Top 10 Things To Do In Belgrade

Belgrade - Serbian FlagSearching for a cheap city break this year proved somewhat elusive, even in Eastern Europe.  However, on in-depth investigation a three-night/four-day break in Belgrade still seemed to be offering a veritable bargain with direct flights and hotel accommodation costing just £500 for two people.  So a few weeks ago, I boarded a plane from Heathrow Terminal 5 and set off to explore yet another Balkan country.  Belgrade is a great city, with tons of cultural and gastronomic offerings.  Yet, it is actually quite small in comparison to cities such as St Petersburg, even London.  This means that you can easily walk around it without needing to pay for transport.  Not that transport costs much – the bus from the airport charges just 80 dinar for a ticket into the city centre (that’s less than £1!)

So what is there to do?  So many people were shocked when I said I was visiting Belgrade for a holiday.  They seemed to be under the illusion that it would still be war-torn, and that it would be a place filled with oppressive buildings and a depressing vibe.  This is not the case at all!  Of course there is poverty, but there is poverty in Britain and many other, so-called advanced, western countries.  There were a few domineering buildings built during the Communist era but many of the buildings were typically Austro-Hungarian in design.  I think too many people forget that Serbia has a rich cultural history; this country was not formed and built solely in the Yugoslav period, it has taken centuries to compile this, albeit complicated, land, people and culture.

Here is my top 10 list of everything I think you should do when you visit Belgrade:

1) On arrival, take the bus from the airport into the city centre – it costs less than £1 though be prepared with change for the bus driver!  There’s a shuttle bus every hour but I’d rather opt for the local No. 71 any day, of which they arrive on, and at, half-past the hour.  After passing through customs, simply turn left and go up the escalator.  Continue walking straight on (into domestic departures) until you reach the end of the building.  The bus stops just outside the final, automatic door, on your right and takes about 30 minutes into the city centre, near Trg Republik.

2) Spend half a day wandering around the Kalmegdan Tvrdjava or Fortress.  If you love history then this is the place to head.  It really does illustrate the regions military might over the last 2,000 years.  There are turrets, towers, bridges, museums in abundance for you to explore.  However, even if history, particularly military history, isn’t your thing, the fortress itself offers some spectacular views across the Danube and Sava rivers and out into the surrounding countryside.  There are also temporary exhibitions in the grounds – at the moment there is an art exhibition illustrating how Russia is viewed by non-Russians.

3) Stroll along Knez Mihailova – the city’s main shopping street.  You’d be mistaken for thinking that the latest fashion trends have not hit Serbia.  There are designer and fantastic high street offerings in abundance.  Time it right and visit during the sales because there really are some fabulous bargains to be had!  Plus, this street is just overflowing with beautiful buildings, so make sure you take in the gorgeous facades which date back to the zenith of the Austro-Hungarian influence in the region.

4) Travel back in time at Konak Kneginje Ljubice (Princess Ljubica’s House).  Situated a few minutes on foot from the city centre this surprisingly large house whisks you back to the Ottoman Empire.  The 19th century mansion was home to Princess Ljubica, wife of  Miloš Obrenović and her sons.  It was converted into a museum and houses ornaments, furniture, books, clothes, portraits, landscapes, glasses, medals, and so much more.  The design of the house is particularly impressive, with several large rooms built for the sole purpose of conversation.  The grand hallways are most spectacular.

5) Just a few metres down the road from Knoak Kneginje Ljubice stands the Saborna Crkva Sv Arhangela, Belgrades ornate Orthodox Cathedral or Holy Archangel Michael Church.  The facade, with its glistening golden icons is visually stunning.  Inside the walls are adorned with gold, chandeliers hang from the ceiling and locals pray to, touch and kiss the icons.  This is quite a different experience from a Catholic or Protestant church.  Believers are much more interactive with their icons and God.  It really is interesting to watch, even if not particularly taken with religion.

6) Take some time out at Ruski Car (Russian Tsar).  This traditional kafana was originally called Zagreb, however, after the civil war during the 1990s, it was re-named and re-decorated.  On the walls hang portraits of the Tsars and Tsarinas dating back to Ivan the Terrible.  A grand piano sits in one corner and chandeliers hang from the ceiling.  The menu is vast but it is the cake counter which is not to be missed.  Order some tea čaj (with rum if you desire) and my favourite borovnica torta which is a blueberry tart with hazelnut cream and chocolate.  The decor and the food are the ultimate in decadence!

