most are relatively nondescript town houses, with only the flags that hang outside giving away their diplomatic status. The biggest exception is the US embassy, which has had all of its windows bricked up and appears to be completely sealed up apart from a small heavy door at street level.
The biggest ‘attraction’ on Kneza Miloša are the bombed out remains of the former Yugoslav ministry of defence. The long thin building has many huge gauges in it, straggly bits of steel sticking out of the holes like metal weeds. Apparently once a fine example of post-war architecture, it is now an abandoned carcass, lines of missing windows let the air whistle through its bones. Much was made of the precision bombing, or the lack thereof in some cases, by NATO, the fact that these completely wrecked offices stand opposite rows of untouched buildings is remarkable. Mistakes were made (such as the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy), but it is nothing like the complete raising of cities such as Dresden or Coventry that occurred fifty years before and can be done without the need to send pilots on dangerous low level bombing missions to achieve precision. Perhaps one of the biggest arguments against this, as with the more recent drone strikes, is that it can make the choice to engage in military action easier if the risks to you are much smaller. But wars have never been about a sense of fair play.
For the afternoon Ste and I join a free walking tour , taking us around the old town of Belgrade, starting in the Bohemian quarter and visiting a few of the oldest buildings in Belgrade. I’ve not done a lot of walking tours before, so perhaps it was normal, but Željko, our guide, was excellent and made it a fantastic way to learn about the city, and I plan to do more on future trips.
My biggest impression was the many different times Belgrade, at its strategic location on the Sava and Danube confluences, has been fought over. The oldest buildings are Ottoman Turkish in origin, but there are only a few left. Because Belgrade has been burnt down and fought over so many times, little has survived. On my trip many places claim to be the meeting of east and west, a mix of the two cultures. This is also true of Belgrade, but it appears that here the meetings were rarely friendly.
As we walk up to Belgrade Fortress from the zoo we come across blue faced celtic warriors, standing around in bright yellow jackets, kilts and idly smoking. As we continue through the Fortress, noting the existence of Roman elements in the construction of the walls, more celtic warriors, and a few men in chain-mail, walk past nonchalantly. Eventually it turns out that we haven’t stumbled upon a strange continuation of an old war but the filming of a medieval film. We pass across the bridge to the gate house to see a camera crew and lighting rig set up, cables running across the cobbled floor and a small table of hot drinks, currently under occupation by more kilted men.
By the end of the tour Ste and I are very hungry. We’ve been powered through the day so far by the hearty meat burek we each at breakfast. A burek is a sort of pastry with a mince, spinach or cheese filling, traditionally eaten with fluid yogurt. Described with a beaming smile the evening before as ‘heavy, meaty, good’ by the hostel manager we could hardly refuse; and all those things proved to be true, sustaining us through most of a busy day.
Now that we’re flagging we return to the bohemian quarter of Skadarlija and find a bar to cool our heels in. We land in the first one we see and, try a couple of rakija, the local spirit, and drink a beer, while watching the other patrons. Most seem to be local yuppies, others less formally dressed are watching the football on the flat-screen TVs hanging on the wall. The glowing green pitches clashing with the otherwise dim red lighting of the bar. One couple are making nervous signs of intimacy at each other while checking their phones, both still dressed in office clothes. Is this an affair with real-time alibis being written on their Facebook profiles?
For dinner we choose one of the many tavernas that occupy Skadalija, somewhat worried that we’re walking straight into a tourist trap. The waitress’s offer to sit us where a band is roving between tables doesn’t help. Given our inability last night to enjoy the entertainment without landing in a spiral of confused manners and social etiquette we elect to sit in the quiet area instead. Dinner is, as expected, a choice of hearty Serbian food: meatballs, fried potatoes and sausages. As we sit and enjoy dinner our quiet eating space starts to fill up. Groups of young serbians, a few couples and groups of friends appears, dispelling our earlier fears that the restaurant was only for tourists.
After dinner we cross over the street and down some steps into a low ceilinged bar, busy with people and an acoustic folk cover band performing in the front room. Belgrade has suffered from being between the warring empires of east and west, but it doesn’t seems to have affected the ability of the people who live here to enjoy themselves. Maybe that’s the secret to having a good time; experience tells you that it won’t last so you have to make the most of it while you can.