You should never judge a city on a rainy day, and Belgrade is a perfect example of that. Any manner of things from situation to attitude to weather can affect how you feel about a new city you travel to, and now that I’ve been in Belgrade nearly a week, I can say this city has a lot of hidden charm above and below the surface. But the first day it was hard to see.
First impressions of Belgrade: Bleak
Belgrade greeted me with a thick woven haze blanketing the grey shapeless skyline below. I was woken by the crackle of the attendants thanking us on behalf of Air Serbia and a commander Radish, or what sounded like “radish” but I’m sure he wasn’t named ofter a red spicy root vegetable.
I traded the troughs and crests of 3 months at sea on a sailboat for mountains and valleys, and a bleak landscape it seemed. We touched down gently on the dark tarmac and the sight outside my window was as foggy as my mind from a delirious half-sleep after the brief flight from Croatia. The Bora winds pounded Split as we left, making for a rocky takeoff and turbulent 1 hour flight, in addition to my lack of sleep and I hadn’t eaten for 12 hours.
I was just happy not to have issues exiting Croatia given I didn’t receive a passport stamp when I entered by bus — at the time I had just a random drug interrogation at the border accusing me of smuggling something. The passport control officer looked confused when she couldn’t find the stamp, and even more when she asked and I replied that I hadn’t received one. But she just shrugged and stamped me out.
In and out of the Nikola Tesla airport without trouble, kissed by the cold saturated air. Hello Belgrade. Sketch taxi drivers followed me as I left promising the same set price, but I know better not to trust an eager taxi driver in any country, and they scattered once I crossed the street and the police officer glanced over. I marched through to the taxis awaiting their next fare, only to have to turn back and get a ticket for the taxi from the stand in the airport. 1,800 Serbian to the square, and I was eager for a bed.
Just as I thought I was on my way we halted 10 feet from the taxi line and sat idle for 30 minutes. I thought it to be my first taste of Serbian time, just as I’ve had my fill of Croatian time and every other slow living nation I’ve visited. Another taxi driver waddled over and said something that must have been very funny to my taxi driver for they stood laughing for another 5 minutes, then gave me a toothless smile and waddled back to his car. That’s when I asked about the hold up. Apparently it was because of the arrival of the Kazakhstani President in Belgrade, though someone else told me it was the olympic team returning home. I guess my arrival was an important one. Once the parade of police cars and black SUVs passed, we rumbled out of the airport.
Damp pine trees lined the road. Old men in denim sat beneath a tree at a picnic table sipping large plastic bottle beers, and from what I could see were watching the planes fly in and out. Watching life go by behind the green glimmer of titled back pivo bottles.
Dark road and grey skies. We drove beneath a concrete overpasses that from imagination seemed what you would envision the typical Cold War era appearance, one overpass scribed in dripped spray paint with “to the moon and back“. I hope that he or she made it. Or at least chased the moon. Rust weeped on tin roofs and buckled metal frameworks on the outskirts of town. A faded yellow sign on the back drop of deep evergreen pines read “Invest for tomorrow“.
As the pencil-like pines flashed by in blur I realized just how much I missed trees. 3 months at sea surrounded by blinding blue water and stark limestone cliff sides, it felt good to be surrounded by them.
Road lanes melted beneath us, the procession of yellowed street lanterns led the way like soldiers into New Belgrade. We passed over a bridge and everything became a bit less bleak, the soldiered lamp posts stood at the same attention, just with a new grey uniform painted fresh. Maybe it is the haze and fog and rain, but first impressions entering Belgrade was grim. Colorless. Slack and slouched figures shuffle on the sidewalks. Across the river we drove, to my right a glorious looking cable-stayed bridge beyond a red ironwork bridge of old dressed in layers of amateur graffiti.
Once in the city center, everything was more so grey or tan or brown colored, most building blended in with the next, differentiated only by a terra-cotta roof or army green roof or a black tin roof, with people lining the slick soaked streets, their monochromatic attire reflected in the obsidian puddles. My taxi pulled up to Slavija square, and I hauled my packs out to the sidewalk, tired eyes looked back at my own dark appearance, I fit right into the scene.
Sonja, my Air BnB host greeted me with a smile and her babe cozy in the stroller, and led me into the bank building and into the elevator which could barely fit my wide load of packs. She gave the spiel but all I wanted was to lock the door and fall into the bed, and once she was gone, I did just that. I thought to do a little exploring, but the spit of rain and my own exhaustion deterred me, so bed and movies was on the agenda. And a hope that Belgrade would transform itself in the morning or spend 10 days off work in a black and white film. I laid down and glanced up at the headboard — a painting of a beach bungalow on some Caribbean island. Paradise.
At least I had the falafel that my host spoke of to look forward to.
Second Impressions: Beautiful
Belgrade did transform in the morning. As I stated, one should never judge a city in the rain, and I’m glad I didn’t. What first came off as a bleak and colorless city transformed into a vibrant place. When I woke on day two from the sun beaming through the curtain, the city was bustling and alive and colorful.
As I wandered the streets, markets crawled with early shoppers picking among the fresh fruits and vegetables of the day. People relaxed in the numerous parks dotting Belgrade and soaking up some rays. Musicians in the streets playing all assortments of instruments. Fisherman lined the Danube hopping for a catch, and some got it. Couples strolled hand in hand along the wharf. Street art on every surface, and every corner with sculptures or statues.
Don’t let first impressions ruin a country for you!
Just because a place might not fit into expectations or might not come off good at first, doesn’t mean it won’t wow you given a little time. When I went to Haiti the first time, I tried to ignore all the outside noise about it being dangerous or, more bluntly, not a place worthy of a visit. And even ignoring it, had I gone by my first impressions of Haiti when I left the airport it would have been bad, influenced by images painted of the country in the media and elsewhere. It’s one of my favorite countries, and took looking deeper to really discover how lovely it is.
Same goes for Rome. Most people either love or hate Rome for different reasons. I hated Rome at first because it came off as too busy and too dirty even though I had waited all of my life to visit. But after spending a few weeks there I fell in love. In Cambodia, my first impression was Angkor Wat and the in-your-face tourism there and I couldn’t wait to leave, but once I went back and explored more, I loved it. Hell, sometimes your first impression is a great one and then you have an experience that turns things south. It’s best to give a place a few days of properly exploring to see if you like it and discover more.