During our afternoon in Belgrade, Serbia, the cruise line is offering an optional tour to visit the city as the capital of Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was established in the 1920s. After World War II, the kingdom became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
With a collection of those iconic vehicles which even made it to the west as the cheapest cars on the market, this tour company offers you opportunity to ride in style (although without air conditioning). The Zastava Koral, also marketed as the Yugo, was produced from 1977 to 2008. It was marketed in the USA from 1985 to 1992 (when sales dropped to only 1,412 cars sold). The base model was introduced with a sticker price of less than $4,000. By 1991, the Yugoslav wars contributed to a decline in quality due to the unavailability of parts which had traditionally been produced in the different and now clashing regions of Yugoslavia.
We went out in groups of three cars. The tour was priced by car with one to three guests with a driver. Our driver was using his grandfather’s Yugo which was purchased in 1979 and spent most of its time in the garage. I asked him if he learned to drive on this car and he laughed and told me he was not allowed anywhere near it. It may be a basic car, but it was in pristine condition. While he pointed out landmarks, we talked about what it was like to live in Yugoslavia and the time since its dissolution. He is in his late 30s.
Arriving at a particular location, our tour leader (also one of three drivers in our tour group) would give us the history and a guided tour of the area. It was a 2 for 1 deal, getting both the insight of our friendly driver and a tour guide. Our drive through the city took us past more bombed out buildings in route to our first stop at the House of Flowers.
The House of Flowers is the building and garden which contains the tomb of Josip Broz Tito, the Communist Leader of Yugoslavia from 1948 until his death in 1980. The mausoleum is part of the larger Museum of Yugoslav History on the same grounds.
Just after World War II, Tito had very close ties to Moscow. He was considered by some as second only to Joseph Stalin in the Eastern Bloc. However, Tito wanted independent control and his own style of Communism. Stalin believed that Tito would fail without Soviet support; Stalin also attempted to have Tito assassinated on several occasions without success. Tito’s break from Moscow endeared him to the Yugoslavian people. It also allowed him to seek support from the west.
During the Cold War, Tito tried to adopt a position of neutrality for Yugoslavia. Unique among the Eastern Bloc countries, he allowed foreigners to visit the country and Yugoslavian citizens to travel abroad. Tito himself reached out to countries all over the world and traveled extensively. At the House of Flowers, we saw a model of the Blue Train, commonly called the Peace Train. In this traveling residence, Tito traversed his own country to interact with his citizens and made over 120 “peace missions” traveling to 71 foreign states and meeting with over 60 foreign leaders.
While the focus at the House of Flowers is on Tito himself, it is also a chronicle of Yugoslavia during its communist years. The exhibits give excellent time lines on the history of the country. The gifts given to Tito are on exhibit as well as film clips and photographs from the period. Our guide gave us some background on the exhibits, particularly the unusual batons gifted to Tito. The origin of the presentation of the relay baton goes back to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and is met to symbolize the communication between the people and their ruler.
After our tour, it was back to our driver and our Yugo to head to our next stop. After crossing the Sava River, we found ourselves at the original Belgrade Fair Grounds founded in 1937. On the grounds, there were multiple pavilions. In 1941, the Gestopo took over the area and turned the pavilions into barracks and the fair grounds into a concentration and extermination camp. The communications tower, which is abandoned but still stands, was the guard tower. After 1945, the fair grounds were not rebuilt on this location.
The Sajmiste Concentration Camp, later called the Zemun Concentration Camp, was the Nazis’ repository for Jewish women, children, the old and infirm, some Jewish men and gypsies. “Women and children were placed in makeshift barracks and suffered during numerous influenza epidemics. Kept in squalid conditions, they were provided with inadequate amounts of food and many froze to death during the winter of 1941–42. Between March and May 1942, the Germans used a gas van sent from Berlin to kill thousands of Jewish inmates.”
