There is a dilapidated air about Belgrade. And AC/DC’s venue in this former capital of Yugoslavia – the Partizan Stadium – rather blends in nicely. It is, for want of a better description, a shit hole.
Aside from a much needed general sprucing up, Namibian and I are unimpressed with washroom facilities.
The toilets are mirrorless. In fact, if truth be told, they are toiletless. Gaping holes in the floor and no toilet paper is hardly cricket for rock n roll crew. And it’s hot today, mercilessly hot – by 7.30 am, we’re awake and drenched with sweat. Despite perspiring like a garden hose, Namibian is jovially filming everything this morning – obviously from a comfy seat in the shade.
‘Now here we are in Siberia,’ he begins, ever the hopelessly inaccurate narrator. He might mean Serbia, I think. The footage is priceless.
For any remaining slumbering truckers thinking of lying in bed for an extra little snooze – those lucky enough to have trucks fitted with air conditioning units – forget it. Blasted forklift drivers are screaming around the place, side-shifting staging pallets. So a spot of peace and quiet is in order – perhaps a gentle cycle ride away along the river?
Pah! Belgrade (Beograd) is definitely not for cyclists. The roads are clogged, regardless of the time, with high-emission vehicles, and there is no room for the lowly peddler. Cycle lanes, except along the River Sava (where fitness enthusiasts smoke outside the Wellness Centre) are non-existent. Try the pavement instead, you cry? No luck there either: they are cracked and high-sided. It is tiring.
Zastavas and Yugos crawl past, belching clouds of exhaust, alongside tram buses containing doleful-looking employees resigned to a life of drudgery.
In the smog, policemen replace traffic lights, beckoning and halting the frustrated motorist. Pedestrians ignore roadwork barricades, treading tar into their soles. Oh blast, I may need a new pair of flip-flops now.
Stickily, I amble past the train station. Like Paul Theroux, I am ineluctably drawn to trains and their stations. I stop short of wearing a mackintosh – and diligently noting locomotive serial numbers while adjusting spectacles and squeezing zits – but I seldom see a train pass by without wishing I were on it.
And Belgrade seems like a good starting point for an adventure; I yearn to hop on a carriage bound for Istanbul, then Tehran, and still further. I don’t really want to miss a free lunch in Catering, though, so I make do with just popping my head in to the main station, to see where trains go. The departures screen, a woeful departure from the Roman alphabet, is an enigma.
Continuing up the hill brings me to St Sava Cathedral – a shining beacon visible from all access roads to the city.
With a 4000-ton dome, it is, or will be – I’m hedging my bets because the statistics are ambiguous inside – the largest active Orthodox church in the world. Worshippers put Serbian notes into donation slots, and kiss the foreheads of painted saints, whilst impious workmen drill, bang and dig, eerily illuminated from high above.
But if you’re wanting a taste of the Balkans, and regard my advice as worth taking, miss out Belgrade and go to Budva, Montenegro instead..