Belgrade is part of a select club of just three cities where I've allowed myself the indulgence of staying for 3 nights, so I have another full day left here. It's absolutely scorching here today - I can't quite believe the change compared to when I arrived, or how very, very cold I was back in Sarajevo.
While I was in Sarajevo I learned that Belgrade had retained one bombed out building as a reminder of the war: the former Yugoslavian Ministry of Defence building. I hadn't known where in the city it was (it's not exactly marked on the tourist maps), but happened to walk past it on my way somewhere else. It's massive and extends symmetrically on either side of the road. Although perhaps not quite as symmetrical anymore.
I'll be honest, it didn't hold the same shock factor for me anymore as my first wrecked buildings had. Although it was still a sight to behold, the floors having collapsed, concertina fashion, in some places. The part that got me was the fact that the building's design means it hangs over the pavement. Underneath this has been erected scaffolding, with wooden slats along the top, which I presume is intended to protect pedestrians from falling debris. Maybe I'm just overly cautious, but it didn't fill me with a great deal of confidence! I wonder how long they will be able to leave the building this way, without further intervention being required to keep it from posing a danger to passers by.
Anyway, gawping at the building didn't fill much of my day so I joined a tour of "Underground Belgrade" and spent my afternoon walking around the city visiting caves, tunnels, cold war bunkers, rock hewn cellars, and also the basement of the national library where there are remains of a roman fortification. That was pretty cool - there was even an old lead waterpipe still in situ.
We were quite a small group, just 6 of us plus our guide. We ended the tour with home made wine in one of the storage tunnels that now operates as a bar and night club. We began talking about our various trip/holiday plans (and gained some interesting insights into the world cup preparations, and views of ordinary brazilians about playing host to the tournament, from the brazilian guys in the group).
I wasn't sure whether I should mention I planned to visit Kosovo or not, but in the end I did. I know it's controversial and that Serbia doesn't recognise its independence. I had no desire to offend or upset my Serbian guide, so I didn't add my own views or make any comment beyond naming it when I ran through my trip itinerary. She in turn explained the Serbian viewpoint on the issue without passing judgement; it's clearly emotive and I was actually grateful to get the opportunity to hear directly from the "other side" so to speak. It is different from hearing a third party's summation of Serbia's stance.
Having listened to her speak about Kosovo, I can better understand their position and why there are such strong feelings. I can appreciate too why they wouldn't want to accept Kosovo "leaving" Serbia when it is the historic heart of their country, home of their religion. Yet at the same time it seems inevitable to me that someday they will have to come to terms with it as being the reality of what has happened. It doesn't seem very likely to me that this genie is going back in the bottle. (Though I'm hardly an expert, this is just my personal view.)
That said, it wasn't as heavy an afternoon as I've probably just made it sound. I really enjoyed seeing areas of Belgrade I wouldn't otherwise have visited, and learning more about the things we passed in between - some of which I had seen the day before. I tend to be a bit hesitant about joining tours; there are so many where you're just shuttled from place to place, barely stopping long enough to snap a photo before you move to the next place. No chance to understand, appreciate, or absorb what you're seeing. Happily this wasn't one of those tours.
It also occurs to me today that I'm going to have to be more careful than usual not to get myself run over when I return to the UK. I'm almost impressed that it's taken me little over a week to disregard a lifetime of British road safety training, and instead adopt the Balkan approach to crossing the road.
At home, you wait by a zebra crossing for the cars to stop before you step into the road. That doesn't work here. Nobody stops for you unless you're already in the road. At first, and especially on the big, busy (and scary) crossings outside my hotel in Belgrade (4 to 6 lanes of traffic speeding towards you), I would wait for a local to arrive and then follow them across the road, human shield style.
Two nights ago for the first time I found myself stepping into the road, in front of traffic, on my own, with barely a second thought to what I was doing. A glance to check there's nothing coming towards you that's going so fast it won't be able to stop, but none of this stop, look, listen we have drilled into us at school. A couple of days later and my hesitation's gone, I'm no longer patiently waiting by the side of the road for my next human shield to oblige. Walking around the city's much faster now! I just need to make sure not to try this one back home.