7) If you’re looking for a more substantial meal, be it of local cuisine (čevapčiči, burek, sarma, gibanica etc.), or something a little more international (pizza, pasta etc.) then visit Skadarska ulica.  This is a very pretty area of the city, with one main cobbled street, lined with restaurants.  It’s not too pricey either so you can enjoy some great food and some house wine without breaking the bank.  It can get pretty busy here in the evenings and it always has a great atmosphere.

8) If you are like me and love food and culture then supermarkets and markets are not to be missed.  There is a great market, Kalenic Pijaca, where locals sell their home-grown produce – arguably the best fruit and vegetables you’ll see in Europe – as well as quirky souvenirs, old books, communist memorabilia etc.  Go on Friday or Saturday when it is at its most bustling.  As always with such places, do beware pickpockets.

9) A little further out of town is Sveti Sava (St Sava’s Church).  Much like Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the cathedral remains unfinished.  Yet its sheer size is impressive, as are the icons on its facade.  The construction of the building began at the end of the 19th century.  The original marble work is incredible.  Unfortunately, most recently the builders have opted for concrete.  Nevertheless, the scale of the project is something to be marvelled at.

10) In the same direction (walkable but for those who would prefer to get the bus, take trolleybus 40 or 41 both of which stop by the rather imposing and grand post office, near the parliament building) is the Kuva Cveca – Tito Memorial Complex or House of Flowers.  The complex has three museums: a museum of artefacts (interesting for those who enjoy social and cultural history), the dictator’s mausoleum which also displays presidential rooms and a collection of batons used in the Presidential Day ceremonies, and a museum of diplomatic donations which houses gifts to Tito from the people of Yugoslavia and heads of state from other, generally sympathetic to a form of communism, nations.  The mausoleum is surprisingly airy and boasts spectacular views across the city.

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Escaping Communist: A Biography of Jan Sisolak

It’s very humbling to realise how you could so easily have never been born, how random it is that you were born.  I am half Slovak and half English, born in Canada in 1963 at a time when Slovaks remained behind the Iron Curtain.  Consequently, it is a miracle that my father, Jan Sisolak, while not a notable war hero but indeed a villager who like many others made a contribution to Slovak history, survived a period of repression and terror.

Jan Sisolak
Jan Sisolak

My grandmother, Jan’s mother, was Helena Sisolakova nee Winko, who married Imrich Sisolak of Zavod in Slovakia around 1920.  Helena was one of about 9 children.  At the turn of the 20th Century her parents decided to emigrate to America.  They agreed to leave behind their youngest child Helena for the grandparents to raise and care for (a very common practise among emigrating families throughout Europe).

Helena lived in the village of Zavod where nearly everyone, or so it seems, is named Sisolak.  Helena’s eldest brother was one Vendolin Winko and they were able to maintain a close relationship by post.  This was no mean feat considering the events of history during their lifetimes.  After all, around the time of their weddings the First World War Versailles treaty of 1918 was signed; the regions of Slovakia and the Czech  Republic were united as Czechoslovakia; while the population of villages throughout Slovakia were devastated by the effects of World War I and the flu pandemic of 1919.

Helena married Imrich Sisolak, a local business man and in 1924 she gave birth to Jan.  He lived in the village with many cousins and other relatives.  Jan was encouraged by his father to take exams in business.  When Jan was 14 in 1938 Slovakia declared its autonomy within the federal state.  On the 15th March 1939 Hitler invaded a non-German country for the first time and Britain realised that his desire was not for unity of the German people but instead for world domination.  During this time the Hlinka Guard, a militia force maintained by the Slovak People’s Party until 1945 and named after Andrej Hlinka, drew recruits from all walks of life.

In 1939, neighbouring country Poland was invaded by Germany. By 1942 Jews in Slovakia were taken by train to Auschwitz, the organisation of which fell to the Hlinka Guard. In many respects the situation in Slovakia during World War II was much the same of Vichy France; while the government collaborated with the Nazis the will of the general populace was vastly opposed to Nazism.

