by Laszlo Tikos
The first class round-trip reserved seat ticket cost some $60, and the trip itself turned out to be a very pleasant eight hours' (no irony!) ride - in a practically empty coach, with large comfortable seats, good air conditioning - and most importantly - next to a dining car.
It was a regular restaurant, not your Amtrak sandwich joint – with white table cloth, elegant serving, and humongous portions of Winerschnitzels, with all the trimmings, coffee and desert - for less than $10.
Watching the landscape floating by was very pleasant. The train, an international express train, stopped only once or twice before it reached the Hungarian-Serbian border.
Arriving in Belgrade you see the lights of a big city - and the bridges crossing the two big rivers conjoining there - the Danube and its tributary the Sava.
The last leg of the trip is rather slow - it takes about a half an hour – between the two parts of the city: New Belgrade and Old Belgrade; obviously the city is sprawling out from its old boundaries.
The history of the old Belgrade goes back to Greek, and Roman times. Herodotos mentions the place as inhabited by the Scythians! Since then many conquerors, have come and gone – but the old fortress, the Kalemegdan - reconstructed many times and preserved today in a remarkable good shape, lies high (more than 200 feet) above the two rivers.
In the evening the adjacent Bulevar Vajvodin – formerly a major throughfare, now turned into a no-traffic walking area - becomes a huge promenade where people enjoy the view of the two rivers, the port and the water traffic.
This is an unexpectedly welcome surprise in contrast with the images created mostly by the news media about the war in Serbia. The only reminders of a politically laden atmosphere in the city are some graffiti on walls (one doesn't know how long it has been there) proclaiming Kosovo as Serbian forever, or hailing the Communist Party, or some nationalist political figure.
Besides the big international hotels, the city has many old-style European hotels, such as the Royal Hotel (built in 1885, but recently updated) in the Kralya Petra Street. No air conditioning, but continental breakfast is included in the price (unbelievable by US standards - some $15 per night!), the management is friendly, speaks several languages, and the location is priceless - in the very heart of the walking streets district of the old town, but on a side street, far enough from the "big noise", but close enough to walk everywhere.
In general, walking is more than an option. Even though taxis are readily available - from hotels, or taxi stands - you can't hail a cab on the street!
Parades, street "happenings" seem to be frequent. I saw a police band marching with fancy uniforms and saxophones, followed by a detachment of police on horses, then on super duper motorcycles, but you can also see Sponge Bob characters, or scantily clad young ladies - some of them on roller skates - hawking the offerings of some new restaurant or freshly opened fashion outfit.
Indeed, all the big and not-so-big fashion stores (many US, but also European stores, not so well known in the US) display their wares in fancy shop windows, and just looking at the promenading people - especially the young - it seems that there is enough money to buy some of those fashionable and expensive items.
The general appearance of the young is the "standard international look": shoulder free, light shirts for women with tight fitting, low cut jeans of every possible kind. For men: T shirts and jeans- as an any US campus. And everybody hugging a cell phone!
Leaving Belgrade on the train back to Budapest at 8.00 in the morning, some of the sites along the railroad line that one didn't see coming in during the night reveal a shocking reality: miles and miles of slums of every kind - but mostly living quarters of gypsies.
All in all I left Belgrade - this friendly, laid back and easy-going southern metropolis - with a slightly nostalgic feeling. It is so little known in the US, or in the "West," and it has so much to offer for the open-minded visitor.
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