The camp was later used to imprison additional Jews and members of the local resistance. Most of the estimated 32,000 who passed through the camp and 20,000-23,000 who were killed or died while imprisoned there were Serbs. Towards the end of the war, the Germans tried to erase the evidence of the camp deaths, exhuming thousands of bodies and incinerating them. It is believed that half of all Serbian Jews died at the Sajmiste Concentration Camp.
Oddly, it appears the former barracks are apartments and a children’s playground sits on the site of the camp. Across the street is a restaurant. While noted as “one of the most important memorial places in Serbia”, there is only one small sign commemorating the losses at this site. Mostly, it appears abandoned and overgrown.
On both tours we drove through New Belgrade, a planned city from 1948, showcasing Soviet style architecture. During our afternoon tour in Novi Belograd, we made a stop at Palace of Serbia; several ministries and agencies of the Serbian government are housed in this sprawling building. I felt an uneasy feeling in this area. In the parkland that surrounds the Palace of Serbia, lone males, many shirtless, roamed among the trees. It reminded me of hippy hollow in Austin, Texas.
While the buildings were tightly packed in the city of Belgrade, Novi Belograd features wide avenues and patios among the concrete structures. Our next stop was Hotel Yugoslavia. The hotel was once a luxurious property built in 1969 to appeal to visiting celebrities and dignitaries. Some of the famous people to have stayed at the hotel include Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Tina Turner, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin. Due to information regarding those in residence, the west tower was bombed by NATO in 1999.
The hotel is now past its heyday with only one floor of the hotel currently in service. I checked on-line and an air-conditioned room goes for $42 a night. The back side of the hotel overlooks the river and is lined with cafes (including a Mexican cantina) and service shops. Riverside appeared to be a pretty popular during our visit.
Our last stop before returning to the city of Belgrade is the Genex Tower, the Western City Gate. The 35-story tower is built in the Brutalist Style often associated with socialist architecture. The two towers are connected with a two-story bridge with a revolving restaurant on top. However, upon completion, the restaurant only revolved for a few days before breaking down. It was never repaired. The restaurant was only for the employees of the office building businesses and their guests. Our driver had once eaten in the restaurant. He said the views were fantastic.
The office building is closed and appeared to have been abandoned for some time. The windows of this tower are now covered with a promotional “billboard”. These tall on-building billboards are found all over town, often covering abandoned or bombed-out buildings. The bridge and restaurant are also closed.
The second tower is residential, originally intended for the office workers next door. The residential tower is still occupied, but it is hard to imagine a bleaker home in an iconic building. The grounds are in horrible shape. We went inside the residential tower walkway and looked up and it appeared just as depressing. This tower is actually slightly taller than the office building. There were times when the power would go out which meant among other things no elevator service. Rather than make the long walk down and back up, residents on the higher floors would lower baskets with a list and money for friends or family to do their shopping and return the items to the baskets to be hauled up by rope to the apartments. above.
The buildings were designed in 1977 to represent a raised city gate welcoming visitors arriving to the city from the west. However bleak the present condition, the building did make for a wonderful photographic opportunity. (I just wouldn’t want to live there.)
Boris and I loved our driver. It was very interesting to have the direct contact with a local. He has a mixed ancestry from the Yugoslavian regions and beyond and is currently studying Hungarian (which he has found a very difficult language to learn). He told us about a program through the Hungarian government where by if you can show ancestry from the Austro-Hungarian empire and pass a test in Hungarian, you can get Hungarian citizenship and thus EU citizenship. He takes the test next week; he can try again if things don’t go well the first time. The Hungarians currently have a low birth rate. Since one of my grandmothers was Austrian, I could potentially take advantage of the same offer. Now all I have to do is learn the Hungarian language. Natasha could one day be an EU citizen.
After saying goodbye to our driver, we found the folk dancing on the ship already in progress. We enjoyed the show and our full day in Serbia. Tomorrow we go to another former Yugoslavian region, Croatia. Good night, I am off to study my Hungarian.