Jan Sisolak Wedding
Imrich & Helena Sisolak Wedding

In 1944 Jan and his brother, Martin, answered the call to arms of the Slovak resistance known as the Slovak National Uprising.  It amazes me that in present time of email and internet how a country in the midst of war could organise and galvanise such patriotism, action and courage.  Nevertheless, the resistance movement was successfully orchestrated from Banská Bystrica to oust the government.

Unfortunately, Martin was killed in 1944 in a village called Trubin alongside five other men all aged just 19 years.  To this day his grave and indeed the village cemetery is tended to by villagers and who on All Souls’ Day adorn the graves with flowers and candles.

The exact history of Jan’s service is unknown but it is known he spent much of his time in the forests.  He regularly recalled eating lamb, cooked quickly on a fire at the bottom of the forest so that the enemy did not notice the fire.  This was particularly unusual as lamb was and is not a meat traditionally eaten by Slovaks.  Nevertheless, despite the awful texture of the meat, it provided vital sustenance for the resistance movement.

Unfortunately, despite the valiant efforts of the resistance movement, Germans were victorious; although the Partisans remained active until the Soviets liberated Slovakia in 1945.  Post war Slovakia was grim under Russian occupation.  Those who had acted as Partisans were at continual risk of enduring lengthy prison sentences, torture and worse.  The Communist and pro-Russian government wanted to quash Slovak spirit and those who had or continued to collaborate with capitalists.

Dark Blue World, a Czech film starring Tara Fitzgerald and Charles Dance does a good job of illustrating this era.  The film portrays two pilots who escape Czechoslovakia in 1939 and retrain in England to fight during World War II.

It was in this same era that Jan could no longer cope with the economic, political or social situation in Slovakia.  In August 1951, aged 26, he slipped a note under his nephew’s pram cushion stating that he had to leave.  Jan left with a friend in the dead of night with their clothes wrapped around a tyre. They crossed the Morava River at a narrow but well policed point into Austria successfully evading Russian Soldiers patrolling the border.  From there they made their way to Salzberg to the Refugee Council.

The friends had a choice between Canada and England.  It was due to the assisted passage programme, operating between England, America and Canada, that Jan met his English wife (my mother) and they married in 1962.  Although his mother- and father-in-law never met Jan they took a coach trip in the 1960s to Czechoslovakia and insisted the guide take them to Zavod to meet Jan’s family.  It is important to bear in mind that during this decade, the Soviet Union were willing to use severe coercion to maintain control of the area and thus on 20 August 1968  Czechoslovakia was invaded and its so-called Prague Spring of liberalisation was crushed.  Despite this and somewhat remarkably, the guide was persuaded and at great personal risk, the English couple met Jan’s family.  During the trip they learned that Imrich, Jan’s father, was regularly imprisioned for his Catholic tendencies.

Jan and his wife separated in 1970 and I came to live in England.  Finally, in 1991, Jan and I were reunited in Canada shortly before he died.  I learned that during his lifetime he never wore the colour red as a personal stand against Communism.

The federation dissolved peacefully in 1993 in a so-called velvet divorce.  By 2001 I desired to meet my family and flew to Prague and took a train to Bratislava.  I was almost too scared to get off and when I met the family at the station I looked into their eyes, finally reinforcing my inkling that I truly belonged as part of their family and as part of Slovakian history.

Thanks to the merit of the internet, just last year, Vendelin Winkos’ great grandson, who lives in the United States of America, tracked me down and sent me a photograph of Helena and Imrich Sisolakovci on their wedding day.

When in 2004 Slovakia joined the EU and NATO non-residents were finally allowed to legally own land and property in villages.  I now own cottages built in 1875 which I run as a holiday business encouraging tourists from all over the world to discover this gem of a country.  With a population of only five million people and an incredible 40% of land covered in forest, the country is beautiful with a rich culture and history.

If you would like more information about Slovakia and holiday opportunities please visit www.slovakia-sun-ski-spa.co.uk

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Slovak PM Robert Fico

Robert Fico visted UCL this week to give a lecture on Slovakia in the 21st Century. He spoke about Communism, the 1989 wind of change and British and Slovak international relations. The highlights of the speech can be viewed below, as can the short question and answer section.

Part I

Part II

Read more…

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