Travelogue from a Danube river cruise. Friday June 23rd 2006.
There was a thunderstorm this night and it is grey as I get on deck for my morning pipe. We are in Belgrade, Serbia's capital.
The tour bus starts at 8:30 and it is a short drive up to Belgrade's old fortress. It has had a turbulent history with Turkish and Austrian rulers.
The impressive view includes thunder and lightning in the distance. The guide rambles on, and with increasing anxiety I watch the thunderstorm approaching. Not until it begins to rain do we leave the place, but then it is much too late, because soon it pours down.
Fortunately we had foreseen this could happen and have brought umbrellas. What we had not foreseen was that Helle's umbrella would break the moment it was unfolded. With one umbrella and Helle's jacket we are better off than others who are soaked when we reach shelter.
The local guide phones the bus driver and things get complicated, because we must change bus. We did not know that and some have left stuff in the first bus. The guide's cell phone coordinates a search.
It keeps raining heavily and that is both good and bad. Good because we do not need to get off the bus to look at boring monuments, and bad because the tour of Belgrade is long and boring - especially because the city is one big traffic jam (no subway). The guide shows us several embassies. Boring, boring, boring - except maybe the Austrian embassy where there is a long line of optimists hoping to get a visa.
We see the ruins of the police head quarters, and the guide makes a point of showing us the Chinese embassy. It was bombed by the Americans, which caused a diplomatic crisis. The Americans claimed that the bombing was a tragic mistake caused by outdated maps.
The twist of the tale is that when the Americans later attacked Iraque, the Chinese sent them a map of Bagdad with a cross indicating the location of the Chinese embassy. I do not know if it is a true story, but it is not bad.
The rain ceases and Best Travel offers a drink at Hotel Majestic in the centre of Belgrade. People rush to the toilets after hours in a bus looking through running water. After a cappuccino we have an hour on our own.
On Our Own in Belgrade
We stroll down the pedestrian street hoping to find an umbrella or at least an exotic bottle with Serbian nectar. But like in Novi Sad and everywhere else the pedestrian shopping street is dedicated to fashion.
There are many ATMs that would recognize our VISA cards if need be, but when at long last we spot an umbrella collection it belongs to a street vendor who has left his post on some unknown errand.
In a small super market we find no temptations, and the fashionable bottle shop close to Majestic sells imported booze, which is expensive and of no interest to us.
Nature calls again, and we return to Hotel Majestic and its toilets. Majestic accepts VISA so we do not need to get any Serbian currency. I order beer, and preferably Serbian I add. This triggers a smile on the waiter's stone face. The beer is excellent.
Lunch in Jarak
We are going to Jarak for lunch. It takes an hour and forty minutes to drive to Jarak in Vojvodina. The landscape is flat and fertile. This is Serbia's larder. The family - our hosts - lives in the village centre.
There is a patch of grass with benches between the houses and the road. Here you can sit and wait for someone to come and chat. There are carts with melons along the road.
The family greets us in the front garden. Four musicians is white garments play folk music and do it well. A daughter or granddaughter offers bread and salt. Mom hands over a sizeable sljivovica, the Serbian plum brandy.
A part of the square is covered and here an opulent buffet with Serbian delicacies waits for us. There are salads, sausages (one is hotter than the brandy!), smoked ham, baked goat's cheese, feta, deep-fried onions and courgettes in a batter, cauliflower gratin, cauliflower in mayonnaise/garlic dressing, baked spicy white beans with onion and tomato, a good hot goulash with pasta and probably more that I do not remember. With this beer or wine ad libitum.
We enjoy the delicacies while entertained by the clever musicians. The master of the house, 'Papa Sljivo', mingles and offers more sljivovica and toasts again and again. I say a few Slovenian words of which the most important is "chivili", which means "cheers" in Serbian too. And when in addition to that I inhale a couple of extra drams I am instantly popular.
It is Daddy's great day; the women take care of all the practical stuff and all he needs to do is get a new bottle when the old one runs dry - and then toast, toast, toast! Helle buys a bottle of the homemade firewater (10 € for a litre - a bargain both ways).
We chat with a nice American couple. They seem a bit envious of how the Danes have teamed up and would like more contact between nations. That sounds fine to us, but we cannot make ourselves say that it would probably facilitate matters if the Americans spent more time on the sundeck or in the bar and less time in their cabins with ice-cubes.
The story behind the lunch arrangement is that the idea came to a family member, who works in a Belgrade tourist office. Of course the family earns a bit of money, but we feel that it is true and genuine hospitality. We say farewell to the family and get hugs, and I am pretty sure that Pappa Sljivo snores loudly by the time we leave the village.
The sljivovica has affected the guests too, and spirits are high in the bus. Back on the ship I chat with Jytte and Solveig, who have been travel companions for years. We have a drink and are merry.
Back on the ship
Supper (not that we need any!) is deep fried squash in a batter, tomato soup with pasta, chicken with rice pilaf and a cake with crème and chocolate sauce, which is just as yucky as it sounds.
On the deck we get one for digestion and chat with the others. 'The Morning Team' has emptied the neighbourhood's stock of Marlboro, which cost about 1.2 € for 20, and when there were no more Marlboro they bought another brand for less than a Euro. We call the two couples 'The Morning Team', because the men go to bed early and rise at 4. I guess they are used to that from home.
When we leave Belgrade at 23:15 I am fast asleep and I don't even hear the heavy thunder during the night.